1000

I have a few things to talk about here, confluences, if you will. This is an important day in several ways.

This is my 1000th post for this blog. 

One thousand. Averaging, I think, 3 or 4 thousand words each, that’s a lot of wordage. I don’t even want to think about what that might be had I been paid for it.

There are a handful here I thought might be worth marketing, but that’s not why I put the Distal Muse up. I did it this way to avoid being told what not to say (or to say) and because, frankly, this is all personal, which is to say entirely my bullshit.

Oh, not that what I’ve written here is worthless. (I hope.) That’s not what I mean. But a lot of it is simply my viewpoint. My opinion. Take it with a block of salt. I have endeavored to be factual, to base my meanderings on substance, logic, rational apprehensions of what I see. Doubtless some posts suffered from the anger, dismay, or simple lack of comprehension of a given subject at the time. I’ve considered going back and revising where that might make what I said more in tune with my desire for offering a useful view, but two things dissuaded me.

One, I think leaving it as is serves as an interesting look at the evolution of thought and feeling over time (interesting to who I leave to the reader).

Secondly, one thousand posts would be a big undertaking.

I have other things to write.

If there is any common theme running through all this, it may be that the world is always more complex than it seems and that if we let our emotions run riot we simply cannot see that complexity, almost always to our detriment.

How well this might have come across, I don’t know. A lot of these posts are indulgences. Me venting, but just as often trying to work through something I don’t understand. I actually don’t mind terribly much if I got something wrong (well, I do but not excessively) as long as I sparked dialogue. Somewhere. Over something.

If a critic were to select one or two of these to judge me by, they would doubtless paint a vivid, one-dimensional picture of someone utterly dismissible, wrongheaded, and politically biased. Well, I am politically biased—I believe politics should be solely used for the betterment of everyone’s situation, and that if in the pursuit of that, someone decides that some must suffer in order for others to thrive, then they likely have it wrong somewhere. That, or they’re a sociopath. 

(Mind the way I phrased that. If someone must suffer in order for others not to. To my mind, there are those in the world who ought to suffer, just not to serve that particular syllogism.)

I have also talked a great deal about art. Another bias. I believe that without art, we are nothing. Mammals breeding and eating, contributing nothing beyond the recycling of organic resources. Art—music, literature, optical, sculpture, architecture, and all combinations thereof—is our expression of everything worthwhile. Art comes out of love. If there is no love, there is no art, and without art we admit to being blind and deaf to love.

That’s one reason I have no patience with those who discount it, censor it, betray it, even destroy it. Worse still (because they have a notion of it) those who see it as nothing but a commodity. 

1000 posts…

It is also my birthday. I am 67 today. I cannot express how odd that feels to say. I do not feel 67, but then, I’m not sure what 67 is supposed to feel like. I don’t, in this case, feel much different than I did at, say, 47. Well, I sleep a bit more. I predict more naps in my future.

I am also retiring today. The day job, that is. I am officially departing from Left Bank Books, at least on a day-to-day basis. 

About that job.

I cannot begin to convey the roil of emotions leading up to this. Left Bank Books is the Other Great Job I’ve had. I feel my work-life is now conveniently book-ended by two marvelous experiences, different but equally wonderful. I’ve been working there for nearly decade and I cannot find a thing to criticize about them, my experiences there, or the value of those ten years. I wish at times I had been fortunate enough to join them a decade earlier. My coming to work for Kris was unconventional, to say the least, but it worked out well, and I can say without reservation that it has been one of the best experiences of my life. Not being there five days a week, in the thick of it, dealing with something I love (books) and working with some of the brightest, finest people I’ve ever known will take more than a little adjustment.

It was an accidental confluence. Back in the 2000s, as I’ve written about in this blog, I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book. For a few years, as unlikely as it might seem, I was president. During my tenure we had the opportunity to launch a state poet laureate program. I recruited outside the board to find people I thought capable of doing the selection and preparatory work. That was my introduction to Kris, then co-owner (now sole owner) of Left Bank Books. I invited her to participate. It was one of the better ideas I had then and she did excellent service.

I was soon rotated off the board, but Kris remained for a time. Around then, the dayjob I had then disappeared. I worked at a photolab which was overtaken by the change from analog to digital. The job vanished and I was unemployed. I honestly wasn’t sure what I would do. I continued writing, hoping to land that Big Publishing Contract, but in hindsight it wasn’t likely to happen. 

Then Kris invited me to do contract work for Left Bank Books. They had a second location then, in downtown St. Louis. Sales were flat. She asked me to see what I might be able to do to raise their profile. Thus began a couple of years of going around, talking to people in downtown St. Louis, letting businesses know we were there, and it seemed to have some effect.

At some point, I formally joined the staff and became eventually a full time bookseller. Over the years, I’ve taken on managing the used books department and vetting consignment titles from independently published authors. I’ve worked a lot of events, met an amazing array of people, and have just generally experienced one of the best times in my working life.

Thank you, Kris. I did not expect the confidence you placed in me. And thank you Jay, for almost all that time co-owner. The trust you both placed in me has seen me through what in some respects has been a very difficult ten years.

