A REALLY Free Market

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A lot of people say that the free market would fix most of our problems if it wasn’t restricted. So let’s deregulate it and see how it looks. I think it was Adam Smith who said that competition would make everything come out right for everybody, calling it an invisible hand, or something. Here’s my vision of it.

     If the market is COMPLETELY free, that would mean fraudulent products would be expected, and not punished. A market in which anyone can sell ANYTHING, and anyone can buy, as long as they can afford the product. Would you like your neighbor to have an atomic weapon, or a chemical/biological one? If he can afford it, it’s just a matter of time. How would you defend yourself if he decides to use such a weapon against you? That’s your problem.

     Of course, most of your neighbors won’t be able to afford such things, fortunately or not. One thing they WILL be able to afford is drugs. In a truly free market, none of those will be illegal anymore, nor will you need a prescription to get them. You’ll be able to buy them over the counter, and use them any way you please. You may not want to buy them yourself, but you won’t be able to stop anyone else from doing it.

     And in a really free market, anything is permissable that makes a profit. Pollution is just a side-effect of business, and if you use up resources that might be scarce it’ll be a problem only if you don’t make a profit out of it. In a truly free market you won’t be liable for ANYTHING.

     Since profit is the measuring stick, you can make or grow anything that’s profitable, and why waste your time on something only marginally profitable? Do something to make yourself BIG profits. Whatever the market will bear.

      Since there won’t be any restriction on what you can buy or sell, you may have to make an effort to keep your children out of the hands of kidnappers. Don’t assume they won’t be kidnapped just because you can’t afford to pay a ransom. Without restrictions, slavery will be back in, and your son or daughter might make some owner very happy, depending on how he or she defines happiness.

     You can avoid that problem, of course, if you can afford your own armed guard (or guards), assuming that they’re trustworthy (which may be a function of how much you pay them). What may be more difficult is preventing your children from buying or selling drugs. Of course you may not be concerned about that.

     Since there won’t be any government agencies mandating quality control, you’ll have to be aware who the trustworthy producers are, and be willing to pay more for their services. There will be more products to choose from, but their quality may vary widely.

     And when it comes to food, if you don’t grow your own, you’d better be sure you can trust the people you buy from.

     The same for medical care. If you don’t know the people you’re dealing with, you’re likely to find yourself overcharged and underserved. Unless you can find trustworthy insurance, a really bad illness can destroy you financially. On the other hand, you’ll have a lot more treatments and drugs to choose from, since none will be illegal. But many may be ineffective too. There may well be more illness too. Since pollution is no longer illegal, there will be even more than there is now. What’s going on in West Virginia at this moment will have spread around the entire country. Clean water will be an increasingly rare resource. It would have been anyway, but pollution will make it even more so. Maybe people will decide that selling clean air will be a profitable business too.

     The totally free market won’t have tort law, so you won’t be able to sue anyone you think didn’t treat you right. That’s when a private army might come in handy. If you can’t afford that, you might find that being in one is a good way to make a living. There are likely to be a lot of job opportunities in that field.

     Of course there will probably be a lot of booms and busts. Manipulating the stock market won’t be illegal either, so you’d better buy stock only if you’re very sure you know what you’re doing. That’s another field likely to have job opportunities.

     Being a policeman, fireman or school teacher may be profitable, too, on a lower scale.  Wealthy people will be likely to pay well, if you’re competent. If that’s not your strength, you may be able to make a living from poor people, who will also have to pay for services. But since they can’t afford much, they won’t exactly get the best.

There will certainly still be a military, but it probably won’t be run by any elected government. The probability will be a private contractor, who will be allowed to charge quite a bit for the service provided. The question will be just who he’s going to charge. That service alone could keep most people in the country in debt.

And that may be another area where there will be job opportunities. Not that they’re likely to pay very well. The really high-paying jobs in the field will go to those who satisfy the criteria of private armies, who can afford to pay for the best. Some may be able to work up from the national army, of course.

Keeping the nation’s highways in shape is another thing likely to keep the average citizen in debt. Maybe most roads will become toll roads. Maybe more people will start walking to work.

