Archive for May, 2019

People Met Almost in Passing

Barbara Howes and Anne McCaffrey had very little in common, except both were writers, one a quiet but excellent poet and the other a commanding, dominating force in the development and history of science fiction. The other commonality is that I met each of them once, the first briefly… and the second, not quite so briefly.

In 1964, I studied poetry under William Jay Smith, who three years later went on to become the nineteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Upon one occasion he had several students to his house in North Pownal, Vermont. There he briefly introduced us to his wife Barbara Howes, by saying she was also a poet.

At that time, I had no idea that I stood before two of the more talented poets of the time, both of whom later had books of poetry that were finalists for the National Book Award. To me, one was my professor, and the other was his wife. While I’d like to think that I made the most of the time I studied with William Jay Smith, the truth is that, while I certainly didn’t blow off the opportunities, I also didn’t take full advantage of them, like all too many students. And I certainly didn’t realize that Barbara Howes was far more than just another poet until years later.

My only personal meeting with Anne McCaffrey was, thankfully, more than a brief encounter, that took place at the World Fantasy Convention in London in 1997. That convention was one of the few where my wife accompanied me, and her presence made all the difference. We had barely arrived at the convention when we were summoned (and Anne did summon) to join Anne. She was seated on a raised long hotel settee and insisted that I sit on one side and that Carol Ann sit on the other. Then she asked me to sign a copy of The Soprano Sorceress, which she had blurbed most favorably. After that, we talked for perhaps ten minutes at most, before she turned to Carol Ann, and the two of them – both sopranos – talked singing for a good half-hour, to the chagrin of my publisher, who waited all that time to get a few minutes to talk to Anne.

Although Anne did offer public fulsome praise for the next Spellsong Cycle book, that time in London was the only time we actually met… and I was very glad for the opportunity.

In retrospect, I only wish I’d had enough sense to spend at least a few minutes talking to Barbara Howes.

The Non-Intuitive Nature of the “Intuitive”

I’m not a computer designer, coder, or programmer, but I have been using computer applications for more than thirty-five years, and I continue to be amazed at how many applications whose use is said to be “intuitive,” and then discovered that I had no “intuition.”

For example, getting to use the flashlight ap on my IPhone. The instructions seem simple enough. Swipe up from the bottom of the main screen. Except that didn’t seem to work, except occasionally, and I almost gave up on trying to use it. Eventually, I figured out why it didn’t usually work for me. For that “swipe” to work reliably, it has to be done holding the phone in one’s right hand. I’m left-handed, and to make that swipe work means either shifting the phone to my right hand, or using two hands in a most awkward and unnatural way. Yes, it’s intuitive… if you’re right-handed.

After more than fifteen years of using Word, I have yet to figure out what combination of keystrokes suddenly resets the page from a single page, centered on the screen, into multiple pages… or separated half-pages. Nor is it clear why if I type too fast and hit three keys, I’ve closed the document I’ve been working on without saving it, despite the fact that I’ve programmed Word to autosave anything I exit. I know it’s a speed key function, and I’m certain there are instructions somewhere, but I’ve never been able to find them.

Nor are improvements always better. In older versions of Word, I can do a keyword search of every file in a directory. Not so in later versions… or at least not so in any way I can discern. For the most part, I’ve had to learn, by experimentation and trial and error, a great many of the capabilities and functions of a great number of programs because very few of those functions can be accessed intuitively – unless you’re a programmer.

So don’t tell me it’s intuitive. Just label it as “requires previous familiarity with precursor or similar systems and considerable trial and error because instructions are either opaque or non-existent.”

Fictional Heroes and Heroines

The other day, I came across a reader comment that suggested that I’d bowed to the “PC censors” and made the protagonist of a recent book into a “beta male,” because he actually listened to women, rather than a “real hero.” The reader then went on to suggest I should go back to writing “real heroes” as in the old days and “shock the sour PC fantasy killers.”

