Thursday, May 29, 2008

Another Footnote

All of the posts below are mulling and speculating. I don't mean them to be definitive. I am trying to get some sense of why this topic is so difficult to talk about.

I should add that recent studies indicate that there is less class mobility in the US than in Europe. Americans don't rise from poverty to riches. My hunch would be that most movement is either slightly up or down or sideways. People go from being employees to being self-employed and then back. People make a little more money or a little less.

And I guess, after writing all this, I am unwilling to abandon working class as a term.

Though I do think middle class is amazingly fuzzy and not very useful.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Footnote on the Previous Post

The poor are important, because they enable the rest of us to be middle class. Without them, we are all at the bottom -- or close to it.

As a friend of Patrick's, a guy who had been homeless and who became a well respected activist, said, "We are all one truck -- one accident -- away from homelessness."

A scary thought. But those of us with educations, who call ourselves middle class, can use the poor and the poorly educated as a defense against that thought.

Hah! I sing in triumph.
I have a PhD!
I will never be homeless!
No harm can come to me!

The Middle Class

Now we come to a huge group, everything between the poor and rich, assuming that we keep the term "poor." What is this gigantic object, the middle class?

It is service workers, office workers, factory workers, technical workers, skilled trade workers, professional workers, small business people, many artists. You could argue that it's everyone who has to work (the truly rich can live on investments, I would argue) and who makes more than $25,000 a year for a household.

Is a term this large useful? How much do these people share in common?

The old middle class, the one called the petit bourgeoisie in the 19th century, was made up of shopkeepers and self-employed professionals. They owned their own tools and work space and might employ a few helpers. Mostly they worked for themselves, as did family farmers. Jefferson wanted to build his republic on these people.

Some of this middle class remains. There are still plenty of shops and small businesses. Some professionals work for themselves, as do some skilled tradesmen and women.

But many people who are grouped in our modern middle class work for big businesses. If they are middle class, they are a new kind of middle class: the doctors employed by HMOs, the lawyers in huge national and international firms.

So what is a doctor who works for an HMO? What are the people who keep modern colleges and universities going: the graduate assistants and the adjunct faculty? (To be fair, the clerical and maintenance staffs also keep schools going.) (How are the graduate assistants different from the clerks and janitors?)

So this is another slippery area. Just as the border between the poor and the middle class is fuzzy and permeable, so the various parts of the middle class fuzz into one another. People move back and forth between being employees and being self-employed. Income is not invariably connected to education: a union construction worker makes a more than a lot of professional people with advanced degrees. During the dot com boom, some tech workers became millionaires.

I would be inclined to argue that the old middle class, which actually did exist as a separate class in the 19th century, is mostly gone; and that a majority of working people are usually employees, but sometimes self-employed; and that there are cultural differences, which have to do with background and education, but that these do not necessarily have much to do with how you work, how much you make, how safe you are or how much control you have over your life.

This social class can't really be called the middle class, because it's no longer in the middle of anything. We can call it the working class, because it's made up of people who have to earn their living; or we can call it the lower class, since it is below the rich. I am willing to go with either term.

The Poor

I don't find the term "poor" very useful, unless you define it very narrowly.

My mother, who was a social worker in the Great Depression and in New York in the 1960s, said, "The trouble with the poor is they have no money. All other problems are secondary."

But we tend to describe the poor as having certain traits, which are inherent. In one way or another, the poor have made themselves poor. They are, we think, badly educated, badly trained, with bad habits and messed up lives. Often, we think, they are lazy or criminal and do not work.

In fact, many poor people work and work hard. However, they are badly paid, and that is what makes them poor. It is a problem which can be solved with unions and a higher minimum wage.

Many poor people also have chronic health problems, which makes it difficult for them to find good jobs or any job, especially in a weak economy, which is what we have.

