The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

SF Writers and Fitness

Someone asked about science fiction writers and fitness. I would guess that they tend to be a little fitter than fans on average, but still fall into that category of people who live primarily from their heads, and store blocked emotion in their bodies. A spooky amount of dysfunction...with lots of ultra-liberal and Libertarian sentiment--to me, both are symptoms of people trying to believe they can think their way out of a box. By the way--ultra Righties strike me as people yearning for a past that never was really all that great. At least if you aren't a white, Christian, heterosexual in the top 10% of earners. So there.


Watching the health care debate is so sad. Down the road, we're going to have Single Payer, I believe. The amount of lying and obfuscation to distract people from the fact that it has been proven to work all over the world, getting better results (for the average person. Yeah, if you're in the top 10% maybe the current system works great for you) for less money. I know some of you disagree with that. Those of you on the Left--will you look at the responses we've had on this forum. To my knowledge, none of the people opposed to a Public Option or whatever are being paid by the insurance companies.

Now, some of them might be so politicized that they will say anything to try to bring Obama down, therefore opening the door to re-taking the White House. But the majority simply see the situation differently, or interpret the statistics differently. I think I said that as neutrally as possible. So whatever comes out of Congress, if it doesn't match your image of what the best bill would be, you'd better grasp that Joe Lieberman, who everyone perceives as pissing in the punch bowl, is still (probably) more Liberal than any Republican. And that there are other Conservative Democrats to be dealt with. This thing has a fantastic amount of inertia, and yes, the bill is gonna be non-optimal. But if you think you can get there in one jump, I just don't think there's much realism going on in your mind. This is a bloody, violent clash of ideologies. Capitalism has some fantastic benefits, but voracious immortal corporations clamoring for all the rights of individuals while having few of the disadvantages ain't one of them. People who think the media, in general, obeys anything other than what will put cash in the corporate coffers have a very different view of society than I have. It is horribly amusing to watch both Right and Left claim that the media is a puppet of the other side.

Nobody seems to get the joke, and that gives the wealthy and powerful a free hand to pick our bones. Just, by the way, as the disadvantaged at the bottom of the pyramid would "eat the rich" if they had THEIR chance. The difficulty is not that some group is "worse" than the others, it is that we have this need to believe that "our side" is more ethical and "better", rather than seeking to understand how such differences in perspective can exist in intelligent, moral people. I think that a generation from now, we'll have Single Payer. And if the American public digs it, the history books will be re-written, trying to make it look as if those who opposed it were actually its staunchest advocates, in the same way Conservatives try to act as if they were the champions of civil rights, or Liberals try to say THEY are the only real patriots. It's sad, and it's just the human condition.


Yesterday I roughed out a scene in the new Dream Park book. The second to last major scene, in fact. In it, we are jumping reality levels: gamers playing a game inside a game, with REAL kidnappers breathing down their throats. Larry and I got blocked for a while because of the difficulty of conveying the rules of the "game in a game" to readers and "gamers" without disrupting the flow of the the same way that the GameMaster has to educate the players without disrupting the flow of the game.

Arrgh. But if I am aware that we are pushing the edges of reality-level juggling, then hopefully we won't fall into the trap of shallow characterization. This is such a lovely trap, really. It works like this: in general, the deeper the characters, the simpler the story. And the more complicated the story, the shallower the characters. It isn't that people deliberately set out to do this: it is that a writer only has so much talent. Let's say they have a hundred cubic units of talent to expend upon a project. If they go for a story with wild twists and turns, and serious extrapolation...that uses up more units, and they just don't have as many left over for their characters, which often come out shallow and unconvincing...but WOW! That plot! And the stories with deep, resonant characters are usually stories of everyday life, small drama writ deep and wide. Scathingly real human beings against a backdrop of the mundane.

Note that from this model, both of these, the fast-moving twisty-plot action/suspense novel and the "literary" novel of psychological depth require the same amount of "talent" to produce two very different kinds of books. You would be best off understanding that you don't have infinite resources, and expending them in the way that makes you happiest. I promise that you ain't gonna please everyone, no matter what you do.

That said, Larry and I are going to finish this first draft. Then I will travel through the book, following one character at a time, looking at every reaction, every motivation, every word of dialogue--from that character's perspective. This has always worked for me in the past, and I have no reason to doubt it will happen again.


Michelle said...

