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April 15, 2005

Reader Request 2005: Odds and Ends

Duhhhhhh. For some reason I can't think coherently for more than 30 seconds at a time, so I suppose today would be a fine day to do a collection of short reader questions. Okay? Here we go:

Mark Ensley: "Why do so many people suck?"

Well, because it's easy, as opposed to not sucking, which takes effort because it means actually paying attention to those around you. The thing about sucking is that it's very often the path of least resistance, and humans, like every animal, generally choose to conserve energy whenever possible.

Now if you don't want people to suck, the solution is to create a society where sucking is not actually the path of least resistance -- where indeed one would have to expend energy to suck. The catch here is that would require effort to construct society. And again, we know how people are. Theoretically it's possible, but don't hold your breath.

Tommyspoon: "School shootings: Why are they happening? Can they be prevented? What do they say about our culture in general?"

They happen because the shooter is off his rocker, for whatever reason (being a teenager, the hormonal madness of which should be proof positive of evolution, since no loving god would put his creatures through that sort of nonsense, emphatically does not help). They could be prevented by getting rid of firearms in general and/or turning schools into absolute prisons with no casual entering or leaving, but since neither is going to happen, the practical answer is no. What do they say about our culture? Not much. School shootings are about an individual and the manifestation of his own pathological unhappiness, not about the culture in which they live. If our culture were truly breeding school shooters, we'd have incidents on a weekly basis, if not more often.

Sue: "How do you think history will treat Bill Clinton, now that we're a few years beyond his presidency?"

I think it'll treat him with benign neglect. The paragraph on Clinton in the history texts in the future will say, basically: "President William Jefferson Clinton presided over a period of great prosperity in the United States but found his effectiveness hampered by political opposition and scandal." Honestly, what more will need to be said? Some people like to think that the impeachment will count for something, but honestly, let's have a show of hands about the number of people who know or care about the particulars of Andrew Johnson's impeachment.

As you all know I'm less than impressed with the current Bush in the White House, but I do expect he'll get at least one paragraph more than Clinton in the future history books, in no small part because he presided over a war, and also because of 9/11. That's the way these things go.

Dean: "When writing fiction, do you write specifically for a genre, or do you write your story and then see what genre it falls into?"

Well, so far I've written science fiction -- which is to say I had the intent of plotting them to take place in future time and/or engage in purely speculative events (like alien visitations or interstellar travel). So it all fits into that genre bin. And of course as I've noted, I wrote OMW as military SF because that's what I saw selling, and I wanted to sell an SF book. So I guess I write specifically for a genre to this point.

On the other hand, I don't particularly worry about it if I color outside the lines of the genre. Old Man's War has a rather significant love story plot, for example, which is not the usual thing with military science fiction; Agent to the Stars, which is a funny piece, deals rather seriously with the Holocaust and incorporates it into the plot. I write what I want to read, and I think in both of these cases, these non-typical add rather than detract from the story, and so there they are. Observing genre conventions does not mean one has to be trapped by them.

John N: "Why did the Howells bring all those clothes and so much cash for what was supposed to be a three hour tour?"

Well, it's all relative. As a percentage of their wealth and property, the Howells brought an equivalent amount as the Skipper, who probably brought pocket change and maybe an extra pair of underwear. Just be glad they weren't richer.

Mitch Wagner: "Is science fiction dead?"

No, and I think when people gout out their pretentious "science fiction is dead!" pieces, they're being a special brand of stupid, or just stirring the pot because they haven't anything better to do. Look, it's simple: If you write a fictional story that takes place in future/alternate time and/or incorporates technology that does not yet exist, you're writing science fiction. The only way people will stop writing science fiction is if we invent all possible technology and/or stop moving forward on the time axis. We can argue about whether certain types of SF are dead, or even if written SF is on the way out, or whatever, but those are emphatically different questions.

In my opinion, when people write "science fiction is dying," they're actually saying "I can't find something I want to read" and they're trying to aggrandize their personal viewpoint to be a an issue of universal concern. Well, listen, pal, you're just one guy, okay? If you can't find something good to read, don't assume the rest of us feel the same way.

Bryan: "Tell me what makes Winter's Tale such a great book."

No. Read it yourself. Trust me, it's worth the effort. You'll be able to see what makes it a great book almost immediately. And if you can't, well, you have my sympathy.

