Archive for February, 2015

Inadvertent Media Demonization?

Several weeks ago, a police officer in Salt Lake City went to investigate a report of a man with a snow shovel behaving erratically. When the officer found the man, he asked for his name. Within moments, the man attacked to officer with the shovel. The officer shot and killed the man – but only after that officer had received significant injuries, including a broken arm and foot. The officer was wearing a body cam, and the footage of that camera shows unequivocally that the officer in no way threatened the man and that the man attacked the officer with no provocation.

In late January, in Denver, Denver police stopped a stolen car containing five teenagers. Police testimony stated that the officers fired at the car when the driver aimed the car at the officers and struck one, breaking his leg. The driver died from the gunshots. The teenagers insist that the police stopped the car, then were stepping away when the officers shot the driver, who lost control of the car, which then struck the officer. The teen testimony tends to overlook one critical fact. If the car was stopped and not in gear, it couldn’t have moved when the driver was shot, and everyone agrees that it did. Moreover, the driver had been stopped by the Colorado Highway Patrol several weeks before and cited for driving 25 miles per hour over the speed limit and attempting to elude the highway patrol officer.

Then there is the Michael Brown case. No matter what anyone says, Brown had committed two crimes and attacked a policeman.

I’m not saying that law enforcement is always right or sacrosanct. Law enforcement is like any other profession. Most of the police are basically good people, but every large law enforcement agency has its bad apples, just as the medical, legal, software, and any other profession have their bad apples. And the media is right to run stories that call attention to possible wrong-doing, provided that the reports are accurate and as objective as possible.

What angers me is that those people close to the shovel wielder, the Latino teenager, or Michael Brown immediately come up with stories about how good those individuals were… and how awful the police were… and the media immediately broadcasts them. I’m sure each of those individuals did in fact do some good deeds, but so have some of the worse criminals on record. That doesn’t excuse the fact that in these cases, the police officers had reason to fear for their lives – and that their attackers were not the innocents portrayed by the media… and that all the demonstrations and the publicity given them represent misplaced media hype.

Yes… we could stand improved police training in using lethal force and in dealing with underprivileged citizenry angry with years of discrimination, but trumping up media coverage in dubious cases such as these is counterproductive. Maybe I’ve missed it, but where was the national coverage of the black man shot in a Walmart while inspecting a BB gun? Where are the news stories about true minority innocents actually victimized by shoddy or prejudiced law enforcement? I’m sure there are some, and probably a lot, but discovering and covering those takes work. Covering the sensational instances doesn’t. Just load up your instacam or whatever and listen to those with an ax to grind. Quick work and high ratings, just like that.

But the result of quick and easy coverage is, in effect, a sensationalist demonization of law enforcement, rather than a thoughtful examination of both sides. What I’ve been seeing doesn’t represent anything close to impartial news reporting. It’s simply ratings gathering that contributes to societal polarization. It’s also making it harder and harder for many law enforcement agencies to attract top quality recruits.

But then, who really wants objectivity? It’s all too clear that, no matter what people say, most just want news that confirms their beliefs… and too much of the media, at least right now, appears to be too profit-driven to be anywhere close to objective in dealing with hot-button issues. And that means we all lose.

Determining Moral Fiber?

Most human beings would like to believe that they are moral or ethical individuals, at least in their own terms, and most would like to prosper or, especially, succeed beyond their wildest dreams while retaining that morality. Most also have a definite idea on what constitutes moral/ethical behavior in life and in literature. The majority of F&SF novels comment on morality and ethics, either directly, indirectly, or by omission, because most books are, in the end, about some aspect of power, and what intelligent organisms do in response to or in pursuit of power reveals who they are in ethical terms.

But who the characters of a book are in moral or ethical terms is also defined by the ethical traits and background of the reader. I’ve seen this more than a few times in regard to characters in my own books, where one reader will declare that a character is morally weak or has no moral fiber whatsoever, and other reader will find the same character highly ethical. This is scarcely surprising, not when we see the same diversity in views among political pundits, politicians, civic leaders, and other public figures – and that’s just in the United States.

Obviously, a significant fraction of Islamic believers feel that any depiction of the prophet Mohammed is immoral, and a significant fraction of Western journalists and cartoonists see nothing immoral in presenting satiric images of the prophet.

