Thursday, February 28, 2013


I'm going to keep the second post on Chabon, because it got a comment. But I think it's one of those times when I am chewing on something and not getting anywhere. Sometimes, later, I can figure out what's bothering me and actually say something sensible. And sometimes I never figure out what is bothering me.

I did get the proofreading done, which is good.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More on the Chabon Quote

I'm going to write more about the Chabon quote, mostly because I want to avoid proofreading.

(It's 10:00 in the morning local time, and I need to finish proofing a short story collection today. I'm going to have to ask for changes in the typeset version, due to errors of mine I did not catch before, and I have reached the point where I don't like what I've written. This usually happens. The feeling passes, but it is not enjoyable while it lasts.)

I don't know enough about Chabon to write intelligently about him, so I will simply write about my response to the quote. What it triggers in me.

Chabon includes entropy and mortality in the list of things that suggest the world is broken or fallen. The first is the second law of thermodynamics. The second is a fact of multicellular life on this planet. I do think both are qualitatively different from problems such as human violence. In the end, he is going back the question of why do we suffer, why do we die, why is the world not made for our personal comfort? These are pre-modern questions. The question of why humans often act badly is still worth asking, but it has to be pulled away from the pre-modern questions.

In Ring of Swords I have Anna say that people who talk about personal honor do so to avoid behaving as decent human beings. This is not merely Anna -- and me -- being flip. There are moral and philosophic ideas that can be used to avoid decent behavior. A belief that personal morality matters more than being part of a community and working to make the community better. A belief that the world is unfixable, so why bother? The first focuses on the personal, the second on the universal. Both avoid the communal, which is where morality belongs.

It is possible to sound very thoughtful and intelligent and philosophic, while saying this kind of thing. But in the end it's a way of avoiding action, especially humane action.

Chabon writes very well, but what he has given us is an extended metaphor, the broken world, which tells us nothing useful about the universe and does not tell us much about human experience. There are cultures that don't see the world as fallen or broken. The Chinese built an entire, gigantic, long-lasting civilization by focusing on political and social questions. What is a good society like? How do we build one? How should humans behave toward one another?

One of the comments to my previous post said that Chabon is addressing the problem comfortable suburban Americans have with the idea that the world is not -- in the end -- entirely safe. I suspect this is correct. Middle class Americans do have pretty comfortable lives, compared with much of the rest of humanity.

At the same time, their lives have become far more stressful in a number of ways. Wages have not gone up for most Americans in the past 30 years. Unemployment remains high. Good union jobs have vanished. Health care and higher education are increasingly unaffordable. Private pension plans are mostly gone. 401(k) plans have not worked as an alternative. The collapse of the housing market has meant that many Americans have lost the one thing they had left to support them in old age: a house they could sell for a good price. As a result of this, the mostly white members of the middle class have no reason to believe they will remain middle class. They may well slip down into the lower middle class or into poverty, and their kids are even more likely to sink.

Finally, Americans do not have a sense that they can change their lives. The traditional ways of coping through political and social organization don't seem to be working. All of these are social problems. They do not tell us the world is broken. They tell us our society is breaking.

There is a certain comfort in being told the world is broken and unfixable, because then you don't have to do anything. Instead, you can cling to whatever comfort remains. Change is hard and risky.

But especially now, faced by Global Warming, we have to change. Writers who wax philosophic about the fallen world are not doing the rest of us any favors at all.

P.S. This post is me in a dead-horse-beating mode.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Back when I was young, maybe about college age, I used to ask myself a question. Do governments reach a final crisis because an idiot is in charge (I was thinking of Louis XVI and Nicholas II)? Or does a crisis somehow generate an idiotic leadership? I'm not sure I have an answer. But looking at the US government, I see what might be called the fatal combination: huge problems and idiots in power. It isn't simply the Republican House. The Senate isn't doing especially well, and Obama seems to have no idea how serious the problems he is facing really are, and Supreme Court is obviously overfull of fools.

Maybe the answer is years of bad decisions, which make the government increasingly rigid and unable to deal with crisis, combined with a system that becomes increasingly crisis-prone.

