What I'm Writing
And The Winner Is...
No, I'm not giving awards, but commenting on the social implications of the recent Winter Olympics. Put bluntly, there's something really wrong with the world when a national psyche, such as Canada's, rests on the outcome of a hockey game. Did this athletic contest produce a cure for cancer, a new space drive that will allow us access to the planets, or a way to effectively deal with terrorism? For that matter, did any of the Olympic contests really determine the best athletes in any given endeavor? No, they did not. They determined who was the best on a given day. One could even claim that the U.S.was the better hockey team since the two teams split contests and overall the USA scored more goals. But Canada's national psyche was "saved" because one game was somehow more important than another game. A game! So be it... sadly.

And, by the way, when did games and viewing them become so important? Has it ever happened before in history? Several times, as a matter of fact -- in ancient Greece, before its civilization collapsed, in Rome, after the fall of the Republic, and in Central America, before the Mayan civilization became too weak to survive environmental catastrophe. There might be other examples, as well, but those spring to mind immediately.

More to the immediate point, the Winter Games -- and the television hoopla surrounding them -- trivialized the lives of everyday people everywhere. A skater was praised for competing and winning a bronze medal in the days following her mother's death. Yes, she was courageous, but how many people, every day, have to go with their lives after a loved one dies unexpectedly? Several other athletes were lauded for overcoming difficulties in order to triumph in their fields, and the media played it up as if they were the only ones who had ever done so. I don't recall any media hoopla or medals for my wife when she had to sing a full concert while her mother was dying, in order to keep her job, nor do I recall any great praise for the student who had to do a singing competition after surviving a car crash and a broken shoulder and the death of a beloved aunt. And there seemed to be a great deal of concern over whether Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series would be finished, which concern and commentary lasted far longer than the brief praises of his career at the time of his unfortunate death.

There was a note that the coverage of the Winter Olympics actually outpolled American Idol in terms of viewers. Why should this have been any surprise? They're different sides of the same coin. Both reward a performance of the moment, not necessarily sustained excellence, and both performances, frankly, have little to do with improving the human condition, except for momentarily making those watching feel better. I'm not taking anything away from the athletes; they've worked long and hard to achieve excellence in their fields. But to showcase such performances and to surround them with such hype... what does that say about our society?

Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions that I'm just a geeky science fiction and fantasy writer who has no understanding and appreciation of sports, I will point out that, for better or worse, I was one of those athletes. In addition of lettering in high school sports, I was a competitive swimmer for fifteen years, all the way through college, and although I was just a touch too slow to be Olympic caliber, I do know what it takes to succeed first hand. I'm not against sports; I'm against the glorification of the spectator side of sports, against glitz overwhelming true achievement, and against the creation of an image where sports achievement is blown totally out of proportion to solid values in life.

We live in a world where American Idol far outdraws opera, yet opera is far more demanding and technically superior. Where stock car drivers make thousands of times what those other drivers -- such as truckers and highway patrol officers -- do. Where graphic novels sell far more than books that actually make readers think in depth. Where the glitz and financial manipulations of Wall Street quants and financiers draw rewards hundreds of thousands of times greater than the salaries of those who police our streets, fight our fires, and educate our children.

History won't remember American Idol, nor the winners of Olympic Games. If history is even read by the coming generations, it might list Shakespeare, Edison, Washington, Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Pasteur, and Einstein, among others who made real accomplishments.

What did the Winter Olympics say about us as a society? That the winner is... those with the greatest ability to entertain and dazzle, rather than those who provide us with solid achievements?

The Difficulty of Optimism
The other day, Jo Walton, another author, posted a commentary on about the decline in "optimistic" science fiction books, claiming that she found few SF books that showed a "positive future" and asking "Why is nobody writing books like this now?"

I won't quote extensively from her article, but she does make the point that optimistic science fiction was written in the depths of the Great Depression, through WWII, and through the 1950s, none of which were exactly the most cheerful of times, despite a certain later gloss of nostalgia, while noting that today most SF views of the future are rather grim.

