Archive for the ‘General’ Category

Forgotten City

The other day I came across an interesting article in Archaeology dealing with an ancient city I’d never heard of – Ugarit. The city was founded around 2000 B.C. on the coast of what is now northern Syria, presumably because it had a good harbor. As an independent city-state located on the northern border of the Egyptian empire and on the southern border of the Hittite empire, for roughly 800 years Ugarit maintained semi-independence and prospered as a trading hub. At some time in the period 1350-1315 B.C. Ugarit became a vassal-state of the Hittite Empire, but remained self-governing, and continued trading with both Egypt and the Hittite Empire, as well as with other Mediterranean lands.

Unfortunately, Ugarit was attacked, burned, and leveled by the “Sea Peoples” in roughly 1185 B.C., during a period when the “Sea Peoples” also obliterated states and cities in Cyprus, Canaan, and Turkey . The area around Ugarit was not reoccupied for almost 300 years, and the ruins of the city were covered and never reoccupied. But because all records were kept on clay tablets, more than 5000 have been recovered since the 1930s, and many have been translated, revealing that the city was a wealthy commercial hub, where five separate writing systems and eight languages were in use simultaneously. Ugarit also boasted a large royal palace and a hundred and fifty foot tall temple to Baal that was likely also a lighthouse towering over the harbor.

Culturally, Ugarit was also different in other ways from neighboring lands. Women had far more autonomy compared to contemporaneous cultures, and records show that women owned property in their own right, that unmarried or widowed women could be heads of households, and that queens had separate estates and held prominent diplomatic and religious positions. Poems and what appear to be scripts for plays with stage direction have also been discovered, written in the Ugaritic language, as well as works from other cultures.

In the century before Urgarit’s fall, the scribes there developed and began to use the first alphabetic system that included signs for vowels, but the destruction of the city was so thorough that no one survived or returned, even to claim buried hordes of wealth, and it was more than two centuries later before the Phoenicians re-developed alphabetic writing.

In reading all that, I couldn’t help wondering how much else was lost, and whether history would have been different if a city-state I’d never heard of had survived.

Review Thoughts

Recently, I read a review of a forthcoming S&SF book that began by trashing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby as a story about insufferable and deeply uninteresting spoiled rich heterosexual white people and their petty self-centered problems. And on the surface, the reviewer is correct. But on a deeper level, Gatsby is also about an ambitious and flawed outsider trying to force his way into the power structure to gain acceptance.

Now whether one likes Gatsby or not, it’s simplistic to characterize the novel as being merely about spoiled rich people, just as it would be simplistic to characterize N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season as a future survival story in a world dominated by plate tectonics or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as being about survival on a frigid planet inhabited by hermaphrodites.

Yet too many readers and reviewers only consider the superficialities when reading or reviewing books. Currently, marketing doesn’t help either, because good and complex books don’t lend themselves to “elevator pitch” descriptions. And too often, the elevator pitch descriptions, either by the publisher, reviewers, or readers, focus on what can be described simplistically, rather than what cannot, when what cannot be described in simple terms may be what the novel is really all about.

And yes, there are those few, ultra-intellectual reviewers who go to the opposite extreme and focus on how the author’s psychic traumas and/or personal life (as is most likely the case with Gatsby) are reflected in the “subtext” of the book, or how the writer should or shouldn’t be supported because of his or her or their political outlook, any or all of which, while they may or may not be true, has nothing to do with whether the novel is a good piece of work on its own.

According to studies, “critical” reviews, for the most part, don’t influence sales that much. It’s more likely that sales influence reviews, one way or another. Yet far too many writers, especially those with “literary” aspirations, worry about reviews, which they can’t control, rather than spending that energy on writing the best book they can.

Sloppy

The other night we took visiting family to a very nice local Italian restaurant, one that, while not pricing menu items the way they would be on either coast, would not qualify as inexpensive anywhere, except perhaps in comparison to Michelin starred restaurants.

