Archive for November, 2018

Why Is It …

That telemarketer after telemarketer can get my cellphone number, but I can’t get the cellphone numbers of acquaintances and friends who’ve dropped their landlines without physically meeting them or emailing them [which presents me with a problem in trying to reconnect with people who’ve moved out of state and who just assume that everyone knows where they’ve gone]?

That the apparently non-functioning air-conditioning system/furnace/ plumbing works as soon as the repairman arrives to fix it?

That so many people confuse “newness” with excellence?

That grown children, despite living in different states and in four different time zones, either don’t call on holidays, or those that do call all call in the same twenty minute stretch, usually just before we’re about to sit down for dinner?

That every piece of equipment or furniture that needs to be assembled always seems to have directions that omit or misdescribe one key step, thus requiring a certain amount of trial and error and/or backtracking and reassembly?

That the time-frame for planned obsolescence of software and computer equipment and peripherals gets shorter every year?

That stores always run out of the shaving cream that I use and overstock every other kind? [And ditto for several other products!]

That when shirt manufacturers have sales, they’re already out of my size in the shirts I prefer, even though very few men wear the colors of shirts that I wear for appearances?

That orange, avocado green, dull dark red, harvest orange, and deep brown periodically re-emerge as the “new” home décor colors? [Despite the fact that they’re then instantly old and dated.]

That professionals who demand solid work and excellence are so often marginalized as being old fogeys or old school dinosaurs?

That whenever my wife finds products that she really likes, half of them are discontinued within a year or two?

That so many first-published novelists are described as “genuinely new,” “an important new voice,” “astonishing first novel,” and the like?

That so many people think that a text message is an adequate substitute for either a voice conversation or sitting down and talking to someone in person?

Here we go again…

As I write this, sixteen Democrat representatives have signed and sent a letter stating that they want new leadership leading them in the U.S. House of Representatives. In short, they’re opposed to Nancy Pelosi becoming Speaker of the House. Given the projected membership of the House of Representatives sixteen is almost enough to deny her the speakership.

Of the sixteen, fourteen are white males, and two are white women. Why doesn’t this surprise me? Even though something like 60% of the Democrat members of the next Congress will be women, minorities, or LGBT, we have fourteen white males, most of whom aren’t newly elected and who should know better, saying that they don’t want a woman leading them, even though, at present, no other Democrat representative has presented himself or herself as a candidate to oppose Pelosi. Isn’t one party being led by good ole white boys more than enough?

Pelosi spearheaded the fundraising drive to raise much of the enormous sums necessary to allow Democrat candidates to compete with well-funded GOP candidates and was instrumental in pushing for more well-qualified women to run for Congress. She’s also been an effective Speaker of the House, so effective that the Republicans would love to see her shoved aside. She’s an effective strategist, and, like it or not, the Democrats don’t have anyone else who comes close.

I have no doubt that the Republican politicos would jump for joy [except most don’t know anything about joy] if the Democrats sidelined Pelosi, because there’s no one else with the proven will of steel necessary to stand up to Mitch McConnell and Trump.

For the sake of the country, I hope the Democrats think this through, but the Democratic Party has been known not only to shoot itself in foot before, but to blow off both legs [figuratively, of course] and then complain because things didn’t go according to plan.

And sidelining Pelosi would be just another case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Excellence in “Borrowed” or “Original” Novels?

No author writes anything, even the most “original” fantasy or far-future ultra-high novel, without borrowing from somewhere. To begin with, language, the very medium in which novels are written, contains cultural artifacts and meanings. Given human history, a wide range of religious and political structures have been tried, and history tends to suggest which work and which do not. Tools of all sorts are cultural artifacts, and so on.

So, in my mind, all authors borrow, either from their own culture or from other cultures and times, and the only real question is whether an author borrows tiny pieces and rearranges them into something that seems completely “original” or whether he or she loots some culture or another, or even two or three, and files off the serial numbers, so to speak.

