Archive for May, 2011

Another Revolution

The other day I ran across an article in the business section of the newspaper that described the marketing behind Lady Gaga’s newest album as revolutionary… the first campaign to fully utilize all aspects of the social media revolution to promote the album.

This approach is revolutionary in terms of the technology, but not exactly so in terms total self-promotion. That was pioneered, again in music, more than a century ago by Richard Wagner, who, in addition to being a musical genius, was also a marketing genius who was the first artist to make himself inseparable from the product in all dimensions, from its design, creation, production, and in the end, even the very physical forum in which his works were presented, a forum which endures at Bayreuth… more than a century after his death.

Wagner was incredibly successful in creating a form of opera which was essentially self-referential, whose “truths”[although derived from other sources] existed wholly within the opera itself.  That self-referential structure, with its emphasis on what might be called Nordic mythical truths, was tailor-made for Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine because, first, the music was powerful and essentially nationalistic and, second, the “truths” presented in Wagner’s work required and needed no understanding outside the works themselves.

Prior to Wagner, and for many artists, even well after him, the emphasis was on the work, and at the highest levels, artists attempted to reveal what they saw as the “truth” through their work, but the majority of such works contained references well beyond the works themselves and often attempted to make sense of the “greater world” beyond the work.

Some still do, but with the growth of the Ipod music culture of personalized music and especially with social media, this gets harder – and such “exterior-referenced” artistic attempts at revealing greater truth become less interesting and less personally relevant to those in the social media world, because the whole concept behind social media is to tailor the online world of the participant around that participant, to create a self-referential narcissism.

The difference between the “old” approach and the, if you will, “Wagnerian/Gaga” approaches is that the old approach was based, at its best, on the affirmation and understanding of something greater than the artist or the reader/listener, while the “Wagnerian” approach is based on selling the product through its isolation from other conflicting “truths” and the cult of the composer/producer, while the “Lady Gaga” approach to selling her music is designed to go a step beyond fusing artist and work, and fuse the artist, work, and audience in a form of self-identification and self-validation, independent of “outside” truths or references.

Am I being alarmist?  I don’t think so.  Over the last few months, three major U.S. symphony orchestras have either declared bankruptcy or given indications that such is likely in the weeks ahead.  Others have either frozen or cut salaries or schedules.  Bookings and appearances for classical musicians and singers are declining rapidly.

The more simplistic and the greater the narcissistic appeal a work of music has, the greater the likelihood that it will be commercially successful.

And since music, even more than literature, reflects a culture, this trend should be disturbing… not that any narcissist would even bother to care.

The Other [Credible?] Side

Last weekend, I was at a science fiction and fantasy convention, and among the events was a panel with Robert Sawyer, the Canadian author whose books were the inspiration for the short-lived television series Flash Forward.  The panel was on the subject of the impact of the “Me Generation” on publishing and F&SF.  Several days after the panel, I came across a blog complaining that there should have been someone on the panel who belonged to the “me generation,” since neither Sawyer nor I obviously did [although I must point out that Rob is a number of years younger than I].  That got me to thinking about the premises behind the complaint.

The first premise is erroneous and has belonged to every younger generation since the time of Socrates, if not before.  It is the belief that no one older can possibly understand what the younger generation feels and believes. That is, of course, utter trash.  Every older generation was once young and felt the same way. Some in the older generation have forgotten or chosen to forget and thus do not “understand,” but many, many of us do remember and understand.  We also understand what things we then believed to be true were not as we thought.  This process is known as maturation, also thought of as ossification by many of the younger generations.

But the second premise is the one I really want to address. That is the unspoken assumption, especially among the media, that every issue has another side worth exploring and presenting.  I’d be the first to agree that every issue has another side.  Even Hitler had another side, as did Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden.  But just because there is another side doesn’t mean that such a side is either worth presenting in any depth or that it should be justified by the media or the intellectual communities.  I’m sorry, but, for example, we really don’t need, nor should we be exposed to in-depth expositions of the justification for genocide, pedophilia, serial killings, etc.

Why not?  Isn’t that a violation of freedom of information and the press?

It is if it’s mandated by government, but the press and media need to exercise some self-restraint.  Again… why?