Posted by john at April 15, 2005 03:16 PM

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Comments

Rich | April 15, 2005 04:22 PM

That extra paragraph that Bush gets will be worth a hell of a lot more then the Scandal one.

Allot of people don't like Bush, that's obvious. I think it's because he has a pretty dry peronality so it's like eating corn flakes for breakfast.

Other then that I think he's a decent guy but would like a President to talk to me ALLOT more and tell me what's going on instead of being silent so much. The "Silent President"; Silent but violent though.

No, I don't want him to try to do or be that because it's not his personallity. So it's the trust factor. Allot of people can't bring themselves to trust him based off of that very thing so the votes go to the default 50/50 and it becomes a devisive political race. Bush was decent but we need many more decent candidates to level out the playing field.

Rich | April 15, 2005 04:25 PM

The voter turnout was extemley low in the 90's like 30 percent. It has gone up to 60 or 70 percent and it needs to stay there for a successful democcracy.

Patrick | April 15, 2005 04:43 PM

Winter's Tale is good because its so frickin' brilliant you won't know how to begin explaining it when you're done. It makes you cry while you're laughing through the shouts of joy you make at encountering the same words you see every day arranged to spell messages to your heart. You'll race through the pages to see what comes next, and cry when you finish the book. You'll devour the book knowing that even though you'll gulp prose like a starving dog, you'll still feel like you're only sipping from the firehose. It sparkles and shines and makes your head and heart ache but leaves you as a visit from a wonderful lover.

But other than that, there's not a lot to recommend.

Chris | April 15, 2005 07:11 PM

Pardon my ignorance but Winter's Tale by.....? Sounds like something I want to read but I am relatively new to Whatever so I seem to be missing something.

Patrick | April 15, 2005 07:16 PM

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0156001942/qid=1113606975/sr=2-2/ref=pd_bbs_b_2_2/002-8328926-4094452

suzanne | April 15, 2005 09:26 PM

Patrick has the right of it
about a Winter's Tale.

I feel similarly about
John Crowley's Little, Big

James Kew | April 15, 2005 11:14 PM

Well, just to be a dissenting voice: I just finished Winter's Tale -- after seeing it recommended here -- and didn't much enjoy it. In particular, I found it hard to get into to begin with; it's not often I bail out before finishing a book, but this had me tempted.

I think, at root, that mystical realism just isn't the style for me. And somehow the writing kept annoying me: it's a little too self-aware. I felt like Helprin was always sitting next to me saying "isn't this fantastic? huh?"

It's certainly memorable, though. Worth a try: it wasn't for me, but it might be for you.

Nancy Lebovitz | April 15, 2005 11:52 PM

If you like _A Winter's Tale_, you should check out R.A. Lafferty--he used a similar tall tale approach, and I like his work rather better. You might start with _Past Master_ (Thomas More is taken out of the past to solve the problems of a planet based on his _Utopia_), _Space Chantey_ (sf version of the Odyssey), or _Nine Hundred Grandmothers_ (short story collection).

Brian Greenberg | April 16, 2005 01:08 AM

Bill Clinton: He did a lot of very difficult things (e.g., economic prosperity) very well, and he did a lot of very easy things (e.g., keeping it in his pants) very poorly.

A failed success.

Mark Ensley | April 16, 2005 01:54 AM

Well, John, you seem to have come up with basically the same answer I did about why so many people suck. Mine was slightly different, in that I felt that the rewards for sucking tend to be more immediate and the rewards for not sucking tend to be longer term, and people are more likely to choose the shorter term payoff.

Good suggestion, though.

Not holding any breath, but okay, I'm in. So how do we go about changing society into something where not sucking is the path of least resistance?

Fascinating topic, I'll be pondering it for years...

RooK | April 16, 2005 11:38 AM

Rich, I think you'll find that "allot" doesn't mean what you think it means (in that, I think you think it means the same as two other words that don't even add up to your word). Conveniently, this level of displayed intelligence fits in well with my general opinion of people who don't mistrust Bush Junior.

John, I think that your description of why humans suck was pretty damn meagre. The fullness of their suckitude extends on several other axis besides just general effort, such as being fundamentally designed socially as small-community hunter-gatherers, and typically only being capable of evoking sentience occasionally. I suspect that you were just being lazy.

