Archive for March, 2021

A Few Thoughts on War

There’s a doctrine in warfare known as proportional response. If one country seizes or destroys a ship of another country, the second country should respond on the same level, or perhaps escalate the response slightly. The second country shouldn’t do something “horrific,” like bombard or destroy an entire city. Except… sometimes that works, and then everyone speculates on why it shouldn’t have been done… even when such an act may have actually cost fewer lives than a continuing conflict.

In a limited logical fashion, proportional response makes sense, because a rapid escalation is hard on the people on one side for certain, and possibly for both sides, but that depends on the conflict and the cultures and demographics of the countries involved. Escalating proportional responses effectively lost the Vietnam War for the U.S. Given cultures and demographics, the U.S. had only two possible effective choices, although these choices are far clearer in hindsight than they were at the time. One was to realize that South Vietnam was a lost cause and make some sort of agreement with the north. The second would have been an immediate and total scorched earth attack on North Vietnam, which was deemed politically infeasible and could have escalated into a world-level conflict. By the time Nixon even thought of using overpowering aerial warfare, the war was effectively lost, even though the U.S. “won” almost all pitched battles, including the Tet Offensive.

One other lesson that comes out of studying warfare is that the military is almost always “fighting the last war,” particularly in times of social and technological change. There’s a reason for this. Tactics are developed based on available weapons and logistics, and upon past experience. When one side finds a way to use something new or apply something existing in a new fashion, there’s a time lag before the other side figures it out. And sometimes that time lag can be fatal.

In fantasy, of course, as authors we can war-game such doctrines, but one thing I’ve done that’s bothered some readers is that I’ve followed history with regard to innovation. What I mean by that is that when one side uses magic or technology in a new way, it takes the other side time to adjust… and they may never make the adjustment if they don’t have decent communications. First, they may not have heard about the innovations or tactics. Second, they may not believe what they’ve been told, or they may believe that they are different/better than previous commanders. Even though General Billy Mitchell showed that airpower could sink battleships in 1923, many U.S. admirals still didn’t really believe it would happen in a “real war,” until Pearl Harbor. And third, they may not have the time or training to change, even if they’re willing to change. The French army couldn’t adjust to the German blitzkrieg in time to keep France from falling.

I’ve also noticed, and maybe it’s just the books I’ve read, that “wars” in fantasy either tend to be heavy on blood, guts, grit, and action with all of the impact on the combatants…or treat war almost superficially. If history is any indication, war has impacts on all levels of society on both sides, even for the greatest of empires, and any empire that is devoting a significant percentage of its resources to continual warfare isn’t going to endure that long. Peace and prosperity prolong nations and empires, provided, of course, that the empire has a strong enough and talented enough military force to squelch small brushfire insurgencies or border incursions before they become a real threat.

A Secular Nation

Start with this point. I am not you. You are not me. We each have different thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Most people understand that we all have different thoughts and experiences. Where people and society get into trouble is the problem with beliefs, especially strong ones like religion – or lack of religion.

The problem with religion is simple. Far too many people firmly believe that everyone should believe what they believe and follow that set of beliefs. This ignores the basic fact that there are far too many different belief systems for that ever to work, especially in any nation that is not a police-state theocracy.

According to those who keep track of such matters there are more than 4,000 different religions in the world, and more than twenty that have more than a million believers. Even in the United States there are more than fifteen major religions/denominations with significant numbers of adherents, and some of the basic tenets of these faiths don’t agree on aspects of how society should be governed and even to what degree beliefs enshrined in faith should be legislated into law.

The Founding Fathers insisted on separating church and state. For them, at that time, that separation was politically and practically much easier because, despite all the bloodshed during the European religious wars, the main conflict was between Catholicism and Protestantism, and the two faiths weren’t as separated and as disparate – and numerous – as various faiths, including atheism, are today in the United States. Even so, the basic principle espoused by the Founding Fathers makes even more sense today.

That principle was the creation of a nation where the laws were based on the basic ethical principles on which both religious factions could agree, such as the fact that murder and theft were not acceptable and should be punished. “Non-conforming” religions were not banned, but certain practices, such as polygamy and human sacrifice, were criminal offenses, and what was legal and what was not were based on facts and political agreement – with, of course, the exception of slavery, which a failure to address on a national basis led to the bloodiest war in our nation’s history.

