The Mote in Gernsback’s Eye

I’ve said before that it usually doesn’t matter how much a conservative shouts or points at a problem with liberal behavior, the liberals usually don’t pay any attention until another liberal sees the same problem, and speaks up. This is because liberals (and conservatives often, too) — in the United States — have trained themselves to be so cynical about the thoughts and motives of the other side, they will immediately discount any information flowing from an “enemy” source. Everyone is forever on the alert for “concern trolling” and nobody wants to budge an inch, if it means admitting that maybe something might be wrong in friendly territory.

Excerpted below are the comments of the current Vice President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America — SFWA.

NOTE: I walked out of that organization after they expelled Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg from the pages of the SFWA Bulletin, for what essentially amounted to word crime. I decided I didn’t want any part of a so-called writers’ union that would treat two of its senior members so shabbily, over a matter which can only be described as thought-policing. I haven’t paid much attention to SFWA since then.

But Ms. Hogarth’s words struck a chord with me — they should, for any conservative who’s toiled in these spec fictional prose mines over the past 25 years. I said it last weekend: the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy does not like conservatives, nor libertarians, all that much. Being a conservative or libertarian (aka: classically liberal) in SF/F, in the year 2016, is akin to operating in enemy territory. Not because you’re out to get them as much as they’re certainly out to get you. Unless you can run silent, and run deep. Showing your cards — forcing them to admit that you exist — comes with a host of potential repercussions. You’ve definitely got to make up your mind about how you’re going to sail your way through this strange little ocean Hugo Gernsback dubbed “scientifiction.”

I attended a con once where the toastmaster said that they wanted all conservatives to “hurry up and die and leave the planet to the rest of us. No wait, they can stay as long as we can have their money.” And people applauded. That person wasn’t kicked out of the convention. They were feted and congratulated while I sat in the audience, pale and trembling, listening to the people around me cheer my demise. I have never, ever forgotten that moment. Or all the threatening ones after, both generalized or intimate, like the man who leaned into my face and told me the world would be better off without me and people like me. No one stepped in to tell him that he shouldn’t say such things. The people standing around us just nodded or smiled. One of them even said before leaving, “Your time is over. We don’t need you anymore, [expletive here].”

The mandarins of SF/F expend a lot of energy wrapping themselves in the flag of tolerance. But as any conservative can tell you, that tolerance runs pretty much one-way. A tolerance conversation (liberal to conservative) in SF/F often goes like this, “Hello, I am a tolerant caring compassionate liberal, and you’re not. You will sit there and politely listen to all of my ideas and theories, and not say a word. I will sit here and listen to all of your ideas and theories, and then I will explain to you why you’re a dirty bigot and a hater and an evil human being. We will both agree I am right, and you will apologize for being bad.”

That, dear friends, is how “tolerance” works in SF/F at this time.

I’ve discussed this at length with Orson Scott Card — he being well acquainted with the tolerance charade — and he says it didn’t used to be like this before 1980. Oh, to be sure, there were plenty of fans, authors, and editors on the left-wing side of the aisle. But it wasn’t so vindictive, nor so personal. You could sit at a table with conservatives, liberals, anarchists, libertarians, and have a rousing verbal melee of competing ideas, but at the end of it, you’d still be able to shake hands, and walk away comrades in the field. That began to change (perhaps not coincidentally) about the time Ronald Reagan took his seat in the Oval Office. Gradually, in dribs and drabs, the dominant left-wing culture of SF/F has traded in true tolerance, for a kind of totalitarian double-think 1984 version of tolerance — people and ideas labeled ‘intolerant’ don’t have to be tolerated. In 2016, with tender snowflakes floating around in SF/F like it’s a mild blizzard, anyone can be labeled ‘intolerant’ for any reason, logical or not. Because anyone can claim to be a Victim (caps v) and in the new vernacular of Social Justice Zealotry, the Victim is always right and always wins. Always.

What this means is that common law assumption of innocence — the foundation for Enlightenment justice as practiced in the United States for over two hundred years — has been replaced (in the culture of SF/F) with a totalitarian law of default guilt. When a Victim says you have “aggressed” in some fashion, you are automatically at fault. In fact, if you’re unfortunate enough to possess “privileged” demographics, your very existence is an aggression. You must put on your scarlet letter P and show the world that you are willing to atone for your sin of privilege, and call out those around you for their privilege too. Again, all of this rests on a totalitarian law of default guilt.

Not surprisingly, default guilt breeds an environment where compassion and generosity shrivel away to nothingness.

I’ll say it twice, for emphasis: default guilt breeds an environment where compassion and generosity shrivel away to nothingness.

What do I mean by that? Look at Ms. Hogarth’s example. A compassionate person does not openly wish for a broad segment of the population to die — whether it was a joke or not — and a compassionate audience does not applaud such a statement. There is also zero generosity in the declaration, “We don’t need you anymore, your time is over, bitch.” Ms. Hogarth was cast in the role of villain merely for being who she is. As the villain, she was not accorded the regard even a child might be accorded. Villains don’t deserve regard. Villains deserve scorn, disdain, insults, and worse.

I have occasionally read and heard rebuttals along the lines of, “Well if conservatives and libertarians weren’t so selfish, terrible, hateful, and bigoted, we wouldn’t have to insult them!”

Again, the totalitarian assumption of guilt. It doesn’t matter how the default villain has comported herself. The villain is the villain is the villain. And villains are fair game for all kinds of atrocious and genuinely aggressive (usually, passive aggressive) behavior that tolerant liberals themselves would never countenance; if it were directed at them, or their fellow ideological travelers.

More from Ms. Hogarth:

I am all for a more civilized fandom. I am all for us being kinder to one another, and striving to understand each other’s viewpoints, experiences, and beliefs. I give people the benefit of the doubt, and because of that, I’ve enjoyed friendships with a broad gamut of people, all of whom have taught me a great deal and brought me a great deal of joy. But if we’re going to slap people on the wrists for microaggression, can we please start playing fair? Can we go after the person at the con who made knowing comments to the audience about flyover states? Can we talk to the person who was preaching radical feminist philosophy as if it was the only sensible philosophy until I said, quietly, “I’m sorry. I’m not on board with most of that.” Can we stop the toastmasters wishing that half the population would die in a fire (and leave their wealth to them)? Is my excessive discomfort also important? What about all my conservative or religious friends, and the fans who have quietly told me the only place they feel safe is in my social media spaces? What about the fans who have even more quietly told me they don’t feel safe ever?

I find this sentiment plausibly risable. It seems like the voice of grown-upness, pleading for sanity. “Can we all please just try to treat each other a little better? Please??”

I could only add that the solution to all of this, is not to police the left-wing (on matters of “microagression”) to the same degree that the right-wing has been policed. The solution is to reevaluate the entire concept of “aggression” and “microagression.” Again, what happened to common-law assumption of innocence? We need to get back to it. Do not assume intent to harm. Set the bar (for proof of harm) high, and keep it high. Good lord, do we really want twin competing blizzards of tender snowflakes, all flying into each other and running to authority figures to “fix” the issue? Like a pack of sore-faced first graders endlessly tattling to teacher?

I was raised to believe that a real grown-up can take a few things on the chin. I was also raised to believe that a real grown-up can laugh at himself on occasion. The totalitarian assumption of guilt removes vital flexibility from our interactions. Everyone winds up expecting and seeking to discover (s)he has been harmed, and everyone is on the defensive against accusations of same. This kafka-esq nightmare of human relations permits almost no compassion, nor humility. When both pride and ego have been refined to the point of glass fragility, the slightest knock can cause shatteringly overblown reactions.

So, rather than degrade the state of dialogue, we need to promote thicker skins as well as greater honesty. I don’t want liberals being too scared to speak their minds. If somebody wishes I would go away and just die, I may not like the sentiment, but at least I know where the person stands. I am tough enough to hear those words, and I know the viewpoint from which they spring. It’s the viewpoint of moral surety. Scaring liberals into never speaking their moral surety does not end the moral surety. It merely drives them into echo chambers behind closed doors, where they can speak and share that surety in safe company; people who won’t run and tattle to teacher.

And if both conservatives and liberals only ever spend their time among like minds, behind closed doors, inventing monocultural spaces for themselves where they only ever have to hear and speak the same thoughts about the same ideas . . . well, we’re pretty much there already. In SF/F and also the culture at large. Social media has allowed us to run around inside the heads of other people, and we’re horrified by what we find there. Perhaps the liberals of SF/F believe that SF/F conventions (like Worldcon) ought to be places where they can feel safe verbally wishing for the deaths of conservatives? Forgetting that conservatives, too, are part of the fabric of SF/F? Whether SF/F’s liberals like it or not.

One wonders what old Mr. Gernsback might make of the situation — he who originally intended for “scientifiction” to be a literature that interested children in STEM careers. I am not sure Gernsback had any asterisks attached to that desire, political or otherwise.

