In which a fine tradition of big fat dorkery is revealed.
MAY 13, 2003: Proof I Am Like This in Real Life
We enter a recent IM conversation between Bill and John shortly after John notes that he’s thinking of taking Athena to Disneyland at some point in the reasonably near future:
[12:47] bill: Excellent idea. Children should go to Disneyworld-or-land. Although you should avoid the Small World ride.
[12:48] john: Yes. Nightmares.
[12:48] bill: Yes.
[12:49] john: Although, relatively speaking to the average size of the planets in the solar system, and those we’ve discovered elsewhere, it is a small world. I mean, it’s factually correct.
[12:50] bill: Hm, well, that depends on how you average it, doesn’t it? I mean, yes, if you just average the masses and divide by nine, sure.
[12:51] john: Well, averaging diameters as well.
[12:51] bill: But on the other hand, only four of the planets are larger. The other four are smaller.
[12:51] john: Well, earth is the median, sure. But that’s not the same thing.
[12:52] bill: I don’t know. I feel certain that anything the dolls sing must be incorrect. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
[12:53] john: I would grant that their process is wildly wrong — that is to say that their rationale for concluding it’s a small world is deeply flawed. However, the conclusion is verifiable.
[12:54] john: Indeed, none of the accumulated data within the song even remotely leads to the conclusion that it’s a small world after all. At best, it concludes that it’s a world of indeterminate emotional states, rooted in a communal impulse.
[12:54] bill: (phone)
[12:54] john: Likely excuse.
My sister called me this morning and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was fine and asked why she was asking. The answer was that she suspected I had quite a lot of money in the stock market, and as we all know, the stock market’s not exactly a happy vale of ponies these days, and as it turns out, especially today. I assured her that notwithstanding our 401(k)s and IRAs, we were not, and as far as those retirement accounts go, we were no worse off than anyone, and still had three decades to go on them anyway. So in the short run, at least, we were fine, and indeed probably better than many, since I’m getting a lot of foreign sales recently, and they’re denominated in Euros. She was relieved. As am I, come to think about it.
Which is not to say I’m sanguine about what comes next after this. Over at MSNBC, Howard Fineman suggests that we’re at the dawning of the Obama era (whether Obama wins or not, which is a neat trick, really), in which a new set of economics more in line with Obama’s will come into play. I’m not sure I buy Fineman’s police 100%, as Marge Gunderson might say, but I do think today’s bailout bill failure pretty much wraps it up for the Bush administration, in terms of its ability to influence the continuing political life of this country, and certainly does look like the death knell for a certain brand of economic theory that states that free markets are best until their own stupidity gets the principals of that market in trouble. This does not imply that we’re in an “Obama era,” since the bailout plan was largely scuttled by conservative Republicans who view the bailout not as the creeping sort of socialism but the sort that gallops, and is here for your daughter. No; at the moment we’re in a “WTF?” era, in which no one seems to know what comes next.
Which leads back to my sister’s question of whether or not we’re okay in this time of financial uncertainty. In the short run we are. First, I can’t be fired, since I work for myself. This certainly lowers my stress level. Second, thanks to the amusing nature of book accounting, especially “reserves against returns,” I know I have book royalties coming in for the next year, even if I don’t sell another book between now and whenever (which seems a silly proposition, but we’re looking at a worst case scenario). Third, thanks to the awesome financial stewardship of my wife, we’re one of those rare American households that has actually managed to save a fair amount of money — enough to help us scrape by for a fair amount of time even if everything well and truly goes to Hell.
Fourth, we don’t have significant amounts of consumer debt: Our cars are paid off, we don’t keep balances on our credit cards, and while our mortgages aren’t insignificant, they’re well budgeted. We’re also ready to pare down the frivolous expenses (read: the ridiculous sum we pay for satellite TV, etc) if necessary. Finally, and thank God, all of us are healthy, with no chronic health issues to sap us economically. So short of having barrels of rice and beans and lots of crossbow bolts down in the basement, we’re as well positioned as anyone can be in case of a worst case scenario.
Do I think it would come to that? I don’t, really. I suspect if things get bad, my family will find a way to get through it more or less successfully. I don’t suspect other people and families are as well-insulated as we are if things get as bad as they could get. And, truth to tell, we don’t even know how bad things really could get. I want Obama to be the next president, but I certainly don’t envy him (or John McCain, should he win) the economy he’ll have inherited. Whoever gets elected had better hope for two terms, because any pet projects they might have are likely to have to wait for a second term.
