On Memorial Day, Honor the Heroes of Peace

This Memorial Day, I want to say thanks to a different kind of veteran. This is not a generic, blanket commendation to those who participated in US wars, most of which (since 1945, anyway) had very little to do with “freedom.” Instead, I wish to thank those that risked their reputations, careers and personal freedom to reveal war crimes, blow the whistle on wrongdoing, or refuse to participate in illegal military actions. In addition, I thank those who, after having served in the military, have spoken out to denounce the unnecessary death and suffering caused by US foreign policy.

The first veteran I wish to honor served in World War I and numerous US foreign interventions: Major General Smedley Butler, the most highly decorated man in the history of the US Marine Corps. In 1935, after his retirement, he wrote a book called War is a Racket, which was highly critical of US foreign policy. He supported veterans in the “Bonus Army” in their 1932 march on Washington and refused to participate in the 1933 “Business Plot” in which wealthy businessmen conspired to overthrow FDR in a fascist coup. I pay homage to Butler in my novel Centrifugal Force, in which a group of rebellious veterans, with grievances similar to those of the real-life Bonus Army, call themselves the “Smedley Butler Brigade.”

Next is a man with whom most of you are probably familiar: retired Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. Paul, who is also a medical doctor, served as a flight surgeon in the US Air Force from 1963-1965 and then in the Air National Guard for another three years. During his years in the US House of Representatives, Dr. Paul was an outspoken critic of US foreign intervention. After the 9/11 attacks, he was one of the few Republicans who did not jump on the Afghan War bandwagon, insisting that the pursuit of Osama bin Laden should be a matter of international law enforcement and not a cause for military conquest. He refused to support the illegal Iraq War or the inhumane sanctions on Iran, and probably could have become President if he had compromised. Today he continues the fight for a just foreign policy through the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

Finally I wish to honor a man who has been much maligned: former US Army Private Bradley Manning, who languishes in prison for the alleged crime of giving classified material to the website Wikileaks. Notable among these materials is the “Collateral Murder” video, which shows US helicopter pilots in Iraq gunning down unarmed civilians, including journalists. Though none of the materials subsequently released by Wikileaks has endangered American military personnel in any specific way, Manning was of course arrested and stripped of his rank. In the intervening years, the government has subjected him to unbelievably harsh treatment, including solitary confinement. The media has also attacked him, minimizing his heroic actions by calling him “unstable” and by calling attention to his homosexuality. He is still awaiting trial. Patriotic Americans who realize that Manning is not a traitor but a hero for opposing US government war crimes (which endanger us all by inspiring terrorists around the world) should contact the Bradley Manning Support Network.

These men are only three of the many veterans who not only served in the military, but maintained the capability for independent thought. They acted on the strength of their convictions, in defiance of the jingoistic herd mentality that surrounded them. This is the true spirit of America – not unthinking obedience, but an unswerving dedication to the ideals of freedom, justice, and peace.


Free Downloads of Centrifugal Force

In celebration of Phoenix Comicon, I’m doing free downloads of my novel Centrifugal Force on May 24-26th. Some of  you may already have seen it, but if you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word! This will likely be the last time I do free
days on CF, because I’m letting my Kindle Select expire so I can finally publish the Nook version. Thanks to everyone for your support!

Sci-Fi Pros and Cons

Recently I attended the 39th Annual Leprecon in Mesa, Arizona. No, it wasn’t an Irish festival, but a science fiction convention, so named because it was originally held around March 17th. I have attended several of these events in the past, and this one was a good time as always. Unfortunately, Leprecon’s attendance seems to have fallen off in recent years, and 2013 was no exception.

As far as I can tell, these conventions haven’t changed much over the years. There are still lots of interesting people and activities. There are sci-fi and fantasy related panel discussions, signings by authors (including, this year, yours truly), a game room, dealer room and art show, and a theme dinner on Saturday night. The average age is increasing, though. Most attendees appear to be to be baby boomers or Gen X’ers. I’ve noticed a similar trend at Coppercon, which is the Phoenix area’s other annual sci-fi convention. Coppercon has been traditionally held in September, but for 2013 it will be August 8th through 11th.

