Now That We’re Here

The Transgender Issue.

Excuse me? Issue? What issue?

This is in some part about science fiction, but really about my entire civilization, and touches on the choices we have facing us. I start with the so-called Transgender Issue because it exemplifies a problem I’ve been having with certain apparent contradictions.

As far as I’m concerned, the issue is not with trans people but with those who are ideologically opposed to them. The concerns they raise run counter to what I grew up expecting.*

I suppose none of this should surprise me, and from some quarters it doesn’t. I do wonder who made them arbiter of other people’s sense of self, but we’ve never had a shortage of the self-appointed in search of an issue to inflate their own sense of importance. But when I find people from my “clan”, so to speak, expressing fear and dismay and standing with those seeking to distance themselves somehow from people who are according to them too different to tolerate, I am saddened. A lesser sadness comes from those of my generation who seem somehow not to get the current eruption of respect demands. Dismissing it as “woke” (always in quotes, because that’s the way they make it clear they’re being sarcastic) and the language of snowflakes. A more perfect reversal of roles is difficult to imagine. It has become possible for people who have as groups been made to put up with dismissive reductions of agency for centuries to speak out and require regard which has always automatically been accorded the dominant group, and members of that self-assumed dominant group are offended. They don’t understand the rules, they don’t see why they should have to accommodate what seem to them to be petty requirements, they fail to acknowledge that a long history of indifference has brought them to a moment where the costs of disproportionate regard are coming due.

Two items of personal history. My parents named me with some care. Mark. Aside from its relative rarity when I was born, it seemed to them sufficiently self-contained to resist shortenings, nicknames, and other common assaults. My dad did not care for his name, even less for the nickname: Henry, Hank. They didn’t want people turning William to Bill (or, worse, Billy) or Charles to Chuck, or any of the rest. They did not count on the imaginative nastiness of kids, who simply called me other things rather than respect my name. By the time I graduated high school, I’d had enough. My name is Mark. Not Marcus, not Marky, not any of the rather tortured substitutions on hand. It was as if they had to own a piece of my identity. It chafed. Looking back, it seems rather small of me, but I became strident. I refused to answer to anything but my given name. I snapped at people I had to work with to stop distorting it. I made a bit of an ass of myself.  Petty perhaps, but also indicative of a larger problem, namely that hierarchies disenfranchise people by first denying them their preferred self-identifiers. By such means we lose parts of ourselves, hand control over to others.

The second has to do with the common referents extant in my youth for anyone or any group that was supposed to be seen as inferior. I grew up in a linguistic sea of slurs, disenfranchisements, insults, and categorizing that was, I suppose, intended to maintain the barriers between people who someone thought should not mingle. The disturbing thing to me now is how utterly ordinary and “normal” this was. And anyone objecting was subject to censure, sometimes violently. You will be who and what we say you are. Because granting even the autonomy to name oneself and designate how one preferred to be seen in the world meant yielding authority. And once you give in on one thing, the rest is at risk of tumbling down.

What kind of a world would that be?

Well, the kind of world I wanted to live in.

Not specifically about matters of personal identity, but certainly a world where the kind of equality that was honored more romantically than actually really manifested. A world where you could be whoever and whatever you wish to be…as long as I can be what I am as well.

I got this more from science fiction than from history. History, after all, shows exactly the opposite to be the norm. Science fiction held out the possibility of changing that norm.

Well, now we’re here. And it seems a lot of people I thought wanted pretty much the same things are unwilling to accept that this is where all those wonderful changes would take us. They wanted all kinds of technological innovation, beautiful cities, starships, infrastructure solutions to energy and food and communications and better education.

Just, can we keep the social arrangements more or less the same?

Too many people who didn’t “fit” have been denied access for too long. Maybe we all assumed the boundaries would come down and we’d all gradually—what?—get used to each other?  The assumption underlying that implies that we’re all pretty much exactly the same except for maybe some cosmetic differences. The fact that people are shocked that there was always more to it suggests—to me, at least—that we weren’t really paying attention.

Asking that we all respect each other’s self-identification choices is a pretty basic courtesy. The fact that it seems so difficult for some suggests the problems go deeper than simple courtesy can address.

A certain ideal kind of person wants to not be bothered with all that, wants to just be seen as who and what they are without having to introduce themselves that way. But also wants their assumptions about everyone else’s identity to go unquestioned and conform to expectations—without asking. This is privilege. And it may well be that some day we’ll get there, where that ideal person is basically everyone—including whatever extraterrestrials we may encounter. I find it curious that among my “clan” it has always been accepted, tacitly, that with aliens such respect would be axiomatic, but somehow when it comes to actual human beings there are occasions of fraught ill-ease.  And it’s not so much that the idea isn’t acceptable—it’s just that, with the changes, some folks resent having to participate.

