Dressing Up

It’s Hallowe’en.  No news to anyone, we’ve been immersed in it for weeks now.  But this year I’ve been doing a lot of introspective reminiscing and I’ve come to realize that Hallowe’en should always have been my favorite festive occasion.

See, I’ve been wearing costumes all my life.

 

The last time I went out on a Hallowe’en night in costumes I was 14.  A little old you say?  I agree, but I wasn’t doing the trick’or’trreating, I was being part of the security detail accompany a group of littler kids.  Nevertheless, I always liked getting into costume, into a character, and I went as a town sheriff, complete with a six-gun on my hip.  That would be questionable today, especially as the weapon I wore was a Mattel Fanner Fifty, which looked real.  Except for some high-end models, toy guns don’t look real anymore, and I understand the thinking behind it.  Even when I was a kid there were incidents of robberies done at (toy) gun-point, because for over a decade toy companies, following the Mattel model, made more and more realistic guns.  The Mattels were all like three-quarter size, but in the heat of the moment that’s not going to count for much.  So gradually, authenticity yielded to social reality, and now you have all these bizarre looking things out of bad SciFi movies with tell-tale orange tips screaming TOY!

Anyway, I went out for a couple of hours, acting as protector of the smaller children, wearing a beard made from burnt cork, a dime-store Stetson, and my six-shooter slung low on the hip.

I loved it.

But you get older, some things that were adorable at eight are just weird at eighteen.  Going to dress-up Hallowe’en parties in my adolescence and early adulthood were not that common.  Besides I lost all my toy guns.

(I had a double-holster set of Mattel “shootin-shell” pistols, black holsters, silvered with fake ivory grips.  They were wonderful!  You could get bullets for them with pressure-plate releases on the back of the spring-loaded cartridges that, when the hammer struck, launched little plastic shells about five or six feet.  I was rough on my toys, always was, and eventually the grips came off, they broke, they ended up neglected and one day tossed.  Here’s a picture of the set:

 

 

 

 

I loved that set.  Outrageously expensive now.  Here is a site with all the Mattel western toys of the period.)

Even before that, though, I used to get creative.  When first introduced to Hallowe’en, the costumes were less than wonderful.  Basic sized pull-overs, like jump suits, tied in the back, and a molded plastic mask with large eye holes.  The fabric was cheap, the costumes usually ill-fitting, and almost always ending up in the trash.  The last one of those I had was a Superman costume when I was eleven—it was a little embarrassing because they insisted on tricking it out with glitter on the chest sigil and there was no symbol on the cape.  No matter what, you didn’t look like Superman.

(Yes, I know—eleven?  Seriously?  What can I say?  I prolonged childhood as long as I could.  In some ways, I’m still a kid.)

Childhood for me was a series of roles in which I would immerse myself.  Anything, I suppose, to escape the prison of my own self.  Despite my “delicacy” I was really invested in being a soldier.  One year I even had “real” fatigues.  Never had a steel helmet, but I recall the Sixties being a very cool time for toys like this.  I had a G.I. helmet with the mesh for stuffing camouflage in—leaves and the like—which my mother hated because I tracked debris into the house after a hard day fighting Nazis or Japanese.  I had a real cartridge belt with canteen, the envy of the neighborhood, and a couple of very cool rifles.  I had one of the first battery-powered M-14s in the neighborhood.  This one actually made a very neat sound, a heavy thum-thum-thum as the tip of the barrel moved in and out (in what now I can see was a rather disturbing sexual motion, but then it was all about killing bad guys).

I took on a James Bond persona for a few years—my best dressed time in childhood, even my hair was perfectly groomed (lot of Brylcream) and I had a couple of automatic pistols—but never a shoulder holster.  Awkward when trying to carry a replica Luger in the small inside pocket of a sport coat.  It kept falling out every time I bent over.

Much of that faded through high school, but by then I was trying to write.  I look at it now and I see that I never stopped putting on costumes, only now I do it in my stories.  Try on a character, go through an adventure, be the cool secret agent or starship trooper or whatever.

We dabbled briefly in costuming when we started attending SF conventions, but drifted away from it fairly quickly.  That wasn’t the aspect of the community that really attracted us, though I confess to a deep admiration for the skill and dedication some costumers bring to their passion.

