Archive for December, 2014

SF – Its Often Overlooked Role

In his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, the noted biologist Edmund Wilson calls for what amounts to a return to “the Enlightenment” with the unification of the sciences and the humanities in the quest for meaning. He argues that the initial thrust of the Enlightenment “stalled” essentially because the sciences alone could provide no real explanations that would fulfill the human desire to find meaning in the universe, and, in response the humanities, especially the founders of Romantic literature, turned away from the sciences in their quest for meaning.

Wilson goes on to argue that a unified approach to discovering the meaning of life is necessary and vital because the conflicts between and within belief systems and religions cannot be resolved otherwise. [This point does assume that human beings will eventually accept factual discoveries that conflict with beliefs, an issue that I’ve raised more than once, since I suspect many humans will find it difficult to abandon belief in a faith-based supernatural.] He also points out, if quietly, that the rate of scientific advance has slowed and will continue to slow as more is discovered, and as more resources are required to research and develop subsequent knowledge and technology.

More to the point of the role of science fiction, Wilson points out that science fiction already plays a key role by using aliens as a means for us to reflect on our own condition. I frankly believe that Wilson ascribes to SF far too narrow a role in regard to charting the future course of human endeavor, although I’m glad to see a recognition in print of at least some of what speculative fiction has done and what I hope it will continue to do.

The Romantic movement sought to find the “truth” about the human condition and “reality” through everything from drugs to the elaborate use of metaphor, apparently because science did not provide an adequate and immediate answer. In a sense, the aliens of science fiction are indeed a metaphorical device for investigating the human condition, but SF also addresses more directly such basic questions as the role of science and technology in society in a way that is far more accessible than any scholarly or academic treatise can hope to do… and in fact in a fashion more accessible than even Wilson’s book. This exploration of the still-widening gulf between belief and scientific grounding in the existing reality of the universe is becoming more and more necessary… but at a time when harder science fiction is being written and read less frequently.

At the same time, I do have to admit that I am concerned about the swelling of interest in fantasy, particularly in the United Stated and particularly fantasy based on permutations and variations of the supernatural, and, equally, about the diminution of overall interest in science fiction grounded directly in scientific precepts and verified facts, perhaps because a great deal of supernatural-related fantasy appears to reinforce the existing dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences, or more bluntly, between romantic/religious faith/fantasy and a fact-based view of the universe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, consider that tens of thousands of people, if not more, have been slaughtered over the past decade by the suicide attacks of “true believers,” many of whom deeply believe they will achieve a paradise in heaven where they will be waited on, served, and serviced by seventy-odd virgins, based on extrapolation of teachings supposedly founded on the words of the Koran. Or consider the hard-core Christian fundamentalists who insist that the world is less than ten thousand years old. Clearly, there is a certain lack of even fundamental understanding of science, suggesting that such beliefs are about as far as one can get from the rational understanding of the human condition sought by Francis Bacon and the early proponents of the Enlightenment.

All of which suggests to me that there needs to be more good science fiction read by more people, particularly those of school age… but then, what else would a F&SF writer suggest?

Assorted Thoughts on Writing

Last month, Tor re-released The Soprano Sorceress in a trade paperback edition, but the Amazon Soprano Sorceress webpage that linked to me and my other books never showed the trade paperback edition. I brought this up to Tor, because what’s the use of publishing a new print edition if no one knows it’s out there, and, even if they do, they can’t order it? It took Amazon over a week to get back to Tor, and when the Amazon people did, they said it would take a week to fix the glitch. They informed Tor that there is a page that shows the trade paperback edition, but I can’t find a way to get to it, except through the link that Amazon provided. So far, almost two weeks later, the glitch has only been partly fixed. That is, is you search for The Soprano Sorceress, you can find the trade paperback, but if you search for me first, the only webpage for the book that comes up doesn’t have access to the trade paperback [at least as of this posting].

They can find and ship a book in minutes or hours, but it takes a week to find a glitch that’s already been brought to their attention… and another week to fix it?

And this is the high-tech master/monster of bookselling? Except, I forgot. It’s only concerned about obtaining books and ebooks as cheaply as possible and getting as many as possible to consumers as fast as possible. Fixing a problem with a reissued backlist title? That can wait.

And then, there’s still the elephant in the room, or the bookstore… Amazon’s treatment of ebooks and their authors. There’s one factor that’s so obvious to authors and publishers that it’s really been overlooked in the discussions, or those I’ve seen. Under standard contracts, royalties paid to authors for physically printed books are calculated and paid based on the list price of the book. It doesn’t matter to the author financially whether that $27.99 hardcover is sold for $27.99 at the small local independent bookstore, or at $20.99 at Barnes & Noble, or at $17.45 at Amazon; the royalty is the same. On standard ebook contracts, the royalty paid is effectively a percentage of the actual price paid, and it matters a great deal to the author whether that ebook is sold at $14.99, $12.95, or discounted to $9.99… or less.

