Monthly Archives: August 2009

Okay Then: Health Care

So, I’ve been avoiding talking about the health care thing all August long, but let’s go ahead and talk about it a bit, just so that decades from now my biographers (i.e., the great-great grandniece assigned to do a high school project about that ancestor of hers who wrote those spaceship books — how funny!) will know what I thought about all of it.

I know a number of people on the left have been beating their head against the wall wondering why Obama et al haven’t been aggressively hammering down the idjits on the right who are screaming about socialist death panels murdering grandma by slapping her to death with the president’s uncircumcised penis which proves that he’s not from America by the way, but I have to say personally that I’m somewhat more sanguine about it.

Maybe Obama and the Democrats are indeed so disorganized that they’ll be defeated by a bunch of froth-flecked ignorami, but I think it’s also entirely possible that they recognize that the best way to deal with these people is not to yank on their chain but to give them enough rope to hang themselves. August has been a long enough time for it to sink in that many of the people screaming about the proposed health care changes in town halls are, to put it charitably, crazier than a river-bound bag of cats, and know nothing that wasn’t read to them (slowly) by people who are perfectly happy to lie to them for the purpose of ratings and/or counting political coup. Even people who have reservations about the proposed changes in heath care come away not wanting to be associated with anything those people are yammering on about; it’s embarrassing to be lumped with people who scream about keeping the government out of Medicare.

And this is where Obama comes along and does his thing, because in fact he’s not a socialist grandma-killer, he’s the dude who doesn’t get excited or flustered and focuses on threading the needle and getting most of what he wants done. After crazy, foamy August, Obama’s September will feel like a cool breeze of sanity, and I suspect people will come around. Why do I believe this? Because if you can harken your memory back to last year, he’s done this act before, in around the same time frame. Obama, whether you like him or not, doesn’t strike me as someone who wastes much energy; he’s saving his effort for when it matters, i.e., when Congress is back in session and when the right has revealed itself to be insensibly nuts on the issue to a large chunk of moderate Americans.

But I think there’s more to Obama lying relatively low in August than just letting the right embarrass itself in front of thoughtful, non-ignorant people who actually want solutions to health care issues. If you read lefty blogs at all, then you know that at this moment they like Obama only slightly more than the right does. They feel the man is too inclined to compromise, too slow to address issues they feel should be addressed right now, not forceful enough in directing the Democrats in Congress and so on and so on. Essentially, they fault him for not doing what they hated the Bush administration for doing, which is using a majority in Congress to ramrod through partisan policies.

Leaving aside the fact that Obama did in fact score a number of very quick legislative victories, there are two things going on here. First, anyone who at this point doesn’t realize that Obama’s plan is to actually lead from the center, with just a hint of a tilt to the left, is an idiot. That’s where he’s been since he left the primaries last year, because that’s where most Americans are, and that’s who Obama sees himself as the steward of: a huge chunk of center-ish people who nonetheless have three decades of rightward-sloping inertia.

News flash, lefties: The right is still better at political guerrilla warfare, and most voters are still vaguely worried about “big government” and see such a thing as a lefty construct even though the right has done excellently well at the big government thing over the last 30 years. The fact that Obama’s popularity dropped by double digits through the right’s use of lies and absolutely insane rhetoric regarding heath care suggests that people still default vaguely right, and need time to recognize that the talking points there are too wacky to deal with before swimming back toward the center. I think Obama understands what he has to work with and also gets that there’s only so much he can tackle.

Second, I think Obama and his pals also used August to remind the left of the salient fact that the right did not in fact roll over and die when he got elected, and that given the opportunity, will be more than happy to stab the Democrats and other liberals right through the eye, so what the left really needs to do at this juncture is just STFU and get with the program, which is what Obama says it is. The folks on the left, bless their hearts, are not like the folks on the right: They are incapable of walking in step until and unless they think zomg the world is going to end and we’re all going to die. This was not where they were at earlier this summer when it came to the health care debate but may be where they are now, having had a full month to watch the right spew and kick and gain mindshare. I think it’s a little bit sad that the left has to get to that point in order to function as a unit, but, well, that’s part of being on the left, isn’t it.

Again, I could be wrong about all of this: Obama and company may in fact be flailing about and I’m just constructing a neat alternate reality in which they actually know what they’re doing. But until and unless health care fails despite Obama having majorities in both the House and Senate, I’m going to go with the idea the dude knows what he’s doing with all of this.