It seems that these small, local gatherings are being upstaged by the mighty Phoenix Comicon (Phoenix Convention Center, Memorial Day Weekend), which has always been jam-packed with people of all ages whenever I’ve been there. Of course, it’s a fraction of size of the mother of all Comicon’s in San Diego. Contrary to its name, Comicon isn’t just about comic books; there are strong elements of science fiction, fantasy and horror in all media. In the past they’ve hosted talks by Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, the cast of Star Trek Next Generation, and Max Brooks, author of World War Z.

Perhaps this is just part of the overall trend of consolidation, in which small stores, organizations, and events are being supplanted by larger ones with a national or international scope. Happily, there’s another side to that story. Anime (Japanese animation) conventions are now quite popular. In the Phoenix area there are at least two – Saboten-con, which is held in September and Taiyou-con in January. Here, the attendees are overwhelmingly in their teens and twenties. Of course, anime is not the sole focus; they also focus on manga (comic books) and video games. It’s not completely Japanese, either. Recently they’ve been swarmed by legions of Homestuck fans. For the benefit of you older folks, this is a wildly popular web-comic created by an American, Andrew Hussie. At anime cons you will see hordes of teenagers dressed as the Homestuck “trolls,” which involves lots of gray skin paint, rainbow-striped “horns” glued to the forehead, and t-shirts bearing zodiac signs.

This brings me to another point – at anime conventions, cosplay (costume play) is huge, as much or more so than any stereotypical Trekkie convention. Homestuck is not the only series that fans flatter by imitation. Another extremely popular theme is the anime series Hetalia, in which characters represent the different countries of the world. Older folks (myself and girlfriend included) also enjoy dressing up, especially in the “steampunk” genre. The Dark Ones, a local sci-fi-related social group, made this the theme of their biennial Dark-Con in 2012. I have not yet made it to the steampunk-oriented Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, but I’ve been hearing great things about it. Yet another costuming craze is the “furry” scene, in which people don full-body animal costumes. (Yes, you may have heard tales – or should I say “tails” – of rampant kinkiness in this group but a friend assures me that those “creepy furries” are a small minority.) Phoenix will host a “Fur Con” this October. It sounds interesting but personally, I’m too claustrophobic to want to wear a cartoon animal head for any length of time.

Despite my initial worries, I don’t think the sci-fi/fantasy convention scene is going away any time soon. It’s just changing and adapting with the times. Since my convention experience is, at the moment, confined to Arizona and Southern California, I welcome comments from my readers about their own perspectives. Are the traditional sci-fi cons dying out? Are fan gatherings with a costume-related theme on the rise? I’m quite tired of seeing only spammer-generated comments for genuine cheap imitation designer handbags, so if you’re out there, please respond!

Fairness Shmairness

The US Senate recently passed the so-called “Marketplace Fairness Act,” which mandates that Internet retailers collect sales taxes from their customers and remit these amounts to those states that charge them. The argument is that the current system, in which out-of-state sales taxes are virtually un-collectible in many situations, is unfair to traditional brick and mortar businesses, is hogwash. The real reason is greed. State and local governments have spent themselves deep into debt, and are looking for a way out. They don’t deserve one.

This law now goes to the House, which may or may not pass it, but it’s likely to pass both houses of Congress in some form eventually. You can be certain that the President, be he our current “socialist” or a potential “free market” Republican successor, will have no trouble signing it. That is unfortunate. This is one few cases of “states rights” that the Federal government should oppose.

Sales taxes have gotten completely out of hand, soaring to 10 percent or more in many areas. Local politicians have used deception to gain the acquiescence of the public, promoting this boondoggle project or that, raising the level of theft a penny at a time. Many of these taxes were supposed to be temporary, but keep being renewed when the roads, schools, or parks in question encounter the inevitable cost overruns. Sometimes these taxes fund “development” projects such as professional sports stadiums, which invariably fail to deliver the economic benefits their proponents fraudulently predicted.

Besides being used to fund wasteful projects, sales taxes are also highly regressive. They hit the poor and the elderly on fixed incomes the hardest. In a time of economic downturn, this is a powerful argument for decreasing them. Exempting Internet transactions completely from sales taxes would give states and cities a good reason to reduce or eliminate this onerous form of plunder.