There have been well-written works of fantasy and science fiction created from relatively small amounts of tiny borrowings and a greater amount of originality, and there have been well-written works based on whole-scale borrowing or “cultural appropriation” [which appears to be the current negative terminology when an author borrows from a culture which is seen as not being his or hers].

Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light borrows heavily from Hindu religion and mythology, and his Creatures of Light and Darkness borrows from Egyptian mythology. Tolkien drew from the Volsunga Saga and the Elder Edda. More recently, R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War draws heavily from Chinese history, and she admits that one scene is essentially a fantasy copy of the Rape of Nanking.

In a contrast, Iain Banks’s far-future Culture series [beginning with Consider Phlebas and ending with The Hydrogen Sonata] portrays an incredibly different galactic society combining AIs of different levels, aliens, and humans with enhanced capabilities and different governments and social structures. My own Haze offers a very different governmental and social system as well, as does my novel Adiamante.

On the other hand, more than a few novels, which will go unnamed, are essentially shameless copies of history or of other authors’ works. In this, by the way, I’m not talking about alternate history novels, because the point there is to show some sort of contrast, to indicate what might have happened and why.

All of this raises two questions, possibly unanswerable, except by each reader for himself or herself, and these are:

(1) At what point does an author’s “borrowing” turn a novel into a copy of sorts?
(2) Are novels that don’t borrow wholesale or in large chunks inherently better?

In some ways, the questions are almost academic, but they’re questions I’ve pondered for some time.

The “White” Party, Hate-Mongering, and the Future

A recent column in The Economist analyzed Trump’s appeal among Republicans and came to an unsurprising conclusion, unsurprising at least to me – that while various Republicans have scattered interests in the few positive proposals that Trump has made, what unites almost all hard-core Republicans is Trump’s unmitigated hate of Democrats.

I suspect his hatred of the media is also another factor, although the Economist column didn’t go into that, but the fact that hatred is what largely motivates the most hard-core Republicans is something that we’ve all observed, and something that most people shy away from – or address by saying that the Democrats are just the same.

No… the Democrats have a considerable range of faults, and what they’ve proposed and endorsed may at times be extravagantly expensive, excessively regulation oriented, and often painfully far too politically correct, but it’s not based around hatred and oppression. They may want to tax Americans more than Republicans want, and more than may be economically healthy, but they’re not running around with political rally after political rally based on hatred and chanting “lock them up” about notable opposition political figures. Democrats aren’t claiming that white nationalist groups have “good people” in them, but Trump is, and hard-core Republicans just brush off such statements.

In the past Democrats have gerrymandered political districts in a fashion similar to the Republicans, but certainly since the 1970s [and before that, a great many of the now conservative Republicans were southern Democrats who later became Republicans after Lyndon Johnson pushed and signed Civil Rights legislation], current Democrats haven’t disenfranchised voters by such tactics as closing polling places in Republican voting strongholds, nor have they enacted legislation in state after state designed to deny the vote to the poor and minorities and then “justified” it by fraudulently claiming “voter fraud,” despite the fact that no evidence of significant fraud has ever been discovered in recent decades.

Republicans also tend to ignore the fact that they’re incredibly insistent on “law and order” when dealing with the poor and minorities, and totally ignore such laws when they apply to CEOs who engaged in fraudulent lending practices that brought on the last recession, and even change the laws to make certain forms of price-fixing legal [i.e., the provision that forbids Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices from pharmaceutical companies]. Likewise, penalties for “white-collar” fraud and theft, when even levied, are far less stringent than those for thefts committed by the poor and minorities, even though the dollar value of the white collar crimes is far greater.

