Archive for April, 2021

The Purity Obsession

Life is messy. People are complex, and it’s always been that way.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was an untiring champion of religious freedom, but he was also a slave holder and made a slave who was a half sister to his deceased wife his mistress.

Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve the United States and wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but never believed blacks to be the equal of whites.

Martin Luther King fought valiantly and effectively for equal rights, but was an incorrigible womanizer.

Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly the Atlantic solo and an aviation pioneer, who risked his life in WWII to improve combat flight operations; he was also an America-first isolationist, closet Nazi supporter, and a bigamist.

Richard Wagner was a great composer, but also an avowed anti-Semite who seduced the wife of his greatest financial supporter.

Almost invariably, people want to believe that people of great achievements were better individuals than they actually were, and now, when history and scholarship reveal the full scope of their lives, there’s a growing movement to destroy statues and monuments and to denigrate important historical figures because they weren’t perfect.

Some of this backlash is understandable and justifiable. I can see why the descendants of slaves, in particular, would want monuments glorifying figures of the Confederacy destroyed, but trying to erase or change the view of history only makes it more likely that the evils will reoccur. In a sense, that’s exactly what happened in much of the American south, when in the post-Reconstruction period, southern whites papered over the evils of slavery and erected monuments to the “valiant” soldiers of the Confederacy, so effectively that for generations to follow the southern “story” was of lost glory, the destruction of states’ rights, and Yankee carpetbaggers, rather than the real story, which was the destruction of a socio-economic system based on dehumanization and oppression.

But there’s a difference between removing “propaganda” statues and monuments and removing those who made a difference in history. Removing statues of Lincoln or Jefferson because they weren’t “pure” ignores the basic fact that none of us are. Like it or not, the military ability of Robert E. Lee made an awful difference in prolonging the Civil War, but those abilities are part of history.

The preservation of some of the Nazi death camps helps keep alive a reminder of just how evil governments can become if people allow it. When the history of evil is buried – or white-washed – it becomes so much easier for subsequent generations to repeat those evils, as it was in the American south, if on a lesser scale.

As always, balance is vital.


When we added several rooms and a new garage to one end of the house some six years ago, we had to remove a struggling and bedraggled lilac bush, but we planted five to replace it, hoping to have more lilac blooms. Both my wife and I love lilacs, but while lilacs thrive in Cedar City, what happens to their fragrant spring blooms is another matter. Over the last 27 years, we’ve been able to actually smell the lilacs perhaps four times.

That’s because Cedar City, at any time of year, is subject to violent and severe changes of temperature. The year we constructed the addition, on Friday, two days before Mothers’ Day, the contractor removed the old garage, turned off the gas line [because it crossed the excavation zone] and “sealed” off the end of the house with heavy plastic. The daytime high was in the low seventies, and the low in the low forties. Nothing unusual was forecast.

On Saturday night the temperature dropped to around twenty degrees [F], the wind picked up to 30 mph, and the snow began to fall. By Sunday morning, Cedar City had between thirteen to twenty inches of snow. We live on a hill on the west side of town. Guess which end of the snowfall we got. The effect on the already leafed out trees and much of the rest of the town was predictable. Not only did we have no gas for the gas furnace, but we had no electricity for the alternatives.

Fortunately, on the lower level of the house, we do have a very reliable Vermont Castings wood-fired stove, which kept the lower level very toasty and the upper level well above freezing for the next two days. By Tuesday, the day-time temperature was back into the low seventies and the nighttime low into the high forties.

As I write this, the daily highs have been in the high sixties [F] and the lows just above freezing, but last week for several days the lows were in the twenties. Those sixty-plus degree days have encouraged the lilacs to leaf out and the buds look ready to flower in the next few days.

Freezing temperatures aren’t in the forecast… but neither was the Mothers’ Day storm. I’m still hoping to be able to smell the lilacs this year.


Now that the end of the current American school year is nearing, at least for those in more traditional schools, colleges, and universities, I got to thinking even more about learning and education. I say “even more,” because I’ve always thought about both, and I can’t escape it, not with a wife who is a university professor, and two offspring who teach law and medicine, and that doesn’t include the three years I taught on the collegiate level.

Despite the fact that study after study has shown, year after year, that while cramming may get a student through the dreaded final exams, the vast majority of students retain little of what they’ve crammed. Knowledge learned and used bit by bit is retained with far greater detail. That’s why good apprenticeship programs work.

But students crammed when I was in college and they still do. When I was teaching, I gave “pop quizzes” at the beginning of every class, and the questions were either fill in the blank or short answer about important “secondary” material in the reading assignment, i.e., material that wasn’t covered by the equivalent of Cliff Notes or other cheat sheets, material that was easy enough to recall if a student read the material but not available in any other way. I made a point of calling on all students by name in the course of class discussion, especially those who didn’t look interested. I also always had a few students drop out in the first week.

Was that mean or sadistic? It wasn’t meant to be. The idea was simple. Even back then a large percentage of students were there for credentials, not an education. The way I taught was designed to make sure they retained and understood at least a portion of what they read.

Today, from what I see and from what I hear from a large range of teachers at various levels, far too many students want to be spoon-fed the answers that will be on tests. They demand to know what will be on the test. And teachers are under incredible pressure to teach to the test and to get everyone through.

Back in the ancient days, we understood that no test could cover everything a student was supposed to have learned, and that the test was used as a sampling device. That was why tests were changed from semester to semester. It was also why enterprising students tried to gather questions from past tests in order to game the system.

These days, even when students know the facts, they have great difficulty in synthesizing and analyzing what those facts mean and how they apply in a particular discipline.

And that’s what you get when the emphasis is on getting everyone through with a credential rather than on learning the material and being able to explain it and apply it in ways that you weren’t ever taught.