At the same time, there are certain ethical issues that are universal. How much should one compromise one’s morals in order to survive? The moral extremists would opt for little or no compromise, but that raises another issue. One cannot be ethical or do good in the future if one is dead. Nor can one raise one’s children to be “good” people if one is dead. So if that moral compromise does not injure others and allows one to survive to do good in the future, is it that immoral? But then… one compromise can lead to another… and another… and may set a terrible example for others. Yet we’ve seen in life that that is not necessarily the case. There have always been those individuals living in despotic societies that were frankly immoral by any meaning of the term who professed allegiance to the regime in order to survive… and then helped others to survive and escape.

The conflict of values with survival and power have always interested me, and that’s why I write about them so often, and with different viewpoints in different situations, in a way, trying to show that matters often are not nearly so simple as they seem. Despite what has often been said, doing what is “right” is never as simple as it seems… and that usually makes a good book… and just as often that’s also why one reader finds a book good and another despises it, not because the book is necessarily badly written, although that’s often the justification given, but because what’s presented conflicts too much with the belief system of that reader.

Awards and F&SF

In almost every artistic field, there are awards for excellence and achievement, and the F&SF world is no exception. While it isn’t as well known a field to many people, it’s not exactly small, either. In 2014, the number of F&SF original novels published by the big five and known and established small presses was around 1,000, and the self-published F&SF novels likely exceeded that several-fold.

Supposedly, the Hugo is the most “prestigious award” in fantasy and science fiction [at least, it’s billed that way], and who wins the Hugo in various categories [short story, novella, novel, best editor, best artist, etc., for work published for the first time in the previous year] is determined annually by vote. To vote, one must be a member of the current World Science Fiction Convention, or as I recall, the previous WorldCon or the forthcoming WorldCon. In short, it’s a popularity contest generally voted on by insiders, although anyone can become one of those insiders by paying for a full WorldCon membership or a less expensive, supporting [non-attending] membership. Over the last twenty years, WorldCon membership numbers have generally fluctuated in the three to six thousand range, with the exception of last year’s WorldCon in London, which had over ten thousand attending and supporting memberships.

Theoretically, voters are supposed to nominate those works which display excellence, since the works are for “the best” in each category. The problem, as I’ve discussed in other areas and blogs, rests on what each voter/reader feels is “best.” In more cases than not, I suspect, “best” refers to those books enjoyed and liked the most, not necessarily the best, but what institution offering a “prestigious” award would want to admit that it’s really a “readers” favorite? I’ve so often disagreed with the nominees that I might as well not have voted in almost every case. As a side note, I might add that the folks at RT [otherwise known as Romantic Times] label their awards as “Reviewers’ Choice Awards,” which strikes me as a bit more honest. [I mention this because they actually do give awards to F&SF books].

The other “major” set of awards in the field are the World Fantasy Awards. While members of the World Fantasy Convention can nominate works, the majority of nominees – and the winners – are determined by a panel of five judges who are professionals in the fantasy publishing field. Each judge serves for one time in his or her life for one year, and as the saying goes, in the interest of full disclosure, I was a judge almost twenty years ago. It was a brutal year, and I read parts of more than three hundred novels and all of more than fifty. We did the best we could, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we likely missed or overlooked works that could easily have been nominated and possibly won with other judges in other years.

Having seen both processes at work, I’d say that neither is anywhere close to perfect, but I do feel that the World Fantasy awards do come close to presenting a slate of good to excellent books, while the Hugos are far more of a hype and popularity contest, where the works of authors with expansive social media, egos to match, ebullient public personae, and enthusiastic, if not rabid, fan bases tend to be nominated and win in greater measure than the quality of their work might otherwise merit, at least in my anything but humble opinion.

But then, I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the wisdom of crowds, especially where a certain level of intelligence and perception is required, as well as a wider vocabulary, which is also why I don’t care much for the majority of “popular” music these days.

History – Real and Fictional

This past weekend I was at LTUE – a science fiction and fantasy literary symposium/conference in Provo, Utah [and the reason why there was no blog last Friday was because my not-so-trusty and relatively new laptop crashed right after I arrived there]. I was on a fair number of panels, but in the course of convention events, I found one of my basic tenets about writing being reinforced. It’s simple. All realistic and real worlds have history, and that history is NEVER just the “dead past.”