What struck me about both her commentary and the initial responses posted was that both Jo and the commenters restricted their views to a comparatively few handfuls of writers, and those writers tend to be those who have high visibility in the F&SF fan community and press. Even some writers who have fairly high visibility and who show a certain optimism about the future -- such as Joe Haldeman, Michael Flynn, David Drake, or Walter Jon Williams -- aren't mentioned. While my optimism is of the somewhat cynical variety, I do often write about futures with optimistic features and places, and I-m optimistic about solutions -- just not about their costs... and needless to say, I'm not mentioned either.

So, as Jo herself asks, how much of this is merely seeing what one wants to, and how much is grounded in a fundamental change in what is being written? Another relevant question is: How does one define optimistic? From the viewpoint of the tens of thousands of American mothers who lost children to so-called "childhood diseases" every year prior to about 1940, the health situation we have today would look incredibly optimistic. The same would be true of all the slaves in the south in 1850. On the other hand, the Jeffersonians of 1800 would be appalled by the centralized banking and commercially dominated economy of the twenty-first century. For all the housewives of the years before 1950, modern conveniences would likely seem the ultimate optimistic convenience, and long-distance modern transport is definitely far better and more optimistic than sailing ships and horse-drawn wagons.

I'm a great believer in the fact that life comes in all shades, particularly of gray, and the events of the past half-century, in particular, have reinforced that feeling in millions of Americans. We have comparatively few Americans, in percentage terms, in grinding poverty, particularly compared to most of the world's population, but we also have far higher taxation rates than we ever had when grinding poverty was the norm for twenty percent of our population. Despite the tabloid headlines, civic violence is far lower than it was a century ago, but there are far more restrictions on personal acts and behavior. And so it goes. In a way, one might even call these trade-offs the "loss of societal innocence." This makes it difficult for an intelligent writer to present an unblemished and totally optimistic view of a future where technology will solve all the major problems facing society -- or even one of them.

Yet, despite my quibbles with what Jo Walton has written, and despite those of us who struggle to show optimism in depicting the future, I think she touches a vital point. It is getting harder and harder to be both realistic and highly optimistic in writing about probable futures, although I do believe, as I think my writing shows, in qualified optimism.

In the end, the question becomes: Can any realistic future high-tech society present other than qualified optimism, given higher population levels, higher and often unrealistic societal expectations, and the need to maintain basic levels of order among society itself?

The Iceberg/Powder Keg
Last week, a biochemist who was denied tenure shot six of her colleagues, and three died. An engineer blew up his house and piloted his private plane into an IRS office after publishing a manifesto claiming how, time and time again, tax judgments by the IRS had wiped out his savings and retirement. What wasn't revealed by these reports is the fact that they're the tip of an iceberg that's been quietly growing over the past several decades.

What is this iceberg? It's the ever-growing pressure in all areas of society to do more with less, and it's been exacerbated by the economic meltdown and recession.

American manufacturing, as I noted earlier, is hiring as little as possible, and is either automating as much as possible or simply closing American facilities and importing goods from off-shore facilities or manufacturers in order to keep costs down. Admittedly, some facilities have retained hourly-paid employees, but have kept their hours the same or cut them hours while expecting higher production levels.

The same sorts of pressure have hit education on all levels. In most states, teachers and aides have been let go, and classroom sizes have increased. More students are going to college to try to improve their skills and qualifications, but across the entire nation, college faculties have been reduced and classes have been cut, making it harder and harder for students to graduate in a timely fashion, putting additional stress on the remaining faculty, the students, and their parents. Yet state legislatures are still demanding greater cuts in higher education because tax revenues are down, and the legislators are feeling pressure not to increase taxes. A professor who is denied tenure in this climate may never teach again, and granting tenure, no matter what anyone says, can be both arbitrary and unfair, and even if it is not, it's highly stressful and getting more so because everything is reviewed under a microscope. Over the past decade, I've seen or read about a number of cases, including one shooting, and another case where a professor literally attacked campus security, kicking and screaming, when being removed from an office he refused to vacate.

The TEA Party protesters are another symptom of this pressure, complaining primarily that taxes are too high and government too intrusive.

