Archive for July, 2015

Dehumanization of the “Other”

An article in the latest Scientific American presents the case that the success of homo sapiens in dominating the planet and essentially wiping out the Neandertals and Denisovians, if not other yet undiscovered hominid species, resulted from the ability of humans to cooperate on a larger scale than other hominids.

It appears from the fossil and archeological evidence that we’ve so far discovered that Neandertals never congregated in large groups, and yet they were successful in making weapons and hunting rather large game. They were physically stronger than homo sapiens, and their brain size was comparable, possibly even larger. But it’s pretty clear that over time, they never had a chance once homo sapiens moved into the same territory.

The article also postulates that the human tendency toward cooperation is at least partly genetic. If so, this leads to a very interesting corollary – that prejudice indeed “has to be carefully taught.” And, in fact, human history bears this out in large degree. In every war and conflict that there appears to be a record of, and probably in all those without any records, at least one side has gone to great lengths to dehumanize the other side… and in many cases, both sides have attempted to dehumanize their opponents.

The same is true in terms of discrimination. From the beginning of slavery in the United States, blacks/Afro-Americans were considered inferior. Even the vaunted Constitution only counted each of them as three-fifths of a person. The same pattern exists with regard to gender discrimination, particularly of women, with pervasive and long-standing suggestions that women were inferior because they were “emotional” or “weak” or whatever else would make them “lesser” than men.

Yet experience, science, and history all refute such allegations. There have been great “black” civilizations and cultures and some pretty abysmal “white” ones. There has been no shortage of black “geniuses” or white idiots, or vice versa. And whenever women have been given equal opportunity and resources, they’ve done just as well as men in terms of intelligence and achievement… and in innumerable instances far better than the “best” men in almost any given field.

Given all this, it seems apparent that, because humans actually have a tendency to cooperate, dehumanization has become a cultural tool for overriding the cooperative trait and for gaining personal power. We don’t necessarily think of it that way, but even I find myself doing it, for instance, by calling people “idiots” when they do something stupid or thoughtless. Admittedly, individuals can be idiots, as we all know, but idiocy is generally individual, not cultural, and there’s a very fine line between accurately assessing someone’s lack of ability on an individual basis and applying that “lack” to an entire group in order to dehumanize them, yet dehumanization persists,and it’s usually used in pursuit or maintenance of power.

Me@ [Name].com/net/org

Some long months ago I contacted an organization about scheduling something. I waited, and waited, and heard no response. I tried again, and again. No response. I nosed around and found the personal email of the head scheduler, and inquired again. I got a curt response saying that I couldn’t be accommodated because I’d made my request too late, despite the fact that I’d made mine months before others who had been accommodated,although the scheduling was supposedly on a first come, first accommodated basis. When I pointed this out, the response was equally curt, to the effect that too many people had requested to be scheduled. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The personal email address was: Me@[person’s name].net.

I wondered about this. I have friends with email addresses such as [this is fictional, I hope] or, but then I started looking around, and discovered more than a few email addresses where the primary initial name was Me@ I think most of us use some identifier in our email address so that people can easily remember or find it, and I don’t think that’s particularly egotistical. Perhaps I’m just horribly outdated or old-fashioned, but using the word “me” as the initial identifier in the email address seems incredibly self-centered.

Is this another facet of the “Me” Generation? A blatant – or thoughtless – declaration to the world that “I’m the only important person at this address.”? A convenient quick decision with little consideration for what others just might think? A disregard for convention? Another generational thumbing of the nose at manners or what they believe to be phony and false modesty? Or something else entirely?

I have no idea, but, given the responses of the person whose email address spurred these thoughts, that person was anything but modest or helpful, and I have to wonder what percentage of the people who have email addresses at are that self-centered and dismissive.

“He/She Was Such a Good-Hearted Person”

Last week, a former fire fighter from a neighboring town was shot dead by a local police officer. The officer was responding to a 911 call that reported a man severely beating a child. When the officer approached, the man shouted something and raised a gun, aiming it directly at the officer. The officer fired twice.The man died on the way to the hospital.

The news story in the local paper had a headline that read, “Victim Had the Greatest Heart” or words to that effect, and went on to quote friends and relatives about how the victim was such a good person and how it was all such a tragic mistake. What was never mentioned was that the victim was indeed a very good person – when he was sober. What was not mentioned was that the dead man had a history of violent actions and arrests when he was intoxicated, and there was absolutely no doubt that the dead man had been carrying a loaded weapon.