And thank you, everyone I have worked with this past decade. It has been extraordinary. The conversations alone have been amazing. 

But as I said above, I have things to write, and I am acting on my limits. The last almost two years took a toll. COVID did a number on me, even though I did not get sick with it. 

Going forward, I once more have no idea what may happen. I have some ideas what I would like to see happen, but I’ve learned not to plan, at least not too precisely. 

We’d like to travel more.

I want to make some music.

Photography has never not been something I do.

And this…thing…this blog (unfortunate name for something that has become so important on so many levels for so many people) that I thought might be useful in promoting my work. Whether it has or not, I don’t know. But it has provided a platform for what may often be nothing more than the babble of my backbrain needing a release. It has helped me organize my thoughts, codify my beliefs (or lack thereof), give notice of my sentiments. It serves as a piece of history in a very modest way.

So, the next thing is upon us. I feel grateful. I have been able to do much of what I wanted to do. Not, perhaps, the way I wanted to do it, but still. I intend to continue doing. I’m not finished. And I have ideas…

One Thousand posts. And tomorrow starts a new era.

I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens.

Penultimatey Stuff

The title will make sense next post.

I haven’t written here much lately due to an inability to choose among the rich possibilities of commenting on the mass stupidity of my fellow countrymen.  Sorting through the morass of charges and justifications for the last four years, I’ve come to a conclusion (which I will hold until new evidence suggests I have it wrong) that nothing from the Fox News-driven fanatic fringe has anything to do with policy. From what I can glean from everything I’ve seen, a significant number of people either don’t care or wouldn’t understand policy issues. That’s why there appears to be no compromise.

I suppose one way to look at it is, the segment of the population I grew up hearing constant lectures from about morality and duty, patriotism and decency, have faltered over one of the social axioms they often threw at people of my generation, that we didn’t know the difference between love and lust. It would seem that they have marched on to the present having gotten that backward themselves.

Lust, in this case, is that mix of emotions wherein one wants to possess something and will do, believe, say, or try anything to have it. Whether it wants to be possessed or even if it can be. Nothing is acceptable that seeks to deny the possessing.

It is often mistaken for love because, on the surface, it seems such a positive thing. The object is not something to be harmed or destroyed, all the lustful wants is to enjoy it. And I would venture to suggest that, in very small doses, constrained by self-knowledge and a solid understanding that the aspects lust shares with love are not necessarily harmful—desire, admiration, even a modicum of appreciation.  Lust can morph into other things, and within something like love it can fuel moments of ecstasy. But not if it stays locked in the possessive mode.

But lust alone is utterly destructive, for the simple reason it does not allow for choice or change. Which is what love not only allows but requires.

So let me get right to it:  to love your country is allow for choice and to allow for change.

Sounds simple. In fact, to love another person is to allow for choice and change. Not only allow for it but embrace it.  And by embrace I do not mean happily accepting every damn whimsical thing that might come along, but to support the idea, the right to choice and change and to be an active participant.

To insist it be one thing, the same thing, forever, and if it is not, to condemn it, strike it, to violate it…

One of the drawbacks of lust is that it almost entirely has to do with surfaces. Appearances. All the rest is part of an imagined substance, and imposed ideal. No thought is given to the interior of the object desired.

I’m using this as an example for what I perceive as a major aspect of the current mass of rightwing affectation. The people responsible for January 6th are abusers. They may well be sorry they hit the one they claim to love, but they did it, and unless the victim adheres to an impossible standard of corrupted fidelity, they will do it again. Which means, as far as I’m concerned, they do not love their country.  They want it, they feel they have a right to control it, they cannot stand the thought that someone else might have a claim on it, and they certainly don’t accept that the evolution driven by democratic involvement is the way things are supposed to work. They want it chained to a form that allows them to dictate where it can go, what it can do, who it can be, and allows for no say from anyone else, not even fellow citizens who just might have a different idea of what the relationship is supposed to be.

Absurd?  Maybe.  But the events leading up January 6th and the sentiments expressed during and in the aftermath suggest to me a pathological ideation akin to an obsessive who feels a variety of proprietorship similar to a compulsive spousal abuser.

Which means we can discuss policy till the sun expires and it will make no difference. This isn’t about how the country should be managed, and reasonable discourse has no traction.

All of which ultimately funnels through a doctrinaire refusal to be told what to do, not so much in general, but by the abused partner in particular. In this way the disparate causes of tax rebels, segregationists, anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers, deregulation hawks, and social program opponents come together in a discernible commonality.

And January 6th? “Well, if I can’t have her, no one can!”

The problem, though, is that what they seek to dominate, to control, is not a person, but an idea with supporting institutions.  You can’t slap anything and expect it to cower.

Of course I exaggerate, but to be fair, the situation is so broadly farcical and a product of exaggeration, that gaining traction, to try to rationally address it, may require a bit of out-of-the-usual-box conceptualizing. The ground shifts too quickly and erratically for a consistent assault confined to “issues.”  This is, in my opinion, largely a pathology.

