Daily Archives: March 17, 2011

Reader Request Week #7: Unruly Fans

Kenneth B asks:

Have your experiences with SF Fandom been mostly positive? Negative? Some mix of the two?

The question was prompted by my recent re-reading of Harlan Ellison’s essay “Xenogenesis,” wherein he describes some of the indignities he and other SF writers have suffered at the hands of fans. (The worst anecdote: a fan throwing a cup of vomit in Alan Dean Foster’s face). Just today I was reading some of Robert Heinlein’s letters and came across this passage in a letter to his agent in re being invited to be a guest of honor at a 1959 convention:

“…while it is an honor of sorts and good publicity, science fiction fans in crowd lots can be pretty poisonous. I was guest of honor once before and, on that occasion, there were present a small group who specialized in whittling people down to size. There were so rude that I did not enjoy it.”

I’ve never been to an SF convention, and, given the horror stories I’ve heard writers tell about cons, I’m pretty ambivalent about ever going to one. Just wondering what your experience has been.

My personal experiences with fandom has been pretty positive, I have to say. I’ve been going to conventions since 2003 (when I attended Torcon 3) and in recent years I’ve averaged about six a year, with half of those being when I’m in a guest of honor slot or equivalent. In those eight years I have yet to have any fan (or any pro, for that matter) do anything untoward to me. No one’s thrown a cup of vomit on me, stiffed me on a dinner, or verbally abused me in any significant fashion.

Indeed, quite the opposite: People have brought me fan art, and gifts (many but thankfully not all relating to bacon) and it does seem wherever I go there are spontaneously appearing bottles of Coke Zero, the memory of which I, in my current state of Lenten* deprivation, particularly cherish at the moment. And I have had many excellent conversations with fans, with or without vast amounts of snark involved. Fans at conventions seem glad to see me in a general sense, for which I am appreciative. There have been some who have been unintentionally clueless, but I’ve met unintentionally clueless people outside of fandom as well, so that’s pretty much a wash.

Also, I don’t know. I know a lot of people in fandom whose primary relationship to me is not that they are a “fan” but that they’re friends, because they’re smart and interesting people who share a significant subset of the things I enjoy, and so why wouldn’t I like them as people? The fan/pro construct in science fiction is one I don’t actually have much time for, to be blunt about it. I’ve met too many people I really like to subscribe to anything approaching an “us and them” mentality when it comes to fandom.

This is not to say “oh, everybody loves me,” or that I haven’t occasionally shown my ass in a fan uproar. Some people don’t like me; I have indeed shown my ass. But the people who don’t like me don’t seem to lurk about at the conventions I attend, waiting for me to show a moment of weakness before they spring into action, cup of vile liquid in hand. I leave to others to speculate why that may be so; I’m just glad they don’t.

Nor do I worry that such an action is coming. Eight years and a few dozen convention attendances is enough to know that the vast majority of fans are not the sort to be unmitigated assholes. They’re at a convention to have fun; if you’re a writer at a convention, most of them want you to have fun, too. I’ve not read the Ellison essay referenced and therefore don’t want to gainsay his experience or likewise minimize the fact the people have done dickish things to authors. Some people really are pricks. But in my experience, at least, this is not anything close to standard practice. Maybe times have changed.

In any event, if the reason you’re not attending a convention is that you’re worried about roving bands of People Being Appalling, I’d say not to worry about it too much. Go and have a good time. It’s what I do.

 

Reader Request Week 2011 #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Arrow Quivershaft asks:

How can we justify treating multinational corporations as people, despite the fact that most of them act like clinical sociopaths in general action?

Well, the FCC v. AT&T ruling suggests that in fact there’s a very long way to go before we do in fact treat them as people, so I’m not in agreement with the assertion that we do. That corporate “personhood” exists is non-controversial, but their “personhood” is not of a manner that tracks precisely with being a real, human person. This being the case I don’t think it’s accurate or useful to describe their behavior with reference to the behavior of real live individual humans.

In particular, I disagree with the notion that most of them act like clinical sociopaths. Rather, I think the majority corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence. And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value. There is also a general need to do so on a regular schedule; the one that is most familiar is a quarterly one, consistent with the SEC requirement that publicly-held corporations must file 10-Q forms. There may be other goals or aspirations a publicly-held corporation might have, but when it comes down to it, those are the two that count.