This pressure affects everyone and shows up in different ways. For example, I'm writing more books than I was ten years ago, and according to readers and critics, the books I'm writing now are better than the ones I was writing then, but I'm making less, even though the price of books is slightly higher. Why? Because I'm selling fewer copies of each older [backlist] title on average each year. This isn't limited to me. Once you get below the top twenty best-selling authors or so, in general book sales are lower. Certainly, it now takes fewer copies sold to make the lower rungs on The New York Times bestseller list, and this reduction in reading has hit midlist and beginning authors especially hard. Much has been made of the fact that younger readers aren't reading as much, so much so that another factor has been ignored -- one that my wife and other professionals have told me time and time again. They're all working longer hours, and they're too tired to read as much as they used to. Now... there are those who've been downsized out of higher paying jobs, and they have the time to read -- but they don't have the money to buy books, or as many books.

Why are there more and more "reality shows" on television? One reason is that they're far cheaper to produce -- another result of trying to do more with less. Another reason is likely that they offer a way for hard-pressed individuals to "succeed" outside the normal occupational channels, where too often these days harder and longer and better work is required just to keep a job, rather than mark one for advancement.

Yet, for all the commentary on the "recession," on jobs, on politics, I have yet to see a commentary on what all of these factors add up to for those who are still employed -- ever increasing pressure on working Americans, from those at the lowest level to doctors, professors, and other professionals, who are feeling more and more that they're being backed into a wall or a corner from which they cannot escape.

Whether that iceberg becomes a powder keg -- that remains to be seen.

A Different Extremism... On the Rise?
Last week the U.S, government released statistics showing that for the first time women held more payroll jobs than did men. Not only that, but overall male unemployment was three full points [or roughly 30% higher] than that of women. Among blacks, the discrepancies were far greater, with black male unemployment rates being more than twice that of women. In addition, there's a similar pattern occurring in education, where women are not only obtaining more collegiate level education, except in four areas of science and computers, but women are also winning a disproportionate amount of the scholastic honors, far more than in proportion to their enrollment.

That isn't to say that some males aren't excelling, because they are, but more and more, I'm seeing a pattern in both the statistics and in my own observations, and it's simple. A small percentage of men are extremely high achievers, and so are a small, if somewhat larger, percentage of women. The remainder of the men tends to skate by (and at times, that's an particularly charitable description), while a far, far larger percentage of women work extremely hard at what they do. In short, more and more, men seem to be choosing between the extremes of high achievement and effort and just "getting by."

My wife has also noted this change among students, where a smaller and smaller percentage of male students devote themselves to their studies -- even while test and ability scores indicate that the average intelligence level of these males is considerably higher than that of their predecessors twenty years ago, due in part to the fact that the university's admission standards have tightened. On the other hand, a greater and greater percentage of the female students devote themselves to pursuing excellence. Most of the males have greater difficulty concentrating. Interestingly enough, what the males also fail to notice, or apparently don't care about, is that the majority of the women aren't terribly interested in non-motivated males, and they comprise the majority of the male students.

The other area of extremism is that of risk-taking. A far greater percentage of men than women take high risks, often in areas where the chance of success is not all that great... or where sooner or later, failure is inevitable, such as with the derivatives meltdown.

While it's anecdotal, and I do tend to regard such with skepticism, I might also note that all those financial institutions which took huge risks and which continue to pay huge bonuses are dominated by males. I could not find a single large institution that failed and that was headed by a female CEO. There certainly may be one, but, even taking into account the far smaller number of large business organizations headed by women, the statistical discrepancy is noteworthy.

This difference may be biological in nature, in that women tend not to take extreme risks because doing so would jeopardize their offspring, or cultural, or both, but what I find disturbing is not that men tend to take risks, and that some take extreme risks, but when they take risks with other people's money and capital. If a risk-taker wants to sky-dive, free rock climb, or the like, that's his privilege and life, so long as it doesn't endanger the lives and resources of others. But taking extreme risks with large amounts of the funds of others to bring in a higher rate of return in order to gain millions in personal bonuses, while threatening the entire financial system... that kind of risk-taking I find objectionable, self-centered, and disgusting.