Some sane politicians are beginning to deal with this for what it is. Compromise being not only impossible but impossible even to define, they’re moving on and dealing with tractable issues. Which will drive the obsessives to greater outrage, because that’s the sign of a victim taking back control of their life.

It tracks all the way down the line, from the national to the personal. There’s an element of narcissism to it, certainly, but several other things as well. In the end, though, when someone is more terrified of a solution than of the problem they’re living in, to the point where they won’t even entertain the idea of changing something that may be slowly killing them, then we have left the area of meaningful discourse.  If, then, clinging to that problem means forcing everyone around them to live with it as well, then we are dealing with intractable dysfunction.

Yes, I am aware that this argument can be turned around, inside out, and used to justify exactly what I’ve identified as the problem by making it seem those trying to make changes are the ones unable to deal with reality. That happens.  All that one can do then is keep in mind that continuing as we are may be fatal for everyone.

*****

On that cheerful note, other matters. Some changes are coming down the pike, fairly significant ones, which I will elaborate on in the next post.  It’s good, maybe even all good. Perhaps not as good as I’d like or in the way I’d like, but good.

We’ve been living in weird times. The pandemic has deformed our sense of normal in many ways. I would venture to say some people have thrived. Being stuck at home would not, for the most part, be a bad thing for me, but I certainly would not want it to be total and unending. We haven’t taken a long trip in some time. Of course, given the mood of the country, staying home sometimes seems like a smart choice.

But I’ve reached that point in life where it seems falling into habits is easier and easier, and some habits would be traps more than simple routines. Getting into a habit that deflects from going forward, engaging life, doing all the things…we’ll exercise reasonable caution, but sitting at home, watching movies all the time, turning into an Old Man, no.

We have never traveled outside the United States. I’d like to, but there’s still plenty to see here. (I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon and we’d like to visit Chicago again.)  If we don’t make it to another country, I will not feel shortchanged. I have learned that the best part of travel is who you’re traveling with and I have the best companion I could have hoped for.  (She did hint a couple of years ago about the possibility of going to England. Then COVID shut the world down.)

*****

Professionally, things are…strange.  I’ve now sold four stories to ANALOG, which is a market I never expected to crack. But Trevor, the editor who replaced the venerable Stanley Schmidt, is apparently much more open to my kind of SF. What I’m really excited about is that I now have two novellas in the queue! I would not mind if ANALOG became my primary market going forward, but it is a curiosity to me.

But on almost every other front things have stagnated.  I heard a new term recently that disheartened me a little:  post novel.  Apparently, this has happened to a number of writers who at one point in their careers published novels and now—can’t. The market, the readership, the publishing environment in which they could, all that changed, and they have become post novel.

I’m sanguine. Every generation has experienced something like this. Most bestselling authors from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s are largely forgotten today, in any genre. It happens.  Tastes change. What is perhaps different now is the speed with which this happens. One can watch one’s career decay over the course of a decade.

To be clear, I do not blame the influx of new writers or the changing æsthetic they bring. I do not feel sidelined by the purported rise of considerations regarding so-called political correctness. Those new writers are saying things in ways and about things that speak to an audience that responds with their dollars. Good for them. This is as it should be. In 20 years they may be “post novel” for the same main reason—tastes change, markets morph, language mutates. It is worth bearing in mind that when we talk about past eras of remembered writers and great books, we’re talking about the tiny handful of works that survived out of myriad forgotten titles and writers.

I’ve been lucky to write stories people found worth publishing. I got to play the game. Would I still like to do it?  You bet, but I am mindful that I’ve gotten to do something so few ever get to do. It would be churlish of me (and really immature) to demand that time stop and the landscape remain as it was back then just so I could continue to be relevant (if I ever was).  Freezing the world in place to gratify my desires would be criminal.

Hmm.  That sounds familiar.

But I am still writing and I have my occasional sales. I may yet find a way to publish the novels I have ready to go, but I won’t insist on blocking anyone else just so I can.

I have been grinding away on a short story now for the past month which feels almost ready. And when I say grinding, I mean I’ve had this one “finished” several times.  But it’s never been quite right.  And right now it has me, it won’t let me step away to work on something else until it’s done. If I can pull it off I may well be about to accomplish something I’ve always wanted to do but never managed—do a series of shorter works with the same characters. If this one comes together and I manage to place it, it will be the third story about this particular cast.

I’m actually excited about the prospect.

*****

I’ve had my photography galleries up for quite some time.  The work therein is for sale.  I have in place the things I need to start doing more, and possibly some exhibition work. What I always failed to follow up on in my photography was putting it in front of people.  For several reasons, I never engaged with that aspect. Every time I walked into a gallery to check it out, within ten minutes I felt put off. Partly this is dismay at some of the requirements, but there is also a deep fear of rejection.

Yeah, you’d think I’d have learned how to deal with that by now, after 30 years of publishing fiction, but it’s always there.

But if I want to put my art into the world, I have to get over that.  So that’s on the agenda of upcoming reinventions of self.

So with that, I end this post.  As I said, the title will make sense with the next post, which may be a a ways off.  I’m busy, so I won’t be here for a bit. Never fear, I’m okay.