There is no clear line between them and working people who are slightly better off. A bad break, and someone who is "lower middle class" will suddenly become poor. The guys who live under bridges and in caves along the Mississippi are pretty much all blue collar guys, who have hit a bad patch. They do day labor. They collect cans and sell them. They are not living off any kind of welfare. The pathologies they have are things like post traumatic stress syndrome, closed head injuries and the anxiety and depression that develop when you live outside.

The Rich

I just did a quick search on the Internet and found the Working-Class Studies Association. There are people out there who actually study such topics and do conferences and provide links to other useful sites; and we at Wiscon are trying to redo their work.

Well, I think I will do a bit more thinking out loud; and then maybe I will go and join the WCSA.

The class structure we recognize in this country is the poor, the middle class and the rich.

The census defines poverty as having a household income of less than a certain amount: $10,787 for a single person and $21,386 for a family of four. I can't find a definition for rich.

The median household income is $44,389. Half of American households make less. This amount tells us nothing about how many people in the household are working. Many households have two adults working and maybe some kids as well.

The top 5% of the population makes a household income of $157,176 or more.

None of this tells us where richness begins. I would say it begins well above $157,000. A household making $157,000 can easily be destroyed by illness. You aren't rich, if you can lose everything because of a not very major illness.

Until the housing bubble began to deflate, many houses cost $400,000 and up -- not opulent houses, either, just houses in areas where the bubble was especially bubbly.

Tuition at a private college can now run $40,000 a year.

You aren't rich if you have to strain to buy a house or send your kids to college.

More on Class

I did some posting on my blog yesterday, then ran a couple of errands and then came home and went to sleep. I got more than twelve hours and woke up this morning relaxed, a wonderful feeling, then lay in bed and thought about social class. The more I thought about it, the more complex it seemed.

It would be interesting to do the class panel with someone from another country -- England, for example -- where class is more obvious. You open your mouth and people can peg you.

Are the English able to avoid our confusion on the issue?

I know one thing with certainty. One should not ask the panelists to talk about their class backgrounds. It wastes time that should be spent talking about science fiction. We don't do panels on race which are devoted to how black each of the panelists feel him or herself to be. (I have third cousins who are black... I like jazz a lot... Some of my best friends...)

I initially felt one should also not try to define the working class, because this also pulls the panel off topic. But it's hard to talk about treatments of the working class in SF, if one has no idea what the working class is; and Americans really do not.

Maybe the answer is to talk about class in SF, rather than the working class. Then we could talk about what kinds of people and jobs are shown, without getting hung up on definitions.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Wiscon # 3

I had gone into the group reading intending to read "Hash Browns on a Rainy Night," which is a story about the impending Republican National Convention in St. Paul. But everyone was reading blocks of fiction exactly timed to the 15 minutes they had; so I decided to read something shorter, what would be quite different and not take up 15 minutes. So I read "Patrick and Mr. Bear," which is about a thousand words and kind of a children's story, though it may be mostly for adults. In any case, it's about homelessness. I like it a lot, because it's a true story about my Patrick and the huge teddy bear that a homeless man gave him.

A couple of people who heard the story told me they liked it. One of them had been homeless.

It's hugely important for me to know that my work is reaching people and touching people. I am not a writer who writes for myself -- well, yes, partly. But like Emily Dickenson, writing is my letter to the world.

Wiscon # 2

I was on four panels and part of a group reading. When I do this much, I find I don't attend as many panels as a spectator.

The panel on science fiction and the working class never got on topic. This always happens to this panel, which I have done over and over. I am going to keep doing it till I get it right. I think most of the problem is the huge inability of Americans to think about class. Working people are not always factory workers. They are not always poorly educated. One of the big lies that we are told now is that people do badly because they are don't have enough education. Tell that to an adjunct professor with a PhD, who is holding three different jobs with no benefits and no security.

I think the cleanest definition is the 19th century one: members of the working class do not own the means of production. Lacking these, they must sell their labor to the people who do own the factories, offices and colleges. Of course, this definition means that many people who think they are middle class and professional are mere working stiffs.