Series mania seems to be continuing. Fewer and fewer authors are writing and publishing stand-alone novels. Practically every new author that appears debuts with the first book of a series. Now I realize that I have lots of books in series, and a fair number of series, but, given the way I write series, I’d submit that bulk of my series books can be read as stand-alones. If we’re talking pure stand-alone novels, twenty percent of my published work consists of stand-alone novels [all SF, I will admit], and I’ve continued to write them over the years, despite the sad fact that stand-alone books seldom sell nearly as well as series books. The bottom line here, literally, is that if you as readers want more stand-alone novels, you need to buy them, lots of them, because most writers, especially mid-list writers, can’t afford not to write series, and even if they’re not supporting themselves entirely on their writing, their publishers can’t afford to publish many stand-alone books by newer writers.

No One’s an Extremist… to Themselves

Several years ago, Southern Utah University named a small room in a campus building after Senator Harry Reid, who had graduated from S.U.U. years before. Earlier this year, a city councilman and the Iron County Republicans mounted a campaign to have the senator’s name removed on the grounds that his name on one small room was discouraging conservative donors from giving money to the university, which is a state institution. The university president capitulated, and Reid’s name was removed. At the time, Reid said nothing. Last week, when he was asked about it as part of a much longer interview in Las Vegas he simply said that the effort to remove his name had been the work of “right-wing whackos.” The Iron County Republicans, an extraordinarily conservative bunch, were incensed by his rather accurate characterization of them as extremists, apparently ignoring the fact that they’re among the most conservative Republicans in the most conservative state in the Union. They’re not extremists; they insist they’re true Republicans who believe in the Constitution… or their interpretation of the Constitution, which includes believing that Obama should be impeached for doing the same things that Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush did and that all federal lands in Utah belong to the state and not the federal government.

This rather small episode got me to thinking, because that’s a pattern we’re seeing more and more of these days. Whatever the brand of extremism, the extremists aren’t extreme – they maintain that they are the followers of the true way, and establishing and maintaining that “true” way justifies whatever behaviors or tactics they employ.

Foremost among such extremists, of course, at least at present, are Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS (but certainly the Catholic Church in the 1500s wasn’t any better) in that they insist that they need to establish and maintain the true faith and that killing unbelievers and infidels is totally justified. They weren’t and aren’t extreme, but just doing God’s work.

Correspondingly, the leftwing ultra-feminists who declare that every sexual act between a man and a woman is an act of rape are merely pointing out “the truth.” Just as every right-to-life type who believes murdering doctors who perform abortions is justified in order to save the unborn is following his “truth.” Cliven Bundy and more than half the state legislators in Utah who declare that federal lands belong to them aren’t extremists; they declare they’re true patriots. Ultra-liberals who embrace all change and the newest thing as good are extremists, as are the internet extremists whose truth (“information wants to be free”) effectively embraces the extremes of socialism/communism with regard to intellectual property, but insist that they’re merely empowering the people.

All in all, as we’ve become more polarized in our attitudes, all too many of us have also come to believe that “our way” is the only way… in everything.

The “It’s My Right” Society

A while back I mentioned that I’d almost hit a skateboarder with my car when he, wearing earbuds in both ears, turned off a sidewalk right into oncoming traffic… and had the nerve to look outraged when I had to swerve frantically to avoid him. At least twice a week, on her way to work, my wife has to stop her car because someone, with earbuds and a smartphone, steps into the street in front of her car, oblivious to anything else. Because, after all, it’s their right to communicate where and when they want, regardless of the consequences.

And then there all are the cellphone and smartphone addicts, who feel that they have the right to communicate instantly, and often loudly, anywhere and at any time, even when driving in high-speed urban freeway traffic or after the airplane doors have been closed, or the texters who employ their smartphones in darkened theatres and opera houses, making it difficult for those beside and behind them to concentrate on what most people are there to see and hear – despite pointedly being told that texting and electronic devices are not permitted during the performance. Along with them are the talkers – who obviously feel they have the right to punctuate and comment on the performance while it is in progress.

Others who overextend their rights are the “information should be free” types, who insist it’s their right to pirate electronic versions of music or books, or to enjoy pirated versions, thereby depriving the creators of income from their creations.