Part of these masculine behaviors may simply be a reaction to civilization, and particularly to a high-tech culture. Proving that you're the meanest, nastiest, and greatest risk-taking male in the world may have a large personal payoff in a low-tech culture, but that sort of behavior is a disaster in a world where everything is interconnected. As a result, society is creating more and pressures against such behavior. Some men just don't respond well to such pressures, and, for better or worse, a disproportionate percentage of those types of males are represented in those who immigrated to the United States. I suspect that's why we have so many "backlashes" against laws that restrict certain kinds of behaviors, from gun control legislation to restrictions on riding ATVs on public lands, to opposition to seat-belt laws, etc. This male reaction may also be fueling the popularity of "reality shows," where the "rules" of civilization don't apply.

Again, I have no problem with people watching "reality shows," but I do have a problem with their proliferation, because when the media is over-saturated with such programs, the message the media sends is that extremism, plotting and scheming, and all manner of negative behaviors are to be applauded and rewarded. In short, extremism is a virtue under the reality show model, while hard work, dedication, and honesty are for losers.

We're currently at war in two nations, battling extremism in its worst forms. Should we really be celebrating and espousing it here in the United States? Especially when it appears that it's creating an even greater divide between men and women? Or is it that only "our" forms of extremism are the good ones?

"New" as the Enemy of Excellence
For some time as a writer I've wondered why so many books that I and others have found good or even excellent seldom ever get discussed by the critics and reviewers within the F&SF field, and why so many of those books that get praised are demonstrably weaker than all too many of those that are never mentioned. The most obvious answer, and the one that comes up the most often, is that it's just a matter of taste. That's certainly a factor, and one that can't be discounted, but I don't think it's the only factor and not even the dominant one.

What first got me to thinking about this was a conversation I had several months ago with several of the noted and leading reviewers of a magazine that publishes a great number of reviews every month. The magazine reviewers explained that they liked to concentrate on "newer" writers and books that readers might not have seen or heard about. That's a reason with thought behind it, and one that has a certain validity.

Then, the other day I read a review column about the "best" works of 2009 by one of the newer "flavor-de-jour" reviewers who's currently everyone's darling, so to speak. Rather than explain, I'm just going to lift a few phrases from the column, each phrase about a different book: "fearless deep dive into worlds of fantasy and of sex...avant garde fantasy elements"; "wonderful ability to be utterly modern"; "strange scenes involving bizarre fish and other monstrosities"; "never blinks in its depiction of horrors of the mind and the body"; "gleefully subvert most of heroic fantasy's tropes"; "strange creations and enchanters"; "beyond the idea of cyberpunk or the New Wave in its approach"; "kinetic energy and hard-to-define originality"; "potent sampling of the author's Southern-tinged dual gonzo and horror impulses"; "most experimental and formally daring genre fiction of the year"; "interesting fantasy experiments"; "extraordinary credit for publishing an anthology with few marketable names."

I understand the appeal of the new, especially to critics and reviewers. After all, who wants to write reviews, year after year, that say something like, "XXX provides another well-crafted, well-plotted, and well-written work with virtually no flaws... sure to please those who have followed..." Even writing a review that states "YYY offers yet another well-designed and enchantingly written experimental novel whose plot and characters are based on the musical motifs of..." gets old after a well-established author achieves yet another milestone or artistic triumph, particularly if he or she does so without excessive sex or rhetorical fireworks.

Coupled with the praise of newness is also, so far as I'm concerned, far too much praise for the violent violation of taboos and the equating of explicit and often vulgar sexual episodes to excellence or insight or being daring. As I think Marion Zimmer Bradley once said (and she should have known, having written pornography under pseudonyms), "Describing sex in detail is like describing plumbing." Technical manuals and descriptions, whether about technology or sex, should definitely be limited in good fiction.