There are likely to be fewer people, though. Since there won’t be welfare, social security, medicare or medicaid, a lot of people will be unable to survive, but there are too many people now anyway. Get rid of the less useful, and there will be more for those left.

Immigration may possibly go in a different direction than it’s been going since this country began. Maybe Mexico, Canada or other further removed countries will get the poor this country has historically gotten. How that will work out remains to be seen, though. Maybe those other countries will benefit. But it will take awhile to get a correct perspective.

There will probably continue to be a lot of people in prison, though. Such a profitable business can’t be allowed to shut down, even if the justice system is smaller and weaker than before. Prisoners are still needed to keep the profits rolling, so prison sentences may get harsher. Torture may also come back in as a form of public entertainment, from which further profits can be made.

For some reason, I see a really free market as dystopic. In a lot of people’s eyes, that would make me a Communist, or something. But I’m not a fan of Communism either, as it has been manifested in the past century. Something in between the extremes of Communism and Capitalism seems to me to be suitable, when you’re talking political systems. That middle ground would probably be socialism, which is usually a dirty word in this country, at least to a lot of people.

But another point of view would be that no political or economic system will perform well unless people in general become better. That was the point (or one of the points) of the Pharisees trying to discredit Jesus by asking him if people should pay taxes. Rome and its taxes were much hated, but Jesus doesn’t seem to have been worried about which government was in power. He was talking about things much more immediate,over which individuals had some control:: their own behavior. Enough attention was paid to begin a new religion, but not enough to prevent the Jewish people from two rebellions that did little but kill a lot of people.

Since we’re unlikely to get a new religion that will make much difference, and Christianity is unlikely to repudiate the bargain it has generally made with the free enterprise system, I think the above is a possible future. I’d just as soon be wrong, but we’ll see.

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Best Sellers and Good Writing

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After reading really GOOD fiction, it’s interesting to compare it with best-seller-fiction. All fiction writers probably use stereotypes, but the good ones use them as structures to be deepened or subverted. In best-seller-fiction, stereotype is everything.

I picked up such a best-seller yesterday when I had some time to kill, and began thinking about the difference.

In best-sellers the main characters are all someone’s wish-fulfillments. The Tough Yet Caring Man, his significant other the Brilliant Forensic Anthropologist who is also beautiful and sexy, the Brilliant Computer Geek, and another brilliant character who is less easy to categorize. The problem with these characters is that I don’t believe they’re real for a minute.

All of them seem cut from the same pattern. Semi-clever conversation, the right kind of motivations, happy and fulfilling relationships and sex lives that you and I will probably never have, but there’s little or nothing believable about them. Why is that?

On  the surface some of their fears and desires don’t seem too farfetched, but the reader never seems able to penetrate beneath the surface. I would guess the reason to be that the author has never felt very deeply about anything, nor has he or she experienced the problems they try to portray.

That’s just a guess at this moment. I considered whether the fast pace of plots obscured the deeper life of characters, but don’t think so. Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination is a good example of a fast pace building tension, but not obscuring the characters in the book, who become clearer with each page. Some authors delineate character in long conversations, but that’s not always necessary. Others find other techniques, as Bester did.

Characters in best-sellers are usually brilliant, beautiful and sexy, while most of us have no  more than one or two of those characteristics at best. Orson Scott Card, whom I’ve mentioned in these pages before, often depicts brilliant characters, but they’re often people who have also been wounded, and believably wounded. Perhaps a crucial difference in his fiction is showing more than telling. He reflects on his characters after their various incidents, and they reflect on themselves and each other. But their references are to significant incidents that FEEL significant.

For example, a parent talks to another character about a third, the parent’s son, whom the parent realized was disposed towards ,a sociopathic direction. There are probably, in absolute numbers, a lot of sociopaths in this country and the world, and its a particularly difficult problem for a parent to deal with, even if they’re able to face it. The conversation Card writes tackles a very difficult subject in a very believable way, though not every parent would be capable of the solution his character depicts.

In best-seller land, incidents are often depicted that SHOULD feel significant, but somehow don’t. Is that a lack of skill on the part of the author, or are they simply writing to a formula that doesn’t reflect their own lives and deep feelings, assuming they have any? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a formula, if you’re able to do something worthwhile with it, but by itself it’s unlikely to have the strength to stand alone.  A fiction writer needs structure, of course, but the structure alone means little, as when the skeleton of a house is erected, but left unfinished.

