Friday, October 26, 2007

Do We Need a New Category for Non-Genre Fiction?

I wish I could figure out some way make new readers who'd be interested in Stewards of the Flame aware of its existence! It will have reviews; though print publications won't review any books they have not received at least three months prior to publication, I have sent review copies to a number of Web review sites. The difficulty is that such sites group everything by genre, and there is no place they can put this book except under science fiction. I fear that most of the readers apt to like the book never browse the science fiction section. So they won't discover it. There are already several nice reader reviews at Amazon, but these won't be seen except by people who specifically search for the book, or for my name. I've been unable to come up with a solution to this problem. It's inherent in the "genre" system, which I have always felt put needless barriers between readers and books they would enjoy.

There are a lot of people who care about the issues this book deals with -- society's medical policy, government interference with free choice, mind-body healing, peaceful dying, personal liberty, the untapped power of the human mind -- but how can I publicize it to them? it's unlikely that many have come across this blog. It is often said that blogging is democratic because it gives anybody who wants to communicate to the public a platform to do so, but as a practical matter, there are millions of blogs and it would be impossible for many of them to attract significant numbers of readers. There aren't enough hours in the day for a person to read more than a fraction of the blogs that he or she might find interesting.

As for paid advertising, that has to be targeted, which I suppose is why publishers issue books by genre in the first place. In short, it is not surprising that books that don't fit neatly into genres aren't wanted by publishers. There would be no way a publisher could reach the prospective readers of such a book, any more than an individual author can. But it's frustrating.

As a reader as well as a writer, I feel a need for a venue through which books that fall outside standard genre classification could be made visible. Do we need a category of non-genre books? It is not quite the same thing as "mainstream," which has come to imply contemporary fiction and would generally be assumed to exclude novels about the distant future. Yet surely there must be some fiction that like mine, just can't be given any label that would enable its largest potential audience to locate it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

What Is Natural Death?

Most of us have a good idea of what we mean by "natural death," yet the term has become somewhat difficult to define. According to pathologists, "A natural death is a death that results from a natural disease process, distinct from a death that results from accident or violence." But nowadays death from disease is rarely allowed to be natural; it is artificially prolonged by drugs and/or machines and in the eyes not only of medical professionals but of most patients and families, it results from medical measures' failure. It can hardly be said that someone who has spent his or her last hours in an ICU, as pictured on the page about death at www.stewardsoftheflame.com, has died naturally.

The fundamental premise of Stewards of the Flame is that the the logical culmination of this trend would be to deny death entirely, assuming that the machines were "improved" to the point of keeping mindless bodies functioning indefinitely -- and that this would be a very bad thing. Natural death, in my opinion, is death resulting from the normal shutting down of the body when the unconscious mind is ready to die. It happens to everyone, if no accident or acute disease strikes prematurely, as long as the process is not thwarted by interference with the body in the way all too common today. I am aware that this view is termed "deathism" by the proponents of technological life extension, some of whom fervently believe that physical immortality is just around the corner. I don't think it's going to turn out that way. I think people will go on dying in old age (older than the present maximum) no matter what technology does to repair their bodies.

The life-extension enthusiasts admit that people might get bored in time and say that in that case, they could kill themselves. I have personally known people who say this. And of course, the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill is a major controversy today. I live in Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, so I hear a good deal about it. I fear that if such a choice is legitimatized and becomes common, some people will choose to hasten death merely to spare their families the physical and financial burden of caring for them, and eventually those of us without families may be subtly discouraged from continuing to receive care at the expense of the taxpayers. This situation would not exist if high-tech intervention were not automatically employed early in the course of illness which, in the case of an elderly person, is inevitably going to be fatal.

There has been a lot of discussion in the past few decades about the pointless and often cruel way in which people are routinely treated in their last months of life, and many calls for reform. But though the solution -- hospice care -- is now available, comparatively few people take advantage of it. Many are simply unaware that it exists. Others, or their families, are so conditioned by our culture's denial of death that they believe rejecting futile treatment is tantamount to suicide, or at best an abandonment of "hope." In my novel, the forced prolongation of pseudo-life is not arbitrarily imposed by the medical authorities that run the planet; it is a law supported by the people, who do not want to admit that they are mortal. I suspect this is a realistic assumption about what would happen. The vast majority of Americans polled say that they want to die at home, not in a hospital; yet they end up in hospitals all the same. Continuation of treatment is not compulsory, yet most don't contest the medical establishment's imposition of it, perhaps because don't know that they can -- that there are better alternatives -- or perhaps because society as a whole offers no support for the idea that the natural ending of life need not involve suffering. Unfortunately, the only thing likely to bring about widespread change is the financial impossibility of providing high-tech terminal care to an aging population.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sample Chapters Are Now Online


The first few chapters of Stewards of the Flame are now online at www.stewardsoftheflame.com. Scroll down the main page and you'll find the link just above the box for ordering signed copies. I decided that when major authors such as Dean Koontz are posting sample chapters from their new books, I had better do the same. So now you can get an idea of whether you'll like the book -- though I'm not sure if the sample is representative, as the tone changes somewhat as the story progresses. Jesse Sanders is getting into something much bigger, and more dangerous, than he guesses at the beginning.