I don't know what I want anymore. I loose my insurance in a month and I have been denied by all options in my state for further coverage.

I don't see how this bill will change that.

Marty S said...

Steve: I know we have been through this before, but since you have stated again that other countries do health care better, I will try to indicate the argument for the other side again in brief.
Using your favorite measure life expectancy the number1 ranked country in the world is Japan. The life expectancy in Japan is 79 for males and 86.1 for females. Now let's look at the life expectancy of Asian Americans. The life expectancy for males is 80.8 and for females 86.5. So life expectancy under the U.S. health care system is better for Asian Americans than for those living in the top ranked country in the world. This demonstrates that when the U.S health care system works, it works very well indeed. So that leaves the question, for whom doesn't it work, why, and how can we fix it for those for whom it doesn't work without destroying it for those for whom it does work.

Marty S said...

Michelle: Here is a link to a site that seems to have a lot of information on your situation. You might want to look at it and see if any of it is helpful to you or you might post a request for suggestions.

Michelle said...

Thanks Marty...I've been a member there since 2005. :)

Daniel Keys Moran said...


The bill as it exists has been bastardized beyond saving. Best to kill it and get a real public option via reconciliation. As it now exists, it's a giveaway to the insurance companies, who now get mandated coverage, and essentially nothing to control their rapacious conduct.


"I got mine." Yeah, and there's nothing wrong with that, even, but as public policy it's a little lacking.

Steve Perry said...

With the possible exception of fitness writers, it's not a profession that is conducive to health over all. I don't notice that mystery, mainstream, or romance writers are in any better shape than the fantasy scribes.

You want to live long, become a symphony conductor. I think as a class, they are at the top, with writers somewhere near the bottom.

Mike said...

It's often said that orchestra conductors are the longest lived of professions, but it's a bit of a spurious claim;

"Since the study appeared, others have seized upon it and even elaborated reasons for a causal connection (e.g., as health columnist Brody, 1991, wrote, "it is believed that arm exercise plays a role in the longevity of conductors."

However, as Carroll (1979) pointed out in a critique of the study, there is a subtle flaw in life-expectancy comparisons: The calculation of average life expectancy includes infant deaths along with those of adults who survive for many years. Because no infant has ever conducted an orchestra, the data from infant mortalities should be excluded from the comparison standard. Well, then, what about teenagers? They also are much too young to take over a major orchestra, so their deaths should also be excluded from the general average. Carroll argued that an appropriate cutoff age for the comparison group is at least 32 years old, an estimate of the average age of appointment to a first orchestral conducting post. The mean life expectancy among U.S. males who have already reached the age of 32 is 72.0 years, so the relative advantage, if any, of being in the famous conductor category is much smaller than suggested by the previous, flawed comparison."

Mike said...

Biased sample here, but I _would_ say that the photos of the mystery writers I read look, in general, in in better shape than the photos of the sci-fi/fantasy writers who I seen.

Not sure how one would get any read data on that though. Probably the best would be to ask editors or agents who work with a lot of different authors in multiple genres.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

In re health care: I'm not expecting the current batch of changes to work very well. We've got the most corrupt medical industry in history, and it has a lot of influence.

On the one hand, I'm biased-- I've been a libertarian for a long time, though I'm less sure I'm right than I used to be.

On the other, there are a lot of people who desperately want to see an improvement (and I agree that the current American non-system is horrendous for a lot of people), and they may be over-optimistic about what's politically possible.


I'm not sure about your so many units of talent theory, partly because Lois McMaster Bujold is notable for the depth of her characters and the complexity of her plots.

I can easily believe that no writer great (or even good) at everything. Frex, Bujold doesn't do much with sensory immersion or sense of wonder.

Are character vs. story complexity apt to be inversely related for particular writers, as distinct from writers just being better at one or the other?

Shady_Grady said...

I also think that the current Senate Health Care bill is not worth having. It's worse than the status quo imo.

Foxessa said...

Can you point to something specific that would reinforce your statement that lieberman's more liberal than any republican?

Steven Barnes said...

