Archive for January, 2009

Not the Strongest… or Even the Brightest

More than 200 years after the birth of Charles Darwin, most people, even some very intelligent individuals, don’t fully understand “natural selection” or evolution. Now… I’m not about to try to explain all the fallacies inherent in most popularized misconceptions, but there’s one that’s so blatantly misunderstood that I just can’t help myself.

Most people equate the term “survival of the fittest” to survival of the strongest individuals, or occasionally, the survival of the most intelligent. The problem with this equation is that individual survival and success don’t necessarily translate into species survival. One of the most fearsome predators of our time is the tiger, and it’s endangered and may not survive. The equally well-equipped polar bear faces similar problems. Recent studies indicate that Neanderthals had every bit as much brain power as homo sapiens, perhaps more, and they were physically stronger to boot. The most muscular and intelligent human being, stripped down to a loin-cloth, wouldn’t last more than a few minutes against most large predators.

But humans have brains and tools, and we no longer have to face predators bare-handed or with crude tools that one person could make. That’s absolutely true, but that also points out a corollary. What makes us deadly as a species is not that we are stronger, which we are not, nor that we are more intelligent, which we generally are, but that we cooperate. No human, no matter how brilliant, has the ability to make the sophisticated tools and weapons we possess by himself or herself. Even an individual placed in a Robinson Crusoe situation who creates tools and survives does not do that by himself or herself, because the knowledge required to create such tools is a product of the human culture that has facilitated cooperative learning.

We tend to pride ourselves on our species’ accomplishments, but we’re newcomers to the world. The world has been around some four billion years, and human beings are lucky to be pushing a million years as a species. Cockroaches aren’t particularly strong on an absolute scale, nor are they particularly bright as individuals, but they’ve been around for over 200 million years. Virtually all other species on the planet have been around longer than humans, and dinosaurs lasted for hundreds of millions of years.

Yet, day after day, in forum after forum, people extol the “survival of the fittest” to justify oppression of those weaker, less intelligent, or less fortunate by individuals who are stronger, brighter, and more fortunate. This overlooks the fact that the fittest aren’t those who are the best predators; they’re the ones who are best at dealing with the predators… and that’s another reason why we developed customs, rules and laws, because not all predators are from other species.

That brings up another corollary. In all times in human history, the most successful cultures have been those who have been most successful in dealing with both external and internal predators. Over time, there’s close to a direct negative correlation between the percentage of a culture that dies violently and its degree of “civilization” and success. That is, the percentage of violent deaths always goes down, again, measured over time, as the culture is more successful. Some anthropologists suggest that prosperity reduces violence. I doubt it strongly. Reducing violence increases prosperity, but only by the application of cooperation and social and sometimes physical force, but with minimal violence. One doesn’t reduce violence by relying strictly on violence to do so.

So… let’s have a little less rhetoric and indirect glorification of the abuse of power disguised as “survival of the fittest.”

The Image Culture

Over the years I’ve been bothered by the fact that, in so many areas, from job interviews to popular entertainment, western culture, particularly in the United States, has moved more and more to making judgments and decisions based essentially on image. This trend, unfortunately, despite more and more “popular,” as well as detailed and statistical evidence that illustrates the faults of such an approach, seems to be accelerating, in large part, I suspect, because of the excessive intrusiveness of the media in all aspects of our lives.

The complement to “image” is “ego-stroking” or flattery. We all like to feel good about ourselves, and most of us respond positively to those who seem to go out of their way to bolster our self-images.

The financial crisis that has besieged the United States and threatened to swamp the entire world financial system was generated primarily by the interplay of image and ego-stroking. “Everyone deserves a home of their own” — whether they can afford to pay for it or not. “You can have it all” — with a home-equity line of credit to use inflated real estate as a personal piggy bank… at least until the bottom drops out. “Of course, you can trust the derivatives of Lehman [or Merrill Lynch, AIG, CITI Group, or any other well-known investment bank of insurance conglomerate]” — even though we can’t even explain them accurately to our own CEO. “We’ve figured out the stock market, and there’s no way the Dow won’t hit 36,000” — just ignore the fact that such a gain would require either tripling the US GDP or 400% inflation. “Bernard Madoff has an impeccable reputation, and pays incredibly good returns” — with new investors’ money, just like every other Ponzi scheme.