This structural definition does not address cultural differences among the classes. An adjunct professor may experience the same kind of power relationships as a factory worker, but she may have many cultural differences. How important are these differences? Are they more important than the difference between a Somalian hotel worker and a Hispanic roofer? Maybe yes and maybe no.

Anyway, the topic is always a can of worms.

The panels I found really useful were on aging in science fiction -- both aging as it's treated in art and aging as it happens to people, such as me. I ended with a lot to think about.

Wiscon # 1

I am back from the Wisconsin science fiction convention.Taken all in all, it was wonderful. The two guests of honor were Timmi Duchamp and Maureen McHugh, who are people I really like and respect. Wiscon does a really good job of picking guests, but having two of my favorite people as guests was special.

It's also, for me, an intense experience. A lot of the people attending are people I really like and see once a year, so when I get a chance to talk with them, I do. This means more socializing that I usually feel comfortable doing; and I always feel I have missed the chance to have some really interesting conversations. Afterward, I remember a remark someone made and think, "I wish I'd had time to follow up. I should have made time to follow up."

This is one reason why cons are exhausting for me. I am trying to create the perfect con experience, where everything happens and happens perfectly, instead of relaxing and figuring, there are people I won't get to see or will see only briefly. Some panels will go well. Others will not work. So what? The point is, to enjoy the con and drink less coffee. Leave a little on the plate. Enjoy the beauty of things are that imperfect and incomplete.

In some ways the high point was the trip home, when I was finally beginning to unwind. Patrick and I drive highway 12, which is a two lane that parallels I-94, going through small towns, farmland, forest and marsh. Going through one small town, I saw an Northern Oriel fly across the road in front of us, a flash of orange and black. That was neat. Even neater was the porcupine we saw crossing the road. I love porcupines, and I rarely see them. We passed the porcupine, then Pat did a u-turn and drove back. In spite of their motion, which is a ridiculous waddle, porcupines move fairly quickly. We were in time to see it reach the far side of the road and move into the grass. Then it sat down and scratched its chin with a rear paw, then got up and waddled into the forest. We didn't have time to get out cameras. The best we could have gotten would have been the south end of a porcupine going north.

Would I rather see a porcupine than go to Wiscon? No. But I got both, and the large, prickly, funny-looking rodent was the icing on the cake.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Lady Poetesses from Hell

I notice that I did not explain the LPFH, when I posted the volcano photo. This is a group -- mostly made up of people in a local poetry writing workshop -- that does readings at Twin Cities cons and Wiscon. I belong to the workshop, but have not performed with LPFH, as far as I can remember. One man belongs, because he channels the spirit of Grace Lord Stolkes, an early 20th century poet who tried to belong to the Lovecraft circle. Otherwise, it is indeed lady poetesses, who perform wearing very ladylike hats. Their poems are funny and good and often quite hellish.

Anyway, LPFH have been talking about doing an anthology for years, and now it seems to be happening. I will report on progress and how to get the book, once it is out.


The lilacs have begun to bloom.


A friend of mine commented that he did not understand To the Resurrection Station until I told him what it was about. So my long conversation at the novel's end did not work for a guy who is a very intelligent, thoughtful reader. I guess the joke is on me.

As I mentioned below, I really like the stories I write that strike me as clever. But maybe the rest of the world does not share my interest in trickiness. Maybe my tricks are not as good as I think they are.

Well, almost everyone has some little area of vanity. Since my tricks appeal to me and do not bother other people too much, I guess I will keep on with them.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

People Are Going To Be Walking On My Poetry

The city of St. Paul had a poetry contest, and I am one of the 20 winners. The prize is getting your poem installed on a city sidewalk for people to read. There is also going to be an anthology.

My fiction is always some kind of SF -- science fiction, fantasy, alternate history. But most of my poetry is realistic. Don't ask me why.

I did write a 65 page epic poem many years ago. It's set in the world of Spenser's Faerie Queene, though I was not crazy enough to use Spenser's stanza. That was fantasy. I've never figured out what to do with it. There is not much call for epic poems these days, even short epic poems.