Seeing newer or unrecognized writers getting exposure and praise doesn't bother me in the slightest (although I do admit to a bit of jealousy because I would have liked a share of that when I was new and unrecognized), but what does bother me -- a lot! -- is that all this gushing over newness and shock value is equated with excellence, and all too many excellent works are overlooked in the critical pursuit of "newness." But then, I suppose I should remember that the very term "novel" comes from the Latin, through French, term for "new."

The Unique, Experiential, Anecdotal "You"
The other day, when almost a foot of snow fell on Cedar City, I heard someone remark, "so much for global warming." Yet even this early in the year, a great number of climate scientists are predicting that 2010 will be among the warmest years on record. With normally comparatively balmy Washington, D.C., suffering its worst blizzards in decades, and Siberia colder than in half a century... how can this possibly be?

For the same reason that people insist that e-books of new publishers' releases can profitably be sold for $9.99 -- personal experience! Forget about all those hundreds of pages of publicly available financial statements, or the percentage of books that fail. Just because individuals can copy an electronic file for next to nothing, that personal experience means that electronic books shouldn't cost anything, either.

Human beings gather patterns to make their way through life, and those patterns are all concentrated and analyzed on a personal level. Even the stories and anecdotes have more impact on humans, far more, than do facts and statistics. The problem with this experiential and anecdotal approach is that -- without "outside" information and wisdom -- it's lousy for dealing with events larger than the life and attention span [or lifespan] of an individual.

Take the problem of global warming. It's been a cold winter in much of North America and parts of Europe and Asia -- but the area above the Arctic Circle has been running as much as twenty degrees above normal. That's because for the past several decades, in the winter, wind patterns have confined the chill to areas well above the Arctic Circle. This year the warmer air has disrupted those patterns and sent comparatively "warmer" air south -- except that comparatively warmer air is a lot colder than what we've experienced in recent winters. Even so, the overall temperature of the northern hemisphere is predicted to be warmer than it was last year, but since none of us happens to live near the north pole, all we see is that it's colder where we are. That's experiential information, and it's limited to where we are.

Recently, the Economist had an article chronicling the pattern for economic booms and busts, and the patterns date back to before the Dutch tulip boom, and they all proceed in the same fashion, whether the commodity is tulips, South Sea or Florida land, stocks, or real estate. So why doesn't anyone learn? For two reasons. First, often those who fuel the boom didn't live through the last one, and they have no experience, and, second, because, as human beings, each of us likes to think that we're unique. That is a survival trait, necessary for beings who have self-awareness, because it would be too depressing for most people to carry on without that spark of uniqueness. And each of us is unique -- just as each snowflake is unique. And just as the patterns and uses of snowflakes are limited by their structure, so too are human interactions limited, if to a far larger compass. But our sense of uniqueness blinds us to the fact that human patterns repeat, time and time again. We can read about past patterns, but most people dismiss them with the thought, "I'm different. It won't happen to me." Yet it does, and all too often.

Another part of the reason is that there's a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and an old saying illustrates that: Knowledge is as old as the oldest cave painting or hieroglyph, but wisdom is only as old as the oldest human being.

A number of those of us who either served during the Vietnam era or lived through it had great concerns about military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq and opposed it from the beginning. We weren't and aren't against our troops, and we certainly don't like either the ideology or politics in those areas But we lived through Vietnam, and we saw how it is almost impossible to combat ideologies, especially ones fueled by fanaticism, without the total commitment of the entire nation and the expenditure of far more in lives and in resources than any administration would be allowed to make in the political conditions that exist. Yet the decision-makers vowed that the military effort would be limited and surgical and effective. Those were essentially the same terms used by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in the early 1960s, and that war dragged on for almost fifteen years and killed more than 55,000 Americans. We've now been fighting in the Middle East and Afghanistan for close to nine years, and matters still aren't anywhere close to resolution, not to mention the restrictions on everyday freedoms that having to combat the terrorist backlash has placed on all Americans.