Still more, from Ms. Hogarth:

Should I discuss at length all the times I have had this prejudice applied to me, not only at conventions, but in my career? Should I tell you about the time someone told me I “belong in the Baen gutter, with all the other troglodytes?” If this wasn’t a systemic prejudice, I wouldn’t bring it up. If we didn’t belong to a fandom that claims to desire diversity, I wouldn’t bring it up. But it’s both, and I am here bringing a warning: all the moderate conservatives — which constitute the majority — who do care about the rights of their friends, no matter their identities, are being driven away. Soon SF/F will find itself in an echo chamber, without any way to build bridges to the people who will increasingly see them as enemies. I don’t want that to happen. That’s why I continue to quietly point out that we can’t foster an environment of real safety without including people we disagree with. Because without exposure to one another, it’s too easy to demonize each other.

Three or four years ago, a fellow author lamented — in a discrete conversation among mixed company — that she had to suppress and hide a significant portion of her identity, in order to avoid causing trouble in SF/F. Because she knew her religiously-couched beliefs about a hot-button political topic would make her persona non grata with fellow authors, and also editors. She was crying when she said it. She knew she was baring her soul to a potentially hostile audience. At the risk of using a shopworn phrase, I felt her pain. Quite deeply. About a dozen years ago, it became apparent to me that if I truly wanted to become a “player” in SF/F I would have to learn to mask my beliefs. Either hide them, or pretend (in the company of fellow professionals) that my beliefs were contra to what I actually think and feel. About economics. About how societies and human beings function. About God, and the immortality of human essence. About sex and sexuality. About any number of things. It would all have to be shoved far back into the closet, and kept there. Otherwise, I was going to piss off a lot of people.

A few years later, having broken into the field — and having also failed spectacularly to keep my trap shut — a trusted mentor engaged in what can only be described as an impromptu intervention. To his credit, all of his logic was business-sound: when you are open about your beliefs, you risk alienating part of your audience, as well as part of your professional cohort. So why talk about it? Isn’t the golden rule to never discuss religion or politics? Because this conversation almost always ends in disaster?

My mentor made excellent sense, then. He still makes excellent sense now. And if the field of SF/F were a field that abided the golden rule across the board I am quite sure I’d not feel the need to bang my pot to the extent that I’ve been banging it. Bless my poor mentor, I know he gets an eye-twitch now, if ever my name is brought up in conversation. He knows he’s gonna have to hear it, about me. And he’s tired of deflecting, or making apologia. I don’t blame him.

But then, that’s precisely why I can’t let it go. Why should he have to deflect, or offer apologia? Why should Ms. Hogarth have to sound the alarm, about moderate conservatives being driven out of SF/F? Why should my fellow author — who cried tears of genuine anguish — have to suppress or cloak who she is, just to get along in this field? Why should any of us have to fear repercussions simply for thinking or expressing opinions or ideas that other people in SF/F disagree with?

“Stop thinking and speaking bad ideas, and we won’t have to be jerks to you!” shout the defenders of the status quo.

Ah, yes. The time-honored excuse of all abusers: you made us do it. There was a fair amount of that talk, directly following the farcical 2015 Hugo awards ceremony. And I’ve made no bones about the fact that I think the mandarins of SF/F self-inflicted a very deep, perhaps irrecoverable wound. But even that wound is merely a symptom of the bigger problem. Of the cultural and intellectual rot which has settled over SF/F and is presently intensifying.

Nobody on the “other side” has to give a damn what I say or write.

But they ought to give a damn about what Ms. Hogarth says and writes.

This is a key officer in the field, putting the field on notice. That the rot must not continue without remedy. I may disagree with her style of remedy, but there must be a remedy. At some stage SF/F’s self-styled liberals must force themselves to look into the eyes of those whom they despise, and find humanity there.

Otherwise, SF/F is going to entirely balkanize. It may have balkanized already? A kind of ethnic cleansing, wherein the “bad people” are at last revealed, and driven from the hall of righteous purity. Leaving SF/F a shell of its former self. Unable to grapple with the most basic of all scientifiction concepts: that there are minds which think as well as yours, just differently.

If there was ever a time when that maxim was carved into the stone archway over the door to the hall, it’s since been chiseled out, and replaced by a cheap plastic placard that says: SAFE SPACE. The door itself is now festooned with blinking orange hazard lights and gobs of yellow-and-black caution tape. Abandon all differences, ye who enter here. Diversity has become a skin-deep game of demographics and Victim-identity fetishization. The totalitarian culture of guilt is omnipresent. You can’t go a week in this field without some poor author or editor being called out, shamed, shunned, castigated, and verbally burned at the stake — for infractions of impiety or heresy.

Scientifiction — the literature which ought to, above all other things, pride itself on free inquiry and the publishing and expression of “dangerous” ideas — has fallen into a spiritual and ideological gutter of same-thinkery, restrictions on speech and expression, and the routine punishing of “evil doers” who cannot or will not conform to expected orthodoxy.

Again, the left-wing side doesn’t have to give a damn what I say or write.

But if enough people like Ms. Hogarth have the courage to tell the truth, maybe things can change?

One has to hope.

Advertisements

The 21st Century American Social Justice Zealot

I’ve slowly stopped using the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.” Precisely because most people who endlessly whine about social justice issues, in 2016 America, aren’t warriors at all. A warrior is (to paraphrase Worf, from Star Trek) bound by concepts of duty, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. A warrior puts the needs of the mission, the service, the country, before his/her own needs. A warrior embraces stoicism — the stiff upper lip — and does not indulge in histrionic, spastic outbursts of self-pity, or accusatory name-calling. A warrior does not seek to be offended at the drop of a hat, nor does a warrior run to authority figures every time (s)he is slighted, or finds the actions or speech of others to be objectionable. A warrior is practiced in matters of self-discipline, self-denial, and overcoming obstacles without piteously crying about how external stumbling blocks have permanently hampered his/her progress.

I see none of these qualities — not in the actions, nor the words — of America’s new breed of socially conscious, digitally narcissistic, materially pampered, self-absorbed activists.

Whatever happened to Kennedy’s call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” Hmm? When did our academic and activist set close its ears to Martin Luther King’s deservedly famous and timelessly evocative Content of Character speech?

Today’s so-called Social Justice Warrior is not a warrior at all. Merely a zealot. There is no onus on the zealot to hold himself or herself to a higher principle. The only thing a zealot understands, is that (s)he is emotionally invested in his/her beliefs above all else, and will use whatever means necessary to harangue, badger, intimidate, coerce, and control other people — so that the zealot gets his/her way. The world is artificially bent to conform to the zealot’s will.

It goes without saying that the 21st Century American Social Justice Zealot is an unhappy soul. By themselves, feelings of anger, rage, hopelessness, or impotency, are not invalid. Just about every human being experiences all of these emotions at one time or another. Most of us — as we grow and mature — learn to channel these emotions into constructive action. We start (in the words of Stephen R. Covey) with our immediate circle of influence. We focus on ourselves, and what we can do about our personal lives. (Worf, tapping fist to chest: “Here! Here is where we meet the challenge!”)

But the Social Justice Zealot is forever focused on external factors. Seeking (and often inventing) outside reasons for why the Social Justice Zealot is unhappy. Pretty soon, friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, they all begin to look like enemies. The Social Justice Zealot ultimately finds (s)he cannot be comfortable in the company of anyone other than more Social Justice Zealots. And together, they spin great narratives about how the very fabric of the world is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or “cishet fascist,” and it’s the job of Social Justice Zealots to set the world to rights. They are a religion unto themselves. Totally committed to proselytizing their gospel, while driving all other forms of thought out of the public square.

And they demand that the apparatuses of learning and government force the rest of us to conform, or else we’ll be subject to inquisitorial pain and suffering.

(Another Star Trek aside: who remembers TNG’s episode “The Drumhead”?)

if Social Justice Zealotry abides any kind of code, it’s Alinsky’s. “The ends justify the means” is not just an instructive maxim on how to accomplish goals, it’s a justification for the tearing down and destroying of much that is good, noble, and necessary to our Western Liberal way of life. (Remember when “liberal” used to mean being open to multiple points of view, even the ones a person may disagree with?) Social Justice Zealots are far, far more concerned with their own feelings — and how these feelings inform (cloud!) their perspective — than they are in constructively approaching problems, much less seeking compromise. To the Social Justice Zealot, compromise is a dirty word. The church of Social Justice has compromised far too much as it is. It’s time for an all-out holy war on the “normal” facets of society, which “oppress” at every turn.

In their hurry to rip down the tapestries of the Enlightenment, Social Justice Zealots have lately been exhuming the rhetorical corpses of venerated men (and even a few women) from the past, and putting the cadavers on trial for various sins — according to Social Justice Zealot orthodoxy.

(In the realm of the speculative arts specifically, almost nobody is immune — name your favorite science fiction or fantasy or horror writer who died before the year 2000, and you can find twenty and thirty-something Social Justice Zealots verbally eviscerating that person on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.)

Those historical figures which cannot be creatively coopted for the Social Justice cause, are summarily placed in the stocks, and splattered with rotten fruit. Always by people who seem to possess few or no valuable skills — which they might trade to society, for the purpose of self-betterment. After all, a Grievance Studies degree from Redwood State College of Northern California, doesn’t prepare one to do much else in life, other than become a campus apparatchik teaching other people to have Grievance Studies degrees.