The other thing I think Obama knows that lots of people on the left seem to be clueless about is that the goal here for Obama is not creating the US equivalent of the UK’s National Health Service, or even any other specific program — it is codifying into the laws of this country the proposition that every American must have access to basic and comprehensive health care. If he gets that — however he gets that — then essentially it’s game over, and everything from that point forward is just haggling over details.

Certainly those on the right understands this; it’s why they’ve spent so much time trying to terrify people who would very likely benefit from changes in the way health care is run in the US into thinking that this is the worst thing since 9/11. The right needs to kill the entire concept to have a win scenario, because it knows that once people get used to the idea that health care is effectively a right, they’re never going to give back that right. I’m continually confused by why the left can’t seem to grasp that this round of the battle is about the big idea of universal health care rather substantially more than it is about the specifics of said care. The specifics can always change, once the big idea gets accepted.

As for where I stand on it, well, you know. From the point of view of a productive and well-functioning society, I think everybody in it needs to be healthy, and as a taxpayer, I would rather spend money on preventative care, which is relatively cheap, then on emergency room care, which is always expensive. Personally, if I were in charge of health care, I would mandate universal care for every American under 18 and over 70, and make everyone in between purchase their health care from insurance companies who then turned over a certain percentage of their revenue to subsidize basic, comprehensive health care for Americans who could not otherwise afford it. Off the top of my head, it seems like a reasonable middle ground between the governmental interest in a basically healthy society, and the good old fashioned American belief in the primacy of private profit and the right to fine tune what one is willing to pay for, in terms of health benefits. I have no doubt someone could pop holes in this particular plan of mine, but, hey, it’s a paragraph long.

The point here is that, morally and competitively, I believe the United States is better when its people are healthy; I also believe as a citizen it does me no harm and in fact does me good, to subsidize, either through taxes or though my insurance payments, those fellow citizens who have no health care. Better to find a way to keep them healthy, than to wait for them to become ill and deal with the mess then. How we do this I’m cheerfully agnostic about, which is why I’m not exactly losing my mind if, say, the “public option” doesn’t pan out. But at the end of the day I want people to be well, because that’s one less national crisis to have.

I do suspect most people are more or less where I am on this, which is why when the smoke clears I think we’ll see that we have some sort of national plan on the books. I don’t imagine those on the right will be at all pleased; I equally imagine a large number on the left will be annoyed by what the plan doesn’t have. But in the center I suspect we’ll have a feeling of, well, let’s see how this works for us. I think that’s a reasonable place to be.

First Day of School, 2009

And ready to take on the fifth grade. The question is, is fifth grade at all prepared for her? We’ll find out, sometime around 2:40 today, I suppose. I will say she’s very excited to be going back. I hope the feeling survives her first batch of homework.

Oh, Okay, One More Thing

The Hugo finally arrived. It’s on the right. Soon it will slide over to where the Denvention Hugo sits, because Athena wants that one in her room, and, you know, why the heck not.

The only problem with this year’s Hugo is that unless you’re looking directly down at it, you can’t see the very cool “maple leaf flame” design that’s where the rocket itself sits, giving the impression that the rocket is lifting off to points Canadian. However, as the rocket arrived disassembled, I took a picture of it for you.

Very definitely nifty.

All right, then, back to radio silence for the weekend. See you Monday.

Ghlaghghee Simply Cannot Be Bothered To Get Up Out of Bed

And who can blame her? It’s the last lazy weekend of summer around these parts. Might as well sleep in while you can.

As it is the last weekend of summer, and because I have weekend guests arriving, and because every time I try to write something here I trail off into crushing indifference regarding the words I just wrote, I’m out of here for the weekend. I’ll be back on Monday, bright-eyed and ready to face that great big world! Or at the very least making a go of faking such enthusiasm.

You kids stay out of trouble until I get back. Remember that I know exactly how much alcohol I have in those bottles in the bar, and I’ll know if you just try to top them off with water. Yes, you didn’t know I knew you did that, did you? Can’t fool me, people.

Everything is Boring

We’re down to the last couple of days of summer here at the Scalzi compound — school starts on Monday — and this turns out to be a good thing, because both Athena and I have reached that point where we are both unspeakably bored yet any proposed solution to said boredome strikes us as even more boring, if such a thing is even possible (and it is).