But two administrations have vowed that matters would be "different." How different? Well... one difference is that we don't have a draft, so that national outrage over casualties is muted, even if career soldiers and National Guard troops are being deployed time and time again -- like the former student of my wife who's still in his twenties with something like five National Guard deployments. And we're using far more high-tech gear. So we're not losing nearly as many soldiers, but a lot more of them are surviving with high levels of physical and mental disabilities, and the resource cost is getting astronomical, at a time when our failure to learn from past experience created the second largest economic meltdown in a century -- and thus drastically reduced tax revenues... and boosted the deficit and thrown millions out of jobs.

Yes, each of us is unique, and all too many of us are uniquely unable to see and learn from wider knowledge, the past experience of others, and impartial and non-experiential knowledge, because, after all, we are unique, and oh-so-different from our forebears, and we're practical and see clearly everything around us. And that makes all the difference, doesn't it?

We Deserve "Cheap," Don't We?
One thing that the Macmillan-Amazon debacle highlighted is, to me, a very disturbing aspect of American society -- the idea that everyone has a right to everything cheaply, and that if a copy of something can be made inexpensively -- or for almost nothing -- then that's everyone's right. Thankfully, not everyone, and perhaps not even a majority of Americans believes that, but millions clearly do. The reaction of the ten-dollar-or-cheaper e-book demanders is merely the latest manifestation of the idea.

People who copy music, either recorded or sheet music, without paying for it, people who download illegal torrent copies of books, people who plagiarize others' ideas -- all of them are part of this movement, and they justify it with slogans such as, "Information should be free" or "The marginal costs of producing e-books are nothing" or "the music industry is gouging the listeners." In the area of books, the e-book buyers tend to ignore the fact that authors get less than half as much from an e-book as from a hardcover, or the fact that the vast majority of authors hold down daytime jobs because writing doesn't cover the bills. Everyone concentrates on the five percent or so of authors who actually make a living at writing. The same pattern holds true in music as well, and I have to ask if the lack of technical perfection and musical quality in so much of what is popular is the result of the "cheap at any cost" philosophy? Might that just have something to do with the fact that a smaller and smaller fraction of musicians and singers can support themselves by their music?

And then there are the banks, who are working diligently to reduce their costs, by making you print your statements out, or having you use your computer to monitor your account, and by trying to run banks with fewer and fewer employees while paying less and less interest on deposits. Or the various state legislatures who insist on not raising taxes while more and more children pour into the schools and colleges, and while teachers' salaries are frozen and classroom sizes increase, while state universities have to hike tuition because the state legislators want to keep taxes "cheap."

Of course, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. As a nation, we want everything as cheaply as possible, but we also believe that our incomes or wages or salaries should increase every year. Exactly why did so many manufacturers shut down U.S. facilities and outsource to Asia, Central America, or other third world countries? Or automate and reduce the number of employees? Because very few of them could compete on price while paying the wages, salaries, and working conditions demanded by U.S. workers and required under state and federal regulations. In addition, investors and lenders demand higher and higher profit levels. That combination translates into higher prices, unless costs can be reduced, and Americans generally won't pay higher prices -- except for certain luxury goods... and those often only in "good times." The result? Fewer high paying manufacturing jobs and more lower-paying service McJobs... with even more pressure for "cheap" goods, because more people have lower incomes... or none at all.

So, "price-sensitive" manufacturing industries have automated or fled the USA, if not both, of necessity, while everyone complains -- even while shopping for the lowest possible price for those goods. Along the way, we tend to turn a blind eye at the working conditions in those countries, yet rail against Chinese manufacturers of defective drywall, or toys with lead paint, or other unsafe products.

What almost everyone tends to ignore is that not only does price reflects the sum total of inputs, plus profit, but that not complying with safe working conditions and not enforcing good environmental practices also reduces costs, and much of the lower prices of many, many imported goods, including cheap CDS and other bottom-line electronics, is effectively subsidized by such practices as child labor, slave labor, terrible working conditions, and environmental degradation in third world countries. Of course, what makes it work is that, bad as those conditions may be, they're often far better than what existed before.

But what happens when there are no more third world countries willing to accept such conditions? When we run out of places to which we can export costs, so to speak? Or will we end up destroying our own economic system in pursuit of the "cheap at any cost" and become someone else's third world country?


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