Thus the Social Justice Zealot is a creature of recursive Ouoroborosian dimension. Endlessly traveling along circular paths of external blame, and possessing a special hatred for the edifices of Enlightened Western philosophy, commerce, liberal government, personal freedom, common law assumption of innocence, and the belief that while all men and women might be created equally, outcomes cannot and never ought to be guaranteed. Even progressive fellow travelers — caught straying from the doctrines of the church of Social Justice — are eaten alive. Hounded from their chairs at university. Made to prostrate themselves and grovel.

While the Social Justice Zealots take frowny-selfies — with a collective middle finger erected in the direction of the cell phone lens. Petulant. Unable (or unwilling) to cope. Forever demanding that people with productive lives, be made to stop and pay attention. Because fuck you, that’s why.

No, friends, these are most definitely not warriors. The Social Justice Zealots are the product of three generations of ever-softer parenting, and ever-softer living. Spoiled children in adult bodies. People more enamored with their narratives, than they are with facts. Unused to actually earning an honest living, at a vocation or profession that produces things society needs to function and survive.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”

Those words have been thrown in the Social Justice trash barrel.

The Social Justice Zealot motto is, “The country owes me everything, and if you disagree, I am going to call you a bigot, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, along with a bunch of other bad words; and fuck you very much for even existing, you cisnormative asshole!”

The market always wins

Now that the rebooted Ghostbusters is officially being acknowledged as a red-ink bath for Sony Pictures, can we please put down the protest signs, and have a candid talk? About how all the scolding in the world, cannot force the audience to love a thing? Likewise, all the scolding in the world, cannot force the audience to hate a thing, either.

Basically, stop with the scolding. It doesn’t work. It never works.

Remember how the new Star Wars book — that was a prequel to the seventh film — scored more one-star Amazon reviews, than all of its four and five-star reviews put together? And the author proceeded to scold the audience for it? I say, lighten up, Francis! It’s not because the audience is secretly morally repugnant. It’s because you turned in a weird book, written weirdly, versus the straightforward space adventure novel everybody wanted, and were expecting. Was that your editor’s idea? For you to throw an experimental literary curveball at the Star Wars fans, then teach them to hate you — by accusing them of being horrible people?

See, here’s the thing. The market always wins. Always. Doesn’t matter how brave or bold your posturing may be. If your book, or your movie, or your album, doesn’t have enough “there” there, you can hang a million virtue-signals on the thing — dress it up like a damned social justice christmas tree — and the audience is going to give you a big, whopping, “Meh.” And it’s not because the audience is secretly homophobic or misogynistic or racist. It’s because the audience is tired of being sermonized, and cannot be commanded to vote (with its collective wallet) for something it doesn’t want to vote for.

The Ghostbusters reboot failed, not because America hates women, but because America looked at this movie and said, “Two-point-five stars; maybe three at most, if we’re in a good mood.”

The audience doesn’t care about progressive eat-your-ideological-veggies politics. The audience doesn’t care about the demographics of the actors. The audience just wants to have a good time.

Likewise, you cannot command consumers to shun a thing, if that thing has already won them over. Remember Chick-Fil-A? Bunch of Social Justice Zealots (SJZs) commanded us all to “punish” Chick-Fil-A for (insert progressive political reason here) and the response — by Americans — was to give Chick-Fil-A a record week in profits. Any way you slice it, the SJZ plan wholly and utterly backfired. Because Chick-Fil-A chicken is delicious. People have known this for years. It’s why Chick-Fil-A has exploded nationally. Check out any Chick-Fil-A franchise at lunch or dinner, and you will typically see stacks of cars lined up around the lot, sometimes more than once, with a huge crowd at the registers inside. The anti-Chick-Fil-A “punishment” maneuver merely caused those ordinarily packed lines to go out the driveway, down the street, and around the block. Because the consumers said “F*** you, you can’t make us hate good food.” The consumers are still saying it, too.

So, please, let’s pause for a moment; to consider the boots-on-ground reality. Wagging your finger at people is never, ever a winning marketing strategy. Wagging your finger at the crowds is liable to have the crowds showing you a collective finger of their own — and it ‘aint the index finger. Because people like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. De gustibus. You want to freight your product with all kinds of social justice ornamentation? Fine. Just be aware of the fact that you’re putting a stone around that product’s neck. Don’t be shocked when it sinks to the bottom, never to rise. It’s not the audience’s fault. It’s your fault for thinking the audience wanted or needed you to shove your politics up their collective ass.

Again, the crowds just want to have fun. I repeat: they want to have fun. Can you bring the fun? Can you make something that gets spontaneous laughter or applause, without it turning into an imitation of a Politburo session, where grown men collapse because they dare not get caught being the first one to put his hands back into his pockets? Maybe you think the Politburo sessions are an instruction manual, versus a cautionary tale?

Maybe you need to reconsider.

But wait, who am I kidding? Of course you won’t reconsider. SJZs never, ever reconsider. Smug self-righteousness is a hell of a drug. Once a person is hooked, (s)he loses all perspective, and becomes both myopic and deaf. That’s SJZism in a nutshell: myopic, and deaf.

But don’t say nobody warned you. The next time your movie or book — tricked out with all the latest virtue-signalling baubles — tanks. You spent too much time focusing on the wrapping paper, without paying enough attention to what’s inside. It’s the product itself that counts. Just like content of character counts. Remember who said that? I do. It was good advice.

More “there” there, please. Bring the “there” and you succeed, every time. “There” is what matters to the consumer, above all else.

Not what you think you’re saying with the product. Not what you think you have to say, to make people think you’re one of the Good Guys. The audience isn’t paying money to watch you check yourself out in the mirror, take selfies, and broadcast to the world that you’re wonderful.

The audience wants to be entertained.

Not educated. Not lectured. Not have their awareness raised.

Entertained.

Oh, sure, you might get some fraction of the crowd to buy in — as a political duty. And if you can be satisfied with an “audience” that supports you solely and explicitly out of obligation, knock yourself out. Just don’t be shocked when the crowds aren’t beating down your storefront door. Learn to be content with your monthly trickle from Patreon. You’ve chosen to wear your SJZ badge on your lapel. You couldn’t wait to tell the audience how much they suck. You elected confrontation as your mode of communication. The bad’s on you. Make no mistake about it. The bad’s on you.

On the gripping hand, if you’re a content producer who’s been frustrated by the fact that the SJZs keep demanding you create the way they expect you to create — otherwise you’re a horrible person who will be punished — take heart. You don’t have to do what they say. You don’t have to kiss the asses, nor the rings. Your options are open. You can have fun doing what you’re doing, and find an audience who will have fun right along with you. And if you can spin the fun up to high enough RPM, maybe you get a feedback effect, go viral, and see some real traction? It’s not a guarantee. But then again, with the market, nothing ever is. You just don’t need to load up your ruck sack with leaden social justice conceits, in a vain attempt to appease people who will never be appeased anyway — because they’re high on their own supply.

Create your stuff. Have a good time doing it. Work hard. And above all else, be gracious with the market — even on those occasional days when they throw pies at you. That’s inevitable. You cannot please all comers. But you can thank them for their time. You can thank them for making an investment. You can honor the fact that they tried you, even if you ended up not being to their taste. Maybe they will try you again?

In this way, too, the market always wins. You’re not standing at a pulpit. Pulpits are for fuggheads. You’re standing in the town square, your cart of wares arrayed for viewing. If you’re good at what you do, and enough people notice, good things will come to you. Be patient. And keep playing the long game. The market favors the long game.

Addressing The Problem™

We’re well into our second decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy publishing tying itself up in knots over The Problem™. You’re no doubt aware of The Problem™ yourself. How could you not be? A monolithic wall of text (stretching into the stratosphere) has been erected, concerning The Problem™ and if you’re so dense as to be unaware of The Problem™ then clearly you are part of The Problem™.

Still, for the sake of review, let’s go over it again.

The Problem™ — according to those who’ve made it their business to fight The Problem™:

SF/F publishing is dominated by demographic W. Demographics X, Y, and Z are underrepresented. This is obviously because demographic W is prejudiced, and therefore excluding X, Y, and Z. Therefore demographic W is on the hot seat for making SF/F into a W-only club. So, what can obligatorily concerned, properly progressive members of W do to be more inclusive and celebratory of X, Y, Z, and also A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, and the ever-fabulous Q?

The chief problem with typical analysis of The Problem™ is that it fails to ask a very important question: wence the readership? Editors and authors are not birthed whole-cloth from the dust of the earth. They always begin as readers first. I repeat: editors and authors always begin as readers first. There is no author, nor editor, in the business of Science Fiction & Fantasy literature, who did not start out as a reader. Usually, in childhood and/or adolescence. 99.999% of all professionals began life (in the field) as avid fans of some sort, whether they were laser-focused on a specific author, or a specific sub-genre, or omnivorous cosmopolitans who imbibed everything the field had to offer. Thus, to understand a dearth (or surfeit?) of any demographic, within SF/F publishing, you have to go all the way back to the beginning.

Which kids are reading, and what, and why?