Because, in the simplest terms, in-depth presentation of bad information, poor logic, and the like, especially without critical assessment, gives it a credibility in the eyes of a public too credulous and too accepting of what the media present, particularly whatever is the flavor de jour.  Do I think either limitation or such critical assessment is likely to happen?  Not on your life… or at least in my lifetime. The media is far too interested and far too driven by profit to risk being the first or among the first by actually taking time to read and consider the implications and whether one side or the other of a current story is little more than fluff, if that.  Above and beyond the profit considerations are the pseudo-legal ones.  They don’t want to court lawsuits by suggesting one side of a truly one-sided story has little to recommend it.  That’s how and why the tobacco industry, some of the energy industry, the climate change deniers, and even the financial industry [and its supporters] get almost a free pass.  All these people do is suggest and sow doubt with facts and theories that range from being statistical outliers to being outright wrong or totally irrelevant or by pointing out nitpicking lacks or insignificant weaknesses in data. That way they call claim that they’re true skeptics.  By the way, you can tell the true skeptics from the ideologues by watching what happens when more well-supported data appears.  The true skeptics analyze and consider it; the ideologues find yet another and different basis of support for their stance.

The problem, of course, is that all ideologues believe that the “other side” is non-existent, while those who are open-minded actually consider the other side. But the fact remains… there are some stories and some situations, some of them vital to us and our future, where the “other side” is weak or essentially non-existent… and all too often no one will claim that the emperor has no new clothes.

Lasting Worth

It’s often been said that no artist can be truly and accurately judged in his or her own lifetime… and I think that there’s a great deal of truth in that,

Neither Shakespeare nor Mozart were considered the leaders in their fields at the times of their deaths, as I’ve noted before.  And of the two Cassatts of the nineteenth century, the “colossus” was considered to be Alexander, the president of the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad, while his sister Mary was an artistic dabbler.  Today, only economic historians know about Alexander, while almost every art student knows about Mary Cassatt, the American impressionist.  Van Gogh never sold a painting in his lifetime;  today his works are worth millions.  Almost no one knew anything about the poet Emily Dickinson in her lifetime.  Her works are quoted everywhere, and many of her poems have been set to music.

The same lack of “present-day” appreciation exists outside the area of artistic endeavor as well. For example, perhaps the only town in Japan to face the worst of the recent tsunami and survive was the fishing town of Fudai, thanks to the dogged persistence of Kotaku Wamura, a ten term former mayor who survived the devastating 1933 tsunami as a youth and who spent almost thirty years lobbying and finally getting built a more than fifty foot high seawall and an equally high and massive set of floodgates.  His insistence on building such tall structures was regarded as an expensive folly when they were completed in the late 1970s, but Fudai survived with all buildings intact, if some ended a little damp, at a time when virtually every other town and city in the path of the tsunami was reduced to rubble.  Wamura endured scorn and ridicule for his projects and died before he could see how they saved his beloved home town and its people.

As in so many instances, the man was not fully appreciated until long after his death, and in his lifetime, his floodgates were doubtless decried as not “cost-effective” – or whatever the equivalent Japanese economic jargon might be.  The projects cost an equivalent of $30 million in 2011 dollars, and they saved more than 3,000 lives and all the buildings in the town.  U.S. economists reckon that, in safety and environmental terms, it’s not cost-effective to implement measures that exceed from $250,000 to $1,000,000 per life saved. Even at the lower end of that scale, Wamura’s seawall and floodgates “saved” $700 million in life-costs, not to mention the rebuilding costs.

So… why is it that we so often praise those whose works and deeds do not endure and ignore those whose deeds and works have a lasting impact?

About What Readers Want

Over the past few months, with the paperback release of Arms-Commander and the initial hardcover release of Lady-Protector, I’ve had a number of requests for another book about each of the protagonists.  Likewise, I’ve had a number of readers express disappointment that I would be leaving Rhennthyl, the protagonist of the first three books of The Imager Portfolio, in order to write another sub-series featuring a different main character set in a different time period in the history of Solidar.  The most extreme reaction of which I know is one I’ve mentioned before in several fora, where a reader got so upset that I had the main character of the first three Spellsong Cycle books die of old age in the second subseries… and the reader hurled the fourth book at a hapless bookseller while taking my name in vain.