Outside of the fact that no one gets a look at my books before they go to my editors, let alone a P.C. or any other censor, or the fact that I don’t write to please either the politically correct or the politically incorrect, the comment raises a number of preconceptions that readers have, such as the fact that there’s some small cadre of PC types who decree what books get published or that a hero or a protagonist has to fit a specific mold. While there are certainly readers, reviewers, and even some editors who push the extremes of the PC mindset, what still determines what gets published is what readers will buy. And that is why Larry Correia, Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, Patricia Briggs, N.K Jemison, Ann Leckie, Charlie Jane Anders, and I all sell a significant number of books – and we all write very differently.

There are all kinds of readers in the F&SF field, and while there’s still a large contingent of readers, mostly white males, from what I can tell, who prefer the traditional, “take-no-prisoners” male hero who loves weapons and gadgets more than women, and who expects women to know their place, I think it’s fair to say, although most of my main protagonists are male, that very few, if any, of them fall in lockstep into that stereotype. And, of course, there’s also the fact that, at last count, I’ve written something like 11 books where the main protagonist is female.

That reader comment raises the question, of course, about what a “real hero” should be in fiction. Obviously, there’s quite a range of qualities in fictional heroes in F&SF books being written and published today, and some of the ones I’ve liked the best in recent years have been heroines. For every reader, however, the “real” hero or heroine is the one with whom they can identify, or at least appreciate and come to understand.

Personally, as should be obvious from my books, I’ve always had trouble (and more as I’ve grown older) with the “take-no-prisoners” protagonist, even as I’ve written about people who’ve had to do just that, because, from what I know of history and personally witnessed and experienced, those kinds of “heroes” invariably wind up creating a massive body count, and either end up as dead or tormented for the rest of their lives. To my way of thinking, anyone who piles up bodies like that and remains unmoved and untouched isn’t so much a hero or heroine as a sociopath or psychopath.

That’s why, again in my opinion, Charyn in Endgames is more of a “real” hero, because he makes hard choices with a high personal cost and avoids the massive body count to forge a working consensus among warring classes… but that’s my view, and readers who prefer something else can certainly find it, because, despite that reader comment, there aren’t any PC censors out there. The growth of more diverse heroes and heroines with different thoughts and viewpoints just reflects a widening of those who read F&SF as well as a change in the views held by many readers.

Trump… and Ducks and Smoke

There’s an old saying along the lines of “if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and swims like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” There’s also the one about “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

President Trump has not only now uttered something like 10,000 statements that are false, misleading or outright lies, but gone far beyond that. Following the duck analogy, it strikes me that it’s more than fair to call him a brazen liar. As for smoke, there’s smoke everywhere. Even from what’s been made public from the Mueller report, and from all the indictments and guilty pleas from Trump associates, it’s pretty clear that there are a number of fires, some of which, such as Russian inference in our elections, are still burning.

And the fact that Trump doesn’t want anyone to see the full Mueller report, or his taxes, or even have Mueller, or Donald, Jr., testify before Congress look like the acts of a guilty man trying to hide his crimes. He’s even saying that he’ll fight any possible impeachment all the way to the Supreme Court. Why would he even need to do that when Republicans control the Senate – unless he really is so guilty that he fears his own party will disavow him if all the facts come out?

Trump isn’t acting like an innocent man wronged by the opposing political party. He’s acting like a very guilty man, who’s using every possible stratagem to keep all the facts from becoming public.

Like I said above… if it quacks like a duck… or in this case, behaves like a guilty man…

Ethics, Greed, and Corruption

There is often a significant difference between an ethical action and a legal action. Under current U.S. law, it’s obviously not illegal to raise the price of a drug that a child needs to stay alive from $40 to nearly $40,000, but is it ethical? I’d say it’s not, especially given the record level of profits reaped by the pharmaceutical industry. I’d even claim it’s a form of medical/health blackmail.

Is it legal for police to be stricter in enforcing the law on minorities than on Caucasians? So far, in most cases, it’s been held to be legal, but is it ethical?

Is it legal for a professional basketball team with a losing record not to play as hard near the end of the season… and possibly gain a higher draft pick? Again… so far it appears to be.