But tonight we will sort of dress up for the kids coming to the house to receive their booty and admire and enjoy their glee in being Something Else for the night.  Looking back, I admit that sometimes I got a little weird with some of it, but in the long run it did me no harm and probably a great deal of good to try out different personae.  And I haven’t actually stopped.  Just that the wardrobe is more expensive now—and fits better.

Have a boo-tiful evening.

A Few Thoughts Concerning Margaret Atwood

Actually, just one.  I’d like her to stop trying to be an authority on science fiction.  I haven’t read her new book of essays on the topic, but I’ve heard her in interviews and read some of her thoughts in the past, and based on that she’s pretty much a tourist.  Back when her publisher thought claiming her work was science fiction would hurt her sales, she misunderstood the genre magnificently (“Oh, sci-fi has rockets in it.  I don’t do that.”)  A lot of it reminded me of Susan Sontag’s egregiously off-base attempt to define it.

Of course, being in the same company as Sontag isn’t a bad thing, especially not if you want to remain within the fold of the folks who persistently fail to “get” any kind of genre work.  But it has become obvious that Atwood likes some of the aesthetic possibilities in SF and can’t help using them, and it has become likewise obvious that claiming common cause with SF isn’t hurting her sales, so now she’s a very Out There advocate.

But she still doesn’t get it. In a recent interview she characterized SF as basically religious, since it speaks to the desire to embrace something vast and elemental and be awed—the way one is supposed to be awed by religious epiphany and ritual evocation of spiritual connection.

There are two things wrong with this.  One, it suggests that the only way humans can experience awe and wonder is within a framework that can only be defined as religious.  Two, it ignores the decades-long assault on paradigms that is the core impulse in written SF.  Religion is nothing without the continuity of its paradigms, preserved as they are by the acceptance of their unassailability.  But, like science, science fiction has no reverence for paradigms that fail to explain anything and the tendency is to go at them tooth and claw in order to rip away the caul that muffles genuine transcendence.  This is not religious in the least—it is, if anything, the aesthetic of the newest gadget, a consumer culture variant that says anything done last year is, you know, Last Year.

That said, science fiction is also like an overcrowded antique shop whose proprietors just can’t bring themselves to throw anything out.  Everything that was ever done in the genre since 1926 is still there, used and reused, and that, too, is very much like science.

Because being “wrong” in the overall sense doesn’t mean all the bits by themselves are in error or are useless.  Alchemy and Chemistry are separated by an insurmountable barrier of fact, but some of the laboratory methodology devised in alchemy is still useful in modern chemistry, at least conceptually.  Einstein superseded Newton in ability to explain the universe at large, but we haven’t tossed Newton in the dustbin when it comes to working out simple cause-and-effect relations on the macro scale.  No one takes Doc Smith’s Lensmen series seriously anymore, but we’re still writing about starships, elite cadres of supercompetent heroes, and interstellar warfare with inscrutable aliens.  We just don’t do it with the kind of naivete E.E. Smith used.

But more than that, the points we’re making are different.  We’ve moved on to more sophisticated themes, or even themes that were not considered at all half a century ago.  John W. Campbell Jr. declared in the pages of Astounding that no aliens could be morally superior to humans.  That’s a laughable, pathetic idea today, but we do still wrestle with the potential relationships.

Ms. Atwood should read more fantasy if she wants to find religious fiction.  Science Fiction is all about how the universe is not dependable, reliable, or amenable to petition.  Religion is about finding a way to stability through the assertion of belief over circumstance.  Science is about figuring out how things work.  Science Fiction is about how to live in the universe science shows us, which offers only the most conditional stability.

To be fair, I understand where she might get that idea, that SF is religious.  It’s the awe, the “sense of wonder”, that is difficult to separate from one of the “varieties of religious experience.”  And it may well be that people turn to religion for exactly that thrill of awe.  But that’s not the point of religion.  And the source of the awe is very different.

I’m glad she likes SF now.  But I’m less sanguine about the expectations she will provide those just coming to SF after having read her ideas.  I suspect many of them will be disappointed and give up on it.  In this regard, I see her as very much like Harold Bloom, who dumped all over Harry Potter  because he thought it was inferior to what he regards as worthwhile YA, all the while missing the good part of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon.