Even the McDonald’s commercials get into the act with “you deserve a break today.” Perhaps you do, but that doesn’t have much to do with whether you really should, given the state of your finances. More to the point, it creates an atmosphere and attitude that what you “deserve” is far more important than what you can afford. It’s blatant ego-stroking, and it’s so obvious and prevalent that very few people even consider the society-wide implications.

But… as is often the case, there’s an even darker side to image and ego-stroking, and that’s a societal turn away from the recognition of and appreciation for ability and competence — unless those qualities also come with a great image. Unfortunately, and in real life, they usually don’t. The accountant or product analyst who tells the CEO that the product isn’t that good, despite the image, is more likely to be fired than praised. The critic who suggests that the singers on American Idol are less than fifth rate will be pilloried or ignored. The job-seeker who’s shy or tongue-tied under interrogation, but who’s brilliant in analyzing or writing or developing new products, usually loses out to the candidate who’s better-looking and glib, even if the substantive skills of the good-looker are weaker or non-existent — which is another cause of the financial meltdown, because the CEOs of the big brokerages and investment banks all had great images and lousy understanding of what they approved…or a lack of ethics, if they did understand.

Put another way, as a culture we’ve come more and more to reward flash over substance, to demand ego-stroking over honest evaluation, and to value the shallowness of quick rewards over long-term substantive accomplishments.

And now we’re paying for it… and most people still don’t understand why. American Idol and all the ego-stroking wish-fulfillment shows still top the popularity charts, and Toyota just became the biggest car manufacturer in the world by spending years building better cars, even as the well-groomed Detroit auto executives in their ego-stroking private jets beg for more federal handouts while trying to keep producing gas-guzzling behemoths that most users buy for their own-ego-stroking reasons. How many drivers really need 400 plus horsepower — except to make themselves feel better?

A hundred years ago, the popular fable was Horatio Alger and how hard work led to success. Today, the most popular books are Harry Potter, and how magic.. and wishing… can make things better.

Doesn’t that say something?

Dividing Lines… and Judgment

What’s the difference between obtaining timely information, products and services and an obsession with instant gratification? Or between being able to obtain a hot meal quickly and suffering fast-food frenzy? Or being able to get in touch with family or job quickly and having an unseen cellphone umbilical cord that’s really a communications chain that leaves you at the mercy of everyone else?

For that matter, what’s the difference between a “reasonable” editorial and an editorial rant? Or a good book and a great one?

For a traffic cop, is it reasonable to ticket a driver going three miles an hour over the speed limit… or is the dividing line five or seven… or where the possible violation takes place? How many school assessment tests for pupils are too many? Or too few? Is it reasonable to apply the same standards for achievement to immigrant children as to upper middle class students?

For tax policy… who’s rich? Where are the dividing lines on income when lawmakers decide to increase or decrease taxes on the wealthy? How can they be fair when the cost of living differs so markedly from one part of the country to another?

For a publisher, how many copies of a first novel must be sold in order to consider buying an author’s second book? If the book is right on the edge of profitability, what tips the decision one way or the other?

All these questions aren’t meant to be examples of the unsolvable, but examples of the daily judgments people in all areas of life must make, one way or another… and what I’ve written touches the barest minimum of the complexity of human society and life. I’m doing this because, again, I tend to get tired of the proliferation of rules and laws that try to answer every single injustice or odd situation.

In the United States, in particular, we seem to have this idea that when there’s a wrong, another rule is just the thing to right it. Except… it doesn’t seem to work that way. The USA probably has more rules dealing with regulation of the financial sector than any nation on the face of the earth… and we’ve just created the biggest misuse of funds in human history by most likely the most corrupt [I didn’t say illegal, just corrupt, although some did break various laws] group of executives ever, at least in dollar terms, all of them trying to find “legal” ways to accomplish the unethical, and from what I can tell, not a single one ever asked whether what they were doing was “right.”