Everyone in our group was dressed in a fashion I’d call tasteful casual, the women in dresses or blouses and trousers, the men in slacks and collared shirts. The restaurant is enclosed and air-conditioned and was close to full. Not a single man besides those in our group wore a collared shirt, and several inhabited shorts or trousers that either swallowed them or which they barely fit into. Most wore flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. And the T-shirts had generally seen better days. Hell, the T-shirts I do yardwork in were in better condition than some I saw in the restaurant. The women weren’t any dressier, either.

When we took our daughter and her daughter to the airport, many of those entering the security check point were attired in an even more “casual” fashion.

I’m not talking about well-fitted T-shirts and jeans with sneakers. I’m talking tank tops and too tight shorts revealing too much corpulence in the wrong places and flip-flops.

Now… I realize that I’m certainly less casual than almost any writer out there, since for nine months of the year I write wearing long-sleeved dress shirts and slacks [usually with vests], switching to polo shirts with slacks only when the temperature exceeds 90 degrees F. I do wear boots, rather than sneakers, but that’s because any brand of sneakers I’ve tried hurts my feet. I don’t expect other writers working at home to follow my sartorial preferences [not that many could ever be persuaded], but wearing worn T-shirts to nice sit-down restaurants does strike me as being in bad taste, and it can’t be a matter of money, because people without money can’t afford those restaurants.

Is it the idea of “freedom,” carried to excess, i.e., “I’m comfortable dressing like a slob, and I should have the freedom to be a slob everywhere?” Or is it that good taste or manners are obsolete and considered irrelevant? Or possibly, the flaunting of wealth and power through a total disregard for neatness and taste?

If that’s the “new wealth,” I’m in even greater support of higher income taxes.

Nickeled and Dimed to Death

Last week our son and his wife came to spend a week with us, and a good time was had by all. Said son is the U.S. manager for a small, family-owned, boutique British retail firm, which means he’s financially comfortable, but not extravagantly paid. They flew coach, and his observations on the air carrier were succinct – “They try to nickel and dime you to death.”

For example, although they’d booked their reservations together, when they got to the airport they were told they couldn’t sit together unless they paid another $75. Since the airline going to Utah isn’t the one he flies on business, the baggage fees were $25 per bag. I lost track of the various other fees involved.

His experience is hardly unique. Everywhere I look, there are fees tacked on. Get a new cellphone, even with the same carrier and with the same number, and the odds are you’ll be charged an activation fee – even though said “activation” takes a few minutes at most. I can see such a fee for a new customer… but for an existing one?

Can you even get a new car for the advertised base price? And would you want to drive it? How many people stay with “basic” cable or satellite television services?

Higher education is notorious for such fees. Books, lab fees, activity fees, accompanist fees, parking fees, etc. And I’m sure everyone can cite other examples.

Part of the reason for all those fees is because almost everyone shops for everything on price… and retailers and others use low prices to lure people in, and then tack on the fees, because the initial low prices often don’t even cover costs.

My wife the professor is always amazed at how often university students don’t look at the bottom line when choosing a college or university. A higher-cost more selective university will offer a student what appears to be a significant scholarship, perhaps double what a less prestigious college might offer, but so often the students only compare the scholarship offer and not the bottom-line cost. If tuition is $30,000 a year at university A, and a student is offered a $15,000 a year scholarship, the tuition cost is $15,000. University B, with similar offerings but less prestige, offers a $10,000 scholarship against tuition of $20,000… and the student or family often pick the higher scholarship, even though they’ll end paying [or owing] $20,000 more after four years. Of course, since universities are identical, other considerations have to be weighed, but so many students – and their parents – don’t even think about that.

But… everywhere I look I see this pattern… and how many people fall for it.

The “Collapse” of Traditional Publishing?