If I look at the sales charts of fantasy books in particular, it’s fairly clear that readers reward handsomely those authors who write long and voluminous series about the same character or sets of characters.  The same trends are evident in urban fantasy and the thriller/mystery genres.  Yet while writing a long series with the same characters pleases many readers, there are those who want a writer, even their “favorite” writer, to write book after book where each book is significantly different from any previous book.

I can’t count the number of reader reviews over the years that complained that my latest book was too much like a previous one, even while the majority of my readers requested more books in that particular series and more books about a character that they loved.  Yet, at the same time, a significant number of readers also asked for more of my “different” science fiction books.

As many sages have noted, and even the late Rick Nelson in his song “Garden Party,” you can’t please everyone all the time, and, unhappily, if you’re an author, there’s always the chance that something you write will please almost no one.  And yes, I did have one of those books.  It was called The Green Progression, and I wrote it with Bruce Scott Levinson, and after twenty years I can count the number of people who truly liked that book and told me so on one hand.  But… if you’re one of the few who actually has a hardcover, I did see a bookseller offering a copy for $287.00.  Fortunately, only one of my books has been that kind of disaster, at least so far.

The other aspect of what readers want is that what they want often does not agree with what the reviewers think is “excellent,” and very, very few runaway best sellers receive rave reviews, at least in science fiction and fantasy. Some years in the past, one author, who shall remain nameless, received glowing review after glowing review.  That author is no longer published and has not been for quite some time, perhaps because the last book issued by a major publisher had over 90 percent of the copies printed returned unbought. 

Then there are other authors, who sell well enough to live comfortably, and who receive good reviews in general from reviewers at Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, but who tend to be ignored or panned by reviewers in the F&SF field.  Such authors seem able to balance technical skill and popularity to some degree, and make a living as writers, but seldom if ever, publish the runaway best-seller.

All of this suggests, as all of those of us who have endured as professionals in the field know, that for the reader what matters first is how gripping the story is, and how well it is told comes second, because what most readers really want is the story, and, for most, but not all,  preferably another adventure with characters they love.

A Character’s/Book’s Views?

The other day I was amused, and somewhat horrified, if not particularly surprised to read that I did not “simply engage in religion-bashing.” but that I was “outright hostile to religion.”  Where did this come from?  From a theological blog that, on the basis of thoughts and acts of one Van Albert, the protagonist of my novel, The Ethos Effect, declared that, “One can presume, however, that his [Modesitt’s] basis of ethics is a strictly humanistic one.”  I did contact the author, and he most graciously and kindly apologized and revised the blog to reflect the fact that my characters [and not me] took stances contrary to what he believed to be the proper religious acts and beliefs… and I have no problem with that.

This sort of thing, however, does raise an issue.  How often do readers jump to conclusions about what an author believes on the basis of a single novel? Or even a single series, when other characters in other books have acted differently and on different ethical bases?

Another author [Poul Anderson, I believe[except I was wrong, apparently, as noted below]]] said that there was a term for readers who equated the views of characters with the views of the author, and that term was “idiot.”  I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, because there’s no doubt that, no matter what we as authors claim, some [if not more] of what we believe seeps into what we write.  Some authors are almost opaque, in that it’s difficult to discern what they truly believe, and with others, their beliefs gush from every page.  But… with still others, while beliefs seem to gush from the page, those beliefs may not be those of the author, or only part of the beliefs of the author.

Human beings face ethical dilemmas all the time, and our actions spark ethical questions on a daily basis, and some of what we write comes close to real-life situations, such as in the recent case of the killing of Osama bin Laden.  One of the larger questions that faces any society is the issue of justice when that society is faced with the issue of preemptive action or reactive action.  What might have happened in Europe in the mid-to-late 1930s if the U.S. and European powers had moved against Hitler before millions of Jews and others were killed?  On the other hand, one could claim that the wars in Iraq or in Vietnam were largely preemptive and disastrous.  The overarching ethical problems in such cases are that preemptive action is arrogant and chancy and could result in more deaths than doing nothing, but often doing nothing leads to greater evils, as in so many cases in human history. 

As an author, I’ve written on both sides of this issue, because, from what I’ve seen, no “absolute” religious or ethical philosophy provides a satisfactory guideline in mitigating human misery.  Oh… philosophers and theologians can claim their positions are the “right” ones, but every “right” position still has times when it multiplies human misery.  So I’ve explored this issue and others… as have many, many other writers.

