Archive for August, 2018

The Poppy War

R. F. Kuang’s recently released novel – The Poppy War – has received a great deal of publicity and praise. It’s a remarkable book. It’s also an incredibly brutal book set in an analogue to the Song Dynasty that incorporates the issues of the long-standing conflicts of the Sino-Japanese wars, including a fictionalized, but not glossed, rendition of the Rape of Nanking; the legacy of the Opium Wars; the incredibly marginalized status of women; the roles of power and religion in society; the failure, unwillingness, or inability of the elites to govern fairly; and the inability of the people to hold those elites accountable.

While most reviews have centered on the use of a Chinese-centered cultural and political background, and a very-well researched and presented one at that, and the protagonist, who is an orphaned girl from the lowest possible status in the most despised backwater who is driven to succeed at any cost in her efforts to right all manner of past wrongs while justifying her very existence and her right to be heard and respected, what struck me most about the book was how Kuang used the accuracy of Chinese history to present a fantasy story and a tableau that represents current global challenges in a stark and bleak way, that in a strange fashion, is far more dismaying than George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I say “strange” because, while Kuang doesn’t pull any punches in depicting the total inhumanity of both sides, the ineptitude of those in power, and, also, the unwillingness or inability of the “masses” to rein in their ruling classes, neither does she glorify or exaggerate. It all just is.

Whether she meant it or not, in the ending of the first book, she’s also posited a damning view of deities and religion, and of their believers and followers, but that’s an open question, because the remaining two volumes of the trilogy have yet to be published.

The Poppy War is not a book for the faint of heart, or for young readers, and it’s definitely not a “fun” read. And if American chauvinists read it, they’ll likely either see it as just an improbable Chinese fantasy or something that “can’t happen here.” Unfortunately, as American and world politics have changed, or perhaps reverted to the worst in history, it strongly appears that they’re wrong on both counts.

But, most likely, those who understand history will wince slightly, then nod, and those who don’t will think that these kinds of events only happen in other lands. It’s still a remarkable book.

Lead-Time and Instant Expectations

Quite a number of writers have a successful first book, possibly even a second… and then fade into obscurity. There are several reasons for this. The first is obvious. The fact is that later books often just don’t sell as well, either because they aren’t written as well or because they just don’t hold the readers. From what I’ve observed, publishers will publish books that even editors aren’t that fond of, or decent books where the author is a real pain in the ass – if they sell. They’ll also continue to publish books that get great reviews and that editors like, even if the sales are disappointing, but just not disastrous. But if an author is obnoxious and the books don’t sell that well, usually that author’s career with an established publisher is rather short.

But there’s another reason why some authors fade after a few books. Some authors never truly understand the lead-time problem. These authors, from what I’ve observed, share similar circumstances. They wrote a book, often working on it for some considerable time. Then it sells, and they get the advance, usually in halves [on signature and on publication] or thirds [on signature, on acceptance of the final manuscript, and on publication]. What many fail to recognize is that this may be the only money they get, because, if the sales aren’t good, the royalties won’t exceed the advance, and the advance is just that, a non-returnable advance against royalties.

This means that a writer had better start working on the next book immediately after finishing the first one – or resign himself or herself to staying at the day job forever. Publishers really want the next book in hand or close to being in hand by the time the first book is published, usually about eighteen months after it’s accepted by the publisher. Yes, a few authors do flout that convention and expectation and get away with it – but only because their first book continues to sell, and that only happens, so far as I can see, in less than once in a hundred times.

Part of this inability to recognize this situation, I submit, is that computers and the internet have fostered the idea that everything can be accomplished faster. And that’s true in part for writers. Having a computer file available as the basis for re-writes and revisions makes that part faster, but it doesn’t speed up writing the first draft that much from writing on an electric typewriter. Since I wrote my first books on electric typewriters, and likely remain among the comparative handful of writers still writing who did, I can assure you that that the computer makes revisions and re-writes much faster and easier – but that the computer only speeds slightly that first draft.

So… if you’re fortunate enough to sell that first book, do not pause; do not relax and celebrate for more than a few days before you get back to writing. You don’t want the editors or your few fans [and most beginning writers only have a few fans] to forget about you.