If you acknowledge that in the final analysis the purpose of a corporation is to maximize value to the shareholders, and make sure that each quarterly report shows such value maximization as its trend line, then their actions make perfect, reasonable sense — and might even if you employed them on a human scale. Why do corporations avoid paying corporate taxes whenever possible? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and don’t you take every possible tax deduction you can? Why do corporations lay off workers in the US and hire them in cheaper countries? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and might not you switch from a more expensive name brand to a store brand to save a little money? Why do corporations lobby governments for tax breaks and credits — and bail-outs, when it comes to that? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and don’t you vote your self-interest and ask the government for help when you’re in trouble? And so on.

But, you may say, there’s a difference between when I buy a store brand, and when a corporation lays off thousands of workers. Well, yes. Corporations aren’t people. As I was saying earlier. But just as your buying a store brand is not evidence of sociopathic behavior, neither is a corporation laying off thousands and hiring cheaper labor elsewhere. You’re both staying consistent to ground level economic imperatives, but your ground level economic imperatives are different, because you are fundamentally different entities.

But! You say! Like Soylent Green, corporations are made of people! If they are made of people, should they not then at least keep the interests of people at heart? Well, you tell me: When you pay a CEO $80 million (or whatever) and tell him his single job is to maximize shareholder value, where do his interests lie? People, bless our black little hearts, are selfish and self-justifying primates, and we can excuse — nay, justify — nay, celebrate! — a lot of behavior in ourselves if the compensation is high enough. If a CEO needs to cut $80 million from his company to increase shareholder value, he’s going to figure it’ll be more useful to slice off a thousand workers than to fire himself. He may not even be wrong, since the next CEO they hire will cost just as much, whereas the work those 1,000 workers did can be dumped on their colleagues who were happy to have survived the axe.

Here’s the deal: In order to change corporate behavior, you have to change the underlying goals of the corporation. If for example the reason for the existence of the corporation was not to maximize shareholder value but instead to offer steady, well-compensated employment to its workers here in the US, would that have a significant impact on how the corporation acted? It might, although from the outside it might be difficult to see (it would still likely try to avoid taxes, lobby governments, etc). But in a general sense, if you change why the corporation exists, it’s possible you’ll see a change in what it defines as logical and rational behavior.

Short of that you have to make sure that corporations are subject to laws and limits on their behavior — and of course they’ll fight that every step of the way because it impedes their goal of maximizing shareholder value. But the magic of corporations, if you want to call it that, is that regardless of the economic or social milieu you put them in, they will do what they do — maximize shareholder value! — as well as they can possibly do it. US corporations did fine in eras where their taxes were higher than they are now, so the various hand-wringing about the onus those taxes place on corporations doesn’t particularly move me, I have to say.

I don’t think you have to change the fundamental nature of corporations, personally, even if I think they’re stupid to think in quarterly terms rather than focus on longer-term strategy. What I do think you need to do is let their single-minded focus on maximizing shareholder value work for the overall benefit of the country. How you do this is of course a matter of some debate, and where I am fairly sure I fall out with conservatives on strategy, since among other things I wouldn’t be at all opposed to hiking (or closing loopholes in) both corporate and capital gains taxes in a manner that protected the rather meager middle-class investment in both. I understand these days that a belief in the value of a progressive taxation schedule makes me a dirty communist fit only to be set on fire, but you know what, you go ahead and bring that gasoline. Speaking of sociopaths.

The Big Idea: M.J. Locke

M.J. Locke is riding a wave with Up Against It, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Compulsively readable and packed with challenging ideas… this smart, satisfying hard SF adventure celebrates human resilience”) and the sort of fellow author praise most authors would kill for (see the George RR Martin blurb right there on the cover). But before Locke could ride that wave, there was everything that needed to get there. In this Big Idea, Locke lays out the journey required to get up against it, and the unexpected detours — and unexpected characters — that added to the eventual ride.