As a whole, Republicans also don’t like to elect women or minorities. Ever since women could vote and be elected to Congress, the vast majority of women elected have been Democrats, and it’s gotten to the point that, for the last 20 years more than 70% of all women in the U.S. House of Representatives have been Democrats. In the present House 83% of the women are Democrats, and in the new House in 2019, at least 86% will be Democrats, while out of the estimated 200 Republicans, it appears that only 13 will be women, while 83 out of 232[so far] Democrats will be women. As for minorities, only seven percent of Republican Representatives are minorities of any sort, while more than forty percent of Democrats are minorities, similar to the fact that forty percent of the U.S. population is composed of minorities.

Interestingly enough, 88% of all Trump voters were white, which certainly tracks with how few elected Republicans are anything other than white and male, disproportionately over sixty.

But all of this poses a problem for Republicans, and the nation. Within roughly twenty years our multi-ethnic nation will become even more so, and there will also be more women in positions of economic and political power. Yet Trump and more than a few Republicans are continuing and increasing their attacks on their opponents, especially minorities and women.

At the same time, it appears that those who call out this GOP hate-mongering and racial bias are usually ignored or demonized by the Republicans, and in the latter case, doing so in a wide public forum can be dangerous to one’s health, particularly one’s political health, especially if one is a moderate Republican.

Post-Election Observations

I live in the state with by far the lowest expenditure per pupil for public education, a state filled with overcrowded classrooms and underpaid [by any standard] teachers, a state where only 20% of new teachers remain in the classroom after five years. On my ballot were two initiatives to improve education funding, one of which would have added a ten cent a gallon gasoline tax to provide funds statewide, and a second which would have allowed the county in which I live to float some school bonds – which wouldn’t have added anything to local property taxes, but would have extended a current, very modest, levy for five years, after which the school levy would have dropped. Now, I’ve lived all over the U.S., and my current property taxes are lower in both total and percentage terms than anywhere I’ve lived. Needless to say, both initiatives appear to have been soundly defeated because I live in rock-red Republican country, where people talk sanctimoniously about children and education while refusing to support either financially. Yes, business is booming here in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, but one in seven children are going hungry, and more and more of the students entering college cannot write a coherent paragraph, although they “test” well.

And the election returns, for the most part, seem to be following a similar trend.

Those voters who talk the most about “traditional” values, such as life, children, education, and the American way are voting against people and programs that support those values and for politicians who vote for tax cuts that barely help poor and middle class families while enriching the richest Americans the most, for politicians who want to relax clean air standards and clean water standards, even after the children of a major municipal center suffered brutal lead poisoning, and when the ambient air quality in metropolitan areas such as Salt Lake and Denver, to name just a few, is worse than ever.

The election returns illustrate an incredible cognitive dissonance, where a huge percentage of Americans are voting for candidates whose actions are not only totally at odds with the physical and economic well-being of such voters, but even at odds with the beliefs that they profess, which suggests either incredible ignorance and/or hypocrisy, or that the need to belong to “their tribe” actually outweighs pretty much everything, including basic human decency.

And these election results also showed that this tribal polarization is still increasing, since most of the incumbents, in both parties, who were defeated were considered moderates.

Such indications scarcely bode well for the future.

“Truth” and “False News”

As some readers know, I’ve never cared much for the word “truth,” largely because, these days, it has come to hold a moral and political certitude that goes far beyond facts and their accuracy. In fact, for most people, whether something is “true” depends more on their beliefs than upon any accuracy.

Most Trump voters believe that the tax cuts have benefitted them, and to some degree they did, but nearly 70% of the tax cuts went to the top 20% of American earners, and that doesn’t count the $437 billion in stock buy-backs, which raised stock prices, benefitting the well-off. Last year average CEO compensation rose 18%, while average worker compensation grew just two tenths of one percent. Even with tax cuts, most Trump supporters are falling behind economically, but the vast majority don’t see it. And with the annual federal deficit headed toward one trillion dollars, the best those Trump supporters can hope for from Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid is that they won’t be cut drastically.