On the the other hand, maybe it won’t make any difference.  Maybe no one will really pay any attention.  That, too, will be a shame.

There Is Contact…

Hey, something of a more lit’rary nature now.  I have a stored reprinted in the new collection Alien Contact  edited by Marty Halpern.  Here is the cover:

 

I am very jazzed about this for a whole bunch of reasons.  One is that I have had very few stories anthologized this way (as a reprint).  Another is the superb company I’m keeping in here—Le Guin, Swanwick, Silverberg, Cadigan, Gaiman, King, Stross, and so on and so forth.  Still another is that Marty took one of my own personal favorites, Texture of Other Ways.  This is a kind of prequel story to my Secantis Sequence.  This is about the big hairy conference that precedes the events in my novel Compass Reach and sort of sets everything in motion.

I would put a link to direct purchase, but I don’t really want anyone to buy it from Amazon.  I’ve been in a real “support your local independent bookstore” mode for some time now, so until I find a better direct link I’d like to ask you all to go order it from your local indie.  Sorry if this is inconvenient, but that’s how I feel just now.

Anyway, I hope y’all enjoy it, especially if you didn’t catch these stories the first time around.

Diagnostic Condemnation

The pundits on the Right are agreed—the Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t know what they’re saying.

“They don’t have an alternative. They aren’t even sure what it is they’re protesting.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing this kind of counteroffensive nonargument since I was old enough to understand politics.  What it boils down to is this:

“My car won’t start.”

“Do you know what the trouble is?”

“I turn the key and the motor just turns over and over but it won’t catch and run.”

“You don’t seem to have any understanding what the problem is. Come back when you know what’s wrong, otherwise I can’t fix it for you.”

How many people would accept that as a reasonable response?

The Powers That Be are saying to the country, “Unless you can articulate exactly what it is you want done, we can’t do anything.”

Where once one might have said in reply “You broke it, you fix it,” that won’t do anymore.  Now the only reasonable response seems to be “If you can’t figure it out, then move aside and let’s elect some people who can.”

The demands of Occupy Wall Street are fairly simple and straightfoward.

1: Get the money out of our politics.  Regardless of the theoretical legitimacy of the decision, the Supreme Court was wrong in spirit with Citizens United.  They missed the point.  We elect those who get on the ballots and those who get on the ballots are those who have the money to do so, and without controls on where that money comes from we are left with candidates picked by those with the funding.

2:  Money is flowing to the top end of the socioeconomic spectrum.  There are many complex reasons for this, some of which are purely systemic, but many of which are by design.  This must be reversed.

3:   Jobs are being shipped out of the country along with a great deal of manufacturing and other business and with those jobs our tax base is eroding.  We cannot tax the wealthy enough to make up the shortfall, but to continue cutting their taxes with the hope that they will reverse their policies and start hiring Americans again is absurd.  That has not happened yet and is not likely to.  It’s not taxes that are making the difference, but the appearance of tax inequity is acting as a corrosive.

4:  The transfer of wealth from public coffers into private hands is theft in all but name and those on the receiving end of this have yet to face any kind of  penalty for their mishandling of the economy or their continuation of business strategies that continue to bankrupt the middle class.

5:  Wall Street exercises too much influence in Washington and in the state legislatures across the country.

None of these are difficult to understand.  It seems to me the protesters are being very articulate.  The problems have grown larger than the normal avenues of redress can bear.

Using the police to try to break this up is an act of fear and is only making the disconnect between our ideals as  a country and reality of our politics that much clearer.

“It’s broken.”

“Do you know how to fix it?”

“No.”

“Then just shut up about it until you can offer a solution.  Go home and put up with it till you can teach me how to repair it.”

“I have a better idea.”

“Yeah?”

“You’re fired.”

An Age of Wonder and Annoyance

I have two things to talk about that are related by the slenderest of threads. Bear with me.

First I’d like to say something about how marvelous is the age in which we live, at least from the perspective of someone who has now lived in a couple of “ages” since arriving on this planet in 1954.

A short while ago I had lunch. While having lunch I like to watch something, so I popped the DVD of The Right Stuff   into my player and settled back to my roast beef and movie.  While watching, it occurred to me how blase I’ve  become at this technology.