M.J. LOCKE:

The story started with this image that popped into my head one day of a space-suited woman out among the asteroids, swinging through micro-gee, high-tech vines. She is biologically modified: her hips, knees, and feet have ape-like joints. She is exhausted and filthy, headed home for a brief rest before she faces the worst.

I got this sense of contained desperation off of her. She’s a woman with plenty of authority and professional experience, who knows how to handle a crisis. But she and her people are all in very deep shit, and it’s going to take a miracle to get them all out alive. So she cranes her head to look back at Earth, and hears the voice of God.

This character, Jane, doesn’t believe in the supernatural; she is a diehard atheist. And the voice she hears isn’t there to help, but to put impossible demands on her in the midst of a crisis.

So, the story started with those three elements: high-tech, low-gee space-apes; an atheist prophet; and a disaster (caused, it turns out, by Martian mobsters).

I wanted to throw in lots of gravitational and nanotechnological business. I wanted it to be hard SF (a challenge when you have God popping up uninvited in your protagonist’s head): a bit of big physics in the tradition of Robert Charles Wilson and Jack McDevitt, post-human biology in the tradition of Nancy Kress and Chris Moriarty, and techno-social media hijinks à la Cory Doctorow. I love stories with giant machines and space stations and offworlders. I wanted to create a world that felt lived in: a multi-cultural world, a microcosm straining to contain all these different cultures, races, and belief systems. One that was on the brink of potentially catastrophic change. What would it really feel like to live in a habitat city buried inside an asteroid? What if Vernor Vinge was right and the Singularity was right around the corner?

Ultimately, the story grew beyond Jane. I tried hard to keep the viewpoint confined to her, but Geoff showed up one day and insisted on helping to save the city, and I had to go back to the beginning and figure out how he had gotten sucked into events. And Up Against It ended up being just as much his story as hers.

Geoff is the young guy who becomes the hero despite himself. He’s just graduated from high school and has a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. No one thinks much of him–not his parents or teachers, not even Geoff himself–but he keeps saving the day despite himself, at the same time Jane is discovering that despite her many connections and her position of great authority and intellect, there are stark and painful limits to her powers.

Geoff has spent a lot of his childhood carving out this little niche for himself, hacking matter, doing stunts on his rocketbike. But he hasn’t been able to envision a place for himself in the adult world. Then the disaster hits. His big brother isn’t there to step into the hero role this time, and Geoff finds out he has the chops. But he still has a hard time breaking out of the box everyone has him in, of the self-involved, rather useless drifter he’s been cast as since childhood.

I liked how his hero arc rises against Jane’s fall from grace. And I liked how, as with Jane, his trajectory isn’t quite what it seems at first.

A third viewpoint character also showed up early on: BitManSinger, an artificial AI, is spawned by the disaster early in the book and wreaks havoc in the stroiders’ life support systems while they are trying to save themselves and fight off the Martian mob’s attacks.

Some might call BitManSinger one of the story’s antagonists, but I definitely thought of it as a protagonist, too. Like everybody else, BitManSinger is struggling to survive and figure out what the world is about and where it fits in. Only its very existence is anathema to the humans, and vice versa.

BitManSinger is a feral sapient (as distinguished from the not-quite-sapient artificial constructs the humans use every day). In fact, the book was originally titled Feral Sapiens, because I saw the story as very much about how everybody, one way or another, was a feral sapient–operating on their own agenda, often at cross purposes to everyone else. Desperate, outraged, needy, gloriously happy, crushingly sad–and somehow they still had to cope, to survive, to figure out who their allies were and who were their enemies, and how to outwit them.

There are a couple of other important characters as well. Jane’s husband Xuan is a professor at the university and a pacifist whose religious and ethical values are put to the test by the conflict. There’s also Sean, an older military guy who recently emigrated from Earth, who works for Jane. He’d thought he was done with fighting and seeing the young people around him get killed off.

And there are several non-viewpoint characters who feature prominently, including some post-human characters called the Viridians. Geoff falls for one of them, Vivian, a troubadour-hacker from the moon, who is much more than she seems. And there are the mobsters, Glease and Mills, who have great fun killing people and wreaking other havoc…

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Up Against It: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read M.J. Locke’s blog. Follow Locke on Twitter.