It's a controversial book, of course. Not everybody is going to agree with its premises. Some may not consider the extreme to which medical dominance has been carried in the colony of the story a bad thing -- after all, in every respect but one, it's not very far beyond where we're headed today. I suspect the only thing that will keep us from such an extreme will be lack of funding. It is ironic that in our own world, where many sick people cannot afford medical care they need, many healthy ones -- certainly the majority among the affuent -- get "health care" that in my opinion is not only unnecessary but damaging.

Dr. Eugene Robin, who was a professor at Stanford Medical School, wrote a book in 1984 titled Matters of Life and Death which in its paperback edition was retitled Medical Care Can Be Dangerous to Your Health. It is unfortunately out of print; I got my copy years ago at a used book sale. But it should be required reading both for doctors and for the general public; if you ever come across a copy, grab it. His obituary in the New York Times says that it was widely used in weighing the risks and benefits of treatments; if so, we have moved quite a bit since the 80s in the direction of my fictional society.

Stewards of the Flame is also controversial in other respects. Transhumanists, who believe the aim of medical science should be to prolong human life to the extent of eventual immortality, are not going to like it. While I support some goals of transhumanism, I feel that one is misguided -- which is not to say I don't think they should be free to pursue whatever research they think will lead to its achievement, but I'm quite sure that it's neither a desirable achievement nor a possible one. If someday humans do become immortal, then I'm wrong not only about that, but about my whole view of the human condition, which personally I don't consider a pessimistic view.

Finally, people who don't want to believe in the "paranormal" (which isn't dealt with the sample chapters) won't enjoy the story. But I think there are plenty of readers out there who do want to believe in it, even among those who think it's all as fictional as some of my far-out extrapolations on what is known of ESP today.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Heresy in Medicine

The dogmatic medical establishment in Stewards of the Flame is assumed to be monolithic, with no deviance from the official view on any health issue except on the part of the protagonists -- several of whom are doctors -- who reject it in its entirety. In our own much larger and more heterogeneous society, where supposedly freedom of opinion prevails, there is much less uniformity of opinion, right? Wrong! Yes, there is controversy about the details of effective treatment, but very little on the major issues. Doctors are free to express differing views and a few of them do, but for the most part nobody listens, at least nobody who counts as far as determining what is likely to happen to the average patient is concerned.

There is, to be sure, wide attention given to complementary medicine (which is used along with conventional medicine) and alternative medicine (which is used in place of it). A recent survey showed that 36 percent of adult Americans use some form of one or the other. These are considered heretical by the medical establishment, which has succeeded in getting them excluded by law from the recognition and financial benefits accorded to medical practitioners by the government. However, they are not what I mean here by the word. I don't include them in my discussion because I personally don't think they have any healing effect apart from activating the self-healing powers of the mind in people who believe literally in the metaphorical explanations they offer for their success. That, of course, is no small achievement, and I certainly support people's right to have access to such practices without government interference. But I don't use them myself.

The difficulty is that it is very hard to find material that's critical of conventional medicine that doesn't also promote alternative medicine of one kind or another. There are many books and innumerable Web pages that challenge prevailing views of orthodox treatment, but they turn out to argue for herbal remedies, nutritional supplements, and so forth -- in many cases they are actually selling them, which is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when they complain about the pharmaceutical companies' motives for promoting prescription drugs. Few if any writers are willing to declare that "standard" medicine often does more harm than good without offering some alternate cure. In the case of the books, this is understandable, because ordinarily publishers don't issue such books; they don't sell well. The public wants to be told how to preserve, or regain, health. Doctors want to treat people; they couldn't go on practicing if they lost faith in treatment's effectiveness. I myself -- and I think many other individuals who avoid the health care system -- believe that it is better to do nothing about a health problem than to do the wrong thing. This is definitely a minority view, and is rarely expressed.

I go to doctors only when I have a serious illness for which there is an effective treatment. This has happened several times in the past and I have received excellent care; I don't doubt the skill and dedication of those who provided it. Recently (since writing the book) I have developed a condition for which there is some medication that's the lesser of evils, and other medication and procedures that in my opinion are not, and which I have therefore refused, resulting in an endless succession of arguments with various doctors who assumed I was either stupid or uninformed. Admittedly, I can't talk as well as I write, and I look like a typical senior citizen who's indeed uninformed, so I've tried not to take this patronizing attitude personally. I know that these doctors meant well. It's frustrating, however, to deal with a system in which the average physician is not even aware of any position but the one adopted as "standard" -- either is afraid of being sued for not adhering to it, or hasn't had time to investigate the published challenges by qualified medical professionals that do exist.