John S. McCain, III

I never knew John McCain personally, although we certainly could have met. We were both Naval aviators, but I got my wings only months before he was shot down over Hanoi, and I later worked as a Congressional staffer, including duties involving the House Armed Services Committee, while he was the Navy liaison to the Senate. But in the Navy he was a jet pilot, and I was a helo driver, and we were stationed in different places, just as our coinciding times in Washington, D.C., involved different spheres and duties.

For all that, John McCain embodied many of the characteristics I’ve done my best to depict in my heroic protagonists. He made mistakes, often large ones, but he learned from them and persevered. Regardless of mistakes, in his Naval career and his personal and political life, he put his beliefs in the kind of country the United States can be and should be at the forefront and continued to persevere in working toward improving it. Sometimes, I had doubts about the approaches he took, but no one should ever have doubted his desire to better the country or his dogged determination against obstacles that would have destroyed a less motivated and determined man.

Among Republicans, I see no political figure even close to filling his shoes, and I have doubts that there ever will be one in the next decade. Ill as he was, even last month, he stood up to Trump while most Republicans either fawned, equivocated, or changed the subject.

Did I always agree with him? No. Was he perfect? Far from it. But I’ll take one John McCain over all the burnished politicians with seemingly few flaws, no real core, and only the ability to get re-elected by essentially standing for nothing, mouthing whatever will get them votes, and ignoring the challenges that face our nation.

New Tech and One-Size-Fits-All

In past blogs, I’ve talked about the problems created by the willy-nilly unaccepting push to adopt new technology and new software simply because it’s “new,” and new must be better. But there’s a situation where “early adoption” is not only counter-productive, but the negative effects can be far-reaching.

Needless to say, as is often the case, I heard about this instance from my wife the music professor. Her institution has decided that, following the example of several private and very well-endowed universities, that the music department should require all incoming music students to purchase customized IPads that can display what used to be called sheet music. The rationale behind this is that students won’t have to carry around reams of music; all of it will be displayed on their IPads.

At a state institution such as the one where my wife teaches, the department budget won’t cover the estimated $800-$1,000 for each of the special IPads, and most of the students are drawn from rural and small town or working class backgrounds with large families, for which such an outlay immediately on entering college will be quite a burden, especially if the student drops the major. This cost, of course, was ignored in the enthusiasm of “new technology” and the thought that the department could be a “pioneer.”

And, yes, this approach could be a boon of sorts to students in orchestras and bands and other large ensembles, all of whom have a comparatively limited number of works performed in a year, and the instrumental ensemble directors were all for it, effectively insisting that one approach fits everyone. Unfortunately, vocal students face a different situation… because every vocal student has a largely different repertoire from every other one, and must learn more new music every semester, especially if they’re classical performers. Music departments, and especially universities with schools of music, may be dealing with at least 30-50 students, and often hundreds of voice students. That requires music for thousands of individual pieces. While the idea of consolidating all that music in electronic format sounds wonderful, the reality of the situation is far different. My wife the professor, who has a wide range of contacts, got in touch with several music publishers, and all of them made, in various ways, the observation that, at present, only about twenty percent of the vocal music they controlled and had as sheet music was available in electronic form, and that it would be between five to ten years before they’d be able to catch up, given the volume of such music. And that’s probably an optimistic projection.

Now… that doesn’t mean that the students couldn’t scan the sheet music and upload it, but… then there’s the problem of copyright, and for the music to be “legal,” the student needs to keep available the hard copy. This is also a problem for those students entered in various competitions, because they have to have produce “original music” for every piece that they sing, and in some competitions, two copies, one for the singer [even though the singer has to sing from memory, because the singer is supposed to have bought the music, rather than copied it and stiffed the composer] and the other for the accompanist.

Since the most accomplished students, those aiming at a career as either a performer or a teacher, need to prove their ability through competitions, and since those organizations sponsoring the competitions have not yet made provisions for certifying “original electronic” copies, the IPad requirement becomes superfluous and expensive at the present time, at least for vocal students.

In addition, because voice students are largely broke, the IPad requirement is going to encourage even more copying of music, and more copying is going to reduce even more the payment living composers receive, while encouraging singers to sing older works no longer in copyright… and thus further reducing income to living composers.

Then, too, there’s the question of what happens when the accompanist’s IPad crashes during a performance or recital. Sheet music doesn’t crash.

I’m not against change, and neither is my wife, but history shows [even though most people don’t learn from it] that early adoption of new technology can be far more expensive, to everyone, than waiting a bit until things sort themselves out.