See, growing up, movies were a Big Deal.  My parents went every other week at least and took me.  Going To The Movies holds a special, nostalgic place in my memory.  It was a shared event, but more than that it was in fact An Event.  TV was there, sure, but it was crappy and even at age four I kind of recognized the difference.  Movies were Big, they were Special, they were Unique—and they went away.  Though it was dependable.  The first run theaters got the new films and ran them for a week, maybe two.  The next batch were due in and they swapped them out, so the films went to the cheaper neighborhood theaters, usually only for a week.  Plus, these were double features.  You sat in the theater for up to four and half hours to see two movies.  Before I was born, it would be two movies, plus—cartoons, a short subject, maybe a news reel.  Going to movies was a significant amount of time and a major outing.

We brought our own snacks.  Mom would make up some popcorn or put a brown bag of candy together, and we might—might—bring a bottle of soda to share.  The concession stand was more than we could afford usually.

And after the movies left the theaters, they were gone.  If you  hadn’t seen them when they came out, during the three or four weeks they were in town at one or another theater, you were s.o.l.  Some of the bigger hits might be rereleased a year or two later and a few films were perennially rereleased, but the vast majority did not come back.  You had to remember them.

Television changed that somewhat when networks started leasing movies to show at certain low-traffic times, and then in the late Sixites and early Seventies there were a variety of movie programs—Movie of the Week, Thursday Night At the Movies, A Picture For A Sunday Afternoon.  Suddenly all these old films started turning up again, and of course after ten P.M. local networks aired a lot of B pictures or films from the Thirties and Forties, but you had to stay up for them, and you never knew what you would get.  (Some of my favorite memories with my dad come from Friday nights, sitting up late, watching some of these movies, some of which were unintentional howlers at which we’d poke fun.)

A lot of people today probably don’t see the wonder in being able to go to a store or online and buy a film and watch it at home.  VCRs didn’t come in till the late Seventies (and the early models weren’t great), but it ushered in an age of comparative cultural wealth.  The idea, when I grew up, that I could actually own one of these movies, for myself, and watch it when I chose to…

You forget occasionally to sit back and appreciate what we now have.  It is amazing—the technology, yes, but the fact that I can drop a disc in a machine and watch The Maltese Falcon or  Gone With The Wind  or  The Right Stuff  whenever I please is…incredible.

That’s the good part.

The other amazing thing is this vast and complex online community—several communities, actually, some overlapping—that we have with more ease than it used to be to make a long distance phone call.  It’s amazing.  I can communicate with people I would never have known existed in one of those previous “ages” and talk about things only a rare handful of people I ever met face to face would even have been interested in before.  Like-minded, like-enthused, like-whatever people around the globe who can now “chat” online.

And with whom one can trip over an area of sensitivity so fast and so inexplicably that it makes your head spin.  I have recently had this shoved in my face just how easily some folks take offense and how impossible it can be to explain yourself or extricate yourself.  Unless you want to be an ass, it is often better to simply leave the group in question rather than see the crap continually stirred.

But because it is so easy to leave, not to mention remain anonymous, I think many people never learn the nuances of real interaction.  Distance used to serve a vital social function, namely keeping people apart by virtue of the difficulty of communicating.  Letter-writing requires thought—the trouble you have to go through to draft the letter, address it, go to the post office, etc. I think tends to make people more thoughtful and thorough.  It’s not like a casual conversation, which the ease of communication has sometimes turned the most serious conversations into because it is difficult to tell when it is time to stop cracking wise.

Further, though, once a foul has been made, it doesn’t go away.  It perpetuates, spreads, and suddenly people all over may know all about the reputation you have earned through misadventure.

Part of the problem—a big part, I think—is the fact of the words remaining behind after the conversation is over.  Spoken conversation has a half-life, very short, and events carry people past ill-considered phrasing or cliches, aided by the visuals, the body language and facial expression.  But when you write something down, it has weight, and online exchanges acquire significance never intended for a brief exchange.  You can consider the words, read them over again and again, and derive meaning and intent whether it’s there or not.

The wonderfulness of our enabling technologies render us lazy, allow us to take for granted things which in an earlier time, with less speed and availability, would not have been so poorly used.