What follows is an assortment of images, some of which you may find in the galleries, and purchasable.  (There, a shameless plug!)  I leave them here for you to enjoy until we gather again for another update.

Be well.

*****

 

 

 

 

It Was Twenty Years Ago…

…but not today. This year has been hard on keeping track of things, especially dates. Twenty years ago this past June was the release of my first novel, Compass Reach.

 

 

I missed the anniversary. Here it is, almost August (probably will be August by the time I post this) and I forgot to mark the occasion. But, better late than, as they say.

Twenty years.

That novel ran a very twisty path to publication. There was a draft of it complete before I went to Clarion in 1988. The story itself had evolved from a number of sources and ideas over the previous few years until it manifested in the (very rough) first example. So, let’s say I had it in some semblance of novel form in 1987. It was not published till 2001.

Why did it take so long?

Well, a lot has to do with not knowing how the game is played. But. Let me tell you the story of the story.

No surprise to anyone, I grew up loving science fiction, and my favorite part of it was space opera. So when I decided to write the stuff, that’s where I wanted to go. The vistas, the idea of traveling from star to star, the possibilities of all those alien worlds…no matter how practically absurd it might be, I could not get away from it. I loved it. I wanted it. Yes, a starship is a hi-tech Magic Carpet and the captain a repurposed Sinbad. Between 1981 and 1984, I developed the background for what became the Secant. In geometry, a secant is a straight line that cuts a curve in two or more parts. A metaphor, if you will, for space travel. There are other definitions having to do with angles and such and I ended up creating a logo for the series which you can find on the splash page of this website and inside the second two Secantis novels (Metal of Night and Peace and Memory). Yes, I had ambitions. I developed a scheme to write a series of novels set within this universe but few if any would share characters, what has become known as a mosaic universe. (My one exception so far is a kind of loose cannon named Sean Merrick, for reasons which predate even my first attempts at becoming a professional writer.) C.J. Cherryh did this kind of thing and I was a big fan. A great idea, I thought. Especially when you didn’t want to write a straight series with the same main characters.

I created a star map, plotted out distances, made sketches of the various settled worlds, and so forth.  But I needed a story.

The thing that always piqued my curiosity about all these great space epics, even Star Trek, was—how do they pay for all that? I rarely ever found discussion of the economics of interstellar systems. It was just a given that we could build all this stuff. But the economics always felt…incomplete.

So I set myself to study economics (a little) and see if I could answer that question.

It led me to some strange places, one of which resulted in the creation of the Freeriders. Interstellar hobos, to be crude. At some point that became my focus. Then the structure of the polities involved—the Pan Humana and the Commonwealth Republic—evolved from the tension between differing ideas of what inform value and worth. In the former case, the idea of the kind of ownership that results in class systems, in the latter a kind of work-in-progress that is largely if not wholly economically egalitarian, and then all the questions around control, distribution, trade, and the reasons for Doing Things. The basic economics of interstellar civilizations. Rarely has there been a more pointed example of when to leave your research off the page.

I won’t pretend to remember each step, but at some point I started writing, and that is generally how I flesh out ideas. Dive in. I probably had a draft of Compass Reach some time in 1986. I rewrote it a time or two, then did an experiment in revision which entailed a friend who is a first-rate reader and editor spending a long weekend with us and the three of us doing marathon revisions.

That was just before I went to Clarion.

Upon returning, I took a look at the novel and decided, no, this won’t do. Structurally, it was sound, but the writing…no. Just no. But I didn’t tackle it immediately. I wrote short stories. And started selling.

My friend and colleague Nicola Griffith got her first agent somewhere around 1991. I pulled Compass Reach out of the drawer and did another rewrite and, with an introduction, sent it to her agent.  She in turn requested a revision. When I completed it, I sent it back, and our next couple of interactions showed me I could not work with her.

I did one more revision and then went hunting agents. I signed to Writers House around 1995, based mainly on my short fiction. By then I had written Metal of Night and was most of the way through Peace & Memory. The universe was feeling very real by then. I made sketches for a couple more novels and had begun writing short stories set in the Secant.

I thought I had sold the trilogy to White Wolf. Well, I had. I’d even been paid. But they melted down and handed the three books back to me in 1998. In the meantime, Writers House got me the contract to do the three Asimov novels I wrote. It was a rocky deal, but I was desperate at that point to publish a novel, any novel. I felt I was working at a disadvantage because all I’d published to date was short fiction, and I was beginning to realize that publishing had changed and that a track record in short fiction was becoming less and less relevant to then publishing a novel.

A few things happened over the course of a year or so. I nailed down the first robot novel, I lost my agent, started a new job, and then was approached by a small press about the Secantis Sequence. Meisha Merlin finally took the three novels then completed.

Worldcon 2001 was in Chicago. I met the art director for Meisha Merlin, who asked me what I wanted to see on the cover. That night in our hotel room, I sketched a concept. Originally, there were five people in the picture, but I was asked if they could get away with three. (Apparently the price goes up per additional person.) What became the cover for Compass Reach is pretty much what I drew.