But then, you can’t claim to be the great pioneer, while putting the costs off on everyone else.

Flight Talk

Over the years, I’ve embarked on more than a few airline flights, the vast majority of them for business of one sort or another, and it’s interesting to consider what’s changed… and how.

The most obvious change, as a result of nine-eleven, is that flying now takes considerably longer than it once did. That’s the result of several factors. First, because fuel economy is a priority, the majority of jet airliners now cruise at speeds slightly slower than they did a generation ago. Second, security procedures add significantly to travel times for the individual traveler. Third, because planes are always full, have less spacious seating, and because most airlines charge extra for checked baggage, it takes longer to board and disembark [unless you’re in first/business class] because there’s never enough space for all the carry-on bags. Fourth, because of the volume of air traffic and the hub-and-spoke airline model, there’s a lower percentage of direct flights, except on high-volume routes, and more connecting flights.

At the same time, in real dollar terms, flying is, overall terms, somewhat less expensive than a generation ago, and the noise level is slightly lower.

I’ve also noted a general improvement in the availability and quality of food establishments at the larger airports, possibly because more people are stuck there longer.

But one of the biggest changes that I’ve noticed involves travelers themselves. Once upon a time, people used to talk to other people on flights. Today, it seems to me that the majority of travelers don their earphones or ear-buds and retreat into one form or another of electronic unreality.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of people in the adjoining seat, or while waiting to board, some in fascinating professions or with intriguing backgrounds, such as the electrician whose specialty was working on powered high-voltage lines and equipment, various dead-heading pilots, the B-budget movie actress, the Iranian-born doctor who came to the U.S. as a child, the Charolais cattle breeder and rancher, and the former judge who ended up in a second career involving the film industry and politics.

And I wouldn’t have heard their stories or learned some interesting facts if I’d been wrapped up in electronics.

Positive or Negative?

As most of readers of my website know, I try very hard not to make negative comments about books that I’ve read. If I don’t like a book, or don’t find it good, or even if I don’t find it as good as the rave reviews given by others… I just don’t mention it. I also have to say that just because I haven’t mentioned a book doesn’t mean it’s not good. It also might mean that I haven’t read it, because my reading time is limited.

That said, I’m getting very tired of reviewers, particularly online reviewers, who feel that they have a “duty” to warn people off of the books that don’t meet their criteria. I don’t have a problem with those reviewers, few as they are, who will say that a particular book is well-written, but not their cup of tea, so to speak, but there’s enough negativism in the world today, and it’s hard enough to find really good books, that it seems like a waste of time to point out books one doesn’t like, especially since a great number of such negative reviews, I’ve noticed, often seem to reflect a particular reviewer’s dislike of a specific author, usually an author that other readers and reviewers like and read.

Now… one could say, and someone will at least likely think it, that I’m being hypocritical because I can be very negative about politicians, but there’s a huge difference between authors and politicians. We all have to live under the laws promulgated by elected officials, or we might have to live under rules they propose. No one has to live under the policies or laws I hypothecate in a novel, and no one has to buy any book I, or any other author, may write.

Also, given the ever-increasing number of books being published, it’s far more helpful — at least it seems that way to me – to see recommendations about what to read as opposed to what not to read. Then again, maybe that’s just my mindset, but when I read a negative review about a book, my initial reaction is to wonder what’s wrong with the reviewer, not the book, possibly because I want to like and enjoy every book I pick up.

Again, maybe I’m greatly mistaken, but it seems to me that most people are more interested in knowing what’s good and enjoyable than what’s not.

Reaping What You Sow

A significant segment of U.S. media is upset, and rightfully so, that President Trump has called members of the media “the enemy of the people.” I’m anything but happy about this turn of events, but I have a question or two for all of these righteous media pundits who are now so outraged that, all of a sudden, they’re the main target for once:

What the hell did you expect after some three plus decades of fomenting conflict through news stories designed to outrage some group or another in order to keep your ratings up?

What did you expect when you turned news stories into profit centers based on entertainment value instead of comparatively moderate and less profitable news outlets?

Now that you’ve successfully polarized the American public and effectively made possible the election of, first, a movie star as president, and now a reality T.V. star, did you ever consider the fact that some of all that anger and rage you’ve stirred up just might come back to bite you?

Do any of you intend to take any responsibility for the results of your years of media bread and circuses, or are you just going to stand there and wring your hands, while continuing to maximize the bottom line?