Everyone who ever misnamed me growing up quite plausibly did so as a joke. The problem was, I never found it funny, just disempowering. It was the presumption that made it insulting, more so than the actual alternate label. How much worse had the label itself been intended to hurt, to “keep me in my place”—which was pretty much the result if not the intention. And since it had no other utility than to make the labeler feel better or feel superior, then I suppose the intention was always there.

Given the problems some people seem to be having with something as simple as gendering, I suppose when faced with actual physiological morphology and people changing their bodies to match their Selves we should not be surprised at even greater discord. My question is, why? Over what? Isn’t knowing who we are one of the primary elements of being human, having agency, living in the world as a fully realized manifestation of what and who we are?

The future has arrived and people are complaining. Big surprise.

The shock comes from, I suppose, realizing that we never really knew who we are, much less who others might be. There’s comfort in the mask for some. Well, your discomfort should not diminish others.

For my part, while I have stumbled over old habits, I’ve faulted myself for the mistakes made in regards to others requesting respect. I do not begrudge them the demand for agency.

I have to ask, though, if we have this much trouble according respect to human beings, just how are we going to deal with honest to goodness actual aliens?

Too many of us, I feel, liked being tourists in this future, but never really wanted it.

That kind of makes me sad.

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  • John Varley’s work incorporated a very advanced level of, as we called it then, sex change. Samuel R. Delany featured it in his novel Trouble On Triton. That’s just off the top of my head. What I want to point out, though, is that I took this idea as an “of course!” concept. Why not? And as time passed and I knew more, the whole idea of trans simply did not bother me. The way it has subsequently manifested was not as I might have expected, but as one more possibility in the toolbox of humans making themselves as they wish in the world, it simply made sense.

 

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Processing….

Notice the new banner? I played around with an image till I came up with something suitably SFnal. We sometimes forget to talk about æsthetics in SF, even while responding to it in a big, big way. I mean, how else to explain how so many otherwise mediocre or plain bad movies became so popular, even for a little while, except by their Look? Be that as it may, I thought I’d post the unmanipulated image from which the new banner was derived. Because, heck, it’s kinda cool, too.

Another Note On Whiteness

The last session of the Witnessing Whiteness workshop is coming up. We’ve read the last chapter in the book. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about much of this, I came across points in this final section that resonated strongly.

My ambivalence has to do with the idea of defining White Culture as a starting point for recognizing—and then witnessing—racism. Knowing who “we” are and where we come from sounds reasonable, but when you start trying to put that into concrete terms you realize that “culture” is such a slippery thing that getting a handle on it is tricky and can be exhausting. Like other subjects, we come face to face with the distinctions between tropes and foundations. So much of what we might casually name as aspects of culture are often little more than ephemeral occasions of fashion. What the fashions are built on, that’s another matter, and requires that we look more deeply than perhaps we know how. Or wish to.

Take, for instance, the naming of sports teams. On the surface, this is shallow ground. It’s a sports franchise, a game, an excuse to have a party. Fashion. Who cares what the team is called? (From my perspective, personally, this has always been the case because sports itself has always been, to me, ephemeral and trivial—my hometown baseball teams is the Cardinals. Named for a bird. How is that important to anything other than having a cute handle to identify a local club that plays a game which feeds a desire for public distraction? I am in the minority in this, recognizing that for many people this can be profoundly significant.) The name of a team is a handle. But we discover, sometimes to our surprise, how important such handles are to many people, especially when there is a move to change it. The reasons for the change matter. The backstory of the name, the associations, the pervasive impression made by the name…all these factors spring from underlying structures that usually go unremarked and unrecognized by most people, until challenged.

Knowing those deeper structures—the foundations of Culture—would seem necessary to, at a minimum, prevent difficult and often painful misunderstandings over what seem to be trivial matters. Why would anyone get violently upset over such things? Perhaps having the buried nerves of a less than pleasant past rubbed raw suggests that the upset is less to do with the name than with the historic details of what that name means to people outside the dominant culture—and what those inside that culture wish forgotten.