John Scalzi | April 16, 2005 11:40 AM

Yeah, I suck.

Brian | April 16, 2005 12:36 PM

Personally, I don't think it's possible to develop a society where not sucking is the path of least resistance. I suspect the only realizable such society would be where not sucking is the path of least death. Pit laziness/sleaziness/your definition of suckiness against the survival instinct, and people will either start non-sucking or dying. Win-win for those who remain!

Mris | April 16, 2005 01:41 PM

I'm not convinced that school shootings don't say anything about our culture, John. The people who go in and shoot up schools are clearly at the extreme end of the bell curve of violently disgruntled misery, among high school students in the US. But the way people treat each other can move a bell curve like that, so instead of having only a few kids every few years who flip out and shoot a dozen people, you have only a few kids every few years who flip out and try to beat the crap out of the gym teacher.

Maybe it's partly an artifact of how many people there are, and we just have so many people that we're seeing more of the far end of the bell curve in more regards. But I don't think the fact that there are only a handful of them means that it has nothing to do with social factors.

John Scalzi | April 16, 2005 02:24 PM

Mris:

Should we do things to reduce pressure on kids who for whatever reason may be violence-prone, for the reasons varying from a reaction to bullying to a simple bad home life? Absolutely; I think this will go a long way to reducing much of the normal tension in school. Do I think this will reduce the number of cases where a kid goes to an extreme measure like shooting up a school? I'm doubtful.

I don't think the kid who methodically shoots up a school will be therapied down to "just" attacking a gym teacher; it seems to me that these kids are "all or nothing" types who don't exhibit intermediary stages. That being the case, they may not be recognized as a potential danger.

I remember in high school there was this kid who one day tried to murder one of his dormmates: He stripped an electrical cord at one end, connected it to the other guy's dorm room doorknob, and then plugged in the electrical cord. I don't remember how he got caught, but I do remember that no one -- and I mean no one -- thought this guy could do something like that. It's like he was an electron that jumped from the "sane" to "psychotic" energy shell.

I'm absolutely willing to admit I'm talking out of my ass here; I am willing to be refuted. But anecdotally, this is how it looks to me.

Mitch Wagner | April 16, 2005 03:51 PM

If you continue to address me so cavalierly as "pal," then I shall insist on addressing you as "me bucko" in return.

John Scalzi | April 16, 2005 08:08 PM

Mitch: I insist that you do!

Bren [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 16, 2005 08:17 PM

Geez, John, you make the path of least resistance sound like a bad thing...

That said, I think Mark makes a good point when he notes that being a suck person has immediate payoff, especially if the suck person loves to see people wince. OTOH, being a cool person can have immediate payoff too, and can also be the path of least resistance, albeit with a little prior intention (okay, so maybe prior intention voids the path of least resistance).

Okay, guess that's enough circle talking for today.

Tim Walters | April 16, 2005 08:48 PM

To a first approximation, Winter's Tale is Little, Big with lots and lots of sugar added, enough that for me, it's a noticeably worse book. But that has to calibrated against the fact that I think LB is the greatest fantasy novel ever. I certainly think WT is well worth reading. If you feel yourself going into insulin shock, take a Henry Miller break halfway through.

Here's an interesting essay tangentially related to the high school question:

I'm suspicious of this theory that thirteen-year-old kids are intrinsically messed up. If it's physiological, it should be universal. Are Mongol nomads all nihilists at thirteen? I've read a lot of history, and I have not seen a single reference to this supposedly universal fact before the twentieth century. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance seem to have been cheerful and eager. They got in fights and played tricks on one another of course (Michelangelo had his nose broken by a bully), but they weren't crazy.

As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere.

Tim Walters | April 16, 2005 08:48 PM

Whoops, that last paragraph should be quoted as well. Paul Graham's words, not mine.

Joe Rybicki | April 16, 2005 11:37 PM

Loved, loved, loved Winter's Tale...but found the ending pretty, to borrow from the internet lexicon, "meh." It didn't quite hold up to the promise of all that delicious prose, in my humble O.

But still, it's at the top of my "read again" list...it reminded me of all my favorite books. The bit where he describes the rival paper's book critics is just priceless.

