Archive for July, 2017

Entertainment Escapism – F&SF

While I’m anything but a television or cinema or gaming addict, I can’t help but notice a growing trend in what I’d classify as the field of “video entertainment” – the enormous growth of fantasy and science fiction video-type entertainment.

While Star Wars was released in 1977, with the next two movies in 1980 and 1983, sixteen years passed until The Phantom Menace premiered in 1999. A similar pattern occurred with Star Trek. The original series began in 1966 and ran for three years. It was ten years before the movie, and almost 20 years before The Next Generation appeared as a series.

Over those years, while there were some other F&SF films, I don’t recall anything close to the deluge of F&SF films, TV shows, and spin-offs of spin-offs that began in the late 1990s, possibly spurred by Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

Fantasy and science fiction have been around for well over a century, but they were primarily available in written form, for the most part, until comparatively recently. And most movies, with the exception of a few, like Portrait of Jennie, and possibly Forbidden Planet, were essentially “B” movies, if that. So what happened?

Some will say that it’s been fueled by the improved technology and the CGI special effects. That certainly enabled the field, but that overlooks the fact that for something to be popular, people have to want to watch it.

One of the main reasons for entertainment is to be diverted from the day-to-day… or, if you’re really desperate, to escape entirely from the “real world” in some way. It’s no coincidence that the years of the Great Depression fueled the rise of feel-good movie musicals and up-beat movies.

A century, or even fifty years ago, people could feel that there were unexplored places in the world, places where “escapist” movies could be set, and there was an innocence, a belief that movie musical magic could happen in “the real world.” For the most part, now most of that innocence is gone, and except for the greatest depths of the ocean, the vast majority of the world has been explored and found not to contain Shangri La or Tarzan’s hidden cities, or islands that contain monsters like King Kong.

So, given all that, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re seeing an enormous rise in fantasy and science fantasy video entertainment today. There aren’t many other places to escape.

The Anger Problem

As I noted earlier, there is growing incivility in the United States, and that includes the rapid resurgence of hate groups. Why are so many people so angry?

One reason often postulated is that the American middle class is being “hollowed out” by rapid changes in technology that drastically reduced the number of well-paid semi-skilled jobs, and by the perception that immigrants who take low-paying jobs keep all wages depressed… and these losses fuel anger.

Next are minorities, women, and others affected by the history and legacy of racial and gender discrimination. They’re tired of endlessly waiting for equality, and with ethnic, racial, and gender discrimination continuing, those feeling that discrimination is continuing are also getting angrier and angrier.

Then there are those people who are angry at social change, at the acceptance of more liberal sexual mores, at the emergence of the LGBT culture, at women demanding equal pay.

In short, a lot of people are angry… and the evidence of just how many lies in the election of Donald Trump and the support for Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t seem to matter to these people that the vast majority of Americans have a higher standard of living than their predecessors did or most people elsewhere on Earth. They feel deprived.

All of them have reasons. Some reasons are good; some are understandable; and some are neither.

Those who lost jobs to off-shoring and automation want those jobs back, or something similar. They’re not getting them back, because times have changed. This isn’t new. It happened in England in the early 1800s, when the automation of textiles and weaving was introduced, and comparatively well-paid weavers were replaced by factories. The “Luddites” revolted, and a number of them were executed or exiled to Australia… and nothing changed. In a sense, both the Luddites and those who lost semi-skilled jobs in the last few decades were angry because they felt entitled to those jobs.

For better or worse, however, a capitalistic culture doesn’t recognize entitlement, whether of factory workers or others. And it’s not just happening to factory workers. Jobs for lawyers are drying up, with 55,000 fewer jobs for attorneys this year than 10 years ago, while the number of attorneys has increased by almost 200,000, and a good part of the decreased demand for lawyers results from improved technology in a number of areas.