We’re now facing a schism along lines of belief, and it shows up in many fashions, from reproductive freedom to gender identify to the conflict over how far freedom of speech should extend, and whether government should address economic and social inequality.

In far too many of these areas, people have tried to enact laws based on beliefs they want to impose on others, rather than trying to work out practical compromises on the basis of science and common ground. Even when practical compromises have been worked out, they often don’t stay worked out for one simple reason.

Too many people believe that ALL their beliefs are correct and should be imposed on others. The history of Europe after the Reformation shows how well that worked out. [For those who have forgotten or never knew, in just one of those wars, Germany lost 30% of its population.]

There was a reason the Founding Fathers separated church and state to create a secular nation, but like so many lessons of history, that one appears to have been forgotten.

More Than Problematic

The other day I got a review of Fairhaven Rising by a reviewer for an online publication. The review panned the book. I don’t have a problem with that. Writers should expect that. We can’t please every reader or reviewer.

I do have a serious problem with why and how he panned it.

These days science fiction is seeing, as with The Expanse series, a movement toward competent and compelling CHARACTERS who happen to be male or female. Why does fantasy lag? Why must female characters in fantasy hew to stereotypes of women who must – whether competent or not – all too often be victims of some kind? And who must express their victimhood in specifically proscribed ways? If something horrible happens to a man, he can rise above it and be the competent hero, but a woman must somehow continue to exhibit or constantly come to terms with her brokenness?

In the case of this reviewer, he is perfectly happy with the “same cookie-cutter” characters with great abilities who were male in previous Recluce books (and he actually wrote that), but when I changed to a female protagonist, a woman who turns up to have great abilities, he doesn’t like it at all. In short, men are allowed to be handsome, great tacticians and mages, but women aren’t.

And because Taelya has lived “through trauma and death since she was 7 years old,” and doesn’t have PTSD (because, after all, she should because she’s a woman) she’s “boring.” She keeps her emotions in check – like all the guys – but that means to this reviewer that Taelya’s “emotionless.” Because she doesn’t fit the image he has of his daughters, she can’t possibly be real, because, after all, women must be filled with overt or overly exaggerated emotion at all times and must respond to trauma in specific ways, so that men can rescue them, rather than the other way around.

The patrols and chores are “boring.” The strange thing about this claim is that I’ve been writing about the mundane aspects of life in the world of Recluce for thirty years, and he didn’t find them boring before, but when they’re experienced by a woman, they’re “boring.” That suggests that this reviewer finds women doing daily tasks boring, because men are more inherently interesting when doing them (as with my other books).

I’m not bitching about a bad review. I’m bitching about a review steeped in hypocrisy and misogyny so deep that the reviewer will never even recognize how hypocritical and misogynistic he is… and I’m also writing about it because it shouldn’t be a problem in fantasy – and it too often still is.

A Particular Typo Problem

As several readers have noted, there were more typographical errors in Fairhaven Rising [which, if you haven’t picked it up, came out almost exactly a month ago], and, when I read those comments, I wondered why – for about a minute.

That slowness on my part was because of the length of the publication process, and it took me that minute to realize what had happened. Over the course of 2019-20, Tor was completing the process of making the entire production process electronic. Now, to people familiar with computers, this would seem simple and quick enough. When you’re dealing with a major publisher, nothing is simple, and history helps explain why.

When I first started with Tor in the early-mid 1980s, the process was almost entirely paper-driven. I submitted a printed manuscript. My editor read it, sent me back marked-up pages and a sheet of editorial suggestions and requests and asked for revisions. I made the revisions and sent a clean manuscript back embodying what I hoped would satisfy the editor. Sometimes, there were several go-rounds. Then once Tor accepted the manuscript, it went to a copy-editor. The copy editor marked-up that manuscript and sent it back to Tor. Another set of copies was made, at least one for the editor and one for me. The editor sent me a copy so that I could make sure the copy-editor’s “corrections” didn’t do violence to the book [usually not, but at least twice, the copy-editing was so bad that I said I never wanted that copy-editor to touch my books again. At Tor, at least, authors aren’t usually told the identity of the copy-editor, which is probably best for both author and copy-editor]. Then I would change incorrect corrections, address inquiries, and swear a lot.