We have among the strictest laws against bribery of public officials, and yet during the past session, Congress enacted the greatest number of payoffs ever in U.S. history with public funds — through the entirely legal process of “earmarking” — often in response to perfectly legal, if significant, campaign contributions.

Recently, in a number of locations across the industrialized world, various cities have taken the step of removing speed limits, traffic lights, stop signs, and in some cases even sidewalks from streets. At first thought, this seems like a recipe for disaster… except average automobile speeds have dropped, as have fatalities and accidents. Apparently, when people have to use their judgment, rather than rely on rules blindly, they behave better.Part of that also might be that the “rebels” have nothing against which to rebel.

I bring this up because it’s an illustration, at least to me, of how the proliferation of laws and rules causes people to focus on legality rather than upon ethicality, and what can happen when people have to rely on their individual judgment. What if the law just declared that misrepresentation of facts to obtain funds constituted fraud, and the greater the misrepresentation and the greater the funds obtained, and the harm created, the greater the crime… and left the sentencing in cases where guilt was proven to the judge and jury?

Ah… but that wouldn’t work. We really can’t trust human judgment, and we need all those hundreds of thousands of pages of regulations and laws… don’t we?

Being Special

One of the phrases often ascribed to the Christian God, and quite possibly to other deities as well is goes as follows: “is, was, and ever shall be.” But what if that phrase refers to the universe as well? A group of scientists has come up with a new theory, whose mathematical details I’m not about to try to even vaguely describe, suggesting that it is quite possible that the universe cycles from big bang to expansion to contraction to big bang, etc. Yes, I know, there’s an older theory, now discredited, which proposed the same thing, but this is the newest and latest version.

Whether it’s the new theory or the old one, or some other version that has yet to be proposed, the idea of an eternal universe has very definite theological implications, the first of which is that there’s no need for a deity, since the universe always existed. But if it always existed, what created it? Did it even need a creator?

According to human thought, of course it did. Human beings believe most passionately in causality. Everything must have a cause, and from every cause flows an effect, which causes something else. In turn, belief in causality requires a prime cause, and almost all religion is based on trying to explain in one way or another the prime cause. What if there happens to be no prime cause? What if the universe is merely an endless infinite loop of energy that oscillates from concentrated energy to diffuse entropy? Admittedly, that is a cause, but it’s not a “cause” that’s particularly satisfying to the individual or collective human ego.

We want a cause — for everything, not just the universe — and preferably one that places us in a position of some self-importance. After all, isn’t the search for God, the belief in a Deity, the quest for a prime mover or cause, isn’t all of that really just a way of reassuring ourselves that we’re special enough to have been created, guided, and led, rather than the result of chemistry, physics, and natural selection?

Yet, even from our limited searches of our own solar system, it’s clear that, in percentage terms, very few locations in any galaxy can harbor complex and intelligent life forms. Given the size of the universe, however, there are most likely millions of other solar systems where life could develop. Even though such are likely to be hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of light years away, that doesn’t mean that we’re all that special in terms of the universe, especially if intelligent beings could arise in each re-birth of an endless and infinite universe.

For that reason alone, I suspect that any “endless universe” theory will face very tough criticism, not that any of the critics will ever suggest that anthropomorphism might fuel their doubts or opposition.

After all, who doesn’t want to be special… or at least a part of something special?

Borders Books

The other day I read the notice in the Wall Street Journal that Borders had ousted its management team and had picked a new CEO, Ron Marshall, who apparently has impeccable credentials as a corporate finance type. After I finished choking… and fuming… I just shook my head. Every author and every editor who’s been at all aware of the book marketplace knows about Borders’ problems, and all of us have worried greatly, not in the least because the loss of Borders, problem-laden and weak as the chain has been, would deal a severe financial blow to the entire publishing industry… and to every author.