(I’m sure there are a few conservatives, anticipating an Obama administration, who would say this is a feature, not a bug; the only possible response to this is to say it would be nice if the conservatives could conjure a way to achieve the relatively minor objective of keeping a lid on a possible future Democratic administration’s initiatives without resorting the major disaster of imploding the global economy. If ever there was a canonical “killing a fly with a nuclear bomb” example, this would be it. I’m not laying this all at the feet of conservatives, mind you; there’s blame enough to pass around. But on the other hand one party was in the majority the majority of the last eight years, so blame, while shared, needs to be proportioned out correctly.)
I’m pretty sure this post sounds more pessimistic than I actually feel at the moment. On the other hand, at this very second the Dow is down 777 points. Maybe I’m not pessimistic enough. I do know we’re in for interesting times, both in the short and long run. In the short run, I know I’m fine. In the long run, well, we’ll see. I guess we’ll all see.
How are you set for total economic collapse? And do you think it’ll come to that? I’m interested in your thoughts.
Now that my travels have ended (yay!), it’s time to get back on the stick with the Big Idea features — we’ve got quite a few coming up in the next couple of months, and this week I’ll hit you with at least a double shot. To begin, I’m really excited to bring this next book to your attention, by Kenneth Hite. Ken and I go back a long ways — he was at the college newspaper when I was — and Ken’s always had a great combination of wit, knowledge and geekery. All of that comes to fruition with Tour de Lovecraft, an immensely readable trip through the works of everyone’s favorite dark fantasist, H.P. Lovecraft, which combines a deep love of the work with a clear-eyed view of quality of the same. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll find lots to enjoy, and to argue with.
Here Ken talks about Lovecraft, literary criticism and how a “medium-sized” idea from elsewhere inspired the Big Idea here. Hey, Big Ideas are all over the place.
The Big Idea for the Tour de Lovecraft came from a Medium-Sized Idea for a different book entirely, the game Trail of Cthulhu, which I was writing for Pelgrane Press. I decided to re-read all of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for that project, to get myself into the proper mood and to make sure I didn’t forget anything really creepy. But re-reading all of Lovecraft at age 42 wasn’t the same as reading it all for the first time at age 14. I found myself, almost against my will, performing the Dread Sin of literary criticism as I read.
For whatever reason, we’re all supposed to hate literary criticism: “We murder to dissect,” and the rest of that Romantic noise. It’s even worse here in the SFnal ghetto, hiding out from the grim searchlights of mainstream academia while simultaneously complaining that they don’t point the big beams at us enough. But literary criticism is what any reader does, whether they know it or not, and surely us sons and daughters of Heinlein should know that our job is to know what things we do and to do those things well. It’s not like literary criticism is foreign to our tribe. To name just a few: Thomas Disch, John Clute, Ursula K. LeGuin, David Hartwell, Alexei Panshin, Joanna Russ, and a guy named H.P. Lovecraft have done it with distinction and brilliance.
To read critical essays by any of those writers, whether or not you agree with their conclusions or even their taste, is to get better at reading. The fact that most literary criticism reads like Basque political manifestos is no more relevant to the art of literary criticism than the fact that most science fiction reads like adolescent stereo instructions is to the art of SF. To turn Ted Sturgeon (himself an occasional literary critic) on his head, ten percent of it is still probably worth your time. (While I’m name-checking, here, let me throw some love at the mainstream critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism came out the same year as Songs For Swinging Lovers, and holds up just as well as Old Blue Eyes does. Frye also, for what it’s worth, seemed to “get” SF.) My goal with the Tour de Lovecraft, which I posted in raw form in my LiveJournal as I went along, was initially just to kill time and share some of the new found Lovecraft love I was feeling. But pretty soon I was trying to hit that ten percent, to breathe some life into Lovecraft by dissecting him.
Or rather, by dissecting his stories. Dissecting Lovecraft – his psychology, his biography, his philosophy, his politics – may have its value, but it doesn’t seem to get us any great distance down the road to the stories themselves. And besides, we’ve pretty much been doing that and only that since Sprague de Camp’s biography rose in 1976 and drove a generation of sensitive scholars mad. Maybe it’s time to let the Old Gentleman rest for a while and try to dissect Cthulhu – or at least “The Call of Cthulhu” — instead.