I'm happy about the sidewalk poem. I like popular art forms, and there isn't much more popular -- or more urban -- than a sidewalk.

P.S. I sent 3 poems to the contest. Today I found out which poem got picked: not the two sweet poems about flowers and the moon, but the poem about a homeless man bringing everything he owned onto a bus.

Volcano Pictures

These are from the USGS website, photos of eruptions on the Big Island of Hawaii. I have been hunting for images for the cover of the Lady Poetesses from Hell anthology.

A Possible Cover for the LPFH anthology

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Even More on Ideas

I thought of another story which seems to me to be a classic neat idea tale: "Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov. It's about an alien planet where night falls only rarely, due to a lot of suns. When night does fall, and people see the stars, they burn everything they can find out of terror -- and their civilization collapses. This happens over and over, each time night falls.

Asimov wrote the story is response to a line from Emerson on how people would marvel at the beauty of the stars, if they saw them only once in a thousand years.

The last time I reread it, I noticed it is not well written. But it will stay with me till my memory fails.

Asimov was not an especially good writer, but I remember the Foundation stories and the robot stories. Is there anyone reading this blog who cannot recite the three laws of robotics? How about psychohistory? Do we all remember how it works?

This kind of story is core to SF, as are ideas. I suspect ideas are not as important to fantasy, though there's a lot of fantasy written by science fiction writers that turns on ideas.

For example, a very simple story by Avram Davidson, about what happens when the U.S. government breaks a treaty with an Indian tribe, which is supposed to last -- per language in the treaty -- "as long as the sun shines and grass grows."

Davidson was a fine writer, but the story is mostly about its idea.

Implicit in Justine's remark (I think) is the idea that SF is about character and plot and style and mood.


I'm not sure any kind of fiction is ultimately about character, plot, style and mood.

Jane Austen's novels are beautifully written and plotted and full of wonderful characters, but what they are about is the English upper classes' blood-chilling focus on money, in spite of all their talk about morality and sentiment.

And they are also about the fact that women in the upper and middle classes have to focus on money, because they have no reasonable way to make a living. If they don't marry well, they will be poor.

These are ideas.

I suspect that any fiction which does not have an interesting idea at its core is not worth reading, except as entertainment. Not that entertainment is bad.

I don't think there are any ideas in P.G. Wodehouse, though I keep looking for one. His writing really is about his amazing skill as a writer.

And one could argue that producing concept free art is itself a kind of idea about art. "Look," Wodehouse says. "Art need not be about anything except a dazzling performance. It can be utterly pointless and still be thoroughly satisfying."

Finally, a personal note. I grew up around avant garde artists, and their art really was about ideas. Although I write popular fiction, my basic values are the ones I learned as a kid. Art should do something new. It should ask questions and push limits.

Still More on Ideas

This is more about ideas. Maybe it tells you something silly about me, but I am very proud of places where I did something that strikes me as a bit new. I once ended a story with five morals -- five good and useful morals, albeit morals for an alien species -- because you are not supposed to have morals at the end of a SF story.

When I started sending out stories, editors kept telling me that they didn't see the point of the stories. What were they about? So my second novel ends with my characters spending fifty pages discussing the meaning of their adventure. It's been years since I read the novel, so I can't remember their conclusion.

The discussion struck me as neat and funny. It meant readers -- especially editors --had the explanation they wanted, and I was not in any way responsible for the explanation, since it came from my characters.

I had given readers the meaning requested, but since this meaning came from chracters within the novel, it was a meaning in the novel and not the meaning of the novel, the author's meaning.

No one has ever complained about the ending of the novel or told me that they couldn't figure out what the novel was about.

When I do things like this, it seems to me I'm dealing with ideas, not character or plot or mood. Can you end a story with a moral and still have it work? Well, yes, but why have only one moral? Can you end a story with a long explanation and not have the readers turn against you? Yes, I think so, though I can't remember any reviews of that novel. I am pretty sure I did not get any angry letters.