One argument in defense of offensive emblems—Indigenous mascots, in this instance—holds that these emblems are ideas attached to the subject and in no way are intended to imply anything about actual indigenous people.  They’re caricatures, based on (in this case) archaisms that no longer apply meaningfully to persons currently alive, intended to evoke nostalgia or media representations or isolated virtues associated with. It begins to sound silly. The idea that they are intended to honor the subjects also has sharp limits when you ask What about them is being honored? Basically, when you start questioning the whys of the emblems, you get to a point of diminishing defense and are left with the simple fact of appropriation. That at some point we felt entitled to appropriate those emblems for our own purposes, without meaningful consent, never occurs to the audiences at which they’re directed until the questions are raised.

And then you have what seems like an absurd debate. Absurd partly because the defenders of the emblems refuse to admit that there had never been any reason to do that other than the only thing of value in the emblem to them is that is was safely rendered powerless to be used to mean anything they felt like using it for.

An aspect of White Culture comes into play here:  white people are quite used to relegating to themselves the status of distinct individuals, but even in casual discourse tend to assign all members of any other ethnicity to a blanket definition and stripping the members of that group of their individuality.  Which means that the use of such emblems automatically defines the entire group according to the prejudices of the appropriators. Bluntly, all American Indians are the same and can be signified by a single emblem and no further effort need be taken to understand them as people.

We see this again and again. Pick any minority. All Jews are like this, the Irish are that, Blacks do this, Asians are—you get the idea.

It may be asked, with seeming reasonableness, why would any member of these groups agree to be so defined? They don’t have to participate in such categorization. Again, to put it bluntly, fair enough perhaps until a member of said group walks into a bank to do business the way anyone might expect business to be done, and the question has to be asked—how much of those emblematic definitions are in play on the part of the bank officer who will be determining the value and character of that person, whether or not they will allow business to be done according to the standards and rules that attach to the dealings they would have with a white customer?

Some definitions will not allow people to escape the preconceptions that follow them through the door by virtue of those caricatures so ardently defended by people who never have to worry about such things.

We know that by and large people think with heuristics. Rules of thumb, algorithms encapsulating complex ideas in largely automated responses, semi-conscious conceptual models that allow us to quickly move through life without having to stop and apply critical thinking to every decision. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has presented findings that not only do people operate largely unselfconsciously, but that we can’t not operate that way. Our brains, evolved in conditions requiring responses to environments that will kill us for a moment’s inattention, are not actually capable of supporting fully conscious thought for more than a handful of minutes at a time. (Recently it has been determined that this period of conscious presence increases dramatically—when we’re in dialogue with someone else. The isolated individual suffers a deficit in this instance, something that will concern us later in this essay.) As we mature, the number of heuristics increases, and we rely on them to make quick judgments, respond to situations in minimal time, and navigate through a world of ritual, routine, and repetition.

But what it also means is that beliefs, points-of-view, prejudices, “received wisdom” and the like tend to operate on us the same way. We go with the “givens” rather than reconsider things with each situation. Such things reside just behind consciousness, often as part of our sense of self, and we tend to be unaware of them until challenged. This makes changing one’s mind difficult at best and changing other people’s minds Sisyphean. What does this mean with regards to racism? It is simply easier to treat members of out groups as all one thing rather than do the work of individuating them. And if that single group definition is negative, well.

(I have listened to racists try to redefine a black individual they happen to like in such a way as to preserve the group definition while recognizing there is something different about “this one.” The definition that always got to me was “He’s a white man in a black man’s body.”)

But wouldn’t white people represent All One Thing in the same way? Yes and no. This is where Witnessing Whiteness enters with an observation that triggered this entire line of thought.

…the individualistic perspective depends upon the conception of the self as autonomous, independent, self-determining, unique, separate, and free. Remember that this orientation matches the modern worldview, which is also associated with being Western and white for many people. 

The shift in self-identity which occurred during the Enlightenment and which enabled people to develop a sense of self-worth apart from institutions, many of which sought to oppress them, is reflected in this passage. The Western ideal of the Individual allows for the concepts of personal autonomy and freedom to acquire real meaning. But in the fraught reality of a frontier world alá the 18th Century North American landscape, it acquired the germ of a pathology which today has flowered into a number of toxic blooms.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we need to challenge individualism can be easily misunderstood and resisted. This occurs because many confuse individualism with the job of becoming an individual. These are two completely different ways of relating to the world. The modern self who subscribes to rugged individualism risks becoming isolated, disconnected, and competitive. 