For Athena, this will be all solved after the weekend, when the boredom of the dregs of summer will be replaced first by the excitement of a new school year, and then by the boredom of new school work. But hey, it’s something. I on the other hand will have to whomp something up myself. Stupid directionless life path I’ve chosen! That’s what I get, isn’t it.

So, are we alone in our end-of-summer ennui? Or has it got you, too?

Getting Ahead of One’s Self

Justine Larbalestier takes some questions from an audience at a writers’ festival, quickly realizes that the questions are focused on getting the attention of publishers before a manuscript is even completed, and has an epiphany on how to address those questions. You should link through to see her solution.

I’m largely in agreement with her. I think it’s important new writers understand the state of publishing and get smart ideas on how to draw attention to their work — but I think before you worry about any of that, you need to finish your work, and get your work to the point where it is genuinely publishable. Otherwise, all the concern about how to market yourself is just the writer nerd equivalent of trying to decide which shoe endorsement deal you’ll have when you make the (W)NBA, based on the fact you once put a ball through a hoop on a playground. Getting ahead of one’s self may be fun, but it’s not really all that useful. And anyway, there’ll be plenty of time to worry about all that stuff, after you have a completed manuscript.

Now It’s Star Trek’s Turn

Having caused half the science fiction geeks in the known universe to demand my worthless corpse be frozen in carbonite for pointing out the bad design in Star Wars in my AMC column last week, I now risk inflaming the other half by doing the same to the Star Trek universe. Because, damn it, why should Star Trek get off easy. As ever, feel free to leave comments/petulant bleatings/death threats over there.

Don’t worry, next week’s AMC column will be about something else entirely. Assuming I am still alive, that is.

Oh Noes! It’s The Infopocalypse!

Seriously now, is it just me or are Google, Twitter and Facebook either down or moving incredibly slowly? Is it the end of the world as we know it? And will be stalking our neighbors for their protein value? Someone let me know, please. Because I’ll need to track down some of the more free range neighbors.

Athena Jumps Into the Rough and Tumble World of County Fair Junior Baking Contests

Here she is on stage making the peanut butter cookies she was practicing making earlier in the week, competing against a dozen other junior bakers. Athena’s cookies placed out of competition, but she was given a nice baking timer for her participation, and I will tell you without any fatherly pride inflation that her cookies, were, in fact, quite yummy. And then after this we went for fried fair foods and whirly rides, so it’s all good.

I have rather quite a lot of pictures from today’s fair adventures, so there’s more to come. I just have to, you know, do some real work first.

The Big Idea: C.L. Anderson

“All we are saying is give peace a chance,” John Lennon once sang, from his bed. The question is: What does it take to give peace a chance — and is it an equitable price for what you get? This is a question that C.L. Anderson has thought more than a little bit about, and in no coincidence whatsoever, it’s one of the questions at the heart of Anderson’s debut novel Bitter Angels, in which peace is challenged and the cost of keeping it is very high indeed. Here’s Anderson with more thoughts on war and peace, and how they interact with the telling of a good science fictional tale.

C.L. ANDERSON:

There’s a lot of war in science fiction.

I mean a lot, and not just in the sub-division of Military Science Fiction. It is all over the place. Science Fiction has re-fought the Revolutionary War, the various Indian Territory wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and now the War on Terror, in more environments and under more circumstances than I can count. Plus, of course, it invents its own wars, large and small, against an endless array of alien species, as well as, both alien and human political concepts.

Part of the reason for this is that war, frankly, can make life easy for an author. In a story you need conflict and when you’ve got a war, conflict is instant, immediate and highly apparent. It’s also directly and immediately dramatic and the stakes do not get any higher.

Also, writing about war is a heck of a way to discuss a wide variety social and political issues. You can use a war to demonstrate the inherent evil of somebody else’s political or social point of view. You can use war to demonstrate the necessary evil of being ready to defend against Bad Guys. You can use war to demonstrate that war is God-awful and filled with God-awful things and we really shouldn’t be doing this. War shows the scariness of strangers. War shows the personhood of strangers. War shows the bravery of people. War shows the cowardice of people. War shows the contradictions in people that never go away no matter what their shape or origin.