For the past several years there have been various “furors” in the F&SF writing community about who’s been publishing what, about who’s not publishing what, and about which type of books are getting nominated for what awards. The latest semi-furor seems to rest on the idea that traditional publishing houses, i.e., the big New York publishers, will collapse because they’re now publishing a much wider range of books, instead of largely publishing the kind of F&SF books released from roughly 1955 to around 2000, that is, largely male-dominated, action-oriented, speculative fiction where the emphasis was on science or magic and action. Not that a lot of other types of F&SF fiction weren’t also published, beginning in the 1970s and increasing over the years, but the trend has been toward a broader range of F&SF. The result, predictably, is that fewer writers who produce “traditional” male-oriented action F&SF are getting published, and those who aren’t getting published or not as much aren’t happy about it.

First, if I’ve figured correctly, fiction only comprises 45% of total book sales revenue, and F&SF only comprises about 15-17% of total fiction sales, or roughly seven percent of total revenues. I may be a bit off, but those figures are in the right ball park.

The other aspect I’ve noticed is that, very quietly, the traditional publishers are inspecting their bottom lines and weeding out editors and imprints that aren’t selling that well. I don’t see them throwing out authors whose books sell well just because they write action-oriented fiction featuring predominantly male characters.

Second, over the past three centuries there’s always been a market for inexpensive written stories and entertainment, but who published it and how has changed over time.

The “penny-dreadfuls” of the mid-1800s in Great Britain were cheap, usually gory. adventure/crime/horror stories aimed at young men, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the market was swamped with “penny” knockoffs. They were printed on paper so flimsy that very few examples remain.

In turn, they were followed, not only in Great Britain, but in the United States, and elsewhere, by the era of pulp magazines, which by the mid-twentieth century largely gave way to the mass market paperback. I was personally very familiar with F&SF mass market paperbacks, because my mother had a small gray bookcase filled with them, and they cost during that time from thirty-five to fifty cents, thirty-five cents then being roughly equivalent to $3.50 today. But what gets overlooked in such comparisons is that that thirty-five cent paperback was only 150 pages long, compared to the massive 350-600 page plus paperbacks of today. In essence, mass market paperbacks cost about as much per page as they did sixty years ago.

The cost problem isn’t so much inflation; it’s purchasing power. In 1960, a worker could buy at least two paperbacks for an hour’s minimum wage. Today, an hour’s work at the federal minimum wage won’t even buy one mass market paperback.

This makes lower-cost e-books more attractive, and with the advent of e-books, writers who don’t want to deal with traditional publishers or writers rejected by them can self-publish, and most of those who do so charge less than traditional publisher. Often, as was the case with the penny-dreadfuls and pulps, the production quality and distribution leave something to be desired. But sometimes, those production qualities are good, and sometimes the writing is also good, but, from what I’ve seen and sampled, on the whole most indie-produced work technically isn’t as good as what’s turned out by traditional publishing.

The bottom line, as I see it, is that indie publishing offers an opportunity for writers either rejected or ignored by traditional publishers, for various reasons, and some few will likely make far more money than if they were traditionally published.

Most won’t, but even those authors who are traditionally published aren’t always able to support themselves on their writing income. I was “successfully” published in the traditional fashion for twenty years before I could support myself on my writing. Today, unlike in the past, self-publishing is practically and economically feasible, and there’s still the opportunity to carve out an income and readership for those authors not chosen by traditional publishing.

But despite the appearance of indie publishing, I don’t see the traditional publishers going away, partly because while the indie market and the traditional market overlap, they’re not exactly the same, and, besides, the market’s big enough for both.

ADDITIONAL NOTE:

I’ve been reminded that during the later part of the pulp era and most of the mass market paperback era, comic books were also a significant print entertainment forces, and, of course, now graphic novels are in the mix.

Lies Versus Selective Truth?

Once upon a time you could at least count on the vast majority of politicians in either party telling the truth some of the time and there being at least a grain or shade of truth in the rest of their statements. Like everything else in politics the speaking habits of the majority of politicians in both parties have polarized.

The majority of the Republican Party, in its efforts to hang on to what it believes are its core supporters, has essentially decided that even a pretense at speaking something vaguely resembling the facts is not only unnecessary, but that the only way it can hold onto any power – and possibly even win the next election – is to spread lies and more lies. Lies, of course, that are more attractive to Republican rank-and-file than the truth.