Or do you intend to blame it all on others, on the popular appetite for sensation, or the need to make a buck to keep your executive bonuses, or on popular boredom with factual and balanced news?

Or will you try to take refuge behind the First Amendment, while ignoring the fact that the skillful presentation of accurate facts in an inaccurate context amounts to distortion and lying?

My grandmother was a teacher, and one of her pupils of whom she was inordinately proud was Walter Cronkite, as were many Americans. Are you pleased with where news has gone since Uncle Walter, Tom Brokaw, and Howard K. Smith?

Or did all of you think you could avoid reaping what you’ve sowed?

“Enemy of the People”

Now that Trump has called at least some members of the media “the enemy of the people,” it’s apparently time for another refresher course in history, especially since far too many Americans have a tendency to ignore history. That tendency, unhappily, is not new either. The great Henry Ford has been quoted as saying, “History is bunk.”

History may not repeat itself exactly. It may not, at times, even rhyme, as Mark Twain put it, but history does offer lessons, and one of those lessons is that any attempt to muzzle the press, or the media, is the mark of an incipient tyrant. Such efforts are not new even in the history of the United States. When John Adams was president, the Alien and Sedition Acts were employed to punish writers and presses that criticized the Adams Administration. One Congressman wrote and published an article decrying the “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” of the administration, and was punished by a hefty fine and four months in jail. And he was far from the only one prosecuted for criticizing the government.

In the end, of course, Adams’s use of the acts was one of the factors that led to his defeat in the next election by Thomas Jefferson and the repeal of most of the acts.

Regardless of how aggressive or even scurrilous the media attacks on the President may be, history shows that political leaders who try to curb the media critical of them all too often do so as the first step toward aggrandizing themselves or even as the first step toward using government to destroy the ability of their opponents to speak so that such political leaders can obtain greater and continuing power.

Trump has every right to complain about how the press treats him, whether such treatment is accurate and fair or whether it is not. But under the First Amendment, even the President does not have the right to censor his critics, nor should he be equating criticism against him to being an enemy of the people.

Besides which, there is the very real question of “the enemy of which people?”

Trump is essentially claiming that anyone who doesn’t agree with him is an enemy of the people. Not only is that a highly polarizing view, but those of us who don’t agree with many, if not most, of his policies, are not enemies. We’re citizens as well, and citizenship brings with it the right to criticize.

Let Trump defend his policies on their merits, but not by personal attacks on those who oppose him. That’s just using the power of the presidency to bully others, and it also directs attention away from the policies themselves.

But, that too, is a well-known historical tactic of dictators and demagogues, a tactic forgotten or ignored, because too many people think history doesn’t teach anything… or don’t believe it, which may be why 43% of all Republicans believe that the President should have the authority to shut down “misbehaving” media outlets.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but when nearly half of a major political party believes in censorship by the President, to me, that’s frightening.

Science in S.F.

For some time, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that some readers who proclaim their love of science fiction don’t really love science or SF that actually relies on science. What they love are the gadgets, the faster-than-light travel, the blasters or lasers, the AIs that think like people and not like artificial intelligences. And many of these people seem to get upset if science gets more than a passing mention.

Now… I know. I’m the one who has, for years, railed about writers who don’t write about people, or whose characters are cardboard propped up by in-depth and very realistic science that goes on for too many pages. And I’ve called that segment of the genre technoporn.

But there should be a middle ground [yes… I’m once more advocating for middle ground and moderation in a society that is ever more polarized] where science is a real and tangible part of the fiction, but enables or restricts the acts of the characters in the fashion that it does in “real life.”

When I wrote Solar Express, I knew that there would be a segment of readers who didn’t like the fact that the two main characters communicate through what is essentially a future form of email. And some readers did object, not as many as I feared, but I wasn’t restricting my characters artificially, or because I was being old-fashioned, but because even speed of light communications don’t work in real time much beyond the orbit of the moon because of the time delay. The Earth is roughly eight light-minutes from the sun, and that means a 16 minute delay between sending a message and getting a reply. I also limited the technology to what we know is theoretically possible… and potentially affordable.

But I’m seeing a growing number of readers who aren’t interested in the slightest in science, and who object if even a hint of real science lasts more than a sentence.
Some readers will likely say that’s fine if the book is set in a future where the plot doesn’t rely on science, but unless we’re talking post-apocalyptic societies with lower technologies, the science should at least be semi-realistic. And, if the writer is dealing with a plot relying heavily on science and technology, some of that needs to leak out in passing, enough so that the “science” isn’t just another form of “hand-wavium.”