I posted this over on facebook and a commenter pointed to Gorbachev, who did not seem to be an idiot, but the USSR collapsed on his watch. Maybe the crisis in the USSR had gotten so bad that it could not be fixed, or maybe a final crisis does not require an idiot.

Obama is clearly not an idiot. But he can't seem to understand the problems he faces. Even with the Republican House, there is much he could have done and can still do. He has certainly done his best to push back the rights of citizens, including their right to not be murdered by the government.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Say What?

This is a quote from Michael Chabon, which one of my facebook colleagues posted. My colleague thought this was beautiful. I thought it was pretentious crap.
"The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”

"There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.

"Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness. The question becomes: What to do with the pieces? Some people hunker down atop the local pile of ruins and make do, Bedouin tending their goats in the shade of shattered giants. Others set about breaking what remains of the world into bits ever smaller and more jagged, kicking through the rubble like kids running through piles of leaves. And some people, passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.

"Two difficulties with this latter scheme at once present themselves. First of all, we have only ever glimpsed, as if through half-closed lids, the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. Second, no matter how diligent we have been about picking up pieces along the way, we will never have anywhere near enough of them to finish the job. The most we can hope to accomplish with our handful of salvaged bits—the bittersweet harvest of observation and experience—is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half—remembered. Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can be only approximations, partial and inaccurate. As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures. And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models, of this beautiful and broken world. We call these scale models 'works of art.'"

The world is not broken. It's a fine planet, full of strange and wonderful and profoundly interesting things. It sits in a good planetary system, a good galaxy, a universe that looks beautiful to me.

There are things I am not entirely crazy about, such as mortality. But if we didn't have mortality, we wouldn't have evolution. Instead, we'd have a planet covered with single-celled organisms, if that. Think of missing out on dinosaurs, trilobites, corals, elephants, social insects, birds...

What bugs me is not the planet or the universe, it's human behavior, which can change. For that matter, I think mortality is fixable, though not -- I am afraid -- in my lifetime.

By saying that the world is broken, Chabon is letting humans off the hook. (Notice that he is mixing entropy, which is physics, and mortality, which is biology, in with human behavior. Entropy may be inevitable. Human meanness is not.) And he is buying into the Book of Genesis, and the idea that we are stuck with a fallen world, because our ancestors did something bad a long time ago. No. We are apes who have evolved, and we are still learning to be a new kind of being.

I tend to blame class society and the rich and powerful, more than I blame our primate nature. We are a species dependent on culture, and culture is highly changeable, which suggests we can change. We can -- in theory -- build a new and just society within the shell of the old. It's not impossible the way reversing entropy is impossible. Never confuse the difficult with the impossible; and never confuse the universe with the USA.

This reminds me a bit of Sturgeon's law: "90% of everything is crap." Sturgon was talking about fiction, and he is probably right. But I wouldn't call 90% of stars crap, or 90% of birds crap. And I am not sure that 90% of human products are crap, except in a society driven by profit. Is 90% of folk art crap? How about 90% of folk tales?

Unlike Chabon, Sturgeon was not pretentious; and he was smart enough -- and a good enough science fiction writer -- to not make Chabon's mistake of confusing people with existence. And, like many science fiction writers, he probably had enough sense to realize that much about human society is contingent. The way we are now is not the way we must always be.

This is why I write science fiction and fantasy. I do not like writing so elegant that it enables us to think badly.

P.S. I also think Chabon's Bedouin metaphor is an example of what Edward Said called "Orientalism" -- a prejudiced, ignorant stereotype about the people of North Africa and the Middle East. The Bedouin were not losers herding goats among the ruins. Their culture developed to survive in an environment no longer conducive to settled life. The "giant" cultures that preceded them had failed, due to climate change, unsustainable agriculture and war. The Bedouin managed to keep going, because they had adapted to arid and damaged land. Their culture is now changing again. (I just read the Wikipedia entry on Bedouins.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Growing Old in This Culture

This is from facebook.
It's another gray day and I am in another gray mood, in spite of getting a third of the very wet planetary romance revised yesterday. I'm aiming to finish by Thursday, so I can email it out to my writing group. Eek. Thursday is soon. Maybe I will email it Friday.