Over the past fifty plus years, I’ve read a considerable amount of science fiction and fantasy, and although the majority of writers who dealt with invented literary worlds or even future human society made an effort to create workable societies, while I could see how those societies might work, in far too many cases I could see no way as to how such societies or cultures could have evolved and developed into what the writer presented. Most likely, for most readers, that really isn’t a problem, but, perhaps because I am a student of society, politics, and history, it bothers me a lot.

Just think about this. How many of the killings, the wars, and the terrorist threats we face today are the result of past Islamic history and teachings? Mohammed may have lived over 1400 years ago, but that part of history and how it has evolved affects the entire world today, and certainly thousands if not tens of thousands of followers don’t act as though he’s dead and forgotten. World War II was effectively the result of historical conflicts and rancor between France and Germany that date back to the time of Louis XIV, if not before. Obvious as this may seem, in too many F&SF books, there’s little if no sense of real history woven into the background of the story… or how that history affects the present. Everything is in the here and now.

Or sometimes there’s an eternal empire. Eternal? I have my doubts. Although one can claim with some degree of accuracy that the basic structure of Egyptian government was essentially unchanged for almost three thousand years, dynasties rose and fell; invaders periodically intervened and ruled; and in the end, the structure toppled. And that’s the most long-lived empire/pseudo-empire in human history. The British Empire, the one on which the sun never set, lasted less than a century in any true imperial form.

William Faulkner once made the observation to the effect that the “dead past” is not only not dead, but it’s not even past. Obviously, I agree.

The Illusion of Ability

Talent, or ability, by itself, is overrated. So is pure intelligence. Over the years, I have seen so many people with great talents, and others with incredible intellectual brilliance, fail, sometimes catastrophically, in a range of fields and occupations. I’ve seen executives who not only knew their market, their customers, and their products, but who could explain and sell, stall in dead-end positions. I’ve seen brilliant attorneys crash and burn, and literally destroy their lives and themselves. I’ve known talented writers who flamed out, never to be heard of again. I’ve met singers with incredible voices, good looks, and great stage presence who never even made the lowest rungs of an operatic career.

A failing I’ve seen far too often over the years is the tendency of people with great natural ability or intelligence to reach for “short-cuts” of various sorts. From what I’ve seen, the tendency to want to shortcut the path to success is, for some reason, highly linked to people with great natural abilities, almost as if they have the feeling that, because of their talents, they really don’t have to learn what other people do. That’s exactly why most of those who try the short-cut route fail… because the shortcutters don’t learn enough to handle the situations in which they find themselves as a result of their initial – and often short-lived – success in obtaining what they sought.

Yes, every once in a great while a short-cut succeeds, or someone reaches great heights in their field on pure ability, and little else – and manages to hold on, but the odds are a hundred to one against either.

Talent, ability, intellectual capability… these are absolutely necessary components of success, but in today’s highly competitive society, where almost half the work force in the United States possesses a college degree, and close to fifteen percent has a graduate degree, and in a world economy, those are far from enough to assure success in any field, let alone outstanding achievement.

As I’ve mentioned before, dependability is a vital necessity, as is a modicum of congeniality, or at least moderate sociability… and, of course, the understanding that, no matter what the field, there is always a certain amount of just plain hard work involved, often nit-picking drudgery. I started out as a low-level economist, long before computers provided neat and nifty analyses of numbers and statistical patterns. I had to calculate the statistics from raw data, and I learned a great deal about statistics and numbers. From what I’ve seen over the years, as computers can do more and more, most “analysts” seem to know less and less what the numbers and computer-generated statistics actually mean… and what they represent.

I’ve watched with amusement as politicians, executives, writers, and business people delegate more and more of that “drudgery” to computers, subordinates, or consultants, and then discover that somehow their position, success, power, are slowly slipping away.

While some delegation is necessary, especially the higher one gets in an organization, every delegation results in a greater removal from the world, and that reduces one’s understanding of that world.

There are no good short-cuts, only short-run expedient short-cuts with longer-term and higher costs.