I'm quite certain that stats can be picked over to support anything one wishes, if you isolate individual groups or sub-sets of them. I'm sure there are a few slow-moving, "cool" molecules on the surface of the sun. We're going to have to agree to disagree on this. It simply makes sense to me that money for advertising, stockholder profit and huge executive salaries has nothing to do with helping my family's health. If it makes sense to you, so be it.
I think that SF fans are a little more out of their bodies than fans of other genres.
Oh, I think some writers are better at one thing than another, but Bujold, for instance, would have time and energy to go more deeply into her characters if her backgrounds were more mundane. I think I'll stand on this one: every minute you spend researching X is a minute you didn't get to spend delving more deeply into Y. There are people who can run pretty fast with a refrigerator on their back, but they could lift more, or run faster, if they were only doing one or the other.

Marty S said...

Steve: Getting away from health care let's consider writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Currently books are published by profit making companies that advertise, pay stockholders and huge executive salaries. Some people can afford books because of the high price. We can make books more affordable with a government takeover of the publishing industry. We will cut out the above expenses and we will keep the price to the taxpayers low by cutting payments to authors. The result of this will be more and better books and a better educated country. How does this sound to you. Do you think this will inspire you to spend more or less time writing.

Unknown said...

I think the current Senate bill is better than the status quo. An end to preexisting conditions and rescission, exchanges that allow reasonable risk sharing for people who can't get insurance through their employers, and subsidies to make such insurance more affordable for lower income people, all sufficiently funded with taxes that the CBO estimates the bill will reduce the deficit, strike me as improvements worth having, even without a public option. Some of those things wouldn't be doable through a budget reconciliation process bill, the only effective way to pass something without bagging Lieberman or Snowe (neither of whom will vote for a public option), if indeed the delay involved in going back to the drawing board with budget reconciliation didn't risk death by a thousand cuts. And losing out on health care reform altogether now only means another long wait before someone is willing to introduce a bill that does less than the previous proposal; that's what has happened with health care reform all my life. If, on the other hand, this bill passes, there's room to tweak it later if necessary; this seems to me politically more likely than getting a better bill later out of a failure to pass this one.

So, though I think fighting for the public option as long as possible was the right choice, and though I'd much prefer the simplicity of Steve's Medicare plus 10%, at this point I'm in favor of the Senate passing the compromise bill we've got, on grounds that politics is the art of the possible.

Unknown said...

I think we need to get away from a one system v. another system discussion. Some things are done far better by capitalism, which is nimble and can change with market demands easily. Some things are done far better by a command economy, which is efficient. Production of books works very well in a free market system (especially if you've got a library for folks who don't want to buy new books as they come out - a public option, if you will). Production of health, though, works far better in a command economy system, because you want efficiency, not nimbleness.

Pagan Topologist said...

Marty, the comment about books is interesting. I lived in Poland for a time in the 1970's. It was a very good place for established writers; they never had to market their books, as far as I can see. They were automatically published. It was probably harder then here for new writers. And controversial or anti-government books were of course easily suppressed by the government. But, I don't think Stanislaw Lem, for example, fared badly.

Marty S said...

Libraries a good example of why we need a private system. I can go to the Hudson Valley library site search for a book I want and reserve it and it will be shipped to my local library for pickup. That's great. Except that I can only read books that the librarians choose. I can't read Steve Barnes Shadow Valley because there are no copies in the system. There is another science fiction author I like and only one copy of three of her books are in the system. they are there because I donated them. Whether its books, health care or anything else nimble equates to more freedom of choice and efficiency equates to less. In most areas even under a nimble system some people have more choices than others. This often equates to how much money you have. We need libraries to give more reading choices to those who don't have the financial resources to buy their own books and we need some form of public health care to help those who can't afford private health care. The trick is to balance private and public health care so that we get the best of both worlds. To me that means finding a path where only those who truly can't afford private health care are included in public health care.

Unknown said...

I agree that libraries need the private sector to provide books to them - they will certainly never take the place of the bookstore. Also, Poland notwithstanding, I think that the nimble market driven system is the best way to go with publishing books, making cars, building houses, producing movies and video games, mining coal, and a great many other things which our market economy does very well. But, I also think that some things should not be run on a for profit, market driven basis. Farming. Education. Health Care. Police. Fire fighters. Road repair. National defense. These things benefit from the sort of efficiency that you get when the economy is command driven. I think the problem that the current debate (not the one we're having here, the broader debate in the United States) is that there are some people who see any use of a command system as the first step on a slippery slope, and others (fewer) who want to abolish the market system entirely. As far as I'm concerned, and I think that a large majority of Americans tend to agree, a nation can safely mix elements of both economic models without incurring lasting economic harm.

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