Several of the other incidents that made headlines this past year featured similar cases, such as a young man who robbed a convenience store and attacked a policeman, and was shot by the officer, but whose family insisted he was a good-hearted young man. Or the young woman who tried to run down police officers on foot with her car. She had been previously arrested for various problems, including another high speed chase, but her family insisted she was a good girl. Or the St. Paul man who tried to run down two police officers with his SUV. Family said he was good hearted, despite the fact that he had a court-ordered restraining order because of violent actions. Or the Denver man with a felony record who was driving a stolen car and was shot when he tried to run down two police officers, also described by family as “good-hearted.”

I’m sorry. Good hearted people don’t beat up others. They don’t steal goods, money, or cars. They don’t try to run down police or shoot at them. And, if one of these so-called “good-hearted” individuals gets shot by police officers who are threatened with weapons or vehicular force, the officers shouldn’t be vilified. Yes, it’s always regrettable when a police officer has to use a weapon, especially when the results can be lethal… but in a nation with 300 million firearms, like it or not, there are going to be cases where people who break the laws and attack police in one way or another are going to be shot.

Just don’t tell the world that people who’ve perpetrated violence, robbery, and assault are good-hearted. That’s not helping anyone, especially those unfortunate unarmed individuals with no criminal record and no acts of violence who are truly good-hearted and still get shot, by either police or criminals.

Overriding Plot Lines?

The other day I came across an observation about one of my Recluce books noting that the Saga of Recluce, unlike many popular fantasy series, does not have an “overriding plot line.” While I agree with the observation, what struck me as I read it was why so many fantasy series do in fact have such an overriding plot line. The most obvious reason for “an overriding plot line” is that such series tend to sell more books, but I find such plot lines that span years and even generations to be somewhat artificial.

Perhaps it’s my background in history and experience in politics, but when it’s rare for even a capable and distinguished family to maintain power and influence for more than a few generations, when most rulers are fortunate to last a decade, trans-generational consistency and aims seem rather unlikely, except in the most general way. Even in ancient Egypt, which boasted the longest continuity of any earthly ruling structure and culture, there were dynastic changes, outside invasions and foreign rulers.

My own years in politics taught me that accomplishing even a few goals took an incredible amount of effort, coordination, and resources… and that there are almost always those with power who, for various reasons, oppose what seem to be the most reasonable goals. As for secrets, forget it. Over any length of time, the old adage that three people can keep a secret only if two are dead pretty much holds. It’s also true that a good leader can maneuver matters so that acts and events that supposedly serve one purpose serve another as well – provided he keeps the details in his head and to himself. But that effectively limits the scope of his actions in double-dealing.

Admittedly, there are scores of books about secret societies that have manipulated governments for centuries, and there are some institutions, such as the Catholic Papacy, whose influence has indeed last centuries, but the evidence of long-term success of such societies is virtually non-existent, and it appears that few popes have followed very closely the aims of their predecessors in anything but attempting to keep the Catholic Church strong.

Human beings seem incapable of or unwilling to maintain eternal and unchanging governments, and the stability of human governments seems almost inversely related to the level of technology, in that the higher the level of technology the faster governments change or rise and fall.

For better or worse, I’ve tried to stick fairly closely to that model in what I write. In the Saga of Recluce, over the roughly two thousand years about which I’ve written, empires have risen and fallen. Cities have been destroyed, some never to rise again. The balance of power between nations and continents shifts. There’s no such thing as an “eternal empire,” even though some lands have styled themselves as such.

In the Corean Chronicles, the almost magic feudalism of the Alectors only holds Corus together until the Cadmians and Soarers gain enough power to destroy the basis of that power, while in the Imager Portfolio, governments are continually in flux in one way or another.

So it’s not surprising that I have no “overriding plot line,” except perhaps for the principle that extremism in any form inevitably leads to disaster.


Last week we had a brief and very local gully washer, the kind of storm that happens comparatively infrequently here in the high desert, where a given area gets an inch or two of rain in less than an hour, and it remains hot and dry everywhere except in a few square miles. During the storm, a white Ford sedan hydroplaned on the interstate and crashed into a guard rail. A Utah state highway patrolman investigated to see if anyone was hurt. Just as he approached the vehicle a late model BMW hydroplaned into the Ford which was pushed over the trooper. The trooper had to have heavy equipment and “jaws-of-life” to extricate him from the wreckage. He was life-flighted out and spent several days in intensive care. He remains, at the time I write, in serious condition, but is expected to recover, but not for months, possibly a year. Those in the vehicles suffered far less serious injuries.