So far, Trump is averaging five false statements every day, and some are blatantly and obviously false, such as denying the thousands of hurricane deaths in Puerto Rico or claiming that the refugee “convoy” headed to the U.S. is filled with Middle Eastern terrorists or that he can nullify the 14th amendment to the Constitution with an executive order [which even Paul Ryan declares is legally and Constitutionally impossible]. Does any of this register with firm Trump supporters? Of course not.

Nor do they doubt his claims that Hillary or Nancy Pelosi ought be locked up, despite the fact that while there’s evidence of a different political agenda and some incompetence, those aren’t crimes under current U.S. law, unlike failure to pay taxes, which just might be a problem for Trump.

On the other side, there’s far less distortion, but it’s still there. Cries about the “disaster” that Trump is creating with his increase of tariffs on Chinese goods haven’t yet come to pass… and probably won’t, except for possibly farmers and parts of the auto industry, simply because the Chinese import far less from us than we do from them, and they’re already running out of U.S. imports to tariff more, especially if they don’t want to throttle their own computer industry. In a similar vein, Trump apparently pushed through a more favorable NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico, but I don’t see much about that.

But with everyone holding to their own truths… the facts have long since been discarded by those who want to believe otherwise… and we’re all likely to lose as a result.

A Proliferation of Awards

Several weeks ago, when I was at the Gulf Coast Fan Fest, one of the other authors at the Bard’s Tower booth learned that his debut novel [Empire of Silence, Christopher Ruocchio] had been shortlisted for the best debut fantasy novel of the year by Booknest Fantasy Awards.

Now, I’ve been a published F&SF author for 45 years, and I’d never heard of the Booknest awards. As a matter of fact, in recent years, there have been a number of awards I’d never heard of until I saw a news story or online mention of the award. And I began to wonder if I had just gotten out of touch. So I did a little research.

When I was first published, the only F&SF awards I ever heard about were the Hugo Awards, and that wasn’t surprising, because my research showed that in 1973, the only awards were the Hugos, the World Fantasy Awards, and the Nebulas. The Hugos were the oldest and were first presented in 1953 at the eleventh World Science Fiction Convention at Philadelphia, and the awards are determined by the votes of the members of the World Science Fiction Convention. The first World Fantasy awards were presented at the first World Fantasy Convention in 1975, and are determined by a jury of five professional writers or editors. The Nebula awards are determined by the votes of the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America [SFWA], and were awarded for the first time in 1966, a year after SFWA was founded.

After that, more awards were created, slowly at first, and then, in the last twenty years, scores of them have sprung up, so that there are now more than a hundred different regional, national, and international F&SF awards. There now seem to be awards for every sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy, and each one endeavors to be unique in some fashion.

Now, I know many of these awards came about because various groups felt that the F&SF literature that represented them, either ethnically, geographically, or by genre or subgenre, was not being recognized. Early on, David Hartwell and others essentially created the World Fantasy Convention and awards because he felt that fantasy was largely ignored by the Hugos. Likewise, it appears that SFWA created the Nebulas to reflect a more professional outlook, rather than the “popularity” basis of the Hugos, since all SFWA members are published authors. Initially, those three categories of awards seemed largely sufficient… until the 1980s, when the proliferation began, a process that appears to have continued to increase ever since.

Is this proliferation of awards really recognizing the unrecognized, or could it be an outgrowth of the idea that every child involved in a competitive sports activity should have a trophy, and now that those children are grown, those who are writers should each have an award?

Some have contended that winning an award results in more publicity and more sales for the authors, but the studies that have been done, at least according to Tom Doherty, indicate that the only award that seems to have an effect on sales is the Hugo. In all fairness, those studies don’t include the DragonCon awards, which are only two years old, and are presented at a convention that draws 80,000, about eight times the size of the World Science Fiction Convention, which is the largest of the “conventional” F&SF conventions.

More to the point, however, for all the concern about various aspects of F&SF being ignored and/or marginalized… does every aspect of the field really need its own trophies?

And how much do all these awards enhance the field?