Elsewhere in the fabric of “my right” activists are those who employ the highways to demonstrate their belief in solipsistic superiority – either by driving well below the speed limit, especially in the left-hand lane, or careening through traffic well above speed limits, or racing to the merge point and honking madly to part traffic, or engaging in some other vehicular activity that suggests that the rights of others are markedly inferior.

Among other “my rights” activists are the parents who insist that their child is always right, and that the teacher, professor, police officer, employer, or other authority figure is always wrong… or just “misunderstands” the needs of their most wonderful offspring.

Add to that the second amendment fanatics, who insist that it is their right, and everyone else’s, to obtain and carry more personal weapons in the U.S. than all in the armies in the world – without any real requirement for competency and with no real restrictions on who can purchase and use those weapons.

On top of all those people are those who believe that the laws of the land don’t apply to them, that they’re “special,” as illustrated by the fact that, according to FBI statistics for 2013, there were 49,851 assaults on police officers, meaning, that on average, one in every eleven police officers was assaulted in a single year. While I’d be among the first to admit that there are bad apples among police officers, no matter how well applicants for those positions are screened, there are bad apples in every profession, but bad apples or not, what do fifty thousand assaults a year on law enforcement personnel say about the great American public?

Isn’t it about time to stop asserting “my rights” and start looking out for the rights of others?


I understand the concerns over excessive use of force by police. I understand the fact that statistics and a wealth of data show that minorities are harassed more by police than are non-minorities. What I’m having a very hard time getting my head around is the degree of outrage created by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

As I’ve noted before, and as there is indisputable evidence to demonstrate, Michael Brown committed theft and assault and most likely physically assaulted a police officer and tried to grab his gun. If I’d done all that in any jurisdiction I can think of, even as a white male American, I’d most likely be dead as well, and you can bet that there wouldn’t be hundreds of protests across the country.

Eric Garner wasn’t shot. He was wrestled down after causing a scene when police tried to stop him from continuing an illegal practice. The practice of selling untaxed loose cigarettes wasn’t what led to his death. His physical resistance and refusal to stop selling the cigarettes led to an attempt to restrain him, which proved fatal because of two factors – Garner’s underlying health conditions, of which the police had no knowledge, and the use of a supposed chokehold, which had been banned for police use some twenty years earlier, although the officer involved has denied that the hold was a chokehold. But Garner was no innocent, either. He had a criminal record with more than 30 arrests dating back over thirty years on charges such as assault, resisting arrest, and grand larceny. But the “failure” to indict a policeman ignited another round of protests.

Why is there all this outrage, as if the two individuals who died were innocents and paragons of society? They weren’t. Yes, they were human beings, but they made bad decisions, repeatedly, and they are being made out to be innocent victims of a brutal system, and all too many of the protests are attempting to pin the entire “blame” on the police. Granted, the system is at times brutal, and it needs reform in many geographical areas, but riots, demonstrations, and making saints out of people like Garner is likely to make reform even more difficult.

From a very personal point of view, these kinds of protests also anger me because they not only glorify people who don’t deserve it, but they also ignore the true innocents. I don’t see hundreds of protests for the schoolgirls and schoolboys killed every year in drive-by shootings across the country, most of whom, unfortunately, are minorities. I don’t see hundreds of protests for the truly innocent children gunned down at Sandy Hook; instead I see well-heeled and well-dressed middle-class Americans protesting that their rights to bear arms will be infringed if any sort of measure requiring weapons competency is enacted. I don’t see protests about the failure to indict financiers on criminal charges for fraudulent use of robo-signatures that have illegally thrown tens of thousands of Americans out of their houses. I don’t see hundreds of protests again natural resource companies, such as those in West Virginia, who have poisoned millions of truly innocent people.

And in the case of Ferguson, Missouri, there’s one other truly remarkable and unanswered question. Every story I’ve seen indicates that the town is sixty-five to seventy percent black, but the police force is ninety percent white, and while the mayor is black, only one of the town’s six council members is black, yet, according to news reports, less than ten percent of the black population voted in the last election. If this has been an ongoing problem, which is what all sources report, why haven’t all those minority voters turned out and voted for officials to change the system? If that low turnout is because of illegal political restrictions on voting, why hasn’t that been brought up? Either way, why aren’t the local blacks using the system by seeking the vote or voting? It would be a lot more constructive than burning down local businesses in rage, which, by the way, is in fact a crime. But then, rioting and demonstrating is a lot easier and more flamboyant than the drudgery of registering and educating voters, and then getting them to the polls. That takes work, lots of work… but that sort of work is also what brings lasting improvement and change. It also doesn’t bring headlines, which is what the media and agitators all seek.