Technology is continuing to improve, and that means that other semi-skilled and even some skilled jobs will be replaced by technology, most likely creating more displaced and angry people. While technology does create jobs, so far the number of well-paid jobs created doesn’t match those replaced by technology. Unless trends change drastically, and they don’t seem to be, despite predictions of more skilled and paid-paid jobs, more and more the most available jobs will be those requiring personal lower-level skills, while those paying more will be a smaller and smaller fraction of those available.

And that’s not going to help the anger problems… or American politics.

Missing Prices in Fantasy?

The other day I was trying to work out price equivalences for certain goods and services in a forthcoming Imager Portfolio book when I suddenly – and clearly, very belatedly – realized how seldom prices – for anything – appear in most fantasy novels, or at least, so it seemed to me.

What makes this surprising to me is that every society in Earth’s history, once beyond the Stone Age level, has been governed by some form of market economy, where the necessities of life have a cost and daily items must be paid for. Yet prices and costs, especially exact prices and costs, appear to be missing from many fantasy novels. I’d almost [but not quite] be willing to say that they’re missing from the majority of fantasy novels, especially in those scenes depicting daily life, except for a token mention.

A search of A Game of Thrones came up with only scattered references to coins, occasionally gold, but virtually no actual numbers. For Words of Radiance, the second book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, there were some thirty references to money, but no specifics. Nor could I find specifics for coinage in Tolkien. I tried some urban fantasy, including newer works such as the Suzanne Johnson’s Sentinels of New Orleans and Aliette de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen, but found nothing there. There were one or two specifics per book in Patty Briggs’ Mercy Thompson books, and while Simon Green’s Nightside books do mention money, I could only find one specific – a cheque for fifty thousand pounds. Paul Cornell’s urban police fantasies occasionally mention specifics, but only big numbers, like payoffs of ten thousand pounds, but nothing about daily expenses, not that I could find.

Patrick Rothfuss, on the other hand, uses “talents,” and gives specifics, as does Scott Lynch in his Gentleman Bastards series, but of the books and series I searched, I couldn’t find any other authors besides the three of us who give consistent specifics and prices. Given the number of authors writing fantasy, I’m sure that there are quite a few others, but, even so, if my sampling is any indication, authors who do are definitely in the minority.

Although I’ve read several thousand F&SF books [I lost count years ago], there have been more than 40,000 F&SF books published over the last twenty years alone, so I have no idea how representative my reading is about the use and frequency of specific costs and prices in fantasy books.

What are your experiences… and good and not-so-good examples?

Congressional Selfishness

Just last week, the House of Representatives was dealing with the massive Defense appropriations bill. The Pentagon had proposed an actual common sense measure that would have required Congress to look at military base closures and submit a report on recommended closures by 2021. The Republican majority barred any base closures and voted down an amendment that would have allowed the Pentagon to proceed.

We’re not even talking about closing bases, but about a report to determine which bases might be closed, and a report that wouldn’t even be finished for four years. What such Congressional action signifies isn’t a desire for a strong and effective national defense, or even more support for wounded and disabled veterans, but merely the political requirement for local pork-barrel defense make-work jobs.

There’s one thing I’m very certain about, and that’s if the incredibly conservative Pentagon says it doesn’t need a base… it really doesn’t need that base. And I’ll admit readily that the generals may not always be right. That was one reason why the proposal was for a commission to study the recommended closures. The fact that the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wouldn’t even look at the closure issue is a good indication of how present-day politicians have no desire to even look at anything that might cost them votes, even if it is in the national interest.

In fact, I’m not certain that more than a handful of national politicians give a damn about the national interest. Certainly, for all their rhetoric, none of those recently elected from my state do. I’d go even further. It’s gotten to the point where almost any politician who goes against his or her party line or popular opinion is likely to be viewed as a traitor.

Admittedly, there’s a need for consensus for any group to get anything done, but when challenging that group consensus is treason, we, as a society, have gone from a fractious representative democracy to a nation riven and paralyzed by cliquish group-think, represented by men and women either afraid, unwilling, or unable to follow Burke’s statement to the electors of Bristol that, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

And that’s not only sad, but if it continues, will likely be terminal for the experiment begun by the Founding Fathers.