As a bonus for the science or speculative fiction author, when you’ve got a war as a frame for your story you have an easy way to show-off high-tech, hard-tech, bio-tech and med-tech developments and what they might mean.

Added to this is a thread running through the science fiction culture that suggests long-lasting peace is actually impossible, and creates stories to back up this view. The worst of these are the ones that say that war is not only inevitable, it’s laudable. In such stories, people who eschew violence just get killed. They aren’t strong. They aren’t realistic. They’re fools because they don’t know that war will always come and get them.

Me, I think the counter-culture movement of the sixties really torqued some people off and they are still writing about it.

But if SF does show a peaceful world, frequently there is something wrong with the peace. Everybody’s drugged or brainwashed or has to die before they turn twenty-one, or are under the psychic influence of a gigantic alien brain and forced into conformity (okay, maybe that example’s not fair. I love A Wrinkle in Time, but you get my point). Or a terrible dictatorial (and odds-on quasi-socialist) political system has risen up to repress all dissent.

Then there are the SF stories that convey the notion that to actually have peace you’re going to have to fundamentally change human beings on a genetic level. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this bugs the crap out of me. It’s just another way of saying war is inevitable. We can’t help it. We’re genetically programmed to rise up en masse and kill each other a lot.

Ummm…no. In fact, we’re not. It’s actually really, REALLY hard to get most people to kill a stranger. Most people most of the time just want to be left alone to live their lives.

But the most difficult idea of all to overcome, over and beyond the thoughts that war might be inevitable, unavoidable or laudable, was the idea that that from a storytelling perspective, peace is boring; that it is an inherently static situation. It must be. It’s peace. Even in Star Trek, where we have the peaceful Federation in which money has been eliminated along with poverty and all kinds of other bad stuff, the creators were constantly having to invent Bad Guys who start wars that have to be fought by the Good Guys.

So I had a real problem when I decided I wanted to write a story around the idea of a peaceful future. First of all, I wanted a peace that felt achievable by human beings. Furthermore, I wanted to set that peace up in such a way that wouldn’t make people go “oh, BLEEP! If that’s peace gimme my war back.”

For starters, I realized I had to make a peace where people were not completely peaceful. Nobody is or wants to be completely peaceful all the time (unless you are a religious contemplative, in which case you have all my respect, but I hope you’ll concede, this is not the life for everybody. For one thing, it is really tough to be a contemplative when you’ve got a 7-year-old tearing around the house).

Second, I realized that I couldn’t have most people going around talking about the bad old days and how great everything is now. That’s not storytelling, that’s polemic and we’ve got plenty of that in SF too. The background would be the long-term peace. The underlying driver of the characters could be the long-term peace, but the main purpose of the story could not be a history of, or tour through the peace.

But I still had to decide, what actually makes for peace? Beyond wealth, beyond everybody deciding not to be jackasses, what makes for peace?

Weirdly, I started with freedom of movement. Real, genuine, human peace would have to provide for the means to get people away from other people who are bound and determined to be jerks to them because of how they look, what they were born as or what they believe. After that, real peace would have to provide for the fact that people are going to say things that get other people mad at them. Real peace would have to allow that people want different, sometimes conflicting things, and that even in abundance there’s going to be things that more than one person wants at the same time.

True peace, real, genuine human peace, would have to accept that at some point somebody is going to lose it and sock somebody else in the nose and peace cannot overreact to the fact (no all-rule-breaking-is-punished-by-death. That’s not peace, that’s totalitarianism and it’s never actually worked with a human population). It would also have to deal with the fact that people are going to lie, cheat, steal, assault and otherwise be anti-social. That is not going away without the kind of genetic manipulation that most people do not wish to contemplate let alone live under.

In short, a real, genuine, long-term peace would be a complex, dynamic situation that would have to be constantly maintained. Real peace would require law enforcement, diplomacy, and intelligence services. Real peace might get mistaken for weakness by people who look at places like say, Switzerland and see the cuckoo clocks and the chocolate and don’t see the universal required militia service, and it would have to have plans and training in place to deal with people who might make the mistake of trying to muscle in on its territory.