I signed with a new agent, Virginia Kidd.

I thought I was on my way.

It’s easy to complain about the disappointments in publishing, but it’s also boring. Except for some colleagues, no one really cares. Meisha Merlin published the three novels and then went out of business. The books were essentially cast adrift. There is a fourth completed novel and we were making plans to publish all the short stories in a single volume. I had—have—plans to write a direct sequel to Peace & Memory. Other books have dragged me from the Secant.

Twenty years ago, though, I saw my first novel out in the wild. It is an impossible feeling to describe. I was graced with a wonderful introduction by Nicola Griffith (Jack McDevitt and James Morrow did intros for the next two respectively) and the damn thing got shortlisted for the Phillip K. Dick Award. It was a high point in my career.

I would love to find a publisher to reissue them and possibly entertain the idea of publishing new ones. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to get back into it. In fact, I have a novella forthcoming from Analog set in the Secant. It’s a great place to set stories, although I’ve written fewer of them than I thought I would.

Twenty years.

 

_________________________________________________________________

 

Copies of all three Secantis novels are available from Left Bank Books.  You can, if you request it, get signed copies.

 

Space

I must confess, I am conflicted about this.

Richard Branson made a suborbital flight in his own spaceship. Elon Musk is talking about going further. Together with Jeff Bezos, private space flight is a real thing and it’s getting realer.

Make all the jokes you want about wealthy people spending absurd amounts of money to book passage on one of these in the near future, but the fact that it’s happening at all leaves me a bit gobsmacked. Would I rather this had been achieved by the government? Probably. But would I rather have not seen it achieved at all? Absolutely not.

I’m going to be fairly unapologetic about this. Going to space was the one thing I have been consistently dreaming about since I can remember. (And no, I don’t personally feel the need to Go There myself, just so long as We get there.) As a kid being unable to get enough science fiction, aware eventually that the Real World was lagging behind the dreams I held dear, any endeavor that came along to advance that purpose I welcomed. I thought the whole moonshot thing in the Sixties was conceptually cool but awkward and dull in execution. The X-15 project was well on its way to building an actual spaceship, but that would have required considerably more funding which Congress was unwilling to dole out, but we definitely needed missiles (we thought) to counter Russia and Kennedy was (we forget) a fervent Cold Warrior. But we Got There.

And then turned our back on it.  Even then the detractors were hammering away at the perceived waste of spending money to send people to the moon instead of feeding the hungry. That tension is still at hand and it is certainly based on legitimate concerns.

My problem with it has always been, Why is this an either/or question?  We should have been doing something about poverty, yes, but we should also go to the moon.  And Mars and the Jovians and onward.

Because without Big Dreams, the rest is just…

Not pointless, but once we have solved the problems of poverty and fed everyone and seen to social justice, what next?

This is not a First World question. Every vital culture has a Big Dream, a set of stories if nothing else that inject transcendence into their lives.

The problem is, solving problems never happens in a logical order.

So while I understand the cries of frustration (why are these Billionaires doing this instead of—?) I can’t quite condemn the quest. As far as I’m concerned, this may be the one truly legitimate thing any of them could do with all that money (that they would do). As long  as we have billionaires, I would rather they build a significant part of the future with it. Going to space is the Big Dream of my childhood, and if we can’t elect representatives who will fund it, then let’s not stop these guys. It’s not like the things they achieve will be one-shots that no one else will ever get to do. The point of all this is to open that so-called Final Frontier, which will produce jobs, sure, but will also feed the need for Big Dreams and Wider Vistas and, ridiculous as it may sound to some, we ain’t gonna create the Star Trek world unless we Get There.

So, yeah. I’m conflicted.  I hate that it’s These Guys, but I don’t hate that they’re doing it. When I watched that single-stage rocket actually land, my ten-year-old heart pounded in excitement.  Yes! Yes! Yes! And that tech and those tools, they’ll remain when Musk is dust.

But let us get over this binary nonsense of either/or.  There is no reason we can’t have both. There are plenty of reasons we have to have both. Tax them, for pity’s sake. Even a hefty tax will leave them with the resources to do this thing. Impose a community profit-share on them. There are ways of achieving that.

But I’m not going to beat up on them for doing something ultimately very cool for the time being.

That’s how I feel.

Coolth

Weather patterns are insane. It’s over a 100 in the Pacific Northwest and here in Missouri this morning it’s 70. It’s July.  Our civilization is lurching toward solving what may be the greatest civil engineering project in history and hopefully reversing the last century (or more) of human-contributed climate change.  (You know, I used to have arguments about this back in my 20s and the counterargument was always “The planet is huge! Do you know how much pollution goes into the atmosphere when a big volcano erupts? How can we possibly add so much that things could change?” On its face, a certain logic, but you have to leave out key obvious factors, like the constant production of the greenhouse gases, and the fact that the planet, if we assume a certain homeostasis with natural systems, was already at an optimal point of balance.  So how much extra does there really need to be added to what was already being produce to tip it over the edge?  Not a lot.  In fact, about what we’ve added. Anyway.)