For a long list of books by medical professionals and investigative journalists that challenge medical dogma, visit stewardsoftheflame.com.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The 50th Anniversary of Sputnik


I'm a couple of days late in commenting on the 50th anniversary of Sputnik. To my own dismay I've realized I was too busy to think about it, although the historical significance of humankind's first venture into space cannot, in my opinion, be overestimated -- and as I've said often before, the launch of Sputnik struck me at the time as providential. I'd then believed for quite a while (and still believe, despite the long hiatus) that putting human energy toward the effort of getting into space is the only way of averting a catastrophic global war. I suppose I overlooked the date this week because after more than 50 years of focusing on the importance of space, I have become disillusioned by our lack of progress toward establishment of a permanent presence on other worlds. But in a way I am glad that I didn't post about the anniversary sooner, for I now have the opportunity to comment on the excellent op-ed by Charles Krauthammer in today's Washington Post (also syndicated elsewhere, including my local newspaper).

"We had no idea how lucky we were with Sputnik," Krauthammer says, and goes on to point out that it led not only to Apollo and the moon, but to to other major technological advances such as ARPANET, which became the Internet, and to the establishment of the principle that orbital space is not national territory. But the main point of his op-ed is something less widely recognized, something that I myself fully grasped only a year ago, and commented upon in an article at my website which is now also included among the reports at the Lifeboat Foundation. The public's lack of willingness to proceed with space exploration is not mere apathy. It is fear, I suggested, "that has been holding the majority back, not conscious fear, but the stirring of an unconscious recognition that the universe is very much vaster, and more scary, than most people like to think."

Before Sputnik, Krauthammer points out, "We always assumed that one step would create the hunger for the next -- ever outward from Earth orbit to the moon to Mars and beyond. Not so. It took only 12 years to go from Sputnik to the moon, which we jumped about on for a brief interlude and then, amazingly, abandoned. There are technological, budgetary and political reasons to explain this. But the most profound is psychological." Those of us with enthusiam for space and a longing to see humankind venture further have been slow to realize this, as for us, the attitude predominant in our society is hard to understand. And yet Krauthammer is right when he says that the famous photo "Earthrise" did not just spur the environmental movement. "With surpassing irony," he observes, "it created at the very dawn of the space age a longing not for space but for home."

"This is perhaps to be expected for a 200,000-year-old race of beings leaving its crib for the first time," he declares. And it is, of course. It's surprising, I guess, that we did not expect it, and have interpreted it as a discouraging sign that humankind may be doomed to eventual extinction through dependence on the limited resources of a single world. To accept the thought of long delay isn't easy for those of us who are no longer young enough to see society's outlook change within our own lifetime. Yet I hope and believe that Krauthammer is also right when he concludes, "We will, however, outgrow that fear. It was 115 years from Columbus to the Jamestown colony. It will take about that same span of time for a new generation -- ours is too bound to Earth -- to go out and not look back."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Neurofeedback Is Now in Common Use

When I started writing Stewards of the Flame some years ago, primitive EEG biofeedback was popular, and I based my idea of the mind training in the story on an expanded conception of it. When I returned to the book in 2005, I discovered the term "neurofeedback" had become current, so I changed to that word. I didn't change anything in my treatment of the process, which I envisioned as involving more advanced technology than mere EEG input and more sophisticated software than exists today. But I'm fascinated to see that we're already a good deal further along in the use of neurofeedback than I guessed we'd be in this era, largely because of the combination of feedback with computer graphics.

Neurofeedback is an extremely promising form of therapy, now commonly used with children who have ADHD or autism and with adults for such problems as epilepsy and migraine headaches. It is also used to enhance concentration, and thus performance, by people in many fields, from athletes and business executives to NASA pilots. The Web has many sites maintained by clinics or individual psychologists who are promoting their services; Googling "neurofeedback" brings up over 500,000 hits.

So far, neurofeedback has used only EEG (brain wave) input. But a few companies are beginning to experiment with the use of functional MRI brain scanning. For more information about this, see the "Mental Control of Pain" heading at www.stewardsoftheflame.com (I don't want to go into it here, as it might be too much of a spoiler for the story). Pain control is not the only potential use of fMRI, however. According to the New York Times, "Omneuron is also researching treatments for addiction, depression and other psychological illnesses.... The company has contemplated 'several dozen applications,' including the treatment of stroke and epilepsy. Brain scanning could even be used to improve athletic performance." Several other companies are planning to use it for lie detection.

Functional MRI is an exciting new technology that permits the action of the brain to be actually seen in real time. However, today's MRI scanners are not practical tools for widespread use in applications like these. An MRI machine is very large, very noisy, and requires the subject to remain absolutely still for a long period of time. And it cannot be used, or even approached, by anyone who has any sort of metal implant such as a pacemaker -- or according to some accounts, even a microchip -- because of the strong magnetic field. So it's a long way from the sort of neurofeedback used by my characters. But after all, the story takes place far in the future; considering how fast miniaturization of technology has progressed during just the past few decades, it's reasonable to suppose that brain scanning could be accomplished with mere helmets in an era when interstellar travel is routine.