Is it legal for members of a given faith to prefer hiring those of the same faith? Or giving preference in promotions or bonuses? While discriminating by race is illegal, discrimination by faith appears to be alive and well, at least in certain parts of the U.S.

The list of such instances in the United States is long, and from what I can see, it’s getting longer. So why do I care?

Because ethics are the foundation of a healthy society. All one has to do is look around to see that. One of the reasons why tens of thousands of immigrants struggle out of certain central and Latin American countries is because of corruption and violence, and that corruption and violence are the result of totally unchecked greed on the part of governments, so-called law enforcement agencies, and even of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

One cannot instill law-abiding behavior through law enforcement. The police should represent and personify ethics through their actions, and I believe the majority do – but far from all of them. Even so, with a few exceptions, the best that law enforcement can do as an institution is to catch and remove law-breakers.

When legality is the rule, rather than ethics, more and more people do what they can, rather than what they should, and this leads to more and more corruption because no code of law can cover everything.

As a side note, this is a particular problem with corporations, because law has essentially held that a corporation’s greatest obligation is to maximize profits for the shareholders, within the confines of the law, regardless of the impact on people, on society, or on the environment. And when corporations use their revenues in support of political actions to whittle away legal protections on health and environment, in order to increase profits that are already at historical all-time highs, isn’t this greed a form of corruption?

When people see that the wealthy and the powerful can get away with anything, why should they be ethical and obey the law? And when the wealthy and powerful get more wealthy and more powerful, and it gets harder and harder for the poorer segments of society to make a living, there’s an ever-growing temptation for the non-wealthy to follow the example of the wealthy. And in countries like Honduras or Guatemala and a score of others, there’s too much violence for underpaid law enforcement to handle, partly if not largely, because the poor don’t have enough money to pay taxes, and the wealthy control the system and ensure that they’re not taxed enough to pay for public services.

Aren’t we already seeing those sorts of trends here?

Equally important… if your standard for ethical behavior is what the law allows you to get away with, you may consider yourself a law-abiding citizen, but are you really an ethical individual?

Monopoly, Monopsony, and Shortsightedness

Some readers may recall that in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the major U.S. publishers because, as a group, they refused to discount ebooks to Amazon, and that practice was considered a restraint of trade [it was far more complicated than that but since that’s not the point of this blog, that summary will do], and all of them eventually capitulated, even Apple, and paid fines of various amounts, none of which were insubstantial.

At that time, I wrote a letter to DOJ protesting the Department’s action because I felt that DOJ was in fact enabling not only a monopsony but a monopolistic practice where, in the end, after Amazon drove out or weakened a great number of brick and mortar bookstores and bookstore chains, Amazon would essentially replace them and prices would rise.

And what happened? The entire Borders chain went out of business; Barnes and Noble has been closing stores and cutting back on books in stock in the remaining stores; and a great number of independent bookstores closed, far more than have opened in a recent small resurgence of smaller bookstores. In addition, in effect, Amazon is also now effectively dictating some terms of sale to the publishers, which it is able to do because it’s the single largest sales outlet in the book business, and that, in effect, illustrates that Amazon is in point of fact the textbook case of a monopsony.

Even more interestingly, Amazon now has brick and mortar stores and is planning more, although the Amazon experiment with “pop-up kiosks” just ended with the closure of all 87 kiosks and an Amazon statement to the effect that Amazon would be concentrating on the more permanent Amazon bookstores.

As a result of all this, publishing margins dropped, and when those margins fell, publishers stopped publishing, or published less frequently mid-list authors or authors who had something new or different to offer but who did not sell as well. Even the incomes of many best-selling authors dropped, particularly those without an “outside” media presence.

Through its marketplace, Amazon is also doing much of the same thing to retailers across the entire United States, using lure of lower prices in the present to obtain a market position that enables it to eventually control the market and raise prices.

But that’s what Americans get for always focusing on price… even when it’s clear they’ll pay more in the long run, both in consumer prices and in jobs.