Now, there’s always been a strain of this in politics, the most notable in recent eras being the Republican Senator Joe McCarthy, who invented the numbers of Communists he thought was plausible in whatever group he was targeting at that moment. There’s also been a strain of virulent anti-immigrant “nativist” politics throughout our entire history as a nation. The “anti-black” politics permeated the Democratic Party until Lyndon Johnson pushed for civil rights, and then those who opposed full civil rights [or sometimes any civil rights] migrated to the Republican Party.

For all that, the current lies pushed by Republicans pretty much take the cake. No other political party has ever tried to deny the results of any national election by force. Sometimes, they’ve manipulated the system, but having a sitting President incite a riot to deny the results of an election is unprecedented. When a Republican congressman says that the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol wasn’t much more than a normal tourist event, when the Republican leader in the House of Representatives continues to insist that the election was stolen, when the Republican Party strips one of the most conservative members of its conference of her post because she stood up against those lies, it’s not about political beliefs, and it’s certainly not about anything close to the truth.

Now… the Democrats aren’t saints, and they often are very “selective” about the truth, but at least there’s some truth somewhere. They do have facts and statistics about oppression and Republican voter suppression, about poverty, and about the inadequacy of the minimum wage. It’s a shame that they’re not nearly as strong about economics, but we can survive bad economics, partly because economics work, despite the politicians, but laws based on lies will destroy a democratic society long before bad economics will, and bad economics can be fixed without resorting to a civil war.

After all, the last time states decided that mandating oppression and denying the vote was a state’s right didn’t turn out all that well.

Most-Educated?

The other day I ran across a reference that showed the percentage of national wealth in the U.S. held by “generations” when their median age reached 40. When the baby boomers reached forty, they held 21% of the national wealth; gen-X had 9% at age 40; while millennials, who just reached 40, hold only 5%. For a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here, that’s not surprising.

The next statement, however, did catch my eye, because the writer asked why the most-educated generation was the least wealthy and prosperous. Needless to say, my first reaction was to think “millennials” aren’t the most educated generation; they’re only the most ‘degreed’ generation.

As I’ve noted, on and off for years, overall, education has been dumbed down over the last fifty years, largely because of the push to get more high school and college graduates. On the one hand, there’s no doubt that the brightest, most educated millennials are generally as bright and as educated as the brightest in any previous generation, but to get there, they’ve had to pile up graduate degrees, and, as a result, have also piled up enormous debt, which is obviously one of the reasons they have a smaller share of the national wealth.

As for those other millennial college graduates, the ones who aren’t at the very top, I personally believe they’ve been even more cheated than those millennials skilled and fortunate enough to come out on top. The remaining millennials, in all too many instances, labor under the illusion that they’re well-educated, even when they cannot write a coherent paragraph, analyze a problem, complete a task without detailed instruction and continual supervision, or understand that every single profession requires a great deal of grunt work, perhaps high-level grunt work, but grunt-work all the same. Too many of them have been so “spoon fed” mere bits of knowledge and are so afraid of making as mistake that they have very little, if any, initiative.

It’s not that they’re without intelligence or ability. It’s that they’ve never been taught how to fully use those abilities, nor have they been taught young that failure isn’t fatal and that there are always consequences. It’s that the education system, society, and, frankly, often their parents, have failed them, and it’s been an incredibly expensive failure, both for them and society. While almost no one in power will admit this failure, at the same time the costs to these “lost millennials,” and to society, are still piling up and will for years to come.

The Forgotten Point

With all the furor about inequality of income, inequality in education, and statistics being tossed out about how poorly minorities do on standardized tests, maybe all the experts and education consultants ought to take a hard look at some basic facts. The 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that only 37% of U.S. high school seniors could read proficiently and less than 25% were proficient in mathematics. Interestingly enough, in 2018, roughly 37% of Americans had a bachelor’s degree.

The bottom line is fairly simple. If a student isn’t proficient in reading and mathematics, the odds are extremely high that they won’t do well college or in most high-paying fields. Not only that, but roughly half of adolescents and young adults with criminal records have reading difficulties. Similarly, about half of youths with a history of substance abuse also have reading problems.