Story Agendas

The other day I read a reader review of one of my books, a review that summarized the book as “a good story ruined by an agenda.” I had to shake my head at the naiveté/ignorance of the reader.

The plain fact is that all stories have agendas. Those agendas may be conscious or unconscious, or some of both, but all stories reflect their writers in some fashion or another, and thus, reveal either what the writer wants to reveal or reveals what he or she doesn’t want to reveal… or perhaps some of both.

Occasionally, the agenda is direct and simple – just tell a straight-forward story. But that agenda has its own sub-agendas. One thing I’ve learned in life is that everything is more complex than it seems, and some of the greatest lies begin with words like “keep it simple” or “it’s really simple.” An author who tells a direct and simple tale may be entertaining, and that may be the writer’s obvious agenda, but what such an approach also says is that nothing else is really important, despite the fact that, in life, as the old saying goes, “the devil’s in the details.”

Sometimes, stories or novels are incredibly detailed and twisted so much so that most readers will recoil and think, “Nothing in life is this complex.” That’s another agenda or set of agendas, because, while life is complex, those complexities range from fairly simple problems to thornier ones, and very few people’s lives are an ongoing, never-ending maze of incredible complexities.

I’ve seen well-written books where everything seems tied to sex, and others where gender issues and or politics, or both, are clearly part of the writer’s agenda. There are others where there’s little thought, and action and reaction dominate almost every page of the book, suggesting either that the writer is aiming at that market, or that he or she honestly believes that human beings act on impulse and minimal thought… or perhaps both.

I’m not judging authors or agendas. All authors have them, and that range of agendas is exactly why a great number of authors have very different readerships.

I don’t write simple stories, and any reader who thinks I do is missing a great deal. I’m a cynical romantic and idealist who spent too many years in the military, politics, and business to believe that anything is as straight-forward as it seems, even though I’d often like it to be, or that any long-lasting romance is ever simple or without cost.

My overt agenda is to write the best story I can, given the complexities I know and have seen in life, while showing that dreams can be achieved, but only if the cost is far higher than the reader and the characters ever thought possible and that paying that price means learning costly lessons. At least, that’s what I strive for, but I’m also certain that parts of my subconscious slip in other aspects as well. I suspect this is true of other authors as well, at least in the vast majority of books I’ve read.

So when a reader complains about an agenda, what that reader is really complaining about is that the author’s agenda didn’t match the reader’s agenda and expectations.

The Civility Problem

There have been more and more appeals for civility in politics and public discourse, in the media, and almost everywhere… and from what I can see, matters are not getting any better, and in some areas they’re definitely getting worse.

One of the reasons for this is that too many groups and too many people are attempting to legislate personal beliefs into law… and on the legislative front, the battle lines have been drawn. Little or no quarter is being given, and if it continues, we’ll all be defeated.

The United States is a country founded on certain principles, but most people fail to understand that those principles – such as freedom, equality, and equal opportunity – are ideals, and that, in the real world, implementing those ideals is far harder than talking about them, particularly when different groups of people have different ideas about what those ideals mean and how the laws to uphold and protect those freedoms should be written and enforced.

Because those differences exist, for a society to function, compromise is essential, and secular laws are, in effect, a compromise, laying out the ground rules on which the majority of groups agree… and leaving other matters to personal or group determination.

Today, one of the problems is that too many groups believe that their interpretation of the principles of the Founding Fathers should be enacted into law and that anyone who has a different interpretation is not only wrong, but effectively a mortal enemy and that such “enemies” should be forced to comply with the interpretation of whatever group has the power to enact such narrow interpretations.

What is overlooked is that the Founding Fathers did not want a bureaucratic or religious state where only one set of religious beliefs was enshrined in iron-clad laws. They attempted to create a system where basic rights were protected, but one where beliefs were not imposed by law.

Needless to say, the initial attempts were flawed, in allowing slavery and in denying the franchise to slaves and women. These failures alone should suggest the error of claims of the “originalists” that the Constitution was perfect, a lack of perfection that the Founding Fathers themselves realized by allowing Congress the power to make laws and to amend the Constitution – with the approval of the states.