Thus, how many kids from underrepresented demographics, grew up in households where fiction reading was a common and encouraged form of entertainment? And out of that number, how many gravitated to SF/F explicitly?

Because it is entertainment we’re talking about, and where entertainment is concerned, De Gustibus can be an iron law.

The progressive conceit is that kids from underrepresented demographics don’t read SF/F because these children never “see” themselves enough — not in the characters, nor the stories, nor the ranks of authors and professionals. This argument always strikes me as particularly strange — for Science Fiction & Fantasy — since a great heap of SF/F (past, and present) has concerned itself with crawling around inside the heads of people and creatures who are decidedly different from the creators, as well as the audience. No sector of entertainment literature has devoted more time to examining Difference (note the caps) than SF/F. And even if you take the postmodernist deconstructionist approach (“All fiction is simply allegory for the sake of present-tense social and political commentary!”) you still find that SF/F has gone out of its way to explore the lives and thoughts of the marginalized, the alien, and the outcast.

In other words, this is a field that bends over backwards to put Difference front-and-center.

So, what else might be going on? Besides a subtle or unconscious plot on the part of demographic W, to exclude or marginalize the other letters of the alphabet? Especially when publishing is an enterprise that does not require any prospective professional participant to wear his (or her, or their) demographics on his (or her, or their) sleeve?

1) Kids are busy doing other things. This has been especially true since the invention of the television. The number of explicitly youth-focused, youth-oriented passtimes has exploded over the past 70 years. If it’s not music, it’s video games. If it’s not video games, it’s sports. If it’s not sports, it’s texting and chatting. If it’s not texting and chatting, it’s movies and series. And so on, and so forth. In any representative population sample of pre-teens and teens, you’re liable to lose 65% (or more) of that collective attention span, to entertainment that does not involve reading prose on a page.

2) Kids get their SF/F in other forms. This is a huge blind spot for that sector of SF/F literature that considers itself “true fandom” and which regards all other forms of SF/F — outside of literature — to be subsidiary or subervient. Since the late 1970s, the amount of televised and silver screen SF/F has increased dramatically, thanks to the birth of the Star Wars franchise; as proof-of-concept that spec-fictional content was a massive money-maker. Since then, studios cannot not churn out enough SF/F. Look at the big list of Top 25 all-time silver screen earners, and at least 22 of them are explicitly SF/F in some form. Throw in Japanese animation, and modern story-driven video games, and you’re staring at the greatest part of your average english-language teen’s spec-fictional diet. Movies, TV, anime, and games. That’s it. (S)he may not feel the need to seek out books or other forms of spec-fictional prose, simply because there is a universe of (often spectacular and enjoyable) spec-fictional content readily available — long before (s)he has to crack open a book.

3) Kids who are reading, may only be reading what is popular, or familiar. This is one of the great resentments among almost all spec-fictional scribblers: it’s not fair that movie or TV tie-in books, or the latest J.K. Rowling novel, soak up a vast (disproportionately vast?) number of reader dollars — which may or may not trickle down to the rest of us toiling in the salt mines. Scratch an author or editor taking aim at The Problem™ and you will almost always discover someone who is equally unhappy with the fact that Harry Potter or some other magical Fantasy doorstop series are co-occupying the Amazon bestseller rankings, versus this month’s latest “confrontational” pan-African indigenous perspectives gender-queer anthology — from AngryWymyn Press. (Click to donate to their patreon!)

4) Speaking of which, can we please (finally!) admit that what interests and fascinates your typical Intersectional Oppression Studies undergrad — at Oregon Coast University — is not necessarily what interests a majority of reading teens and pre-teens? No, not even the teens and pre-teens from marginalized demographics. Because not every X nor Y nor Z (nor even every Q) teen or pre-teen spends his/her/their time gazing endlessly at his/her/their navel. Thus, if the number of spec-fictional authors coming into the field from an Intersectional Oppression Studies background is large, the number of readers this pool might be directly speaking to, is pretty damned small. And no, scolding isn’t a great way to gin up audience enthusiasm. You can whip a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Especially the young, who will smell a moral sermon a mile away, and immediately run in the opposite direction.

Of course, that’s just the first layer of the cake.

Assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized youth can be attracted to reading SF/F how many of them are going to be interested enough to want to publish? To edit? To log the long, hard hours of practice necessary to reach entry-level proficiency? There are 101 easier, more direct routes to money, as well as fame. Devoting that much time and energy to getting good at SF/F takes a special kind of maniacal obtuseness — that only those of us with a fatal fascination for spec-fic are cursed to have.

Then, assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized entry-level SF/F pros can be slapped together, how do we know which markets this body is submitting to? What kind of books or stories? Unless we’re dealing with a university or subsidy press (click to donate to the patreon!!) said publisher has to be in the business to do business. This means keeping at least one eye on the marketplace. And the marketplace is notoriously immune to being guilt-tripped into coughing up its dollars for an entertainment product being proffered like a kelp shake from a Whole Foods organic health bar. “Because it’s good for you!” may not necessarily be a winning sales pitch. In fact, it’s usually a horrible sales pitch. Calling the audience names, when they won’t follow the carrot or the stick, is also a horrible sales pitch. The audience wants to have a good time. Period. Non-subsidy prose publishing has to be accountable to this fact. Thus the endless tug-o-war between art and commerce. Between what is deemed “worthy” by the cognoscenti, and what is actually worthwhile to the consumer public.

Okay, so, we’ve tunneled through reader and author origins, the matter of ideology versus economy, and at last come to the ugly worm at the bottom of the Tequila bottle: are SF/F’s editors actually racist? Sexist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Yadda yadda?

Consider the fact that the total number of spec-fictional editors and publishers are self-styled progressives and liberals — by a gargantuan, wide margin — and it’s a head-scratcher. These are the people who go out of their way to broadcast to the universe that they are on The Right Side of History. They will spare no expense supporting the monthly flavor of Disenfranchised Artist. They are extremely proud to be left-wing, and they will haughtily declare their allegiance to progressive economic and political ideas.

And this is the body of people who are scheming — intentionally, or unintentionally — to keep the Other (note the caps) out of SF/F?

This is a field given over almost entirely to the progressive “side” of the ideological landscape. Thus when progressives attack the field for margnializing or excluding X, Y, or Z demographics, it’s a bit like watching a man pick up a hammer and smash his own thumb — because the thumb had it coming. In calling out the field (over and over and over) for failing to be sufficiently supportive and inclusive, progressives are essentially indicting themselves in a self-conspiracy — of the left hand working against the other left hand.

So, the latest rumbles about The Problem™ are another example of the ouroboros eating its own tail. And with each successive bite, the entire thing shrinks just that much more. Until the whole point of SF/F — to have fun! — seems to be overshadowed by a nasty process of the field collectively and eternally attacking itself, for this or that failure; according to whichever flavor of Oppression Theory is popular this year.

And we’ve not even touched the fact that short fiction — the subsector of spec-fictional prose specifically cited in The Verge’s link — is a micro-economy, compared to novels. I should know. I do much of my work in short SF/F prose. It is the nichest of niche markets. A somewhat zombiefied relic of the Pulp Era, when almost all spec-fictional prose was being done in serial format, for the pre-television magazines of the time.

I mean, seriously, put your politics aside for a minute, and check it out:

● Of the total number of children in the english-language world, how many of them read prose for entertainment?

● Of the total number of pre-teen and teen readers in the english-language world, how many of them will fall in love with SF/F as a preferred genre?

● Of the total number of children who read SF/F, how many of them grow up to decide to try their hand at writing, editing, or publishing?

● Of the total number of people who try their hand at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will actually put in the years to be any good at it?

● Of the total number of people who are any good at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will focus on a microscopic slice of the marketing landscape, in the form of short fiction?

● And of the total number of people who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of those are from what might be deemed marginalized or disenfranchised demographics?

● And of the total number of people who are not marginalized, but who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of them are actually engaged in discrimination against their fellows? Either consciously, or unconsciously?

Especially when (as noted at the start) nobody is required to wear his/her/their demographics on his/her/their sleeve. This is not like a screen test, nor a panel audition. The editor is not casting based on appearance. The editor is (usually) working from a standpoint of taste, combined with knowing what the audience (for his/her/their magazine or venue) wants, along with perhaps a bit of angling at the critics and the awards mavens.

And angling at the critics and awards mavens favors marginalized demographics! Does anyone seriously suspect the people behind Lightspeed or Asimov’s or Clarkesworld or TOR.COM have a problem with the disenfranchised? Of any type or description? What universe did you warp in from?

The SF/F short-fic editors in this universe — with their fingers on the pulse of the awards — know that featuring authors/stories from disenfranchised groups, is a huge plus. Among the cognoscenti. They all drink from the same ideological trough. It’s “sexy” for a publication to hang a sign on the demographically challenged. In fact, markets like TOR.COM will pay top dollar for stories from non-W authors, spread across the whole of the alphabet. And TOR.COM will loudly beam this news to the publishing world at large, “We’re TOR.COM, and we’re progressive; just look at our menagerie of other-than-W authors we publish!”