Study after study has shown that the vast majority of students who don’t learn to read well in grade school never will catch up, which is borne out by the fact that 63% of high school seniors still can’t read proficiently. This isn’t helped by the fact that high school students have moved from reading to other leisure entertainment venues over the last 50 years. In 1970, 70% read from magazines or books daily; today the figure is 16%, and reading bits and pieces from a computer screen isn’t the same as reading a book.

In addition, individuals who develop reading skills are far more likely to develop writing skills, and the decline in writing skill among students entering college is at least partly, if not largely, linked to the decline in reading – both reading required in school and reading for pleasure or self-education.

As I’ve noted in other blogs, basic reading and writing are skills that need to be learned before the brain’s linguistic centers mature, which generally occurs in the mid-teens – certainly well before students enter college. What politicians and bureaucrats – and too many activists – tend to overlook is that mastery of the basic skills of reading and mathematics at an early age is far more important than all the furor over tests, GPA, social/economic inequality… or even a broad curriculum or cultural diversity.

Admittedly, students who come from higher economic backgrounds have a tremendous advantage because their background boosts the skills and referents essential to become a proficient reader. But as certain schools have demonstrated, those skills have been successfully taught to the most economically disadvantaged children. The larger problem is that too much is being “taught” too early to far too many students who don’t have the linguistic skills to really grasp that knowledge… or to learn material on their own, which becomes increasingly important in secondary and higher education.

The furor over tests such as the SAT or ACT misses a fundamental point. The test scores reflect, not just raw intelligence, but also the ability to process the material swiftly and accurately. Since most tests are timed, students who cannot read quickly and well and calculate quickly and accurately are penalized and classified as less able. And, unfortunately, they’ll be “penalized” for the rest of their life, because employers want jobs done quickly and well. Slow readers and calculators may be accurate, but in the real world time is money.

The solution doesn’t lie in removing or changing standardized tests, or in fiddling with college admission criteria. It lies in improving those two basic skills at a young age, and I don’t see the many educators or any politicians on any level addressing that in a meaningful or useful way. Until it is, all the proposed reforms involving colleges and higher education are essentially rearranging the same old flawed furniture.

The Power of Words

There’s been a great deal of talk about words, and their power, and a great deal of disagreement about that power. But while I’ve heard a great deal of rhetoric, from what I’ve seen and heard, far too much outrage, energy and effort has been placed on attacking verbal minimization and micro-aggressions, which – although painful, discriminatory, and symptomatic of racism, sexism, and just plain rudeness and bad manners – are not where the real damage is caused by words.

The real damage caused by words is the ever-growing web of untruths, knowing misstatements, and blatant lies harnessed in service of oppression and discrimination. Restrictive voting rules that benefit those in power do far more damage than the micro-aggressions and verbal “sins” that seem to consume the “woke” community. So do the words in laws that establish and maintain income inequality through massive tax breaks for corporations and the affluent. Or the words that pit lower income whites against minorities, when both are victims of preferential treatment of the affluent.

We now have the greatest dichotomy between the wealthy and the poor in our history. We have an education system rigged against minorities and the poor. We have a crumbling infrastructure in every state in the union. I live the state with supposedly the best infrastructure, and Utah gets a C minus – and we’re the best?

Yet the Republicans are consumed with the big lie of a stolen election, one that election officials in both parties have called the fairest ever with absolutely no actual evidence of any fraud that could have changed the outcome anywhere. And the use of that lie has resulted new discriminatory laws and legislation across the nation.

At the same time, the left, perhaps in frustration, is spending far too much time and effort on attacking individuals for how they address people, rather than addressing the real problem with words and attacking the misuse of words in matters that affect the structure of society and its power base.

Most of the micro-aggressions and verbal assaults will diminish markedly if the poor and minorities gain political power… and that’s where the battles need to be fought.

Or, put more crudely, in the words of Lyndon Johnson, “If you got ‘em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

Language follows power, not the other way around.