That all said, I have nothing much more to say. So, something to assist with cool thoughts.  Have a good weekend.

 

The Look

We’ve all seen this, or something like it. There’s a look you get from someone who has expressed an opinion contrary to your view that you have countered. As the discussion continues and you keep presenting new facts and new formulations to show that what he/she is asserting is in error, occasionally you receive this Look. Almost a smile, a barely repressed glint of mischief in the eyes, a kind of smugness that says, “You just don’t get it, do you? You just can’t see that none of that matters and that I’m right.”

It is an infuriating look. But it is also the look of a true believer, perhaps a zealot, someone who has learned to rewrite reality so well that all the facts, truths, and ideas in the world fail to persuade.

What then becomes more infuriating is when you ask them to explain themselves, offer the whys and whereofs of their position, and tell you how what you have said is so wrong—they refuse. Perhaps it is because they believe the evidence for their position is so strong, so obvious that they do not need to explain it.

More likely, it is a combination of two primary factors: one, that what they believe is to them so right that evidence to the contrary, regardless how fact-based it may be, is by definition irrelevant, and two, like any faith-based assertion, explaining it is always a reduction.

Personally, I think a third factor renders the first two less important—a refusal to entertain the idea that you might have a point.

Because that would admit doubt. And doubt is kryptonite to zealotry.

We saw that look recently, on the face of Congressman Matt Gaetz when being schooled by the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff on the utility of learning, of understanding. Gaetz, smiling and slightly shaking his head, was trying to convey his astonishment at the general for holding opinions which Gaetz found incomprehensible. There is truth in this—Gaetz did find them incomprehensible, because he likely did not comprehend them. He certainly did not expect them. Rather than draw back and reconsider, that expression on his face suggests he would simply double-down on his expectations and disregard what he had heard. Given a little time, he will regroup and proceed as if the general had said nothing.

The philosopher David Hume established the groundwork for our apprehension of fact. It seems obvious today, but till Hume it was not, which is that all that we know or can know comes through our senses, and therefore absolute knowledge—about anything—is mediated by filters which are utterly subjective and by degrees unreliable. In other words, while we can make any number of accurate statements about the world, and can over time refine our observations so that they more and more accurately approximate reality, we can never know absolutely and with the kind of certainty which obliterates error. Because we are sensate creatures and our sense are tied to desires and a host of responses that mitigate objectivity to one degree or another, our conclusions must always be conditional.

This is not to say we cannot “know” anything in such a way that we cannot rely on our knowledge to navigate the world and even understand it to a very large degree. Those same senses tell us we’re on the right track and allow us to perceive the consequences of our learning in action in such away that we are justified in a high degree of confidence. Rather, it means we can never reach a final state of knowing anything, not to the extent that we can claim absolute comprehension.

We get along quite well with the margin left us. To claim that we can know nothing at all is the same error as claiming absolute certainty in anything. Knowledge, like experience, turns out to have a statistical valence, even as we may be caught up in the kind of illusion of certainty of which zealots dream.

We can even be certain at times. For the purposes of making the next decision, for choosing among options, for planning, we can rely on certainty. At least for a short while. It’s an impression, necessary for moving reliably through the world.

The problem is when we take hold of certainty and declare it absolute and never allow it to pass into the probabilistic stew from which our actions are determined. When we stop allowing for the possibility of error or misjudgment or change.

“Why would I doubt something I know to be true?”

For the sake of argument, let’s set that aside for a moment. It’s not so much the thing invested with absolute confidence that can be a problem, but the array of secondary ideas and next-steps that evolve from it. If you are so convinced of a then obviously b must follow. You can construct a causal chain of decisions which can lead to a profoundly dysfunctional place (the Crusades, anyone? Flat Earth? 6000 year-old-Earth?) Doubt is the necessary ingredient to keep our options open to the possibility of getting the logical conclusions of an idea wrong. Doubt, to return to my kryptonite statement, may not stop the zealot, but it may stop us from following him.  (The zealot may have several motivations and bases for belief and action apart from the immediate subject, most not amenable to reason.)

But if Hume is correct—and I believe he is—it doesn’t matter which part of the chain you look at, doubt is essential at every link because the source of knowledge can only ever be grasped by way of the senses, which are by no means open to all aspects of any subject.  (Knowing god, for instance, can only be an assertion of will on our part, because even according to our descriptions of god, it is an impossible thing to “know” because it exceeds the limits of our senses. We ought, if we’re going to adhere to that path, recognize that we can only ever know an idea of god, and that the doubt comes into play when attempting to determine right or wrong based on that incomplete knowledge, because a large part of that claim to “know” god is Expectation.)

The ability to usefully deploy doubt, though, is the flip side of the problem. Disciplined skepticism is a skill and requires learning. Otherwise you end up as ineffective as the zealot, doubting so automatically and universally that decisions can never be made, or at least not constructively.  Consequently, doubt can scare people. If they think by doubting everything they stand on is sand, their lives will be buffeted by a world in which they find no purchase. It would only be sensible for them to grab hold of the first certainty they feel they can rely on.