The speed limit on that section of the interstate is 80 mph. What any licensed driver should know is that speed limits are set as the maximum under good conditions, not in a driving rain. Not only that, but exactly why was the driver of the BMW still driving too fast for road conditions, especially considering that it was pouring rain and a highway patrol vehicle had flashing lights on and there were stopped cars at the side of the road? And if the driver was going too fast to see all that in time… what else does that say?

That at least two drivers were idiots, and almost killed a highway patrolman, and possibly crippled him for life… because they were either too self-centered, too thoughtless, or too stupid to pay attention to the road conditions. And they not only injured him, but risked their own lives as well.

This isn’t a sometime occurrence. Virtually every time there is a rainstorm, or a snowstorm, there are accidents, often fatal ones, on I-15, because people are driving too fast for the road conditions. If these individuals only injured or killed themselves, that might be one thing, but even when no one else is injured, their deaths have impacts on spouses, children, parents, or… highway patrol officers.

Sometimes, accidents do happen, despite the driver’s best efforts, but most times, they wouldn’t happen if we didn’t do something stupid. But then, isn’t every day a challenge not to do something stupid?

“You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught…”

Last Friday night, my wife and I saw the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of South Pacific. [For those of you not familiar with the festival, in the summer season they do three Shakespeare plays – this summer, Henry IV, Part 2, King Lear and The Taming of the Shrew — and two non-Shakespeare plays, South Pacific and Amadeus.]

When Lieutenant Cable finished singing “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught,” I realized, again, what a powerful song it is, especially considering that it was an anti-prejudice, anti-racist song composed in 1949 by two white males, and a song that initially stirred more than a little controversy in the then-largely white theatre community because it points out graphically the prejudice is taught, not inherited, and that whites were the ones doing that teaching. I don’t think that it was incidental that Cable is portrayed as a Princeton graduate, a university that was then a bastion of upper-class white privilege.

But my second realization was the fact that in more than fifty years of hearing popular songs, I’ve only heard it performed once outside the context of South Pacific, unlike songs from many other musicals, such as “Send in the Clowns,” which has been performed by something like fifty different artists. When I tried to search for singers who had recorded it solo, I could only come up with two, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Barbra Streisand. There certainly may have been others, but I doubt that there are many.

At the same time, there are many written references to the song, but a written statement doesn’t have the same impact as a song, as witness the impact of many black and protest songs, ranging from “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (associated with the Underground Railway), “We Shall Overcome,” “If I Had a Bell,” “This Land is My Land,” etc.

The “problem” with “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” is that it’s not a triumphant song, but a remonstrative one, and one that strikes directly at the failings of the “white culture” of the pre-civil rights time period… and, unhappily, still is relevant to far too many white Americans….which is why I suspect you’ll seldom hear it outside of South Pacific.

Cyber Cheap

On Wednesday, various computer glitches resulted in the cancellation of more than 800 flights by United Airlines, as well as delays of hundreds of other flights, the closing of the New York Stock Exchange for roughly four hours, and similar problems at the Wall Street Journal. While three such occurrences in one day appears to be unprecedented, it should hardly come as any great surprise.

Our technological world runs on computers, and almost every business of any size is hampered, if not brought to a halt, by anything that crashes its computer system and online/internet communications. Equally to the point, all too many businesses do not to have back-up plans/systems because: (a) they can’t or don’t want to spend the money; (b) back-ups aren’t technically feasible, usually because alternative access to the internet isn’t available; or (c) no one even considered the necessity.

Most of these problems get back to money. As I noted before, several years ago, one backhoe in the wrong place knocked out fiber-optic internet access for much of Southern Utah for over a day. Did anyone even think about a parallel line? Hardly.

Then add to this the continual changes and upgrades to computer systems. Some companies can barely keep up with upgrading one system, and if the back-up systems aren’t upgraded and maintained as well, then they’ll soon be useless as well.

And what about all that data? Is it backed-up and stored elsewhere? Just how reliable and accessible will it be if internet connections are disrupted? Yet, if it’s onsite, that’s a different vulnerability. What tends to be either overlooked or minimized is that the world wide web not only maximizes opportunities, but also maximizes vulnerabilities, and minimizing those vulnerabilities takes time, resources, and money… and those measures don’t always work, as Wednesday’s events just proved.

Good computer systems can multiply advantages, but those systems are anything but as cost-saving as too many individuals and businesses seem to think. Cyber cheap is courting disaster…but I’d wager that lesson will be lost on too many CIOs and corporate managements.

Books and Numbers

A great many people have pointed out just how much mere numbers miss the mark in education, politics, and business, but do they miss the mark in the world of books and publishing as well? I suspect, at least in some ways, that they do.