I’m certainly more interested in writing something when I manage to tap into a deep emotion, which is why I question whether some fiction writers feel anything much at all, or whether they keep their real emotions segregated from their commercial product. Personally, I don’t think that’s a good formula for success, though those writers are certainly more successful at what they do that I am at what I do. I guess their success is not the kind I aspire to, convenient as some of it might be. Reliable income is certainly convenient, but what you do to earn that is of some importance. The best writers show that commercial success need not be accomplished through superficial work.

One of the common mantras of writing is “Write what you know.” Best-seller writers seem often to be writing of things they DON’T really know, things that seem exotic and exciting which most of us will never experience. That’s probably part of the attraction for a lot of people: seeing one’s self in the characters described, and vicariously enjoying their actions.

That’s probably an essential part of fiction, but superficial characterization and plot leads to an experience that might be described as impoverished and ultimately unbelievable.

Wendell Berry is a writer whose writing is almost entirely what he knows. Most, if not all of his fiction is set in a fictional town based on the area where he grew up and still lives. His characters aren’t particularly brilliant, though each has their moment of brilliance or realization, but they’re real people feeling the things real people feel. What they do isn’t exotic in the general scheme  of things, though it probably seems so to people who have never farmed or lived in a farming community, something that fewer and fewer people experience now. His characters are ordinary people in an environment no longer ordinary, but related to the world in a realistic way.

No doubt there are people in the police and military who live what most of us would consider glamorous lives, but probably the police and military often find their real lives considerably less than glamorous. The same is probably true for any career (though there are probably exceptions), as EVERYONE has problems, and probably most people don’t feel they live glamorous lives, even if it looks that way from outside.

So best-sellers are frequently escape literature, as people used to accuse science fiction, my favorite genre, of being. Some of it was, of course, and still is, but one can do serious exploration in that genre, just as in any other, and many people have. But best-sellers are all too frequently the equivalent of the early science fiction love of gadgets with stupid plots. It’s possible to do better, more enjoyable for the discerning reader, and I would think, for the writer too.

Orson Scott Card and The Speaker for the Dead Trilogy

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The second novel by Orson Scott Card I read was Ender’s Game, which I found to be extremely powerful. The first had been Speaker for the Dead, which hadn’t impressed me much when I first read it. Recently I decided to read it again.

This time I was much more impressed. Ender is a man who has been drafted by the military as a child, to be part of the effort to save the world from an alien race that has invaded the solar system twice. He does so by defeating their space fleets and eventually destroying their home planet, which is effectively genocide, or xenocide. He’s considered a hero, but doesn’t feel like one. His military experiences have been difficult enough; to have destroyed a whole alien intelligent race seems a tremendous burden. The real twist in the plot is that he hadn’t realized at the time that the fleets he was fighting were real: he thought he was undergoing a particularly grueling set of war games. When he finds out it WAS real, the experience is shattering.

After the war is over, he and his sister leave the solar system to help colonize one of the worlds formerly populated by the aliens. During his days of military training he has found strange imagery on his computer, and never known its significance. Now, on this new world, he finds one of the landscapes with various structures familiar to him from the computer game he had once played. He also finds a cocooned Hive Queen (the aliens are very much like insects, socially organized like ants), and hides her, meaning to take her to another world, where she can resurrect her race.

In the meantime, he is able to communicate with the Queen, and learn something of how her race saw and did things. He writes a book about this, and it suddenly becomes fashionable to consider him a villain instead of a hero. The Queen is always in telepathic contact with all her workers and drones, controlling and directing them, no matter how far away they are. On the basis of this ability a technology has been constructed by humans called the ansible. It enables them to communicate faster than light, but only to travel at a sizable fraction of light speed. If one travels to the stars, it’s usually a one-way trip. If one returned, everyone one knew would have been dead for decades.

When Speaker for the Dead begins Ender is in his thirties or forties, but some 3,000 years have passed on earth. He has become what the title of the book says: a speaker for the dead. This idea is not to simply eulogize the person under discussion, but to tell every significant truth known about him or her. Only when they are understood as completely as possible can they be seen accurately, which can lead the living to understand and, if necessary, forgive.