This problem—Individualism—is a pervasive issue bound up with our national myths as much as it is with the psychology of self-reliance.  And both those issues are bound up with what I am calling Pathological Ownership. The whole question of Individualism is problematic here, because it is in the end unachievable. No one can do everything in the claimed isolation of a bootstrapping autonomy. We have been having this argument for decades now with regards to big business and taxes and community obligations, but it begins with individuals who wish to see themselves as wholly independent, self-contained, and unalloyed in their will to be. You might ask, where did this idea come from? Among other sources, this flows from the fount of pseudo-wisdom penned by Ayn Rand, who has become a touchstone for the self-described indispensable man. There is no such thing, really, but there seems to be many people who wish to be, or at least be seen that way. The one trait that seems to bind them all together is a desire to be free of any obligation not entirely of their own choosing. To do that, however, one would have to cut oneself off from almost everyone else.

Rand is not really the problem. She wrote stories. The problem would seem to be in the American apprehension of Story.

There was a clue to this in the chapter under discussion, where Tochluk  makes an observation about a movie which I did not expect. Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film based on a Philip K. Dick story, pops up, and she describes a scene concerned with a possible future in which everyone is watched, identified, and targeted for advertising. She claimed to be “horrified” by the very notion. How this related to her topic struck me as less important than her reaction, which is not new to me. I write science fiction and one of the things that always dismays me with people who are not especially familiar with it as a genre is how they see it as predictive—that the futures described are how the authors either think they are going to happen or, worse yet, what the author wishes to see happen.

Which led me to an observation about how Americans—some Americans—treat (or mistreat) stories. Science fiction quite didactically and all other genres less so presents scenarios of possibilities, for our entertainment certainly, but also, depending on the book, for discussion. The dialogue is what matters, not the prescriptive element, which with few exceptions is nonexistent. But I’m not at all sure Americans take stories this way. Many of us don’t seek the dialogue. We don’t want to learn from stories, we want to be the stories. Or at least the hero.

Now, this is a perfectly normal kind of process—for children. Role-playing, trying on different personas, looking for models. But this is learning. If we look at this in concert with the process of Individualism described above and in the book, this can lead some to very surreal and often destructive places. (I am minded here of conversations I’ve had over a movie like The Searchers. I’ve known people who identified John Wayne’s character, Ethan, as the Hero and even wished to be like him. When I pointed out that Ethan was a seriously flawed, even sociopathic character, they were dismayed, even angry. They did not see his character as instructive in the sense that “this is something you should not become” but as a role model to emulate. Because it was John Wayne. Because he was the Hero.)

We are raised with stories—nothing unique, all cultures have stories—but here the stories are taken as in some way biblical, certainly nationalistic. We can see part of this in the perennial argument over banned books. This is nothing more than an attempt to privilege “sacred” texts over those that may lead to other conclusions.

Look at the current state of politics and you can see how the three things are combining destructively. Individualism, Pathological Ownership, and Story As Law. (We hear analysts talking about seizing the Narrative. We should pay closer attention to that entire process.)

Now consider these things in relation to race.

The Individualist eschews recognition of community as something on which he or she is dependent, because that would obligate the individual; ignoring the internal elements of Being Human, a set of traits taken perhaps from stories is adopted in lieu of an openness of genuine self-knowledge and an embrace of what is common; and an assertion of primacy of possession so that these things are claimed as Owned, because sharing is seen as a zero-sum game. Other Individuals may also own things and be in some sense equal (but what does that actually mean in this formulation? Equal to what. since we are all unique?), but since all Individuals by definition are “like us” then those not like us cannot be Individuals and therefore can claim no privileges.

If we believe that racism is, in Shelly Tochluk’s phrasing, a dis-ease, a pathology, then it is by definition irrational. But the irrational is not causeless. It has components, attributes, defining features. Granted, these are perversions, and the things from which they spring may not be in themselves perverse. If we are going to examine Culture as a source, then we need to look at those aspects of it which have become distorted. I am here offering my conclusions on what the elements of White Culture are that have brought us here.

One more observation. It is not necessary that everyone or even a majority of a group believe a thing in order for that thing to affect the entire population. Beliefs can acquire momentum, and like gravity can bend the whole along an orbit even a majority may not approve. What can make it extremely difficult to correct is when those toxic elements are founded in things we all more or less approve, and which may have no intrinsically toxic effects.

 

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 2000 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.

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.

We Have Toys

Finally, after two trips into the wilds of computer land, I have my new scanner, all set up and ready to go. Below it my first scanned image.

 

I will get better at this, once I learn the various buttons on the new ‘chine. This is an old image, a 4 X 5 negative. To my pleasant amazement, the detail is still astounding in these things.

So in the space of a week, I have the ability now to once more make use of my (huge) library of negatives (only 50 + years of photography), and I have sold a new story—a novella, no less—to Analog. Not a bad start of a year that could have turned out a lot worse.