Writing… and the Reading Comfort Zone

One of many things I’ve learned in over forty years as a published science fiction and fantasy writer is that while readers span a great range of interests, backgrounds, and enthusiasm for the printed word, and some of those readers enjoy varying types of work, a great many readers have a fairly narrow comfort zone. Years ago, when I wrote The Towers of the Sunset, my editor, the venerable David Hartwell, asked, “Could you write this book in the third person past tense?”

“Why?” I asked. “It’s a better book in the third person present tense. It wouldn’t work as well in the past tense.”

“Because most readers are more comfortable reading books written in the third person past tense, and you’ll lose readers if this book is published as you wrote it.”

I persisted; David accepted the novel as written in the third person present tense, except he did want an expansion of the last part, and he was definitely right about that. He was also right about a number of readers not liking the use of present tense, especially when the book was first published, but those who liked the use of the present tense really liked it, and, as a result, I’ve gotten the impression, over the more than twenty years since Towers was published, that it has tended to be a reader’s most favorite or least favorite book in the entire Saga of Recluce, despite the fact that, since then, I’ve written other Recluce novels in present tense as well.

Then a number of years later, I wrote another book – Archform:Beauty – in which I told the story from the viewpoints of five different characters – in first person past tense. It got great reviews… and sold only moderately well. At times, a differing approach upsets both readers and reviewers, as was the case with Empress of Eternity, where the interweaving three narrative lines set in vastly different future time periods is based on an actual theory of time [not mine] suggested by Einstein’s work.

Readers also have expectations of a writer, and this was made very clear by the five books of the Spellsong Cycle and by Arms-Commander, the sixteenth book of the Recluce Saga, all of which were told from the female perspective, and all of which sold at lower levels than comparable books of mine told from the male point of view. I actually got comments and emails from male readers saying that they just couldn’t identify with a female point of view, that they weren’t comfortable with it.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of books that have incorporated, shall we say, departures from standard third person, past tense, straight line narrative, and there’s a definite bottom-line cost to continuing to write such books.

In general, the greater the degree of separation from “standard narrative,” the lower the comparative sales numbers were. For those of you who bemoan the “sameness” of so many books, you might bear in mind that professional writers do need to make a living, and when innovation reduces the publisher’s income, and correspondingly, the writer’s income, both tend to become more conservative. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but not, generally, among writers whose works support them. In fact, I’m probably one of a very few self-supporting full-time writers who produces a relatively divergent range of books, under the same name. I know a few other writers who try to avoid the sales drop-off and market to distinct classes of readers by using different pen names for different kinds of books, but I guess I’m just a bit old-fashioned, because, to me, that’s catering a bit too much to readers’ comfort zones.

In the end, I not only want to entertain and hopefully enthrall my readers, but also at least edge them out of their comfort zone to some degree, if not more, to get them to consider anything from a slight to a far different perspective, and like all writers, I doubtless have mixed success. But it’s still worth trying.

More Lawmaking Idiocy

Last week several Utah state legislators proposed giving “incentive funding” to those state universities who most increase the percentage and numbers of students completing their undergraduate studies and graduating in less than six years. While the goal is certainly noteworthy, because all too many Utah students do take more than six years, the remedy effectively places the blame in the wrong place and would be almost laughable, if it weren’t so tragic, because the colleges aren’t the ones to blame, not in Utah, anyway.

The population of Utah is roughly 70% LDS [Mormon], and roughly 75%-80% of all college students in Utah state universities are also LDS. Of that number close to 80% of the male LDS college students undertake a two-year mission during their “college years.” Depending on what month in which their “mission call” arrives, the male student can spend 2-3 years out of college serving his church. Roughly 30% of female students also undertake missions, which removes them from college for two years.

Add to this the fact that the head of the LDS church has made an extremely strong push for male students to get married within a year of completing their mission… and a great number do, as many as half, if the percentages observed at the local university are replicated at other Utah universities. Those married students then often have to work, not surprisingly, to support their families and their studies. This delays their completion of studies, and, in some cases, particularly for women, keeps them from even getting a degree.

The real question is just how universities and university professors are supposed to get students through the degree programs faster when religious commitments leave those students in a situation where it is either difficult or impossible to finish a four year program in six years, considering that the students are absent from 2-3 years. The university most likely to improve their “6-year graduation rate” is going to be the University of Utah, simply because it has the lowest percentage of LDS undergraduates, and in general, the most highly qualified in-state students, while the regional universities with the highest percentage of LDS students, and the greatest percentage of first-generation college students, will have the hardest time… and yet those students and colleges are the ones who are already getting far less funding from the legislature.

But then, this latest legislative “initiative” at least recognizes the problem, if pointedly ignoring the causes.