So why was I dumbfounded and furious at the appointment of a new CEO, especially when the performance of the previous leadership had clearly been lacking? Because Borders’ basic problem, based on my years of observing the chain’s stores firsthand, isn’t primarily its financial management. Not only that, but all too often, finance types, even those are supposed to know the industry well, usually immediately undertake cost-cutting measures that undermine sales revenues far more than the savings created by the reduced overhead.

Now… what are my observations worth? Since I’m offering them free, no reader has to pay for them, but I will note that over the last ten years, I’ve personally visited 180 of the 500 U.S. superstores and close to 100 of the Waldenbooks/Borders Express stores. In all of them I’ve talked to the staff, usually managers or assistant managers. Based on those visits and observations, my conclusion is really very simple: Borders’ upper management doesn’t know all that much about selling books, and they don’t appear to pay much attention to those who do, even those in their own organization.

The first thing to understand about bookselling is that it’s far better to have too many copies of desirable and saleable books than too few. After all, you can always return the excess to the publisher. The second is that no bookstore or chain ever consistently guesses right on the numbers of books that will sell. The third is that you cannot sell what you do not have. Even if you can order it, most customers want that book now, and they’d rather go to a competitor than come back a week later. This means that keeping inventory down to reduce costs is a very dangerous gamble. The fourth is that a store never sells all of what it orders of best-selling authors’ new books. So cutting orders on new releases, merely because the last order didn’t sell out, only ends up ensuring that the next one will definitely sell fewer copies. And finally, having only one paperback copy of newer paperback releases will result in lost sales.

Now… for some specifics. From talking to Borders and Waldenbooks managers coast to coast, I’ve discovered that Borders managers, in general, have far less discretion than Barnes & Noble managers in ordering books that don’t fit the predetermined sales model for their stores.

Possibly because of financial problems, they’ve understaffed their customer assistance sections, often relying on computer terminals. Terminals don’t sell books; at best they allow a customer to find and buy a book — if the customer doesn’t get frustrated first.

For years, the vast majority of Borders’ book carrels were designed so that they would only hold paperback books, and many, many, Borders stores still retain that pattern. That means the hardcovers are elsewhere, well away from the paperbacks. Again, cost-effective and space-effective as that might have been, it was and is lousy marketing. Readers shouldn’t have to go to two different locations to find books by the same author. Also, putting the new or recent hardcover next to the paperback does occasionally tempt readers into buying the hardcover, and there are a lot more dollars in a hardcover sale than in a paperback purchase.

I’ve also collected stories across the miles and years, almost none of which are particularly flattering to Borders corporate management. One case in point was the Waldenbooks in a large urban mall, which for something like fifteen years racked up the largest sales of fantasy and science fiction of any Borders outlet in more than 500 miles in any direction and sold well in other areas as well. Borders opened a superstore across the street from the mall, and the Waldenbooks still outsold the superstore on a sales per square foot basis. Then Borders closed the Waldenbooks, and from what I could determine, essentially forced out the Waldenbooks manager responsible for its success, and there was no change in the sales of the Borders superstore. In another case, Borders fired a regional community relations manager on the grounds that he wasn’t as effective as he should have been… and replaced him with someone who was far less effective.

Last year, I visited a relatively large Waldenbooks in a university town more than a thousand miles from my home town, a town where there was no Borders, either, and where I discovered huge gaps and empty bookshelves. I asked why, and the manager told me that they’d been mandated to return a significant portion of their inventory, presumably to raise cash. In looking over the F&SF shelves, there was a very clear pattern. All that was left were the most recent paperback releases of name authors. There’s a real problem with this because it offers no choice to the reader. Readers won’t pick up the latest release of an author they haven’t read before. The stores that are the most successful, particularly with F&SF, are those who carry at least one copy of the backlist titles of successful authors, and a wide range, if few numbers of each title, of newer authors.

F&SF, romance, mystery, and thriller readers tend to like series and to follow authors. Once such readers discover a “new” author they like, they go through all the titles. But they can’t do it if the titles aren’t on the shelf, and this has been an on and off historic problem at far too many Waldenbooks and Borders stores.