The “New” Economics as Magic

Right now, I’m getting the very strong feeling that the U.S. economic system is running on what amounts to faith in magic. Every statistic I look at seems to be unsustainable… and most of those indicators have been at what traditionally seem to have been unsustainable levels for several years, whether it’s the various stock market indices, the price/earnings ratios of the vast majority of American companies, the ratio of various capital reserves to the debt levels they support, the plummeting velocity of money, the amount of government securities purchased by the Federal Reserve [although the official end of quantitative easing is as much a suggestion that continuing the QE program was unsustainable as it was that the economy has “recovered” enough that QE is no longer necessary]. The fact that the federal funds interest rate remains essentially at zero has meant that various bank deposits pay next to nothing in interest, which is likely the primary reason why stocks are priced at levels that would seem unrealistically high in almost any other situation.

What many people overlook is that U.S. financial policies combined with the high price of crude oil several years ago and the lack of decent returns on investment to make available billions of dollars for investment in new oil extraction technology, i.e., the combination of fracking and horizontal drilling, which in turn resulted in a temporary oversupply of oil. That led inevitably to the decline in the price of crude oil, and an on-going slow-down in the development of new oil wells. Because production levels of fracked wells drop off swiftly, so will world oil supplies, initially at the margin, but in a year or two oil prices may well begin to creep back.

Associated with all these magic numbers is the fact that a significant percentage of new and emerging companies are technically overvalued businesses which often command a premium in the marketplace, but hire comparatively few, if often high-paid, people. Valuing companies primarily on popular appeal, limited product/services, and the need to keep innovating in order to maintain marketplace appeal is another form of “magic.”

But what will support those jobs and valuations if the appeal dims or vanishes?

In the meantime, governments at all levels, and companies in the “infrastructure” business tend to be delaying or minimizing investment in highways, bridges, power plants, water systems, air navigation systems, and the like, all of which result in more jobs and more permanent assets.

But the politicians, especially the Republicans, are all for the “new” economics because it promises something for nothing… like magic.

Football and Writing

I don’t watch much in the way of sports, especially professional sports, but I did watch the Super Bowl this past weekend, and I couldn’t help but come away with an observation…although most writers and probably many readers will likely cringe at the comparison I’m about to make. As writers, we’re in the same general business as professional sports. Our job is to entertain, and winning entertains far more than losing. In football, the score at the end of the game signifies who wins the game, but the box office receipts at the end of the season also determine who wins… as do the salaries and bonuses paid to players and, less substantially usually, to coaches.

In a sense, every player on an NFL team is a winner. They’re the professionals, and so long as they perform, they can keep playing and getting paid. In writing, the same thing is true. So long as a writer performs, he or she can keep keeping published and paid. And performing means not only writing books, but also writing them in a way that they sell enough that the publisher makes money – just as players have to perform well enough so that the team makes money.

Just as in football, in publishing there are mega-stars, and there are rookies, and journeyman authors. Every year, there’s a new group of writing stars, acclaimed by the writing pundits, and every year some of them sell enough books, and every year some don’t. And just as some football players seem to have all the talents and all the moves, but never quite make it in the big time, the same thing is true in writing fiction. And then there are the authors who never initially impress the literary pundits, just as there are players who never initially impress the football pundits, but who win, by selling hundreds of thousands or millions of books. But in this regard, football and writing differ. A writer can be an excellent writer and sell millions of books and never impress the literary pundits, whereas a football pundit who tries to sell his column by trashing players who perform outstandingly for a long time is likely to run into a substantial backlash. That doesn’t happen to literary pundits.

Another similarity between writing and professional football is that to be successful, a writer has to execute well and avoid mistakes, especially major mistakes, particularly at the end. If a writer blows the ending of a book, just as the Seahawks blew the ending of the Super Bowl, that book isn’t going anywhere… and if a writer does it too often, neither is the writer – just like a quarterback who throws interceptions at a critical time.

All the hype about style goes out the window if either a writer or a football player can’t execute and finish. Of course, style definitely helps, and if those in either profession can execute well, minimize mistakes, and finish on top in terms of their personal performance, that’s what makes them a professional.

And that’s an aspect of writing that’s all too often overlooked.