Speaking of good books, anyone here read Armor? It got so much "if you like Old Man's War, you'll like this" on Amazon that I had to check it out. It's a great, great read. And, I'd have to agree with that sentiment--definitely in the same subgenre.

-j.

zhwj | April 17, 2005 12:03 AM

I've read Helprin's "Memoir from Antproof Case", which I loved for its language and wild plot - how similar is it in style to "Winter's Tale"?

John Scalzi | April 17, 2005 12:09 AM

Winter's Tale is more fantastical, but the writing voice is close.

Rich | April 17, 2005 08:45 AM

Let's also take a look at how much that era will be remembered for its massive corruption and pollution in equal proportion to the economic growth. We still have issues like cloning and pollution(suburban sprawl) that are out of control if not worse though. Do people want rouge scientists throwing cloned animals and fish in the water for you to eat. What's being done about it?

What do people think about Giuliani or someone like him? We really need a more moderate candidate that's not part of "The System" (Special Interest).
Giuliani is a person who was Mayor of New York but doesn't seem as connected to The System. Anyway I think he would at least tell us what's going on and not build a wall of lies up to defend his position like were spoiled dumbasses where father knows best.
Like what's going on with the "The Lacking Border Security" and the -Border Security in Iraq- that allowed so many insurgents to creep in. I am not trying to play Armchair General but we do all deserve feedback. Hello, like you'd think were in the middle of a war or sumptin like that.

Check out the new Nasa chief for an example of a leader who is more hands on. He is a scientist who understands his role more and not just a paper-pusher. Nasa

We need something moew thwn a businessman or a rabble-rouser.

rayyy | April 17, 2005 09:46 AM

Why do so many people suck? Might as well ask why so many people are intolerant of others. I guess that without an absolute moral baseline, people are free to do as they please: All men are created equal, after all.

Admittedly, that creates a lot of *relatively* disagreeable people out there; but improving humanity into a Stepford-esque vision of bland "perfection" would be even more hellish.

So, while I broadly agree with, "variety is the spice of life", "live and let live", and all that good stuff, I have to be honest here and admit that I just push the jalapenos to the side of my plate.

Mitch Wagner | April 17, 2005 04:12 PM

I have strong misgivings about Giuliani. He made a lot of enemies in New York, and I remember quite a lot of valid criticism. Other cities, it was noted at the time, enjoyed a reduction in crime similar to New York's without generating quite so many allegations of police brutality and abuse.

Another thing to remember about Rudy: On Sept. 10, 2001, he was something of a powerless figurehead, and an object of ridicule, involved in a messy divorce. (To be fair to Rudy, I seem to recall that he behaved quite graciously toward his ex-wife, at least in his public statements.)

Then he got prostate cancer and had to drop out fhte Senate race against Hilary. I know a guy who used to be a mid-level staffer in New York City Hall, and he summed up that election this way: 40 percent of the people of New York would vote for anybody but Hilary. 40 percent would vote for anybody but Rudy. The entire election consisted of trying to sway that other 20 percent. Remind anyone here of any recent national elections?

This is all pretty vague, I know. I am confident that if Rudy re-emerges on the national stage ā€” say, for the presidential election of 2008 eā€” I'll have plenty of opportunity to learn about him.

Phil German | April 18, 2005 11:38 AM

John,

re: school shootings

I'd like to respond to your comment that these kids are generally all or nothing types who don't exhibit intermediary stages and are, as such, difficult to interupt.

I teach at-risk high school students, but I thankfully know nothing about school shootings from personal experience. However, I have had opportunity to hear and read Dr. John Nicoletti on the topic. (Violence Goes to School)

Nicoletti works from Colorado and headed the psychology team on-site at Columbine. He has worked closely with the U.S. Secret Service Task Force.

He says school shooters always exhibit warning signs: notes, poems, angry comments, emails, bombs in their bedrooms, etc. We are conditioned to ignore them, to make excuses for them. Nicoletti says that shooters engage in "practice sessions" (trial behaviours) that push the limits; they experiment to see what they can get away with before someone in authority calls them on it.

In fact, what we have no accurate numbers for is the number of fatal school shootings that did not occur--because they were successfully interupted when a peer or concerned adult challenged a warning sign.