I realize that smaller mall stores can’t carry everything, but they ought to carry at least the first book of on-going series, whether that series is my Recluce series or the Wheel of Time, or the Malazon series.

Then, there’s what I heard from an experienced editor, who, years ago, told me, in all seriousness, that his company was having trouble with the F&SF buyer for Borders because he didn’t understand book-buying. I asked why and was told that the buyer had no publishing sales experience, but had been a very successful buyer of hardware items, such as hammers and screwdrivers.

Now… I’m not against Borders. I’m really not. My living depends on bookstores, and there are many good and hard-working people in all those stores. I am against policies and procedures that are based more on the idea that tight finance controls are more important than selling the product. I have run across a number of very good, very effective Borders and Waldenbooks store managers, and they do an excellent job… but what seems to distinguish most of them is their ability to work around various corporate policies that seem designed to hamstring them at every turn.

In the end, all the “finance” management won’t save Borders. All that will save it is an emphasis on selling books better and more effectively, and over the years that’s not something that appears to have been understood at the corporate level… and the selection of a “finance” CEO doesn’t exactly reassure me that matters are going to change any time soon.

New/More Tech Isn’t Always Best

I have subscribed to The Christian Science Monitor for something like fifteen years, but when my current subscription expires, I won’t be renewing it. That’s not because I don’t like the content; I do. It’s simply because the Monitor is going largely online. One of the virtues of the Monitor was that I could read it away from the computer. The same is true of most of my periodicals. If I have to read material online, all that does is reduce the computer time available to write… and that costs me time and money. For several years now, the Wall Street Journal has been pressing me to pay extra to get their online issue in addition to the print issue. I wouldn’t take the online edition, even if it were free. Ah… say the techno-gurus, you should get a Blackberry or I-phone. Why? So I can spend more money looking at a smaller screen carrying around a gadget that I don’t need.

I have to admit that I’m not a technophile. Neither am I a technophobe. I do have an office full of equipment, and I’ve had a cell phone for years, but I only use or carry it when I’m traveling away from my home town. It’s not necessary otherwise, and, as more and more recent studies show, using one inappropriately, as when driving or at the controls of a train, can be exceedingly dangerous. And for that matter, even the simplest phone has far too many bells and whistles. Mine is the simplest offered by my wireless carrier, with no picture/camera features, and it still takes almost fifteen minutes just to scan through all the options and features offered, but it’s so badly designed that about half the time when I open it to receive a call, I end up turning on the speaker and broadcasting the caller to anyone nearby… yet the procedure for turning off the speaker is anything but easy.

For me, technology is technology. Useful technological developments allow me to maximize time usage and productivity, but loads of additional gadgets and features waste time, add to the costs, and complicate the procedure for using the device. I trend to get horribly irritated when a tech company loads up a useful product with all sorts of non-useful add-ons. For example, I need a good color copier, for a number of reasons, but I can’t get just a copier that is relatively high speed, has high quality, reduces/enlarges, collates, and is moderately priced. At least, I can’t find one in Staples, Office Depot, Office Max, HP, Epson, etc. No, I have to purchase a copier that is a combination scanner, fax machine, printer, and duplicator — and none of the extra features are ever used. I don’t want, nor do I need, a multi-function machine, but that’s what I end up paying for. As a one person office, I want a separate printer that serves my computers, a separate fax machine, and a separate copier — that way, as it happens often enough, one task isn’t delayed because everything would hit the super-duper multifunction machine at the same time. Also, there’s the issue of reliability. The more gadget functions there are on a machine, the more likely something is to go wrong… and sooner, rather than later, sooner being roughly one month after the warranty expires. And, with separate machines, if one crashes, usually late at night, the others still work.

So what’s wrong with wanting products that do what I need, rather than having to purchase equipment that does what the technogeeks think is so wonderful? Am I so unusual? Or doesn’t anyone else want to say anything about this form of technological pollution?

Immorality… or Honor?