“Freedom” Talk

I’m so sick and tired of people – especially the extremists – insisting that they deserve the freedom to say whatever they please, regardless of the consequences. And I’m particularly angry at people, particularly the far right, who insist that they have the “right” to lie, to reject verified facts, or to present facts in a misleading context. The fact is, as illustrated by the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, that lies and distortions undermine social order and can lead to injury and death.

This isn’t anything new. The idea of a peaceful ante-bellum south was also always a lie. The pre-war southern political power structure continually feared a slave revolt, and the oppression and physical abuse of slaves has been well-documented. Even the “gallant” Robert E. Lee is documented to have beaten a slave.

The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy vs. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was acceptable was a lie, because the white power structure had no intent whatsoever in providing “equal” access or facilities, and when black communities managed to create prosperity, all too often white vigilantes tore them down and terrorized and/or killed blacks who had the temerity rise toward equality.

When the last election showed that minorities were getting close to equal rights to vote, what happened? Republicans in state after state immediately pushed, and often passed, legislation that makes it harder for those in less affluent communities to vote. And they’re justifying it with the lie of almost non-existent “voter fraud.” Even the far-right Heritage Foundation’s vaunted study on voter fraud could only find a handful of individual cases in over twenty years of federal elections.

Trump and his supporters are pushing for the legal right to lie under the guise of free speech and the idea that they have the right to lie and distort and to use public media to do so

The problem is, of course, is that the unscrupulous and corrupt will use any tool to obtain power and to maintain that power. Those who are honest and law-abiding don’t want to restrict free speech, but without a government check on unregulated freedom of speech in a high-tech mass communications society, it’s beginning to appear that the lies will eventually prevail. Yet if government has the power to stop the lies, whoever controls the government will eventually control the people.

The only way to stop the loss of real freedom is for people, both as individuals and in groups, to reject the lies and insist on “all the facts, all the time.” The facts, all the facts. Not what you believe, not what you want, but the facts.

Unfortunately, too many Americans are more vested in believing comforting lies espoused by the leaders of their “tribes,” rather than in looking for a truth based on facts. To maintain freedom requires the strength to face the facts, both when they’re comforting and when they’re not. Insisting on comforting lies has always led to authoritarian rulers and loss of freedom.

“Woke” and Context

The “cancel culture” is close to being out of control – or maybe it is already. On the one side, there is an extreme left that sees the current socio-economic structure and culture as fatally flawed and that takes even slight lapses and misunderstandings as intentional slights or attacks, and on the right, a mass of conservatives who insist that everything is just fine the way it is and that, even if it’s not, the extreme leftists are taking things far too far.

What I’ve noticed repeatedly is how often matters are taken out of context. For example, a performing arts instructor who had worked with a student for more than three years, giving that student additional instruction, alerting the student to opportunities and funding, and going the extra mile, wrote the student an email to point out that the student had showed a considerable lack of courtesy and respect in handling a situation, adding a note that such behavior would hurt the student if repeated in professional situations because the performing arts community can be a very small world at times. The student ended up filing a grievance that almost resulted in the instructor being dismissed. The instructor was trying to be helpful, alerting the student to an unprofessional behavior, nothing more, but because of the ultra-sensitivity of the words along the lines of “it’s a small world,” the administration panicked. That situation was far different from the ones where Harvey Weinstein used those words to threaten young actresses not to report his physical assaults.

Instances like those of the instructor are far from rare and are getting more and frequent, and I suspect it’s because the “cancel culture” is far too focused on “forbidden” buzzwords than on evaluating words and phrases in their context, and, from what I’ve observed, often too little attention is paid to actions that indicate that the speaker certainly meant neither offense nor harm.

Likewise, conservatives have little or no understanding of the pain that lies behind the use of various phrases that anger the left, because they don’t or can’t understand the context in which those words and phrases were used, both in the past and at times still in the present.

All too often context is everything, but the shouts are so loud that context is lost.

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.

Lilacs

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.

Education/Learning?

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.

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.