Author “Ethnicity” Issues

In effect, at least in some parts of traditional F&SF publishing, there is a degree of skepticism (if not a de facto ban, according to some) on white writers writing works from a minority point of view. Two of the arguments in support of such “skepticism” are: (1) that white writers cannot accurately depict such cultures and (2) white authors depicting minority cultures deprive minority authors of access.

If an author depicts any cultures badly, or factually inaccurately, ideally such a book shouldn’t be published, but to say that only a person from culture/ethnicity “X” can write about that culture/ethnicity strikes me as just another form of censorship.

Authors, regardless of sameness or diversity of ethnicity, never tell exactly the same story, and the ethnicity of the author doesn’t make a good book. Good writing and an appealing story do. Also, the publishers I’ve known don’t have “quotas” for the number of ethnic authors, novels, or themes, and publishing a mediocre book by an ethnic author in place of a better book by a non-minority author doesn’t make good business sense. Publishing an excellent book by a minority author, rather than a mediocre one by a non-minority author does.

The public doesn’t choose what’s published, except in hindsight by sales numbers. In traditional publishing, the editors choose what gets published, and readers decide whether to buy it. In “indie” publishing, the author puts out work, and the public again chooses whether to buy it. Also, in traditional publishing, an author can submit a manuscript without revealing ethnicity, except possibly by the subject matter and treatment of that subject.

The bottom line is that publishing, either traditional or “indie,” is a business, and traditional publishers are in business to sell enough copies of a book to make money. Authors don’t get published because of their ethnicity, although in the past and even today, some didn’t or don’t get published for that reason. They generally get published because an editor or publisher thinks the book will make money.

What this means is that, in traditional publishing, editors (and sometimes agents) decide what they think the reading public will buy. For too long a time, the publishing industry, including S&SF imprints, avoided stories with strong minority themes and, from what I can tell, was skeptical of, if not hostile to fiction submitted by writers whose names suggested black or non-European minority origins. As has been noted by others, in addition, F&SF editors also tended to be skeptical of women who wrote under women’s names, and several women authors wrote under a last name preceded by initials.

As a bit of a side note, when I was first published, because I also wrote under my initials, and possibly because I write strong female characters, more than a few readers speculated that I was a woman. To this day, some few still do.

Today, diversity is the name of the game in F&SF because some of the most highly acclaimed authors are women and because more and more women and minority readers have decided they like F&SF, particularly fantasy. It’s also partly because the demographics of editors in the field have changed; the majority of F&SF editors today are women. But the emphasis on diversity will only last so long as the sales do, and the sales will be driven by the popularity of the work.

In this light, over the last ten years, particularly over the past five, I’ve seen so many new writers hyped by publishers, almost none of whom appear to be white or male, most of whom seem to disappear within a year or two. The pattern isn’t new. The same pattern existed twenty years ago, except those who disappeared were predominantly white males.

The reason for this, in my opinion, is that most editors tend to stick with the known and currently “safe” trends, which makes money… until it doesn’t, and the editors who played it too “safe” suddenly discover that they’re no longer editors.

Literary Extremism?

As almost anyone who’s read my work must know, I’m less than a fan of extremes of any sort, but there’s a segment of the population, and I suspect there always has been, that wants to take things to extremes. Except that they don’t see what they believe as extremes, but as the way things should be. The traditionalists tend to romanticize the past or the good old times, and those looking to the future tend to embrace change almost unconditionally as for the best.

The futurists – both social and technological – seem unable to accept the fact that change isn’t always for the best and that there are aspects of the past that are better than their corresponding current aspect. The traditionalists tend to ignore or whitewash [sometimes literally] the uglinesses of the past and exaggerate its purported virtues.

In the past, this conflict has tended to be more apparent in politics, economics, and law. But it’s always been simmering in literature, except for F&SF, where the first overt signs of this appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the “new wave” movement, which was an effort to move away from the hard Sf basis of the field into more literary writing styles and a greater emphasis on “soft science.” Then came the boom in fantasy, which soon eclipsed the sales of science fiction.

More recently, over the past two decades, however, there’s been an increasing emphasis, particularly in speculative fiction, on what I will call “cultural and social awareness.” In one sense, this was long overdue, because F&SF was for too long dominated almost exclusively by western white male stereotypes, and the entry into the field by large numbers of talented writers who were other than white and male has made for a much richer and more diverse universe of writers and themes.

Because of the richness of that diversity, I get very tired of “traditionalist” F&SF writers who claim that the major publishers won’t publish them because they won’t write “woke fiction.” There are still major publishers who print and distribute western-male-centric novels – they just have to be good novels.

At the same time, however, I’m now getting the feeling that the emphasis on cultural diversity in F&SF has gone askew. I’m for well-written cultural diversity with good plots and characters, no matter who wrote it. The emphasis should always be on the work and its degree of excellence. But… there’s been too much talk and, I suspect, editorial emphasis about who writes what, rather than how good the writing is and how accurate the cultural elements are. One struggling writer I know had a novel rejected because, despite the writer’s knowledge of a culture and having lived in it, that writer was not of that ethnicity.

Some twenty years ago I wrote two novels based on my experiences in other cultures – The Parafaith War and The Ethos Effect. There would certainly be questions about my writing The Ethos Effect today, because the protagonist is a black male naval officer who is the son of two fathers, and I’m neither black nor gay, nor the son of gay parents.

Writers should always expect to be questioned on how accurately they portray cultures in their work, but the business of judging a novel on the ethnicity of who wrote it, as opposed to how well it was done, is carrying “cultural diversity” too far.

It’s also why there’s a growing backlash against the “woke” culture.