Science has great possibilities for speculative fiction, but real science also has considerable limitations… and high-tech science is incredibly expensive. The Navy attempted to come up with a truly futuristic warship in the U.S.S. Zumwalt, but the advanced guns required ammunition that cost almost a million dollars for each projectile. Just 2,000 rounds would have cost almost $2 billion.

So… death stars are really nifty, but no realistic empire could ever afford to build them, and most of the weapons wouldn’t work, and certainly not the way they’re depicted. All of which just may be why there are fewer and fewer authors who even attempt realistic SF, and why so much of what passes as hard SF is really science fantasy, but which very few readers or writers want to admit.

Awards, Panels, and Diversity

For those who are fortunate enough to have missed the latest kerfuffle involving the World Science Fiction Convention, this year, when a preliminary program was posted, there was an uproar.


Because, from what I can gather: (1) a number of authors who had been nominated for World Science Fiction Awards (the Hugos) were not even on the program; (2) at least one individual whose gender remains a mystery to me and who had been listed on the program was greatly offended because some convention volunteer had changed that individual’s gender to masculine; (3) too many white straight males and a few too many straight white females were on the program and apparently too few people of various colors and genders were not [I’m writing this on what was reported, because the first program was taken down before I ever saw it.].

Several years ago, there was a movement at WorldCon by the “Sad Puppies” to try to outvote “the regulars” because the Sad Puppies felt that the regular attendees were pandering far too much to diversity in nominating writers for awards and that “diversity criteria” outweighed story content and quality. This year, it appears, that the diversity crowd was outraged because they felt marginalized.

In short, it seems that in nominating writers for awards, and granting recognition in terms of being on the program, some group is always outraged. I’d be among the first to say that no individual or group should be excluded or marginalized because of color, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation or lack thereof, or choice of topic. By the same token, no one should be included just because of those characteristics. The focus should be on what is written, not who wrote it… or who didn’t.

Years ago, Betty Ballantine, the co-founder of Ballantine Books, was reputed to have said that there was more than one kind of award, and that one award that was so often overlooked was how many people actually read a book. Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, has offered similar words.

The Hugos are represented as acclaiming the best F&SF published the previous year. They don’t exactly do that. They represent the judgement of those WorldCon attendees who choose to vote as to what is the “best.” Nominations require that the nominator be a member of either the current WorldCon or the previous WorldCon, but only those who have purchased a membership for the current year can vote to choose which of the top nominees will win.

The number of WorldCon memberships can vary greatly from year to year, from as low as perhaps 3,500 to the 10,000 range [which is rare], and the winners rack up only a few thousand votes.

Now… consider the size of the F&SF readership market. Last year, in the U.S. alone, over twelve million F&SF books were sold, and major publishers and well-established independent presses issued roughly 2,000 different titles. There’s no truly accurate way to establish how many self-published titles were issued, but I think it’s unlikely that, at most, more than a few thousand titles sold more than a thousand copies, but that’s still at least another million or more books sold. The website of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has more than 43,000 followers, and I know literally at least a score of writers I strongly suspect have sold more than 100,000 copies of one or more novels. All of the Harry Potter books sold at least in the tens of millions. Since it’s unlikely that most of the buyers bought more than one copy, this suggests to me that there’s a very active U.S. F&SF readership that well exceeds 100,000 and by quite possibly quite a bit more.

All of that means that, while getting a Hugo gets an author certain bragging rights, it doesn’t mean that other books may not be better. It just means that a majority of the few thousand attendees thought the Hugo winner was better than the other nominees. Even professional editors in the field and critical literary magazines disagree over what’s “best.” I know of quite a few F&SF books cited by Kirkus Reviews as “best books” of the year that didn’t even make the Hugo nominees listing.

So… who gets chosen for Hugo awards and representation on panels is still a very subjective matter, depending on where the convention is held and, frankly, to some degree, what writers, topics, and treatments are the “flavor of the year” and what are not… all of which tends to get overlooked in the on-going hullabaloo.

In the end, time will sort out what books endure as good or great, and which are not… at least mostly, because, upon occasion, even time is unfair… and that’s something all of us, writers and readers, should remember.