Those are two anchors of the curve. Most people utilize a combination. Investing their faith in certain things while dealing with everything else out of a utilitarian skepticism.

Unfortunately, there will be times their skepticism fails them simply because something appears to be part of the area of certainty in which they invest.

But about that “look” I mentioned at the beginning. That’s the look you get very often from someone who has decided on a posture of absolute certainty not because of any survey of options or counterarguments, but because a decision has been taken to ignore everything else, and then turn the responsibility for error on everyone else.

What seems to have been decided is that anyone speaking doubt to this person is engaging in either duplicity or is, in fact, unintelligent. (A third possibility is that they are holding said certainty in bad faith, because what they are actually after is control and power.) In either case, they’re regarding you with a self-satisfied smugness born of “knowing” they know better than you. They have to believe, on some level, that you’re stupid.  And if you ask them to explain it to you, to show you what you’re missing, often they won’t. They’ll give some version of “you wouldn’t understand” and move on.

The reason they do this is that they can’t explain it. Not in such a way to show you how you’ve erred. In order to do that, they would have to understand it themselves, deeply, in such a way that would allow them to engage in a dialogue about it. That willingness to engage indicates humility. Humility and absolute certainty have an uneasy relationship.

Now, let me state here that this is not always the case. Many people who live in certainty, especially about matters of faith, are genuinely humble. You can tell them from the zealots because they will engage. They’ll do their best to explain, they’ll discuss it. You may find yourselves in a bog eventually where the limits of engagement butt against that certainty, but there will be dialogue.

But you won’t ever get That Look from them.

That Look denotes someone who has finally substituted Absolute Certainty for the kind of openness that leads to understanding. The next step will be to silence criticism, denounce alternatives, and snuff out inquiry.

That look Matt Gaetz gave General Mark Milley. Gaetz possibly knows very well that Milley is right, but acknowledging that will not aid Gaetz in his agenda. So Milley has to be wrong or stupid. Regardless, Gaetz can’t explain.  He can only offer The Look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Working….or Not

Sometimes you have to step back from the battle to see how it goes. Logistics is all important, but so is simple perspective. To fling an accusation at the enemy that what they are doing is not working is fraught with error.

For instance, we are beginning to hear the reassessments about so-called Trickle-Down economics.  Learned minds are starting to point out its shortcomings. The problems. Many of us have been saying for years that it was bad idea, that, in fact, It Doesn’t Work.

Well, there’s a problem there, especially if what one is trying to do is win an argument.

We have to get our terms straight.  We have to know what our expectations were and are.

And we have to understand that this is a war of misperception as much as anything else. When you say “It didn’t work” the very next thing you have to say or ask or assume is:  for whom?

Because it certainly worked for some people.

This is important, because when you base your argument on a point that is contrary to the experience and expectation of your opponent, you’re about to have a Sisyphean task winning that argument.  Because in fact it did work.  Just not for a lot of people.  And the problem with saying it didn’t work is making a probably false assumption that both your expectations were and are the same.

Oh, no. Your opponent does not hear your words because they don’t understand your point (on purpose or otherwise) because for them it did work.  It did precisely what they wanted it to do.

Of course, if you go back to when it was embraced, that was the problem as well.  You were talking different languages almost.  When they sold us this idea with the classic “rising tide floats all boats” we took them to mean all boats, not just the ones like theirs. And since their boats rose, well, the damn thing worked like a charm! What are you complaining about?

I just point this out because words matter. Words contain assumptions and if we get them wrong we can end up mudwrestling over issues that could be better pursued by a simple reset and the understanding that we do not expect the same things, that “it works” or “it doesn’t work” mean entirely different things.

It didn’t fail.  It just didn’t do what we thought it was intended to do.

But it did what someone intended it to do.

Now we can start calling it what it is.  A fraud. Theft. Robbery.

Retrenchment

The new abortion laws being enacted across the country should come as no surprise. This was going to happen. This has been in the cards since Reagan. Reliance on the courts to defend the right to choose was as much an indication of how much we underestimated the threat as it was any kind of faith in our institutions.

Right after Roe was passed, amendments to state constitutions should have been passed to nail it down. Other laws should have been written and passed to nail it down. One of the inherent problems with a federal solution is that it’s a one-time solution that can be reversed the next time across the board. Roe should have been the start of a long series of embedding legislation which should have been taken up on the assumption that Roe could be overturned.

It didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. One, I believe, is that too much support for the right to choose is tepid. It is too often circumstantial, waffling, and uncomfortable.

Now we’ll find out. Penalties are being attached. Some have already been enacted. This means one thing that has traditionally scared the anti-choice movement off—it will now be in the courts all the time.

Let me say here that in my opinion, as a male, I should have no say in this. At all. I was never at risk in this issue. I could never get pregnant. I was never going to suffer consequences from being denied the right to an abortion. This should not be something I have any stake in.

That said, it has become politicized to the point that having an opinion is unavoidable because now it is a civil rights issue, and civil rights affect all of us.