I have decided, based on a one word comment on facebook, that I am out-of-date, passe, an OF. I suggested to Wiscon a while back that they do another panel on growing old in science fiction, but I can't remember if the panel was supposed to focus on literature or on the human experience of being an aging writer or fan. Worth doing, I think.

What happens when one is no longer cutting edge in a field that is supposed to imagine the future? Though my very wet planetary romance is a pretty darn fine vision of the future, if I do say so myself.

This is not a plea for reassurance. LeGuin said -- or wrote -- that as she aged, she found people ignoring her. If it happens to LeGuin, then no one is safe. It's this phenomenon I'm interested in.

Sunday, February 03, 2013


This is in response to a comment on the previous post.

Thinking through is a huge issue when I write. I am years late on the sequel to Ring of Swords, because I have had to re-imagine a future Earth. The first version of the novel was written almost 20 years ago, and the future I imagined then will not work now.

Fortunately the publisher has been very, very, very patient with me.

It's taken me five months to write a novelette, partly because the world was hard to think through and also because I kept running into plot problems. Thinking and more thinking.

The novelette is for an original anthology. The editor gave a lead time of nine months. I figured it was safe to sign a contract, because of the long lead time; and I have needed it. I still have four months left, enough time to revise the story.

I have never wanted to write the same story twice. I try not to slide past problems or take the easy way out.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Hard Work and Writing

This is from a facebook discussion with Joe Lansdale and Adam-Troy Castro (among others) about how hard is it to write, compared to working in factory, and how hard should one work at writing. I haven't reprinted other people's comments, because I don't have permission. And I have made changes. This is the story of my life. Write and rewrite.
I'm a slow writer, and I take a lot of time off from writing. Because of this, I was never able make a living writing, and I had to work day jobs. I liked them, but they left little time or energy for writing. This was a kind of vicious circle or Catch 22. Many writers experience it. You need to time to write, but how can you get it, if you are not yet making a living at writing? The usual solution is to have a spouse or partner with a good day job -- or you inherit money, or you live in a garret without health insurance, or you have iron discipline and a lot of energy and both write and hold a job.

I'm writing more now that I'm retired. But it took three years for me to get back in the habit of writing and to enjoy it again. Could I have made a living from writing if I had worked at it harder? I doubt it. Not a good living with health insurance. I paid the health insurance bill at my last job. Two years before I left the job, the bill for me -- one person, in an insurance group -- was more than $12,000 a year. In order to live comfortably and safely, I would have had to make at least $12,000 more as a writer than I was making as the financial manager of a small nonprofit. Probably considerably more, since I would have been buying insurance as an individual.

This changed after I turned 65. The cost of insurance went way down, since Medicare took care of hospitalization; and I stopped working shortly thereafter. As it happened, I was laid off. But after I looked around for another job for a while and finally actually realized that I was old enough to retire, I retired.

I think Joe is right about the way to make a living from writing. Do it. And Adam is right that people vary. I am horrified by people who give up writing or don't pay adequate attention to writing, because they don't care enough. But that's my response, and it says more about me than anyone else. There is more to life.

I've never had a really hard physical job, though I unloaded boxes of blue jeans once or twice for a friend who was a truck driver and sick. I went along as the lumper, the technical term. Blue jeans are heavy. I enjoyed it, because it was new and different. And I did a few years working in warehouses, but it was light warehousing, and I mostly liked it. Eight hours of light exercise, for which I got paid. It solved the problem of how to stay fit. And I met interesting people. Most of the time, I worked in offices. At the end of my work life, I did accounting for small nonprofits, which meant waking up in the middle of the night worrying about how I was going to make payroll, and the people who needed to get paid were friends. That is another kind of hard. Writing is easier, and I am better at writing. In the end, I was not a world class warehouse worker or accountant. I was merely okay. It feels good to do something for which I have actual ability and skill.