In a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, Alan Dershowitz takes aim at Hamas for “its unlawful and immoral policy of using its own civilians as human shields, behind whom they fire rockets at Israeli civilians.” While I share Dershowitz’s repugnance at the Hamas tactics, the good professor really should be careful in using the terms “unlawful” and “immoral,” especially since he is both a lawyer and a law professor.


Because both terms are culture-centric. Laws are enacted by societies, and societies can enact laws based on very differing values, reflecting different “morals” and resulting in codification and sanctioned behaviors that would be illegal and immoral in other societies… or in other times. Less than a century and a half ago, slavery was legal and considered moral in half the United States, and depriving women of most legal rights was the practice in most western nations. Little more than a half-century ago, the German Reich legally removed civil rights from Jews and other “undesirables” as part of a declared public policy to return ethnic purity and “morality” to Germany.

In fact, Dershowitz’s words highlight exactly the problem the industriocratic western nations face in dealing with other cultures, particularly alien cultures. Make no mistake about it. Regardless of historical background, the vast majority of Islamic cultures and subcultures are in fact alien to the west, particularly to “liberal” Anglo-Americans.

Because such Islamic cultures in effect enshrine what might loosely be called male honor, other values become secondary, or even non-existent. Regardless of rhetoric or “explanations,” in reality, women exist largely as possessions to serve and service men. Children, except the males, and only the eldest, are largely expendable or valued only so far as they earn some form of upkeep. Any act, particularly by women, that can be seen to tarnish or diminish male honor must be punished. Since land ownership is a reflection of such honor, any nation or individual who takes land is an enemy of not only the individual, but of the culture, and no sacrifice — including the deaths of innocent women and children — is too great to make in the name of reclaiming that honor.

Needless to say, most westerners find these values disturbing, if they even acknowledge the presence and predominance of such values, and all too many scramble to find a common ground that does not exist. I obviously believe that current western law and accepted morality, even with all its considerable shortcomings, are superior to what I see in Islamic cultures, both in practice and in terms of their effects on those who are powerless or who have less power. By the same token, however, it’s very clear that the Islamic fundamentalists earnestly believe that their laws and morals are superior, and that they are acting in accord with what they believe.

Although we’re seeing a similar polarization on “moral” issues in the United States, on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, etc., the differences between our factions are not nearly so great as between the “west” and “Islam.” Under these circumstances, arguing who is “right” is not only useless, but senseless, because the true believers, especially the Islamic ones, are not going to change their beliefs. They’d rather die first — or have others die first — and they’re doing both. And that means the only way to end the conflict, like it or not, is by destroying one culture or the other. They understand this; we apparently still have a hard time grasping it.

Destruction, I might add, does not necessarily require massive military might alone. It can be accomplished in a number of ways, but all, whether economic, political, educational, military, or some combination of all four, require the application of force. The Israelis understand this, but they’re hampered by a lack of resources and by the lack of understanding on the part of most Western cultures.

And claiming that what Hamas does is immoral and unlawful is almost beside the point. The real issue is how high a price a culture is allowed to put on male honor… and how long the rest of the world is willing to pay for it.

Man — The Mythmaker

Last week I was reading about Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin, the woman who created the modern champagne industry at the time when all the other winemakers were still trying to remove those pesky bubbles. Although Dom Perignon, the “mythical” creator of champagne, did make many contributions to the wine industry, developing and commercializing champagne didn’t happen to be one of them. That was the doing of the Widow Cliquot more than a century later. In addition to developing the riddling rack necessary for modern champagne, as well as a number of other innovations, she was also a master of commercial tactics, including finding ways to break the British blockade of the continent in order to ship 10,000 bottles of the 1811 cuvee Veuve Cliquot to Konigsburg. Yet the myth of Dom Perignon remains, almost untouched.

Mankind, and I’m using that term advisedly, has always had cherished myths. For example, there is the myth of man the great hunter, and perhaps this is linked to the myth of the lion as the king of beasts. Of course, the real hunting is done by the lionesses, and the only prodigious feats of the lion are his ability to mate with incredible frequency and to kill off cubs he hasn’t sired. Likewise, for all the myths about man as the hunter, studies have shown that the vast majority of food in hunter-gatherer societies comes from the “gathering” efforts of the women. Nonetheless, every year tens of thousands of men in the USA pay homage to the myth of the hunter by going out and trying to kill something most of them won’t even eat.