More on Ideas

The conversation about ideas continued for a bit on the Wurdsmiths blog. I have not posted other people's remarks, though maybe I should have. Anyway, here is my next post...

I keep feeling, without having much evidence, that ideas are not easy. I wrote a story titled "Big Red Mama in Time and Morris, Minnesota," which was a time travel story. These are hard to write, because time travel is supposed to be impossible; and I felt -- if the story didn't have something new to say about time and time travel, it was going to be about nothing. I struggled with the story for months and years, collecting copies of Science News and New Scientist with articles about time travel and odd quantum effects. The problem with time travel is mostly one of causality. Physics says that effects cannot precede causes; or maybe it doesn't say this. There are theoretical physicists who think time travel is possible.

Anyway, in the end I did some hand waving. But the story actually does say something about time and history, though nothing based on physics theory.

Sometimes the ideas are less difficult than the working out of the ideas.

The idea that is the basis of my hwarhath stories is simple: what if there was a society where homosexuality was normal and heterosexuality was perverted? I then had to figure out in detail how this kind of society might come to be and what it would be like. In the end, I wrote two novels and ten + stories about the hwarhath and their society, mostly to explore the consequences of my original "what if."

Plot ideas come fairly easily for me. I never worry about my ability to work my way out of plot problem.

But saying something new and original is not easy; and I'm not claiming that I always manage to do this. But I do abandon stories, if they are becoming familiar -- hey, I've already said this, and I don't have to say it again; and I do stop and rethink stories, if I feel they are becoming ordinary or inevitable.

A Post About Ideas

What follows is a post from the Wyrdsmiths blog in response to a comment that what matters in fiction is not ideas, but what you do with them. The original comment came from Justine Larbalestier in her blog. It troubled me, and I replied...

I'm not sure ideas are the easy part. There's a whole tradition in SF of neat idea stories, where the writing is competent at best, and the characters don't really matter, but the ideas are wonderful. Think of the best Heinlein: "All You Zombies" and "The House That Jack Built."

These are the stories that C.S. Lewis talks about, when he talks about myth. What matters is not style or character or mood or whatever, it's the story itself. These stories retain power when you simply describe the plot.

I don't remember much about Fire on the Deep, the Vernor Vinge novel, except that the basic laws of physics varied by where you were in space, so fast interstellar travel was possible in some regions, but not others; and the entire galaxy had an Internet, so as the novel's action line developed, there was constant interstellar commentary on what was happening. Two nifty ideas. The plot is gone from my mind; I don't remember the characters; but I remember the ideas.

I need a reason to write a story, and a lot of times the reason is an idea, or several ideas. I don't usually finish or keep a story that doesn't have a point, which is also usually an idea.

Monday, May 12, 2008


I've seen tulips, daphodils, azalias, blossoming magnolias and fruit trees... We are one or two weeks off from the week in May when the lilacs bloom. That is amazing. The bushes are everywhere, along boulevards and the I-94 freeway, in parks and yards.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


It snowed several times in April, but I think spring is really here now. I saw a magnolia in bloom this morning. Here is a poem.

What the May Sunlight Falls On

Two cops drinking coffee
on a terrace
under a Starbuck's sign;

A Powerball billboard,
down to fifteen million --
hardly worth buying a ticket;

An Indian woman -- hawk nose
and long, black hair --
wearing a Mille Lacs Grand Casino jacket;

Trees opening fresh green
and red leaves
by the fake-gothic Minneapolis Club;

Me with silver hair
hauling heavy bags home
on the 94;

All in the soft May sunlight
that makes almost
everything shine.

I notice that two of my little stanzas are about gambling, one is about law enforcement and one is about a club for rich people. What does this say?

Post script: I reread this. It's not a great poem. But I enjoyed the day when I wrote it, and I enjoyed the sights I describe.

Second post script: I found two more stanzas in my notebook and added them; and I tinkered with punctuation and line breaks.