Meanwhile, on a world called Lusitania, settled by Brazilians, another alien and sentient race has been found: the pequeninos, also known as “piggies” because they look like pigs. They are being very gingerly studied by scientists–gingerly because the scientists don’t want to contaminate their study by telling or showing the piggies about human technology.

There is also, however, a virus that causes an epidemic. A scientist couple manages to isolate the virus and produce a vaccine that arrests it before dying themselves. Their daughter is adopted by another scientist who is studying the piggies. But he is later murdered by the piggies in a particularly gruesome way, which is shattering to the young woman. Once she gets her grief somewhat under control she marries and has children, but then almost the same thing happens. The son of the murdered scientist, and her close friend, is murdered in a very similar way. Ender finds out about this, and decides he wants to speak about this death, and leaves the world where he’s living to do so.

He arrives at Lusitania a couple of decades later, local time, to discover that Novinha, the young woman scientist who has lost parents, adopted parent and close friend in tragic ways, has just had her husband die too, of unknown causes, leaving her and her children (ranging from pre-teen to teenagers) alone, and very dysfunctional as a family.

Some of the children welcome Ender, some (and Novinha) try to push him away. But he irresistably enters their lives, and starts getting them to talk, revealing truths about their family, as well as what is going on in the wider world.

In the wider world it seems that the pequeninos have also been affected by the virus, and one of the effects seems to be a very odd reproductive and life cycle.

As infants they spend their lives within “mothertrees” until they’re big enough to transform into “piggies”, and live outside the trees. They can undergo a further transformation, but only when flayed alive, their organs removed, laid out, and buried, when they become “fathertrees”. Only these can fertilize the mothers, who are mostly nonsentient. And most of the “fathertrees” are heroes in one way or another, somewhat paralleling ancient Greek religion, but also like the lives of some terrestrial insects.

This is imagination of great richness. Partly because of the details of what is imagined, but perhaps even more by how these details are integrated into the story and affect the characters, both human and alien.

Card had written good work before, but this novel and its two sequels may be the beginning (unless Ender’s Game is considered the beginning) of his mature work, having been published some twenty years ago.

Great imagination is shown in the first novel, but becomes what might be seen as an embarrassment of riches in the two sequels. Pausing in the midst of reading these sequels, one wonders if he can actually do the ideas he’s introduced justice.

On the whole, he does. There may seem to be some artificial moments, when he seems to have overreached, but on the whole he manages to keep all the balls in the air. Others may have a similar degree of imagination, but few can lay the foundation that makes it plausible, as Card does. His foundation may not be perfect, but it’s pretty strong, as it has to be to make so many disparate ideas fit together. A novelist has to be a counterfeiter of reality, and not everyone can do it widely and deeply at the same time.

The imaginative highwire act really kicks into gear in the second novel of the series, Xenocide. The Congress which oversees all the human worlds has learned that local scientists have been giving the pequeninos access to human technology (they disapprove), but also that the virus, the descolada (because it destroys human DNA), is in all inhabitants of Lusitania, and threatens all other human worlds if there is any travel between them. The Congress sends a fleet to destroy Lusitania, as Ender destroyed the Hive Queen’s world. The Congress would probably be no happier if they knew that the Hive Queen has resurrected her people, and they are building starships to take themselves and the pequeninos to other planets, so they can survive.

Humans, pequeninos and “buggers” (as the Hive Queen’s people have been called) all consult to seek solutions.

Among these allies is an entity called Jane, who lives within the ansible communication constantly traveling between planets, starships and computers. Since computers are connected to this communication, Jane has access to enormous computing power, and has numerous levels of consciousness. The human universe also learns of “her” existence, and fearfully plans to close down all the ansible systems at once, to destroy her.

So there are several problems. One, to prevent the world from being destroyed. One of the solutions for this is to replace the virus with another, which will support the pequeninos without attacking humans.

Two, to influence the Congress to refuse to destroy Lusitania. For this, it is necessary for any representatives to be able to travel faster than light. Congress won’t listen to Lusitanians talking on the ansible. Actual human persons are necessary for influence.