This male mythmaking goes beyond that. For example, most of the world knows Emilie du Chatelet, if they’ve even heard of her at all, as the mistress of Voltaire, yet this brilliant woman not only translated Newton’s Principia into French, clarifying and expanding it, but also provided the first detailed prose explanation of Newton’s mathematics, as well as converting the work into continental algebra. She also wrote Foundations of Physics, which integrated the work of Newton, Leibniz, and Descartes. Voltaire himself wrote that her intellect far exceeded his, and yet the world remembers him, not du Chatelet. History also records the intellect of Archimedes, but who besides historians knows about Hypatia?

Women don’t fare much better in the myths surrounding writing, either. Although “writing” has been largely an almost exclusively male-dominated field until comparatively recently in historical terms, it is interesting to note that what many scholars consider the first “great novel” [The Tale of Genji, @1007 A.D.] was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu — and that was seven hundred years before Richardson got around to writing Pamela. Historically, more than a few people seem to regard such writers as Poe, Verne, and H.G. Wells as the seminal figures in science fiction, but it’s far more accurate to cite Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true S.F. novel. Of course, like Norton and even Austen, Shelley couldn’t even publish under her own name.

In the F&SF field, the current “grand old man” and mythical figure is always Robert A. Heinlein, who wrote forty-some novels and a dozen or so collections of short stories, and sold over 40 million books. Yet Andre Norton [Alice Mary Norton] wrote over 130 novels and had the first SF novel to sell over 1 million copies, and might have sold as many books as Heinlein, except that the sales records of her publishers are so fragmented erroneous that there’s no way to tell. And, then again, in sheer numbers, the books by another woman — J.K. Rowling — have sold over 400 million copies and dwarf Heinlien’s sales numbers.

So… why is it that so many mythical figures and accomplishments are male? Could it just be because most men, especially those who aren’t the ones doing the accomplishing, are obsessed with image… and women with results?

The Potterization [Not Harry] of Society

On Christmas Eve day, my wife and I watched It’s a Wonderful Life. After it was over, she turned to me and said, “The world needs more George Baileys and a lot fewer Potters.” She wasn’t talking just about their differing outlooks on life, and her words got me to thinking. She was right, of course, because she usually is, but especially in the deeper sense.

George Bailey spends his entire life in the small town of Bedford Falls, running the building and loan society, making loans to the working people, occasionally giving them a month or day of grace in making their house payments. He judges people on their character, not on their balance sheets. He never makes enough money for a high standard of living, and he and his wife live in a drafty old house that she, largely, has fixed up. Mr. Potter, of course, is the banker and businessman for whom success is measured strictly by the dollars earned, the return on investment, the overall profitability. Potter won’t hesitate to foreclose, to call for a bank examiner, or even keep money inadvertently left on his premises by Uncle Billy. He will unhesitatingly employ any tactic to boost his profitability, even those marginally legal. Like so many of the recent Wall Street CEOs whose ill-considered pursuit of maximum profit at any cost led to the current financial and economic crisis, and who walked away with ill-gotten gains without either guilt or punishment, so does Potter. He almost destroys the better man, and he still gets to keep the money and is never punished. All along the way, George Bailey builds a better Bedford Falls, even using his honeymoon savings. Potter is a parasite upon the town, yet he represents himself as a financially responsible pillar of the community.

Critics of the film have called it “Capra-corn,” a pun on the name of the director, but Frank Capra produced a film that was not only feel-good and sentimental, but one that encapsulated an economic truth that has tended to be overshadowed by the holiday sentiment generated by the plot and actors. One of the sad things about the film is that, while we have accepted it as a “holiday classic,” so to speak, we’ve ignored the deeper meaning behind that sentiment. When we haven’t been watching the film, we’ve forgotten the George Baileys of the world, and idolized the Potters.

And now we’re paying for that ill-considered idolization.