Extending tax collection to all Internet businesses, even tiny ones, will be a heavy burden on commerce that does NOT fall on brick and mortar stores, which only need to collect for their local jurisdiction. I expect that “sales tax collection services” will spring up around the country, and that they will impose a significant cost on small business, over and above the taxes themselves. I also predict that members of Congress, who are largely exempt from the insider trading laws that plague private investors, will be heavily invested in these business, just as former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff invested in airport X-ray machines after 9-11.

People who know me may be shocked that I suggest that Congress take any sort of action at all, but in this case I part from my usual anti-Federal prejudices. Congress should use its power under the Commerce Clause to completely ban the so-called “use taxes,” which allow states to levy sales taxes on transactions conducted outside their borders. Such a law would have the happy effect of abrogating recent state agreements that require Amazon to collect taxes in jurisdictions where it has no physical presence.

And what of the affected states and municipalities? They will be forced to make deep cuts in spending, as well they should. These cuts should start at the top, slashing salaries of governors, department heads, mayors, city managers, and the administrators of school districts as well as fire and police departments. In many cases “public services” will need to be cut. Sweetheart contracts with public employee unions in states like California can and must be broken. In other cases, cities will declare bankruptcy. This should be viewed as a normal and necessary check on the ability of local governments to over-spend. Once bond-holders start to lose money on these allegedly risk-proof “investments”, they will think twice, and investigate a city’s fiscal responsibility before doing so again.

Incidentally, the idea that states “need” to collect this money is disproven by the fact that North Dakota, a state with full coffers due to is oil boom, continues to collect “use taxes” on Internet transactions. Furthermore, though I oppose taxes in principle, if sales taxes were to drop to 3% or less, they would have little or no effect on physical businesses. Local shopping has its own advantages, which include immediate gratification and saving on shipping costs.

Brick and mortar merchants may see a tax-free Internet marketplace as unfair, but this does not mean they have the right to equalize their misery. They should instead agitate to reduce or eliminate the outrage that is sales taxation.


Calling All Space Cowboys

The Western genre, so popular in my youth, has fallen out of favor in recent years. It survives mainly in “shoot ’em up” video games like Red Dead Redemption. Yet it has had a lasting influence on other genres, especially science fiction. Though despised by sci fi purists, so-called “space westerns” have attracted legions of fans.

Combining sci fi and westerns seems like a weird idea until you consider the historical context. The 1950’s were in many ways a “coming of age” for the science fiction genre, arguably being the latter half of its “Golden Age.” At the same time, cowboys were everywhere in the popular culture. It’s only natural that there was some cross-pollination. Also, when there’s a high demand for any type of fiction, the market is bound to attract lots of hack writers. People will think, why not combine the two genres and make it even more popular? That’s probably why space westerns have such a bad rap. Galaxy Science Fiction magazine satirized them in a 1950’s ad campaign for an imaginary series based on a character called “Bat Durston,” a name which still pops up in sci fi circles.

Two sci fi TV shows, both which generated their own cult followings, proved Galaxy to be wrong. One was the Japanese animation Cowboy Bebop (1999); the other was Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002.) Both combined space exploration and western themes artfully and both, unfortunately, lasted just a single season. Older fans often mention Wild Wild West (1965-69) which has its own enduring following, especially among steampunks. This one, however, being a historical adventure series with sci fi elements, does not fit the “space western” description, being more properly called a “sci fi western.” All three of these series demonstrate that combining disparate elements can create good fiction.

When you look beyond the disparity in settings, sci fi and western fiction have a lot in common. The two genres are dominated by American writers and publishers. Both feature characters and plots which espouse the American themes of individualism, self-reliance, and justice. Both have an element of the frontier, with its central conflict of man against nature. There is a strong element of escapism in the two genres.

The purists are free continue to judge space westerns harshly. If so, they are missing out on some very creative and original work. The rest of us will continue to ignore their opinion. In closing, I’ll quote the ending screen from Cowboy Bebop: “See you space cowboy.”