And, in my books, each character takes a stand.  Sometimes, the stands agree, and sometimes they don’t.  At times, ethically, everyone loses, even when they triumph materially… and, from what I’ve seen, that’s life.  That part – that I’ll admit – reflects what I’ve seen.  But to infer what a writer believes from a single novel… or series…that’s stretching. 

But… in a way, readers do it all the time… and that’s one of the perils of being an author.

Is This Justice?

Now that bin Laden is dead, commentators, agitators, and even people of conscience have raised the question of whether the means of his death was “justice.”  Before rushing to judgment on this question, I’d like to raise another question: What exactly is justice?

There are more than just a few definitions of justice, but here are the ones most commonly cited: (1) the quality of being fair, even-handed, and impartial; (2) the rendering of what is due or merited; (3) conformity with the law; (4) the administration of the law; (5) the means by which the law is administered; (6) a judge; (7) the abstract principle by which right and wrong are determined.

Setting aside the definitions for a moment, what are the facts, in brief?  Bin Laden was the mastermind behind the Twin Towers bombing, the Pentagon bombing, as well as who truly knows how many other terrorist acts.  In his various speeches and communications, he fully acknowledged that.  So… there was no question of his guilt. By his acts he caused the deaths of well over 3,000 civilians in the United States who were not in any way threatening him.  Over the years, he continued to agitate and plan other activities in which hundreds if not thousands of Muslims were also killed.

Now… from what I’ve seen so far, those who are questioning whether his death was an act of justice and who are suggesting it was murder, since it appears that he was not holding a firearm at the time he was shot, are saying that he should have been captured and held for trial, claiming that under the laws of the United States such a trial would constitute justice.

Such claims certainly have a certain appeal and, shall we say, technical legal merit, but they carry with them an assumption that justice can only be meted out in one way and in one form, i.e., through the U.S. court system.  As a former Naval officer who had to once serve as the presiding officer in a special courts martial, I can attest that, as a nation, we have at least two accepted forms legal jurisprudence, with very different presumptions behind some of the proceedings.  French jurisprudence dates from the Napoleonic Code and also has different presumptions, as do justice systems in other nations.

The idea underlying all such systems is that “justice” is determined under a set of laws and proceedings meant to determine guilt or innocence and to mete out an appropriate punishment, under the authority of law, in the case of those found guilty. But such legal systems are only a mechanism for assuring that “justice” is done, and when the focus is placed strictly on the means, rather than the outcome of the process, as many Americans already know, often “justice” is not achieved.  If the “means” are always supreme, then justice is often unserved; but if the end is the only goal, any means can be justified.  How then does one determine exactly what is justice?

In the case of Osama bin Laden, there is absolutely no doubt that he was guilty of causing thousands of deaths.  The penalty for such scope of murders is usually death.  Bin Laden’s death was accomplished, either advertently or inadvertently, by Navy SEALS under the orders of the President of the United States, dutifully elected, and thus was accomplished by an authorized government agency, in general accord with the punishments meted out for murderers and serial killers by U.S. courts or military tribunal or courts martial.

Was this an “ideal” solution? No, it wasn’t.  But there are times when an emphasis on process and procedure are not necessarily possible. In this case, no one is hiding what was done, or generally how it was done, and the President has acknowledged that it was done under his orders. 

So… was bin Laden’s death justice?  Or does justice only occur when an exact set of procedures and processes are followed, regardless of the outcome?

Are Political/Social Structures “Sexist”?

One of the commenters on this blog actually raised this question, if not quite so bluntly, and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense, although there’s far more to the issue than mere labeling.

But I’ll start with politics and the question of why there are so few women in the U.S. Congress.  As I’ve noted in several earlier blogs, men, as do virtually all male primates, are more inclined and, in general, more interested and more skilled in political networking.  I suspect this has to do with genetics and natural selection, in that men operate in a constantly changing socio-political structure for single-minded goals, usually power and sex.  And if you don’t think political power isn’t related to sex for men, you have no idea of how politics operates.  Henry Kissinger once observed that power was the greatest aphrodisiac of all, and the exploits of more than a few U.S. Presidents tend to confirm that.  The American two-party system, in turn, is geared to simplify both networking and power-seeking; that wasn’t its original design or purpose, but its evolution from that design which tended to reflect early American society.