So, I have a tough time believing that the supposed dearth of other-than-W authors publishing in the short fic markets, is a matter of prejudice.

But I’m just an evil conservative. I keep banging my pot about fun and merit. I don’t have a patreon. I think stories should earn the consumer’s time and money. I don’t believe the purpose of storytelling in SF/F is to “confront” the audience, nor make the reader squirm. That’s a nouveau-lit academic sentiment that’s migrated over to the field since the advent of the New Wave — when Sense-O-Wonder began to collapse inside a Schwarzschild Radius of social critique and victim narratives, all competing against themselves.

Is it any wonder that Science Fiction — in prose form — continues to fight a rear-guard action against marketplace irrelevancy?

Fixating endlessly on The Problem™ is, to my mind, very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t matter what tune you make the orchestra play, the ship’s still going down. Having struck the iceberg of Social Justice zealotry, people seem to want to rip the hole open even wider. Then they have the nerve to act shocked when there aren’t enough life boats.

Ban guns? We’re a nation of scofflaws!

It’s been roughly a century since the United States embarked upon one of the nation’s most foolish moral escapades: Prohibition. Temperance movements — well-intended, we have to grant — had deduced that alcohol consumption was at the root of any number of household and cultural evils. Therefore, the country was going to be dried up. And since politicians are more interested in getting re-elected, than in having common sense, they went along with these temperance movements’ assertions. And for over a dozen years, the United States was officially a no-booze zone.

Except, that’s not how it really worked. There was booze all over the place. The common citizen was still drinking. The politicians never stopped, either. Even the cops were having a drink, just on the quiet. Everybody knew it, and everybody tacitly agreed that Prohibition had turned into a bad joke. They even invented a new word, for the millions of otherwise straightlaced Americans who were all getting sloshed on the sly: scofflaw.

A combination of the words scoff and law. It meant precisely what it says: a person who flouts the rules.

By the advent of the Depression — surely an event to make even the most stalwart teetotaler consider lifting a glass — the country had come to its senses, and we eventually scuttled the booze ban.

Which should have taught us an important, enduring lesson.

But it didn’t. You’ve heard of the War on Drugs? More Prohibition, that. Just the target of the blockade is different. Equally well-intended, but equally wrong-headed. It guarantees that crime (organized or not) will have a ready cash source, throws countless young men and women into jail, and does not at all stop or deter people who want to do drugs, from doing drugs. In fact, it lends a rebellious kind of cool to the drug scene, that lures millions of teenagers every year — some of whom wind up bottoming out in a state of heroin or meth addiction, which can often be lethal.

If we try to ban guns, I can guarantee you it will be more of the same. Why?

1) You can’t close the barn door, when the horse has already run out to pasture. If firearms were a new(ish) sort of import to these shores, you might have a realistic chance to keep the ports shut to guns. But guns are a thriving domestic industry, as well as cottage hobby. Some estimates place the number of privately-held firearms at or about the number of privately-driven automobiles. You cannot ban or restrict something which already exists here — legally — in such high numbers. There is no known force capable of policing them all up, much less disposing of them. It was the same for the booze.

2) Are you going to throw Granny in jail? How about your uncle? Or your brother? Or your best friend? Yes, many people will voluntarily turn over their weapons, if a ban is made into law. Americans are — despite the protestations of the cognoscenti — a generally decent lot. Law-abiding, by choice. But far more Americans will conclude the law is absurd, and simply refuse to comply. Do you go out and put the cuffs on? Lead the country to the slammer? Where to house the millions of instant criminals? How to try them? Especially when most of the law enforcement will also conclude the law is absurd — and in fact, many of the law-keepers will be law-breakers too, just like during Prohibition.

3) The underground gun scene will thrive like kudzu. Secret gun clubs and gun ranges will become the new speakeasies. It will be chic and daring, to belong to such organizations, and to be seen in such circles. Again, the rule of cool: flouting stupid laws has always been the hallmark of adventurously free-minded people. The dumber or more clumsy the law, the more it’s flouted. Having and shooting guns would become like having and smoking weed used to be; and in some places still is — something the “cutting edge” do for fun, as well as pleasure. And to hell with the risks. Life is short! Go for the gusto.

4) Because the underground gun scene will thrive, the underground gun market will also thrive. Both the cottage machinists, and the black market importers. Price will be no object. In fact, the competition (to cut out or undermine the competitor) will be so fierce, rival black market operations may start dividing the country up into zones of turf. And since laws never stopped true criminals from having and using guns anyway, the amount of gun-related crime will climb as ordinary petty crooks and gun-runners alike, along with average citizens getting caught in the endless dragnets, will stuff the courthouses to overflowing. Not to mention the morgues.

5) Fly-over country don’t give a damn, no how. Small-town America will basically pretend that federal gun bans do not exist. County judges will suspend sentences. The cops will develop “paper bag eyes” for good American citizens who just happen to have and keep firearms in the home. Both the authorities and the common man will collude to keep the dreadful news — that guns are not, in fact, going away — from reaching the eyes and ears of the gentrified do-gooders from the cities. Special dispensations will be invented, to quietly circumnavigate federal prosecution. Own x amount of land, for y amount of farming? Why, you just got to have a critter gun. Or three. Or twelve. Plus ammunition. Don’t want coyotes getting into the chickens. Surely we can open up a loophole for that?

And so, the great moral crusade to “end” guns in America, will go down in historic flames. Being essentially unenforceable, the law(s) will eventually hang like stones around the necks of those politicians who supported such laws in the first place. The gun-banners will be voted out, and voted down, and the law(s) will be struck from the books.

Or . . . we can save ourselves a lot of grief and heartache, and just not go there in the first place.

No gun bans. No silly laws with good intentions, but achieving opposite results.

We know this dance. We’ve done it before. We ought to have learned by now. But memories can be short, and do-gooders always think that human nature can be bent to suit any kind of moral reform program. Which is essentially what the gun-banner brigades are after: moral reform.

Except, you can’t do it like that. Nor should you want to try. The answer to “gun violence” is to merely remove the noun, and focus on he verb. Why does a disturbed young Muslim man walk into a gay club and begin capping people? Could it possibly be that he’s been raised in a belief system that is amenable to violent “solutions” to the moral decrepitude he sees around him? Hell, in Da’esh territory, they chuck gays off rooftops, and Allah smiles. Or so the mullahs of the Middle East say. Maybe that’s got something to do with it? The Boston Marathon bombers used pressure cookers to inflict carnage. Same intent: to murder in the name of Allah. Just different method. You can seek to ban the method six ways from Thursday, and never even touch the intent.

And it’s the intent that we — as a culture, and a nation — should be most concerned with. Grappling with and confronting intent, whether it’s Islamist fanatics (Orlando) or emo outcasts (Columbine) would be a direct way to confront “what’s wrong with America” rather than concocting effigies of “gun culture” at whose feet we pile blame, every time there is a media frenzy about a crime involving firearms.

Again, simply passing a law, won’t solve anything. In fact, the only law which will be obeyed, will be the law of unintended consequences.

Is all of this supposed to assuage the outrage of people upset that we’ve had (yet another) spectacular spree murder? No. But then, we lose tens of thousands of Americans on the highways and freeways of America. Every year. And you seldom hear the same outrage. Not even when it’s a multi-auto pileup on the interstate. We’ve successfully conditioned ourselves to accept these deaths as merely the cost of doing business, in a world which is (rightly) free to engage in impulse travel on public roads.

I, for one, would love to invent a magic solution — to events like the Orlando gay club murders.

But I have lived enough life to realize that there is usually no such thing as a magic solution.

Want to curb murders? Convince the next would-be spree slaughterer that (s)he’s better off finding a different hobby? Join the club! All of us law-abiding gun owners are right there with you, hoping that there might be a way to reach these people, before they decide to begin taking innocent lives. We’ve got friends and families too. We think about them every day. Some of us have raised our hands in front of the flag, dedicating life and limb to the defense and protection of the very laws that ensure our freedom and prosperity in this country. We literally are the “well-regulated militia” so often debated in that controversial Constitutional phrase. And we do what we do, so that you — American man or woman — can go into a firearms store, and purchase the means to protect yourself from rapists, thieves, and murderers.

Is freedom idiot-proof? Nope, alas. Nor is it safe-spaced against all potentially random harm. And that’s a shame. But you still get in your car, and expose yourself to the bone-headedness of your fellow citizens — for minutes (or even hours) every single day. The joker texting on his phone, when he ought to be watching the road, is far, far more likely to hurt you or the people you love, than “gun culture.” In fact, you’ve probably been that joker a few times yourself — yes, even you “good” drivers. Don’t look embarrassed. You’re just normal.

As nearly every law-abiding firearms owner, is also normal.

Should you be punished, because some jackass in the other car decided to cause a wreck today? No?

In the end, we’re wired to buck the system, if the system is too much of a pain in the ass. That’s why we speed like hell, all over the country, daring the highway patrol to catch us. We know that speed limit is there for our safety. We also know that we can handle it, going well over the limit. So we do. And the “game” of daily cat and mouse (millions of mice, only a comparatively few cats) occurs with ritual-like predictability. Even when speeding is a contributor to any number of serious auto accidents in any given week: accidents which take lives.