My “corrected” copy-edit went back to my editor, who then smoothed out any differences and forwarded the final paper copy-edited manuscript to production for typesetting. Sometime later, I’d get the printed first pass galleys for proofing to make sure that production didn’t screw up. I could still make small corrections [essentially ones that didn’t change the basic format of the book] and I sent back only pages with corrections.

This process lasted until using the internet became feasible, at which point, roughly in the late 1990s, I could send the manuscript electronically, but not all editors liked electronic manuscripts, and often the first thing those editors did was print out the manuscript, because, back then, laptops were cumbersome and expensive, and publishers didn’t supply them to editors, and also because editing on paper was easier than lugging around heavy laptops. My editor, and many others, often edited on their train commutes, because most editors with families couldn’t [and still can’t] afford to live close to work.

As editorial computer skills improved and tablets and laptops became affordable, publishers moved more and more into handling manuscripts electronically, but the one area that lagged was in handling copy-editing. I don’t know why, but I suspect that setting up common codes and symbols electronically was a problem because almost all copy-editors are free-lancers, and they work for a number of publishers. Since there 30 different publishing imprints that publish ten or more F&SF titles annually, and since many publishing houses have differing requirements and electronic systems, all this makes any transition time-consuming.

Then, COVID-19 hit, and Tor, as well as other publishers [I assume, always dangerous], had to finish setting up copy-editing electronically – in a hurry. I won’t go into the gruesome details, but Fairhaven Rising was my first book that was produced entirely electronically, and the process didn’t quite go the way it was supposed to. I had to go through all sorts of electronic contortions to make corrections, and in some cases, I couldn’t make them at all, and had to resort to the equivalent of electronic margin notes. And frankly, I made some mistakes as well in dealing with a new system, mistakes that, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware I’d made until they showed up in print.

And that is why there just happen to be more than a few additional typos in Fairhaven Rising.

The Spoiled Media

The other day some pundit featured in the Washington Post complained that President Biden hadn’t held a single press conference since he took office, claiming that it had been almost a hundred years since an incoming President had gone that long without a press conference.

How many press conferences a president holds – or doesn’t – isn’t a measure of accomplishment. That’s a metric set up by spoiled media types. The measure of accomplishment is what a President gets done, not how many questions from the press he answers.

The mainstream media has spent the last five years in “media paradise.” Almost every single day, they had something “newsworthy” or outrageous from Trump or his cabinet, sometimes both. Trump loved to get up and brag, usually misstating and often outright lying, but always providing red meat for the press.

Biden’s much more low key. Also to the point is the fact that, put bluntly, answering loaded questions fired at high speed isn’t his greatest strength. With Trump, it didn’t matter, because whatever he did was the “greatest” and he made so many misstatements and told so many lies that no one could keep track at the time he spoke of how many lies he uttered. According to that same Washington Post that criticized Biden, Trump issued 30,573 false or misleading statements during his presidency, averaging 21 a day.

Every president is different, and each can and should be expected to play to their strengths, not their weaknesses. Biden’s moderate and thoughtful. He’s not given to wild exaggeration or verbal pyrotechnics. He’s also been known to make media gaffes. These gaffes aren’t deliberate falsehoods or planned exaggerations, and from what I can tell, he’s tried to clarify when he’s made them. But it’s certainly natural for him to minimize the situations that cause such gaffes.

Besides which, Biden’s press secretary gives the press almost daily briefings on what the new administration is doing, where she takes questions and provides answers, or arranges for the department in question to provide an answer. The media isn’t really looking for answers when they want more opportunity to grill Biden. What they want is to put him on the spot so that they look good. Biden doesn’t have to play their game, and he shouldn’t.

For all their disclaimers, the media doesn’t really like a deliberate approach. They’re only interested in “news,’ particularly if they can make it. We don’t need more of that kind of news. We need careful and measured reports on accomplishment or lack of accomplishment.