The structure established by the Founders was a statement in itself that changes would be necessary and that compromise would also be necessary. Unhappily, the message about compromise seems to have been forgotten as each ideological group has decided that its principles, and only its principles, should be enacted into law.

Principles should be how each of us guides his or her own life. Laws should be the framework under which we undertake that guidance, not tools to force beliefs onto others – with the sole exception that the law should protect individuals from harm caused by others.

Unfortunately, that necessary exception has created enormous conflict because there are areas, such as abortion, gender, and civil rights, where absolute individual rights conflict, and rather than compromise, one or both sides become intransigent and demand that their view become the law of the land, rather than hewing to the Founding Fathers’ attempts to place the rights of the individual above the state, except where such individual rights harm others.

And even that principle requires compromises… and civility.


As I write this, the largest active forest fire in the United States is burning through the mountains some twenty odd miles to the northeast of Cedar City, having consumed more than 70,000 acres of trees and vegetation. What started the fire was a homeowner who decided to use a weed torch to clear away weeds on his property. The fire swiftly went out of control and reached a stand of trees killed by bark beetles, growing to close to a thousand acres overnight. Currently, close to 1,500 fire fighters are engaged in battling the blaze, estimated to be 75 percent contained. The homeowner is liable for the damage and the cost of fighting the fire, a cost that the state of Utah estimates will exceed twenty million dollars. Fortunately, there have been no deaths and less than twenty homes destroyed… so far.

Just about a week before the Brian Head fire began, here in Cedar City, a local resident tried the same thing on his weeds on farm property inside the city– at a time when winds were gusting from fifteen to twenty miles an hour! Predictably, the fire got out of control. Thankfully, there were no trees nearby and the fire department and BLM firefighters managed to contain the fire in a five acre area, although three old livestock buildings and several horse corrals were destroyed.

In addition to these two examples, there have been three other fires in the area in the past weeks, and the fact that all of Utah is now considered high risk for fires has been in the news for weeks. Yet it’s clear that more than a few individuals haven’t listened or ignored what they heard or read.

At least to me, these fires came about because those who caused them succumbed to some of the oldest human weaknesses, the idea that they were above taking into account the conditions around them… or that such considerations didn’t apply to them.

The problem is that, when people ignore common sense and practical precautions, the rest of us are the ones who get burned, both by property being destroyed and by taxpayer funds being spent to deal with the fires and the aftermath – and that’s not just the case with fires.

An Apology to My Suitcase [As Occasioned by Our Recent Vacation]

My dear suitcase,

I am deeply sorry that we must part, but the debilitating effects of your last flights make it impossible for us to travel together any longer. I understand that you had no control over the TSA inspector, or whoever it was that shredded not only the protective covering of the ends of the inner zippers that provide closure and containment, but ripped the zippers from their anchor points. Nor was it your fault that the handlers amputated the supposedly indestructible rest studs so that you always tipped over when placed on your side.

Nor could you do anything about the tracked behemoth that left black scars on your once shining gray surface and inflicted that last mortal wound to both your pride and your structural integrity. I can remember when we first met in New York, and the saleswoman assured me that you would be the last piece of luggage I would ever need. And for two years, that was indeed true, but your mortal enemies – indifferent baggage handlers and automated conveyor systems – have taken their toll on you.

Yes, you have given me the best years of your life, three long years of enduring scrapes, bruises, continual pressure changes, temperature variations, sitting on baggage carts in rain and snow while baggage handlers ignored your plight, selflessly maintaining as much water-tightness as possible, wielding off slush and snow, stoically enduring the blazing heat of the Saint George airport or the winter chill of the Cedar City airport. You have endured delays and misroutings, gouges, grooves, bruises, and more, far more than you ever bargained for when you first traveled with me, shimmering gray and proud.

You have borne it all without complaint, and I can only hope that your spirit will find peace in some other dimension where faithful luggage is rewarded for selfless service.