Do we ban the car? Nope.

Do we lash out at all law-abiding drivers, indiscriminately? Nope.

Do we label those same drivers domestic terrorists in the making? Nope.

Look closely at such answers to such questions, and you can tease out an important conclusion. About who we are, as human beings. And why some things shouldn’t be tried, no matter how well-meant they may be.

The Martian and Mad Max

Two spectacular movies were released in 2015. Both of them were set in the future. Both of them focused on a single man desperately trying to survive in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds. One of these futures was depressingly bleak, populated with violent, deranged maniacs. The other future was incredibly positive, where human beings worked together, and put substantial amounts of hardware — not to mention astronauts — on another planet.

One of these futures would be a delight to live in — the conquering of the solar system, by a planet Earth which has somehow managed to overcome its problems, enough to reach for the stars.

The other future would be a literal hell — civilization has fallen, tribal war is the new normal, and human beings have regressed to a state of endlessly cruel barbarity.

Guess which future the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted as their favorite?

Now, anyone who knows anything about the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF/F) shouldn’t be surprised — no, not even a little bit — that Mad Max: Fury Road was the top pick of SF/F’s so-called professional body, for professionals. The fans of Andy Weir’s book-to-movie hit The Martian gave it a valiant try, but SFWA isn’t about Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” anymore, as much as SFWA is about soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society.

Did I mention that The Martian had a world-wide take of $630 million dollars, while Mad Max took in just $378 million by comparison?

Clearly, audiences across the globe had a much greater preference for the science fiction movie that focused on actual science being employed in a setting where science — and mankind — are making miracles happen.

But the professional body of Science Fiction and Fantasy writers liked their bleak future better. The future where a despotic madman keeps women as breeding and food stock, while the young men all die very bloodily, and too early; before the lymphoma and blood cancers (from the nuclear fallout, naturally) can kill them slow.

I saw both films, and I liked both films a lot. As a huge fan of the second, original Mad Max installment — known to United States audiences as The Road Warrior — I put Fury Road second on my list (all time) of Mad Max movies. It wasn’t quite as good as Mad Max 2 (the title by which the world knows The Road Warrior) but it showed us just what kind of insane, pyrotechnic brilliance director George Miller is capable of producing, when equipped with modern technology, and a modern budget. Fury Road was everything The Road Warrior wanted to be, except The Road Warrior was shot on a virtual shoe string.

Nobody is really sure if Fury Road is supposed to be a reboot. A sequel seems likely — which may tell us more, about how the Fury Road universe meshes with the old movies. Will we see more of Furiosa? How about Nux? Because, frankly, the single largest flaw in Fury Road is that it is focused on both Max and Furiosa, while Nux had the fullest, most satisfying character arc. Both Max and Furiosa are largely the same people — at the end of the film — as they are at the beginning. Nux, meanwhile, did a complete 180. Naturally, Nux died. So his reappearance would seem problematic at best. But when has the death of a character ever stopped moviemakers from bringing him/her back for more?

I would have liked to see Furiosa sacrifice herself to save the Wives, with Nux returning to the Citadel. I think this would have worked much, much better, for both character arcs. But that’s just my back-seat writer talking.

The Martian is equally boggling, in terms of the visual grandeur being offered to the audience. Also, like Fury Road, this was a case of one of the trendsetting directors of the 1970s-1980s cusp period, coming back to gift us with some of his best work in a long, long time. But The Martian is a classic man-versus-nature story, with a single survivor of a space disaster working tirelessly — to the very limits of his mental, emotional, and physical endurance — to save his own life. Along the way, his comrades must overcome huge technical and bureaucratic hurdles, culminating in what essentially amounts to a crew mutiny, in order to return to Mars — and rescue Astronaut Watney.

The future Earth of Weir’s imagination, is as far from the future Earth of Miller’s imagination, as Mars is from Venus.

Of course, The Martian was every inch a Campbellian movie, while Fury Road was almost entirely New Wave.

Guess which aesthetic dominates and excites the imaginations of SF/F’s cognoscenti?

I know, I know, I am a broken record about this stuff. But it never ceases to amaze me (in an unhappy way) how the so-called writers of Science Fiction, seem to be in such a huge hurry to run away from the roots of the field. I’ve read and listened to all the many arguments — pro and con, from both sides — about how Campbell rescued the field from the Pulp era, but then New Wave in turn rescued the field from the Campbell era. So it might be true that we’re finally witnessing the full maturation of SF/F as a distinct arena of “serious” literature, but aren’t we taking things too far? Does anyone else think it’s a bad idea for the field to continue its fascination with cultural critique — the number of actual nutty-bolty science types, in SFWA, is dwindling, while the population of “grievance degree” lit and humanities types, in SFWA, is exploding — while the broader audience consistently demonstrates a preference for SF/F that might be termed “old fashioned” by the modern sensibilities of the mandarins of the field?

Now, I think there is a very strong argument to be made, for the fact that Campbellian vs. New Wave is merely the manifestation of a deeper problem — a field which no longer has a true center. The two “sides” in the discussion have been taking shots at each other since long before I was born. The enmity may be so ingrained — in the internal conversation of SF/F — that nothing can reverse it. Save, perhaps, the total explosion of the field proper. Like a puffball of dandelion seeds that’s been hit with a strong wind, the various sub and micro genres within SF/F may simply fly away into the bigger world of literature, sprouting up separately all across the spectrum, with no single colony being identifiable as the “source” or capitol of SF/F.

Lord knows that those New Wavers within SF/F who are covetous of “proper” literary recognition, acclaim, critical applause, etc., are perfectly happy to shed their “skiffy” skins when it suits them. They desperately want to have a seat at the literary grown-ups table, despite desiring to also keep a hand in with the snot-nosed propeller-heads at the kids’ table. It’s a cake-and-eat-it-too problem. Just look at some of the covers being put on “science fiction” books these days, and you can tell that there are a lot of SF/F authors, editors, and marketers, who wish very much that SF/F literature would look (and read) very differently, from the SF/F that helped make the field successful — as a broad-market force, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

My personal stance has always been, “To hell with the hoity-toities! Give me my space cruisers and galactic adventure, like that which fired my imagination in the beginning!” But this is a very passé attitude. Nobody wants nuts-and-bolts SF/F anymore, do they?

Do they??

Maybe those who avidly attended screenings of The Martian, know.

Clinton and Trump are Scylla and Charybdis

In 1992 — my first year voting in United States national elections — I was a Perot man. Unhappy with the choices and rhetoric put forth by the Republicans and Democrats, I was excited by the fact that there was somebody making a very strong push; as a third option. I watched Perot’s presentations, and also his performance during debates. I knew I wanted him to be the next President. He even got my Dad’s vote, and Dad was a very reliable Republican supporter.

Unfortunately, we simply wound up handing the White House to Bill Clinton.

In 2016, I am afraid the terrible two-party calculus, will again wind up handing the White House to a Clinton. The Trump supporters just don’t realize it yet.

Look, seriously, I get it. I get the frustration with the establishment. I get being tired of the endless lies, and being pandered to. I get that the Republicans are always betraying principle, for the phantasm of “electability.”

But Trump is not anti-establishment. He’s as establishment as they come, and he’s actually on Hillary’s side of the fence!

Oh, sure, he’s out there saying whatever he thinks he needs to say, to make you — reliable Republican — believe that he represents a true turn away from business-as-usual words-not-deeds soft-serve Republicanism. He’s the dude who is going to shake everything up, piss off all the right people, and get America back on track. Sounds great. And if Trump did not have a history, even I might be inclined to buy his schtick.

But Trump does have a history, and it’s the very history — of talking like a Democrat flunky, of donating money like a Democrat flunky — that convinced me Trump is not serious. He is, at best, trying to ego his way to the White House. Or, at worst, he is merely playing a role, so that Hillary Clinton is ensured an error-free path to the Presidency. Does that sound crazy? It makes perfect sense, if you believe that the Republican base is both gullible, and easily led astray.

This is a crucial moment, not just for the Republican party, but for American conservative and libertarian principles. For decades, we’ve labored under derision — from progressives, liberals, Democrats, etc. — that we’re a bunch of mouth-breathing goons. We will follow any damned fool to hell, so long as he tells us what he thinks we want to hear. Guess what? Putting Trump forth as the “anti-establishment candidate” pretty much tells the universe that the progressives, liberals, and Democrats, were all right about us. We are going to follow a damned fool who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.

If I am a lifer Democrat, liberal, or progressive, I am laughing my ass off right now. The ascension of Trump could very well mean the final end of the Reagan coalition legacy, and the consignment of the Republican party to permanent minor-player status. If I am a lifer Democrat, liberal, or progressive, I am rubbing my hands with glee. The “enemy” are happily destroying themselves, and destroying any ability they might have had to stand in the way of progressive policy-making — especially where erosion of basic liberties and financial independence is concerned.

So, the country will get one-party rule. Democrats, for the rest of my adult life. And the Democrats are putting Hillary and Bernie forward, as the shining beacons of progress. These are the poster children for our political future: a pathologically lying narcissist who only cares about herself, and a dippy old socialist who thinks economics can be turned Marxist without destroying the value of the dollar.