Women, on the other hand, tend to operate on two entirely different net-working styles, one a shallow communications network predominantly with other women and the other a far smaller and deeper network, primarily with women who are relatives and close friends.  Neither networking “style” is suited to the changing alliances and power plays of the kind of networking politics employed and enjoyed by the majority of men.  Women, once they’re mature, also tend to have a longer focus, most likely in part because child-rearing has historically and genetically been their role for almost all of human history, and politics, particularly at present, is incompatible with a longer focus.  It’s all about immediate gain, which is representative of male sexuality as well – get as many women as possible as much and as quickly as possible.

Female-oriented institutions, such as the nuclear family [and there is more than one variety of nuclear family], are “designed” for longer term stability, which is necessary if one wants children to survive, especially under optimal conditions.

Now… I’m not preaching here, or advocating, merely expanding the issue and question, and asking if there is a democratic/representative political structure that would be less structurally biased toward either gender.  I’m certainly not the first to make such a suggestion or observation.  Both Ursula K. LeGuin, in The Left Hand of Darkness, and Sherri Tepper, in a number of her books, have made similar observations, both directly and indirectly.  I will say that, outside of some feminist rhetoric, I haven’t seen anything that approaches a scholarly analysis of the issue [not that such may not exist, but if it does, I doubt if it’s been widely circulated].

Any thoughts?

United in Opposition

Last week a poll revealed that 75% of the American people are dissatisfied with the U.S. Congress, and that’s one of the lowest figures for Congressional popularity in some time, if ever.  On the surface, one might conclude that, to improve its standing, all Congress has to do is to reverse course.  Alas, that would result in close to the same figures, I suspect.

Why?  Because, if you’ve been reading about all the Congressional shenanigans, you know that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Republican senators aren’t happy with the Democrat-controlled Senate or the President, and the Democrat-controlled Senate and Democratic representatives are close to furious with the Republican-controlled House. 

For all these ideological differences, there’s one absolute similarity between both sides in Congress.  Neither they, nor their supporters, really want to deal with the facts of the situation they face.  In reality, if they did, most of them feel they’d soon be voted out of office.  Both sides are wrong, and neither side can afford to admit it… or to compromise.

Everyone agrees in principle that the U.S. government can’t keep spending more than we collect in various tax revenues.  What they’re vigorously opposed on is where to make up the difference, either through spending cuts or increasing revenues.

We can’t keep increasing the amount the federal government spends on health care unless we increase taxes, and if we cut federal health care expenditures to avoid raising taxes, the cuts will be so deep that the poor, the lower middle class and working classes will suffer when they reach retirement age, if not before. The same problem exists in dealing with Social Security – unless future retirement ages are increased, but that will likely result in effective benefit cuts because, for a variety of reasons, many older workers retire before they’re eligible for full benefits.

There are other funding sources, of course, but one or another entrenched interest opposes them, and thus, so do the legislators beholden to those interests.  We’ve all seen the disasters, for example, created by the speculation in all sorts of financial transactions.  So what about a federal tax on securities and stock market transactions?  Not just on capital gains, but on the transaction itself, paid not by the investor but by the entity handling the trade.  Do you really think Goldman-Sachs would let Congress anywhere near that? Most agriculture subsidies go to corporate farmers?  Do we really need them?  Especially when the ethanol tax credit raises food prices?  Just try to cut those subsidies and revenue losses.

Over forty percent of all Americans pay no federal income taxes.  Just see what happens if any legislator suggests that they should.  What about getting rid of mortgage interest payment deductions for second homes?  Not first homes, but second homes, vacation homes, etc.?  Why should taxpayers get a tax deduction for a vacation home?  Suggest this, and the realtors and the bankers will be after any Congressman who does.

The list of possible fixes is long, and many of them would indeed work, but one thing is clear.  Everyone knows the system needs fixing, and no one wants to pay for it.  Each interest wants someone else to pay for it, and because that’s so, Congress can’t come up with a solution… and everyone’s mad at Congress, because each representative and Senator is indeed representing the interests of those who either elected them or contributed the funds that elected them.  But, for all the talk about reaching a solution, woe betide any representative who thinks about compromising with the other side.

Just ask former Senator Bob Bennett what a single vote toward a compromise does to a senator’s career.