The “Buggers” (the Hive Queen’s race) seem to have created Jane when reaching through Ender’s computer to try to influence him, while he was in military training. The Hive Queen speaks of having reached outside the physical universe to summon something akin to a “soul”. A very metaphysical proposition, but when one thinks about it, doesn’t it seem that human babies are something more than the expression of human DNA, with experience mixed in? Not always, perhaps. Some people may seem like something less. But Card’s concept of thie “other” space is that it’s where ideas, or dreams, can come true. Perhaps something like Plato’s world in which the ideal of each object in our world exists in a higher reality.

A trip to this other space creates the ideal virus, which will solve the problem of the pequeninos and the rest of Lusitania, but it also creates three new people. One is a young man who suffered brain damage. A copy of his former body is made, he occupies it, and his brainpdamaged body disintegrates.

The other two come from Ender. One is the older brother he remembers as an overbearing bully (who in real life became something much better); the other is his older sister as she was at a time when he was particularly dependent on her. This is especially disconcerting because his actual sister is living in the same colony with him.

But both bring discomfort. Peter, the older brother, is the one he always feared, and this version represents the qualities they had in common: the ruthlessness that enabled each to succeed in achieving their respective goals. The idealization of his sister Valentine represents the sensitivity and empathy he shares with her, and which was ALSO necessary for him to succeed, but her personification is difficult for his actual sister to be around.

Children of the Mind is the last volume of the series, in which most issues get resolved. Having all of them resolved would be neat, but Card doesn’t make that mistake. As he leaves it, he can always revisit this series if he cares to.

In the end, Ender dies, Jane survives, Peter and Valentine become real people rather than partial representations of others, Lusitania is saved from destruction, and the human race prevented from another xenocide (or genocide).

There are moments in the trilogy that may seem excessively metaphysical or artificial, at at one point I saw Card as less confident than he usually portrays himself, possibly wondering if he could actually bring all these issues to a successful conclusion, but overall the series is masterfully executed.

Card has done good writing in other novels and other series, but the novels surrounding Ender have been a particularly fruitful area for him. He wrote another series in this same universe in the past decade, and has recently begun another one. The one most recently finished seems less metaphysical and more focused. The circumstances are centered on this world, and most of the storyline has to do with the logic of geopolitics together with the people centrally involved. Whether one would consider it superior to the previous series would probably be a matter of personal taste. Both are executed at a high level by a superior writer who has already served his apprenticeship before embarking on the novels about Ender and his universe. The trilogy mentioned here is the work of his maturity. If there are mistakes, they’re minor.

It’s not that Card hasn’t written other good novels, many of them fantasy, outside the Ender group, but that particular universe seems to have called up more of his strengths. He seems equally comfortable with psychology, philosophy, history (and its alternatives), and maybe especially religion. His is obviously important to him, as is his family.

Not all his characters, even his heroes and heroines, are religious, but most eventually have families. These are seen as both a challenge and a source of strength. His universe is always moral and ethical, presenting questions for the characters to answer, which most do to the best of their ability. None, I think, are entirely successful, and some are notably unsuccessful, but most do strive.

You can tell that Card felt he’d achieved something with the Speaker of the Dead trilogy, because he allows himself some cautious boasting in an afterword. He characterizes American mainstream literature as decadent, and something very little of the population cares about, also commenting that only one of his novels up to that point could be defined as mainstream (despite a small element of the supernatural), as it recounts his families move from the West to Greensboro, NC, where they still live.  I don’t think he’s particularly wrong in that assessment. When I visit the public library most current books in the main fiction section are thrillers–not exactly what I’d consider meaningful literature. Most authors of note in mainstream literature seem to be of minority ethnicity or foreign writers. Few white Americans seem prominent in the mainstream: most seem to be involved in mysteries, science fiction, thrillers, or horror.

Card sees the science fiction reading public as being as demanding of good work as any, and perhaps more than most. Though he doesn’t say so, others have pointed out that science fiction is a particularly demanding form, as the author must create a world that’s different, yet consistent. Of course writers can always write stereotypes, and often do, no matter what genre. To be really original, and bring it off successfully and plausibly is very difficult. Card now has a long record of doing it successfully. And he doesn’t seem to have slowed down much.