If that doesn’t make you weep for the future, I don’t know what will.

Because I don’t want to be a vassal. I am a citizen, dammit, and citizens shouldn’t let punks be in the White House.

Alas, punks are all we’re allowed to choose from in 2016.

Oh, sure, I know, it’s time to unfurl the Unicorn Cavalry flag, and put money down on Gary Johnson. But this will simply lock Clinton in, the same way Perot locked Clinton in, because far fewer Democrats detest Clinton, than Trump, and far more Democrats will gleefully consolidate under the Clinton flag, than Johnson’s flag. So the Unicorn vote is a protest vote only, and the Democrats don’t have to give a crap about protest votes. Hillary is going to be guaranteed her eight years in office, and the Republicans will be demoted to second-string status in both the House and the Senate — barring some unforeseen resurgence of a fresh crop of actual conservatives — so that sixteen combined years of Obama policies and Clinton (for the second time) policies, could result in America being a very, very different place; by the year 2024.

The truism goes: in a democracy, we get the government we deserve.

Looks like we’re gonna find out just how badly we deserve unchecked one-party domination in Washington D.C. Because even if by some strange turn of events, Trump does win — and he won’t — Trump is still a Democrat, far more than he’s a Republican. Far more. And even if a rebellious resurgence by a third party does make a dent, it will only be a dent. Just as Perot was merely a dent, and provided the perfect triangulation Bill Clinton needed to win in 1992. Because there are far more lifer Democrats who will always and forever vote Democrat, at all costs, than there are Republicans and independents who could rally to the Unicorn flag.

Like I said: Scylla, and Charybdis. The ship breaks up on the rocks, or gets sucked into the whirlpool.

It didn’t have to be this way. But decades of voter inattention and apathy, combined with over a century of money, power, and influence consolidation — by both the two big parties — have conspired to give us the absolute worst Presidential choices of this generation. Perhaps, even of several generations. We’ve faced poor choices before, sure. But right now, we’ve got a lying, self-absorbed narcissist with liberal tendencies on one side, and a lying, self-absorbed narcissist (also with liberal tendencies) on the other side.

And no, the American Republic is not bulletproof. I firmly believe that one-party domination (by the Democrats) will put the United States on track to becoming a super-sized version of Greece, or Venezuela. And these are the soft crash outcomes. I don’t even want to think about the (also very possible) hard crash outcomes.

If I disliked the two-party calculus when was just 18 years old, I now absolutely loathe that same two-party calculus. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have principles. They are simply interested in keeping themselves elected. And we — the voters — apparently can’t be bothered enough to take our national elections seriously. On the one hand, we have people eagerly rushing to become serfs on the one-party-rule Democrat plantation, and on the other hand we have people lining up behind bozo the clown, with an orange face, zero ethics, and a titanic ego.

I want to think God can see us through this. I suspect God’s simply sitting back and shaking His head, saying, “I warned you what would happen, and you didn’t believe me — have fun with your mess I told you you’d make, if you stopped paying attention to me.”

Why I can’t be a socialist

I’ve tried (over time) to explain my opposition to socialism in these terms:

1) Socialism’s ultimate disregard for the dignity and rights of the individual.

2) Socialism’s ultimate disregard for the economics of human nature.

3) The inevitable suffering and misery that results from 1 and 2.

First, because the root philosophy of socialism is Marxist (ergo, redistribution and leveling across economic tiers) socialism requires an authority capable of bending the knees of the people to the will of the state. There is no form of national socialism which has ever existed without very powerful governmental authority, and a police force capable of backing up that authority. This authority (and that police force) tend to show little (historical) regard for the individual, because socialism is focused (in the ideal) on benefit to the aggregate, not the welfare of the single person. If you’re going to have socialism, you have to be able to make people with “too much” give up things, so that people with “too little” receive those same things. This incredible power—however well-intended in its origins—invariably attracts the worst kind of bloody-handed leadership: psychopaths, sociopaths, and zealous devotees of various forms of social engineering.

Second, socialism is forever battling against the gravity field of human nature. Ergo, socialism is a state-sponsored moral remedy for the natural “selfish” virtue that individuals are entitled to the fruits of their creativity, intelligence, and labor. This warping—group or state “management” of the creation and exchange of intellectual and physical product, not to mention currency—undermines and devalues the very labor which socialism claims to venerate. Men who discover they don’t have to work to keep their bellies full, usually don’t work. Men who discover that working 50 hours a week, gets them no further ahead than working zero hours a week, also don’t work. Societies which bankrupt the incentives to work, always collapse. Fewer and fewer people carry more and more of the burden, until the whole thing crumbles. It happened in Soviet Russia. It is happening in Greece and Venezuela.

Third, the combination of intrusive and coercive state authority, with social engineering and terrible-minded leadership, and the grinding-down of incentives, has resulted in an overwhelmingly documented record of human woe, unlike anything ever seen in history. These facts are not a matter of rhetorical flourish. The Holodomor. The killing fields of Cambodia. China’s Cultural Revolution. The desolation of North Korea and Cuba. The destruction of national economies. Gulags. Poverty. Hunger. Death. So much death. Death unending. The snuffing out of well over a hundred million human lives, during the 20th century alone. That’s nine figures to the left of the decimal, if you want to write the number on a piece of paper and look at it. Men. Women. Children. Starved. Beaten. Jailed. Tortured. Mutilated. Mass graves. Erased from history—because they were deemed to be “in the way” of progress.

Of course, America’s fresh crop of socialists don’t see it like that. Like almost all socialists, the dream of making Utopia is simply too irresistible to them. It doesn’t matter what happened before—nor what will happen again, because we forget history (and repeat history, on this subject) with soul-destroying regularity. America’s socialists have been told (often from the cradle up) that socialism is not only sustainable, but an unalloyed good. Anyone who objects is deemed obstructionist, or even outright dangerous—we are merely “in the way” of progress.

I fear that the United States is the proverbial frog in the kettle. We’ve been gradually adding components of socialism to our national fabric since the early half of the prior century. In 2016, we seem to want to throw caution to the wind, and give the state unbridled ability to “improve” our lives, by making our decisions for us. We have corrupt political parties who thrive on a bread-and-circuses model; for selection of governing personalities. Sooner or later, that gradually warming water is going to be brought to a boil—and cook us. There is nothing magical about the United States that will prevent all the horrors of the 20th century, from happening here too.

The state that “takes care of” you in the ways you desire, can also “take care of you” in a very permanent, very undesirable fashion as well.

I wish more of my countrymen understood this. Alas . . . socialism is the irresistible flame to which the well-meaning, ever-hopeful moths are eternally drawn.

I try to see a positive future. But it’s mighty tough these days.

A Star Wars review: The Force Awakens

Okay, with a full four weeks behind us — since Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted — I think I can safely discuss the particulars of the film, without being wary of spoilers. But, if you still haven’t seen the movie? Stop reading now.

(This SNL skit is totally canon! It has to be!)

On a scale of 1 to 10 (for the franchise as a whole) I’d give SW:TFA a solid 7 — with Empire Strikes Back at 9, and Revenge of the Sith at 2.

SW:TFA hit a lot of right notes with me. The acting was solid, there was a fair balance between practical and CGI effects, and I think they were smart to give the relationships in SW:TFA a very dysfunctional 21st-century sensibility.

I mean, Han and Leia were clearly a train wreck. As fairy tales go, that’s a lousy way to plot their relationship. Return of the Jedi was a very happily-ever-after finish to the first three films. But if we examine who these characters are, realistically, it’s pretty obvious that they were headed for some rough times, following Jedi. Neither of them was what we might call good parent material. Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) was probably more of an accident, than he was planned. We’re not even sure Han and Leia were married at the time. With the re-rise of the Republic, duking it out with the remains of the Empire — and the founding of the Resistance — there was precious little time for settling down and raising a family. Han and Leia were probably grateful to pawn Ben off on Luke, the way some parents might send a sulking, troubled boy to a military academy. In the hope that Uncle Luke could straighten the kid out.

Except, Ben (the Force-sensitive emo basket case) wasn’t so easily steered away from the Dark Side. Unloved and unloving, he was probably a major thorn in Luke’s side. So that, try as he might, Luke could not get the kid to turn around. Probably, the harder Luke tried, the more Ben plunged into his anger — at having been raised by a shitty set of parents, who never gave him enough love and structure when it counted. So that when Luke tried to fill the role of surrogate, Ben’s frustration and hatred were already a large component of his general state of mind.

This is all, of course, armchair psych analysis. But when writing bad characters, it’s important for any writer to really crawl inside the bad guy’s head, and figure out why he is the way he is. I liked that we were given a lot of strong signs, pointing to Ben’s apparently unhappy childhood. Kylo is filled with rage, and a need to control. That kind of sentiment doesn’t come from nowhere.

Which made Han Solo’s death — at Ben’s hands — the best scene in the movie, in my opinion. Without it, there is nothing to anchor SW:TFA to the larger family drama stretching all the way back to when Darth Vader boarded the Tantive IV at the beginning of the fourth (first, for my generation) episode. Ben clearly wants to throw himself over fully to the Dark Side, and Han clearly wants to try to find some way of getting his son back.