And no, as far as I’m concerned, a fetus has no civil rights. A fetus is not a person. At best, a fetus is a manifestation of an idea, and it only becomes a person if all the parties involve follow through. All the moralistic posturing about when life begins and what constitutes a human are just that—posturing. By taking the position that a fetus—now, in some cases, a zygote—is a human being with a full suite of rights, you automatically strip rights of personhood from the one carrying it. Personhood is an aspect of autonomy. Autonomy at the very least is a matter of self-determination. By declaring that a collection of cells has greater claim to state protection than the one carrying them is by definition declaring that woman less than everyone else. You can’t have it any other way.

Until we stop waffling about that, this issue will not be resolved.

Resolution, however, entails several other issues that are hanging upon the thread of ongoing discomfort. Like equality, for instance, and not just for women.

Education for another. The rationalization of sex. Not to mention the ongoing squirming about gender, orientation, and identity. All of this is tangled up and therefore it is difficult to know just what some people are objecting to when they go on a jeremiad about abortion. We may believe our response is exclusively aimed at the words coming out of their mouths, but then when their next response comes, laden with contradiction and vehement rejection, we sense that we did not know just what we were arguing about.

This is simple:  if the goal is to reduce and/or eliminate abortions, then a sensible solution is to substantially invest in meaningful sex education and the wide availability of contraception. Attack the causes of unwanted pregnancy and empower individuals to protect themselves. How hard is that?

Apparently, very. Almost no anti-choice group does not also include a ban on contraception as a stated goal. One of the justifications touted for this stance is the notion that contraception is simply abortion by other means. Pre-emptive abortion, if you will. That contraception inculcates a lax attitude toward the value of life. That contraception leads to an acceptance of abortion.

This facile excuse-making masks a very simple reality:  that the real issue is not abortion but sex. Sex practiced outside the bounds of what is hoped to be strict social parameters that will control behaviors said advocates find unacceptable. (A recent declaration by Alabama Republican state Senator and sponsor of the bill Clyde Chambliss, responded that, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.” That’s about as clear as it can be made—he and probably his supporters are not interested in the “facts of life” regarding fertilized egg—they are concerned with pregnant women and making sure they stay pregnant.)  This is a direct assault on a woman’s right to be her own agent.  It is punitive and it is a curtailment of her civil rights. This has nothing to do with fetuses except as a means of control.

Until we largely get past the traditional views that linger like mold that sex is somehow bad and that women who try to live their lives according to the same privileged sensibilities men do are “unnatural”; until we get to a place where we can accept that sex as an act of communication is separate and distinct in intent and outcome from sex as procreation and that all of us have a right to manage our own aspirations free of outside interference, we will continue to have this problem.

It is the start of a chain, though.  If you can dictate pregnancy this way, you can dictate all the rest of the privacy concerns adhering to questions of free association and identity. This can be enlarged for purposes of a resurgent legal challenge to homosexual rights, transgender rights, adoption rights, marriage rights, and so on.  Not that it necessarily would go there but by accepting the legitimacy of such limitations on one group for purposes having nothing to do with their innate and autonomous desires, you can construe a challenge to any group failing to fit an arbitrary social “norm.”

That is not a society I care to live in.

Until we quite clearly and loudly start dealing with the underlying (and not so well hidden) issues involved, we are destined to keep fighting these back-and-forth legal wars.  Despite the distance traveled since the 1950s and all its suffocating social restrictions, people still seem reluctant to defend their right to have healthy sex.  Indeed, we still have too many people who do not believe sex is healthy. Too many people who excuse their desires and passions by making babies and therefore proving a legitimate reason for having such a good time was there all along.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

When you disassemble the challenges and look at the arguments and then look at the policies advocated, it doesn’t sound so silly.  The anti-choice movement has depended on the tepidness, the discomfort, of too many people in order to build the momentum they have. They have relied on our collective ill-ease with the whole subject.

Well. Be that as it may. Sad to say, the pro-choice movement is likely going to lose this one. Having lost it, we will regroup, and maybe next time do the necessary trench-warfare in the state legislatures, and school boards, and town halls to instantiate this right in too many places, too deeply to be effectively challenged.

We need to. I am not willing to live in a Calvinist dystopia. I don’t think the Fifties were all that wonderful. I don’t want my friends to suffer a retreat from the dream of equity.

This has been a fight with ignorance. The depth of that ignorance is on display now across the country. People who don’t know—and who don’t want to know, because knowing confuses them, makes them doubt. They want a pure, righteous cause by which to feel virtuous.

For the life of me, I’ve never understood why genuine equality doesn’t fill that bill.

Equality? For the ignorant—that a woman can be shackled by a condition and have her entire life twisted and reshaped through no choice of her own and that men can never be so trapped automatically makes this an equity issue. That is reality. And I have no doubt that many if not all the architects of the so-called pro-life cause know that perfectly well and they are glad of it, because they think that’s as it should be.

 

 

On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.

Strolling

We had a chance to take a walk in a garden recently. After a year of basically hunkering down and avoiding the world, our limit was reached and we went to the Missouri Botanical Garden the first weekend of May. It was so good, so surreal, and so necessary.

Consequently, a couple of shots.