So instead of a thoughtless sentence being immediately apologized for, brushed aside, and forgotten, the offending sentence lingers, a solid legacy that reminds and continues to irritate.  The down-side of modern ease.

Part of the pleasure of all these things should be from not taking them for granted, from a near conscious recognition of just how cool things are.  On the one hand, we maybe have to grow thicker skins—certainly we have to learn new interpretive skills—and on the other maybe let our skins thin a little so we can sense the amazing gift much of this world is.  Hard to know where to apply what and for a whole generation or two there is the perfectly understandable if annoying question, “What’s the big deal?”

Unfortunately, if you have to ask…

10/12

It has never bothered me that my birthday is on Columbus Day.  I feel no affinity for Chris and except for the fact that I was born in the United States find no reason to take on any kind of anniversary significance.  It’s my birthday—and the birthday of many others—and that’s it.  I’m not even particularly moved by the celebratory excuse such a calendrical coincidence provides.

Legally, anyway, Columbus Day has been moved.

I’m a bit stunned today.  I went to my FaceBook page and found nearly 70 well-wishes on the occasion.  But I’m also a bit surprised at myself for sitting here now remarking on the day.  I usually do what I can to treat my birthday as just any other day.  There may be a bit of disingenuousness about that, something of a pose, a “oh, it’s no big deal, notice me not making a big deal out it, it’s just my birthday and I’m so cool about it that I don’t care who notices” act that’s mostly true—but I wonder how hurt I’d be if no one did notice.

Here’s a photograph of me taken at the most recent Archon by Elonka Dunin, who very kindly updated my Wikipedia entry.

 

Aside from a few scattered images over the last few decades taken on my birthday, this is probably the most recent associated with the event itself, just a couple weeks past.  I’m a bit dismayed by what I see.  This is not how I thought I’d look at age 57.  I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success, to stay in shape, but there have really only been two things I’ve managed to consistently work at in my life—my writing and Donna.

Plus I never counted on the frustrations.  Who does?  Even if someone tells you at an early age that there will be frustrations, what does that mean?  It’s kind of a null warning.  Frustration is not getting a A on a math test or being turned down for a date for the nth time or being forced to go here when you wanted to be there.  Not the kind of grinding crap that real frustration is.

So I carry a few more pounds  than I’d like, but I enjoy my food too much.  I’m 57 and the other day I ran three blocks with my dog, full out.  Sure, it took another three blocks for my breathing to return to normal, but hey, that ain’t bad.

I wish the beard hadn’t turned white.  I’m vain, but not vain enough to dye it.  Maybe for next year I’ll shave it off completely.  I haven’t seen my upper lip since high school.

I said my writing and Donna.  I’ve got great friends.  I mean, yeah.  My dad always told me that as you go through life you will find many acquaintances but very few friends.  In his case, he has one—his wife.  In my case…

I have great friends.  I have Jim and Greg and Tom.  I have Tim and Bernadette.  I have Lucy.  I have Allen and Linda and John.  I have Nicola and Kelley and Peg.  I have Terry and Terry and Russell and Rich.

But mainly I have Donna, who asks me every year what I want for my birthday and every time I tell her I already have it and silently wish for one more year with her.  I didn’t really know what I wanted to be until I met her.  She is just amazing and I get few chances to say it.  Without her…

Well, you can guess the rest.

Thank you all for your well wishes and kind thoughts.  You’re all amazing and I’m lucky to know you.

 

Online Encyclopedia

The beta version of the online  Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is up.  Hot damn, no more wrist strain hefting the paper tome every time I want to check an obscure SFnal factoid!  Just a cursory tour shows the online edition is easy to search and has the same depth as the original, plus all the links are live.

Alas, I am not within this one, either.  Not sure what to do about this.  No doubt many writers aren’t included—after all, the editors are merely mortal, one can’t expect them to have read everything.

On the other hand I did get shortlisted for two relatively prestigious awards, I have published ten novels and over fifty short stories…

Someday.  Someday.

What’s UnAmerican About That?

Herman Cain is the latest in a long line of political mouths calling a populist movement UnAmerican.  He says Occupy Wall Street is an assault on capitalism and that capitalism and the free market system are what have made America what it is.

Can’t argue with that, but his intended meaning is other than reality.