Speaking as a father, those few moments when Han and Ben are face to face, that made the film for me. Because even though Ben is a mess, and has been doing some terrible things, Han Solo is still a decent man. And a decent man looks at what has become of his son, and he asks, How did I screw my son up this much? Let it go this far? What am I prepared to do, to try to salvage what’s left?

When Solo says, “Anything,” I believed him emphatically.

Han doesn’t even struggle much, when Ben runs his father through. Just cups Ben’s cheek with a fatherly palm — as if to say he still loves Ben.

Now, if you’re not a parent, this might not key so hotly for you. I really do think being a parent sets this scene apart, from almost any other scene I’ve ever experienced in any of the other Star Wars films.

For Han, he’s looking in Ben’s face, and seeing the eyes of his five year old child staring up at him. Vulnerable. So much pain and hurt, between those early years, and that cat walk in the center of Starkiller Base. And Han felt responsible. Solo was ready to give his life for the sake of his boy. That touched me in a very personal place.

As the saying goes, you never stop being a parent.

So of course Ben has to off his dad, thus becoming Kylo Ren permanently. It’s the singular act of Ben’s young life, up to that point. The one he hopes will erase all doubts. Thus making his later chest-beating — during the forest fight with Rey — reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As for Rey, we were served a steady diet of question marks. Is she a Kenobi? Is she a Skywalker? It seems like a fifty-fifty proposition at this point. I personally would love for her to be a Kenobi, just because I think that would make for some wonderful symmetry with this whole series. But the how and the why of Rey’s abandoning on Jakku is a real humdinger. It was obviously necessary, for reasons not easily discerned. She certainly seems to have emerged from her childhood damage in much better shape than Kylo. Surviving as orphans on a desert world seems to do the Force-sensitive a lot of good, if Luke (in the originals) is any indicator. But what’s Rey’s connection? What was the whole vision in Maz Kanata’s cellar about? How about the memories from being dropped off on Jakku in the first place?

Personally, seeing little Rey screaming, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” was hard for me to take. Great, brief moments of acting on that little girl’s part. Hit me right in the feels. So much so I had to ask, “What terrible thing would force me to dump my own daughter, at that age, on a barren, hostile planet?”

I guess the next two movies will help us find out.

Again, I gave the movie a 7 out of 10. Not perfect. No way. But then, nothing — after over 30 years of waiting for some true sequels to the originals — was going to make SW:TFA perfect. All of us have wondered, and there have been the Expanded Universe books and series (now scrapped.) We have all, I suspect, also written our own personalized scenarios in our hearts, and in our heads; about how things worked out. Like I said, Jedi served us a very fairy tale ending. The Emperor is dead! Vader is dead! The new Death Star is destroyed! The Imperial fleet has tucked tail and retreated! Han and Leia are going to be together! Luke is finally a Jedi!

Except, fairy tale endings don’t lend themselves well to sequels. You have no conflict upon which to construct more story. SW:TFA needed conflict, and that conflict had to be rooted in the events of Jedi. So, the First Order rises from the — assumed — competition between the remaining, loyal Imperial generals and admirals, to salvage their power. Some of the galaxy has gratefully gone back to the pre-Rebellion days, when the Empire did provide a kind of order. Tyranny, sure. But order. Some people want and need order, above all else. With the Empire down, the galactic economy and political situation must have been a pure mess. The First Order offers structure, and a chance for stability — even if they are iron-fisted about their work.

As a writer, I feel like my job is not to back-seat-drive another writer’s work. That’s usually something a lot of critics do — their ranks being replete with frustrated and failed writers. If I am examining a piece, and especially if I am examining a piece that’s been successful with a broad audience, I am seeking clues to that piece’s appeal. What made it tick? What was the general audience reaction? What was my own reaction, and does it square with most everyone else’s?

I said up top that SW:TFA hit the right notes, for me. It provided a healthy amount of spectacle, twined with nicely-written drama. There was enough meat on these bones — which I didn’t find with the prequels — that the movie kept me suspended in a timeless state for the duration. That’s usually my bottom-line gauge. Did the movie make me forget the clock? Few movies do, these days. But SW:TFA did. And I was grateful for that.

But I also thought the film erred in a few ways. Such as giving Phasma almost no dialogue. And in gifting Finn with a thousand-yard stare that didn’t mesh with his position as a relatively inexperienced combat troop. I mean, for a guy whose job it is to burn the galactic shitter, he sure became disillusioned with the horrors of war mighty quickly.

Now, it’s not unheard of. Humans, as a rule, struggle to kill. Failure to pull the trigger is a documented phenomenon in every war since World War One. Many men simply can’t bring themselves to do it. Even hard men, who’ve endured hard training. But Finn talks like he’s dropped on two dozen worlds, and seen far too much death and blood for his taste.

That’s something I’d have expected from Phasma, frankly.

Which makes me ask: how did the guy who burns the galactic shitter wind up on a combat insertion in the first place? Was he replacing somebody who went to sick call? Is the First Order that short on guys, that the shitter-burner has to put down his matches and his can of galactic diesel, in order to draw a weapon and go out on an op?

Speaking of which, the clone nature of the vaunted Imperial Stormtroopers seems to have been scuttled. I mean, all through the original three films, we never got any indication that any of the Stormtroopers are clones. The prequels made it clear that they were, but now the First Order is changing things up? Or is Finn merely part of a series, derived from one of many different samples? How about Phasma? Also, how about the black-uniform officers? They don’t seem to be clones. We’re never clear on whether or not the Empire promotes up, all the way from Private.

For the next film, I’d like to see more of Phasma, and more of Poe Dameron, frankly. His character’s satus is largely implied, by reputation, but we don’t see or experience much of him. Will this be true for the next two movies? Is Poe merely the new Wedge Antilles? Seems like you could do a lot more with this guy. Fill in his story. He’s the Resistance’s top fighter jock. And he’s not a kid, either. What’s his journey?

As for Rey and Kylo . . . it’s all but certain that these two are going to be saber-battling until the end of the third and final movie in the latest trilogy. Rey as the heir to Luke, and Kylo as the heir to Vader. Will Kylo turn back to the Light Side at the end, as Vader did?

I know a lot of people have hated Kylo’s mopey petulance. What kind of bad guy is that? Vader was a scary, imposing mofo. Kylo makes you want to pick him up and dangle him by his ankles, with his head in the toilet, while you flush repeatedly. (See the video at the top of this post.) Frankly, I think it’s fitting. Kylo is a neurotic, unhappy soul, who wants to bring “order” to the galaxy, thus living up to his grandpa’s legacy. In other words, he’s just like all the children — on modern college campuses — who are angry at the universe, and who expect the universe to change for them, otherwise they need a safe space to run to.

Hitler and Stalin were also neurotic, and expected the whole universe to change for them. And they were some of the most evil men — along with Mao, Che, Castro, Pol Pot — the world has ever seen. Ever. They were also, in their own minds, the heroes. Of their own stories. Which Kylo is too. In his world, it’s the Resistance who are the bad guys, because the Resistance means the Republic, and the Republic means Mom and Dad, and dear God let’s not go there again, because it makes Kylo want to thrash a computer workstation with his lightsaber.

Nice work, Abrams. And nice work, Disney. If you can do this well with the next two movies, and also the auxiliary spinoffs, I think the Star Wars franchise is going to be healthier and more enjoyable than it’s been in decades.

Speaking as a Star Wars fan, this makes me smile.

Seasonal listening: Autumn and Winter

I’ve always been a very seasonal listener. I am not sure why. Certain music just “fits” with certain times of the year, and not at others. Probably because I happened to hear and enjoy a particular piece (or group) during a particular season, thus the experience and the season become intertwined. This is undoubtedly strange, as I am not sure I’ve ever known anyone who is seasonal about his music choices, like I am. Certainly my wife is an anytime, anywhere listener. A fact which has made me grit my teeth on occasion. “No, no, no! Tears For Fears is summertime! You can’t play Songs From The Big Chair in January. That’s madness!” Naturally, she just smiles and turns it up louder. So I go on about my business, nevermind the fact that what’s rocking on the living room stereo is against all seasonal music logic.

Out here in Deployment Land, seasonal music is more important than ever before. Because where I am at, there are no seasons. There is merely insufferable heat and humidity, followed by not-so-insufferable heat and humidity, with occasional days of, “This isn’t so bad . . . at midnight, when the breeze is blowing from inland.” There are no mountains. Nor anything that grows, really. It’s beige, and it’s flat. Once every three months, it might rain. A little bit. And I doubt there’s been any snow in this part of the world since before the end of the last Ice Age; if even then.

So, I retreat to my headphones, and thank the Lord for MP3. Troops of past eras were stuck with Armed Forces Radio, or whatever vinyl was spinning at the (then, equivalent) MWR. Or, if you go back far enough, no music at all.

Ours is a time of technological wonder and luxury.

My tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic — these are my dozen-plus “stuck on an island” choices, for this time of the year.