And that’s just for starters. Then you get to how could you maintain a genuine peace without killing people, without repressing anybody or disappearing people or ideas? Now, that would be tough. That would be dangerous. That would tear an average person apart from the compromises and bleak ideas they’d have to live with and the contact with vile people that you’d just really want to murder but you can’t. Because if you start killing them, their friends and relations might start retaliatory killings and then you’d have to kill more of them, and they’d kill more of you and before you know it you’re right back where you started from.

Real peace would require new technology and new weapons that would allow for self-defense without killing the people launching the attack.

Real peace would definitely need spies. Real peace might need saboteurs to keep the bad guys from getting away with their bad moves while the diplomats sit in the embassies and say “What?  Who?  Us?  Now why would we do something like that?” And they’d have to be very, VERY good at what they did, because if they got caught, the blowback might actually bring on the war.

Real peace would get people killed trying to maintain it. Real peace would have agents willing to stand up to torture and endless confinement if they got caught. Keeping peace would damage some people.  Some people it would damage beyond repair.

By the time I had lined up all the elements that would be necessary to the in-story creation of an even semi-plausible long-term human peace, the novelist portion of my brain had only one thing to say:

Bring it.

—-

Bitter Angels: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

C.L. Anderson and Book View Cafe are sponsoring a Twitter Contest for Bitter Angels; get the details here.

Today’s Grammar Gripe, Seemingly Out of Nowhere

People:

It’s “centers on,” not “centers around.” If you give it some thought, you’ll figure out why. If you can’t figure out why, your nearest mathematician specializing in topology will be happy to explain it to you.

If you must use “around” in a phrase, try “revolves around.” That will work, and will keep me from wanting to beat you to death with a hammer.

Thank you, that is all, for now.

In Which The Author Engages In Some Unseemly Whining

Damn it, where the hell is my Hugo? It was supposed to have been shipped as of the 11th, and here it is the 21st, and I don’t have it. Is it being couriered by tortoises? Has Fed Ex been replaced by a league of snails? Will sloths in UPS caps show up at my door, eventually, and hand it to me coated in their thick, insect-catching drool? I mean, hey, if any or all of the above is the case, that’s cool, I just wanna know.

Don’t mind me. I’m just incomplete without my phallic object.

Worldbuilding, Briefly

All the recent discussion of design in the Star Wars universe has led to a fair question of how deeply someone designing a universe and the things in it has to go to make the thing plausible enough for its task — which, in my opinion, is to keep the audience engaged all the way through the work without once saying, “now, wait just a minute…”

Other worldbuilders will have to answer this one when talking about their own works, but as for me, in general, I try to build my worlds at least two questions deep — that is, you make your creations robust enough to stand up to a general question and then a more specific followup question. Thus:

Reader: Why did you give your genetically engineered soldiers cat’s eyes in Old Man’s War?

Me: Well, relating specifically to pupils, it allows better filtering for the range of visible light the soldiers work in across different planets and environments.

Reader: Okay, but why not just engineer eyeballs to make smaller round pupils?

Me: The scientists in the OMW universe find it easier to work with pre-existing genetic code than develop new code, so they do that whenever possible.

And for about 90% of your readers, that’s going to be sufficient rationale. For about 10% of your readers, it won’t be, but at some point, and simply as a practical matter, you realize that some folks aren’t going to be happy with your worldbuilding no matter how far you drill down, and that you can just sort of accept that as the cost of doing business in a geek-rich field like science fiction. To a very real extent, what you’re aiming for is sufficiency, not completeness.

(Mind you, that’s if you’re creating the way most people do, which is to have the world come out of the story, not the other way around. Tolkien, as an example and if memory serves, did it the other way around, which is that he built the world in detail first, and then told a story (two, actually) inside of it. You certainly can do it that way, and it is frankly awesome when pulled off well. But also it’s sort of the long way around, and recommended primarily for nerdy, vaguely OCD people with secure day jobs and lots and lots of time to kill.)

I think by and large the OMW universe functions at the “two questions deep” level, although I suppose it does depend on which two questions someone asks. To be sure, I know of at least a couple of places where the universe is barely a single question deep, which was bad worldbuilding on my part, and the only thing to do about it at this point is not call attention to those specific places. Please move on, nothing to see here [insert Jedi handwave]. But overall, it’s robust enough (and written well enough, which is a critical point) to get most people through each book without stopping to ask questions about the details therein.

Which is what I want, personally: If you get through the work before you start nitpicking, that qualifies as a victory condition for me.