Despite an impeachment process of his predecessor that Biden never asked for or endorsed, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing insurgents, Biden’s already proposed, and Congress has passed, and Biden has signed into law a massive COVID aid bill, which he promised he would. He’s also accelerated the production and distribution of various COVID vaccines. Given how slowly the Congress works and a total lack of Republican support, that’s a fair amount for less than two months in office, and that doesn’t count undoing much of the damage done by Trump’s Executive Orders. All that is a far better measure of accomplishment than the number of press conferences.

Learning, Knowledge, and Credentials

Sometime back, I wrote about some of the “innovations” proposed and since implemented by the local university, in order to create a three-year bachelor’s degree, a degree pushed by the state legislature. One of those “innovations” was to cut the length of the semester by twenty percent, without any increase in the length of classes or the number of classes. Despite all the rhetoric, what that means is that students won’t learn as much.

I’d thought about detailing more of the so-called improvements in education and pointing out how they actually degrade learning and how most students today know less, have lower critical thinking skills than their predecessors, and have more difficulty learning and recalling material.

But there’s little point in that exercise. Most of the American people have turned their backs on what used to be the objective of education, especially higher education, and that was the ability to read and write critically, to think analytically, to understand what numbers actually mean, and to obtain the skills to be able to learn and to attain new skills on a lifelong basis.

Instead, public education, at least through the collegiate baccalaureate level, has largely become a charade of exercises in mastering objective tests and obtaining paper credentials in the hopes of leveraging an inadequate education and an overstated degree into a job that will provide an adequate income.

It’s also become an incredibly expensive exercise, as millions of young Americans with massive student debt can testify, especially given that we’re graduating twice as many students from college every year as there are jobs requiring a college degree, and yet the mindless push for more students to go to college continues.

At the same time, we’re seeing a growing contempt for science, for verified facts, and for reasoned analysis of everything, and unthinking tribalism is running wild. All that suggests to me that, despite record high numbers of high school graduates and the proliferation of college degrees, the possession of credentials, and the mastery of the cellphone, Google, and objective tests, doesn’t help much with critical thinking, logical writing, or understanding and solving the problems facing the world.

A Little Perspective, Please

Liberals tend to be very good at portraying the historical and current evils in our society, and they tend to focus on what hasn’t been accomplished, as opposed to what has. They’re also very good at influencing mainstream media and more “elite” institutions of higher education. The problem with this is that it suggests greater political strength than actually exists. The far-left liberal media and organizations are also incredibly good at disgusting and angering much of middle America, all too often unnecessarily and against their own interests.

Police reform is an absolute necessity, but screaming “defund the police” undermines realistic and necessary reform. For example, the Baltimore police department has a bad reputation for dealing with minorities, but almost half the department is black, which suggests that the problem lies not primarily with racism, but with the “police culture.”

Beating people over the head with incessant shrieks of “white privilege” just alienates people rather than educating and persuading them that, in our culture, those who are white and male don’t get the same unthinking skepticism and doubt that minorities and women do.

The conservatives are always screaming about the domination of “liberal “higher education, but all that rhetoric ignores the fact that there are thousands of colleges and universities that are not “bastions of liberalism.” Those universities just don’t get the press – unless one of their presidents has a personal scandal – but they’re still there, and they’re not going away. Neither is the less visible and often semi-underground conservative media.

Keep in mind that despite an overall performance by Trump as President that was substandard at best, and pretty much a botch of the COVID crisis [except for vaccine development], liberals actually lost ground in terms of the number of U.S. House seats and only picked up a few Senate seats despite the fact that the Republicans had far more potentially vulnerable Senators up for re-election and that Democrats outspent Republicans in most races. Liberals also did poorly in state level elections.

Because I live in a non-liberal state and media market, I can see that conservatives and even ultra-conservatives are not about to dry up and blow away. In fact, if Democrats don’t get their act together and deliver results for the entire country and not just measures backed by the so-called “progressives,” they’ll have their heads and their asses handed to them in the next election.

President Biden seems to recognize this. He’s opposed a number of “progressive” demands and appears to be focusing on the baseline problems facing working Americans, but the so-called progressives are already showing dissatisfaction, and the conservatives have never stopped being dissatisfied.

In the end, we’d all be better off if we toned down the screaming, identified and worked out solutions for the basic problems, and stopped agitating for political correctness – and despite what the far-right says, there’s far too much political correctness in the extremes of both parties, not just the left. The left is just better at pissing people off.