Setting that aside for a moment, though, it’s his statement that protests in the street are UnAmerican that I take greatest issue with.  I’ve been hearing that from more or less conservative people since I was old enough to be aware of political issues.  During the Vietnam era, the antiwar movement gained the hatred of Middle America not because they were wrong but because they were unruly, in the street, loud, and confrontational.  “You should work within the system,” people said, “that’s not the way to do it.”

Except it was clear that working within the system was not achieving results.  The system is so constructed that those who understand where the controls are can make it respond regardless of general public sentiment.  The system is often The Problem, and today we have another example.

But more fundamentally than that, it was a failure to recognize that people in the street is very much a part of the system.  What do we think “freedom of assembly” is all about?

Mr. Cain is wrong.  Capitalism did not make this country great, the people who worked with it and in spite of it did.  Capitalism is a tool not a religion.  Likewise with this nonsense about the free market.  That term has lost legitimacy.  What perhaps Mr. Cain means and certainly what most people mean when they use the term—and by “most people” I mean those not in the upper tiers of corporatist elites—is Open Access Markets, which is not quite the same as what we’ve been taught.  I will repeat this: there is no such thing as a free market.  Someone or some group always controls it, usually with the intent to keep others out.  Wealth is accumulated because of control of markets.  The more you can dictate its conditions, the more successful you will be.  This is not freedom, this is economic Darwinism, and when it is left unmonitored and uncontrolled it results in destructive conditions for people unable to participate, just as we have now.

Open Access Markets means the greatest number of people can participate and there is a modicum of fairness and justice.  You cannot have that without controls, if only to have someone standing there at the gate making sure the bullies don’t keep people out.  We need to start using the language more precisely.

So what we’re really arguing about now is who will be in control.

Now back to protests in the street.  You can call them ugly, you can call them upsetting, you can call them many things, but you cannot call them UnAmerican.  The Revolution began with protests in the streets.  Protests in the streets have always been part of parcel of massive change in this country and we now look back with the myopia that seems peculiarly American and blithely forget that all the things we brag about today in terms of social justice began with protests in the streets.  Women’s suffrage, racial equality, fair labor practices, the end of unjust wars, voting rights—run down the list of game-changers and you will find people in the streets making noise and being “unruly.”  It’s as American as baseball, MicroSoft, and Mark Twain.   You find people like Herman Cain condemning it when it threatens power they wish to wield.  He’s running for president.  Before that, though, he is the CEO of a successful corporation.  He feels threatened with changes he can’t predict (although I bet if he gave it a little thought he’d know exactly what those changes would entail) and which would curtail authority he thinks he can exercise if he wins.

But this is also a man who has made the same old position-of-comfort claim that anyone without a job is personally responsible for that.  This is a refusal to come to terms publicly with the fact that economic systems are just that—systems.  Tools.  And they break down.  And I don’t care what kind of character you have, if you land on the outside of a broken system unable to get back in, it’s not your fault, it’s a problem with the system.

But there seems to be a desire to treat our economic system more as a church than a system.  Something which simply exists and if we only behave properly will take care of us in its blind benevolence.  I can understand that.  It’s scary to see reality as a complex set of conditions we have little or no say in.  It’s frustrating to realize that you have to actually understand  something that probably has never made sense no matter how many times it has been explained.

I was raised, as probably most people born in this country, hearing the fairy tale prescription that if you’re honest and work hard you’ll do well.  It has probably never been true but for a relative minority of people, but it’s the kind of myth that the owners of things like to spread because it prepares people to be servants.  I have absolutely no argument with the ideas that you should be honest.  Hard work is essential.  But you have to be aware as well or your honesty and hard work will be turned into a resource to be used by those who “know better” and you can all too easily end up with nothing.  Hard work and honest are necessary but NOT sufficient for—not success, but security.

We have been giving away the hard won protections earned by hard work, sacrifice, and more than a little blood over the last century, surrendering common sense to a myth of national greatness that says anything that puts a bridle on corporate greed is anti-American.  The heyday of the Middle Class miracle was built on the recognition that you have to keep control of the beast of capitalism and that markets are not free but gladiatorial arenas and the victors are those who set the conditions of combat.  We managed to do this at one time through a lot of sacrifice and, yes, people in the streets speaking truth to power.

Time to do it again before we really do lose what makes us great.