You do sometimes hear about school boards that have "over-reacted" to a threat or a weapon--sometimes, the student's parents even sue the school board. Over-reating gets you embarrassed; under-reacting gets you killed. No one who is successfully interupted is going to say, "Thank God you stopped me; I was going to kill them all." They say, "It was just talk. Now you've humiliated me."

Which is not to say that your electric doorknob boy wasn't the exception to this rule. I suppose it is possible for someone to just "go off" without warning; it just goes against all the documented case studies.

I'm also interested in our reactions to school shootings. I can remember being a classroom teacher when Columbine happened and, even here in Canada, my school was reeling. There were a lot of talks, locked doors, extra supervision, etc. It changed the way we saw our world.

It's interesting, then, that there was barely a ripple when the most recent U.S. school shooting occurred (native reserve in Michigan?). I don't think most students were even aware of it and it certainly was not formally addressed. Was something different? Did we become inured to it?

Phil German

Soni | April 19, 2005 01:16 AM

I second that denial of "all or nothing" school shooters. Not to lean on the poor-me horn for too long, but had I been a bit braver and weaponry a bit more available, I might have been one of them, so I can give you the inside scoop.

In school, from as far back as I can remember (and I can remember all the way back to flashes of kindergarten) I was a "prey" kid. Never knew why, and never knew how it followed me from one school to another across several state lines, like there was some sort of sick underground telegraph of bullies and assholes. Just know that for 12+ years of my life, 8 hours a day at school and most of them afterward were one straight haze of hazing. If I was being ignored, either by my predatory schoolmates, either flavor of the syncophantic "peaked in highschool and trying to regain my former popularity with favoritism" or the clueless/oblivious teachers, or my abusive step-dad, it was a good day. On days I pinged their radar, not so much.

I learned early on that there are no real rules for prey-creatures. Telling the truth does not result in less punishment for us. Doing well in school does not get us anything but envied and hated. Being nice just makes you a target. And nothing and noone, not even the adults, will save you once they see you're alone - and you always are alone, because when you're prey no one wants to find themselves within backwash distance of your perpetually imminent demise.

By the time I was 15, I was making serious plans to kill my stepfather, who luckily never came home from that one last trip looking for work (he found another woman somewhere and sent a letter instead). Was I a nutjob? Hell no. I was merely a decade into a 24-hour war zone where I was never safe, never free and never more than a wandering-attention-span away from whatever aggrevation and torture their bored minds lit on at the same time they saw me - and I simply had reached a point beyond which I was not going to take it any more. Just that simple.

Would it have been a surprise to those around me? Hell yes. When you're that kid, you don't say anything, to anyone. That would be admitting that they're getting to you, assuming anyone would even care to listen. You pretend that it's okay, you even laugh along with your tormentors sometimes, in the vain hope that it will diffuse some of their anger and bile. And if you did try to get help, it would just make it worse for you afterword, so why bother.

The more approval you are denied, the more you crave and the more you will do anything, say anything and pretend anything to still appear normal, likable and sane.

But you're not. Inside, you're howling like a wolf chewing it's leg out of a trap 24/7/365 and eventually the sound of your own soul dying pushes you over the edge. It's not a sudden change. It's a final straw in a silently accumulating haystack of monsterous proportions. Luckily, "daddy dearest" made the smartest decision of his life (and as far as I know, he never has had any idea how close he came to it being the last bad one), and we moved to a bigger town where there were just too many people for me to be noticed and singled out by more than a handful of bullies (and after dealing with entire school populations of tormentors 9 months a year for most of my life, a handful of buttheads is a dealable situation, even mildly pleasant in its sense of reprieve, sadly enough).

And I got over it. I moved as far away as I could and still remain in-country. I grew out of the worst of my hormones. I went back a few times and saw the worst of the dregs of the assholes wheeling their obese pre-corpses around WalMart in those handi-carts followed by 6 screaming children, each uglier than the next. I made friends and found God and healed my soul and I'm okay now. But there was a time, a very short and mercifully aborted time, when murder was not only a real option, it was the best and only workable plan I had for escaping that living hell.

And no, no one who would care knows. Nor would they want to. I still try to pretend that I almost went there, even if only to myself.

Soni | April 19, 2005 01:23 AM

But really, I'm okay now. And I promise, I'm not interested in killing anyone. Especially not the Fuhrer...er...our President. Especially not him.

(just in case any of those CIA googly-eyed homeland security hacks are peeking...)

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