Is a book that sells a million copies necessarily a “good” book? That depends on what one means by good. Such a book is obviously good at entertaining readers if it sells that many copies, but it may not be, and probably isn’t, in terms of other “literary” qualities, in that the grammar and structure may be weak, and often there are great improbabilities in the background and economic/political structures of such books. But none of that matters all that much to the readers, especially if the book is fast-paced with an interesting plot, or if it has other qualities, such as sexual intrigue, overwhelming romance, or characters that suck the reader in.

By the same token, just because a book doesn’t sell well doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It might not sell well because it’s been published by a small publisher, or because it’s a book about a character or situation that doesn’t have great appeal. It could even be a book by a major publisher and author with good reviews and those readers who liked it thought a great deal of it… but it just didn’t appeal to a larger audience. Then, it could just be a really bad book. There are some published. But the mere sales numbers say nothing, really, about why it didn’t sell more copies.

Even in the case of best-selling books, the numbers can be deceiving. A novel that sells 50,000 hardcover copies in a week will likely be near the top of the bestseller charts and possibly at the very top, even if total sales over its lifetime are only 150,000 copies in all formats, while a book that sells 30,000 copies a year for 25 years, but never a huge amount at any one time, will never appear on any bestseller list, yet will sell five times as many copies as the short-term wonder.

Publishers plan their publication schedules in hopes of maximizing sales. That’s why any given publisher’s top five authors seldom have new releases in the same month, and possibly not even in the same publishing season. Many consumers only have limited dollars for purchases, and the same is true of the book retailers, whether they’re Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or the local independent. So what’s available, and when, to the reader is in fact based on the numbers, and the interplay between what different publishers offer may result in higher or lower sales for the author, and the publisher. And first-time or midlist authors who release a book in the same genre or subgenre at the same as a mega-selling author may see their sales suffer somewhat, depending on how strong their reader base is, which, again, is not necessarily a reflection on how good the book is, but the numbers may make it harder to publish another book or may result in a comparatively lower advance on the next book.

There are some numbers whose impact I’ve never figured out, like the time when I was told one of my books was the best-seller of the month for the largest book wholesaler in the country. I’m guessing that meant that B&N and the brick and mortar retailers had under-ordered copies and the customer orders required getting immediate copies from the local distribution warehouse of the wholesaler… but that’s just a guess. And then there was the time when an ebook version of one of my books was in the top 100 in the Apple store serving Finland – just for a fraction of one day. That had to be a statistical fluke… I think.

So… take what all those numbers and what they mean with more than a grain of salt. The only semi-certain meaning is that more sales usually mean more money for the publisher, but not always all that much more for the author, at least if it’s a media tie-in novel.

Series Mania

Until comparatively recently, in the speculative fiction field, fantasy was the home of the endless, or seemingly endless series, while science fiction sported stand-alone titles or short series. From what I can see, now there’s little difference between fantasy and science fiction in the sense that more and more of new S.F. titles being published are those in a series… long series after long series.

What’s behind this shift? My gut reaction, unsupported by any statistical or other empirical evidence, is that it’s the result of the confluence of marketing gurus and the ever-decreasing attention span of the vast majority of readers, who tend to forget authors more quickly if they don’t see their books on shelves or the internet equivalents. It’s also easier to market a series by an author than individual stand-alone and unrelated novels, and a series also provides marketing continuity.

I’ve already noticed that the sales of my books drop off far more rapidly after the book is released than was the case a decade ago. Part of that is, of course, because more sales come from Amazon and other online sources than ever before, and many of those sales are pre-release, something that was effectively impossible before internet marketing, so that a greater percentage of sales occur either before a book’s release or fairly immediately after release. Another factor is the decline of mass market paperback sales, which often persisted in significant numbers for months, if not years. Now those continuing sales tend to exist only for on-going series, especially those with media tie-ins.

With comparatively fewer and fewer titles being released in mass market paperback, and those being printed in smaller numbers for most authors, authors of single books lose market presence, because readers don’t see their books for as long on shelves or on new release lists. The answer? Write books in a series. I’ve also heard from at least a few up-and-coming writers that editors and agents want a commitment to a series.

Personally, I’m finding it harder and harder to discover stand-alone SF books, and I can’t believe I’m alone. At the same time, it’s also very clear that stand-alones generally generate far less revenue than volumes in a series, which is why I write fewer of them. But I haven’t given up yet. Whether I do, in the end, though, is up to the readers, and whether you buy the stand-alones, such as Solar Express, which will be coming out in November.