A Baker’s Dozen of Terrible Things I Have Called Ted Cruz

In celebration of his exit from the 2016 presidential race, and by request, here is a more-or-less complete collection of all the horrible ways I’ve described Ted Cruz during the campaign (plus a couple bonus bits from 2013, when Whatever readers awarded him the title of Asshole of the Year, besting other luminaries such as Rob Ford, Justin Bieber, and, yes, Barack Obama).

Ted Cruz is:

  • a malignant teratoma with a law degree
  • a shambling assemblage of skin tabs and ego
  • a gross and despicable avulsion that yet managed to sprout opposable thumbs
  • a jowly gobbet of tubercular phlegm
  • the Platonic ideal of an asshole
  • a necrotic self-regarding blight on the face of American politics
  • an odious fistula that walks the earth in a human skin
  • Newt Gingrich minus the charm or political savvy
  • the final obnoxious form of a college dorm “Devil’s Advocate”
  • a bipedal mound of pig offal that yet manages to form words
  • an overripe pustule of hateful need who deserves to be dropkicked into historical oblivion
  • a political dead man walking

Goddamn, I will miss him. But not enough to want him back. Ever.

Update: It’s been noted I forgot I also called Cruz an “ambulatory cloacal splotch.” Duly noted!

The Big Idea: Katrina Archer

Real-world tragedies, best-selling action novels and the Canadian undead — these are some of the influences that Katrina Archer had in mind while writing The Tree of Souls. What did she take from each and how did they come together in her novel? Archer is on it, below.

KATRINA ARCHER:

The Tree of Souls was born from not one, but three ideas that together ask one Big Question.

The first idea: school shootings. Which sounds strange for a story set in a world without gunpowder, firearms, or even schools, but The Tree of Souls might never have seen the light of day if not for a school shooting in my hometown. I was outlining the sequel to my first novel, a young adult fantasy, when it happened. I go to a very dark place when these events occur, because I was in engineering school in Montréal when a bitter, envious man gunned down 14 female students at a neighbouring school. Including women in my circle of friends. So yet another shooting nearby made me feel like nothing had changed, and my light fantasy for teens took an inappropriately dark turn.

Instead of forcing a story I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to write, I channeled those unhappy energies into the characters of The Tree of Souls. Some of whom feel the same sense of rage combined with unchecked entitlement that I suspect drives a subset of mass shooters. While there’s no single root cause for these (I don’t have the training to really delve into the psychology), picking an emotion to focus on was my way of trying to make sense out of events I’ll never truly understand.

The second idea is why I sometimes pitch The Tree of Souls as “The Bourne Identity for fantasy readers.” Because my protagonist is an amnesiac—here, a woman named Umbra—with dangerous skills, who doesn’t know if she is on the side of right or wrong. As the Magic 8 Ball might say: signs point to “wrong.” (Herein end any similarities to The Bourne Identity.)

I’ve always loved the amnesia trope. One of my favourite characters ever is Roger Zelazny’s Prince of Amber, Corwin. He of the less than complete memories. Yet people often advise novice writers to avoid the amnesia cliché. A wise person once told me I’d likely only get one shot at it in my career, so choose wisely when to tackle it.

Amnesia creates drama precisely because the character doesn’t know what type of person they really are. I used it as a plot device to force Umbra to see herself as others do—even if she ultimately doesn’t enjoy the view—because she’s now a stranger in her own life.

The tricky line to walk with this as a writer is: how do you get a reader to empathize with a character who doesn’t particularly like herself? It took a few drafts to get that balance right, before Umbra started to feel like she was fighting for herself rather than simply against her sketchy past.

All of the above might sound unrelentingly grim. Which brings us to the third idea: I love vampires. Sexy vampires especially. I’d love to write the great Canadian vampire story. But. I had nothing new to say about them (I do solemnly swear that if I ever come up with anything, my vampires won’t be sparkly. #TeamLestat). The lack of a vampire idea obliged me to create a different kind of seductive, conflicted character, one who looks human on the surface, but also has deadly supernatural skills.

And thus was born Umbra’s power over souls. One that was very fun to write, and that gives her some cool options for getting into and out of trouble. On the surface, it’s this power that makes her a creature of death, but ultimately her human failings—her inner demons—are at the root of her travails.

Umbra can’t move forward unless she exorcises these demons and learns how to use her power for good. If she fails, I wrote a tragedy. If she succeeds, I wrote a redemption story. The one I committed to paper is *** SPOILERS ***.

Put together, the three ideas force Umbra to ask herself that one Big Question: “Am I a monster?”

Guess where you’ll find the answer.

The Tree of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 5/4/16

Another day, another stack of excellent recent and upcoming releases to show off to you. Tell which of these books excites you, down in the comments.

Five Quick Notes on Indiana

Original photo by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons. Click on picture to go to original photo.

1. So on one hand, Ted Cruz, a shambling assemblage of skin tabs and ego, has left the presidential race. That’s good!

2. But on the other hand, Donald Trump, angry racist billionaire, is definitively going to be the GOP nominee for president. That’s very very bad.

3. Dear Republicans: Your party is a raging trash fire of hate, obstructionism and stupidity, most recently evidenced by the fact that Trump is going to be your nominee, and that Cruz, a jowly gobbet of tubercular phlegm, was your second choice. Oh my God, please fix yourselves.

4. But more immediately, inasmuch as you seem unlikely to do that in time to do anything about Trump with respect to him being your nominee, and I would never suggest that you just not vote, let me say these two words to you: Gary Johnson. I mean, I understand most of you gag at the thought of pulling the lever for Hillary Clinton. Fair enough! Johnson’s positions on (most) issues are going to be closer to your own, probably, and this way you also don’t vote to drop a straw-haired ball of dangerously inchoate rage into the White House. Everybody wins! Except Trump, which is the point.

5. Hey, Bernie Sanders won Indiana last night! Good for him. The netted him a total of five delegates, which puts him on track to take the 2016 Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton, oh, let’s see, let me carry the one here, ah, there we go, never. I think it’s fine for Sanders supporters to keep dreaming, and for Sanders himself to maneuver himself into the discussion of the Democratic platform. I also think it’s fine for Hillary Clinton to start serious prep for dealing with Trump, because really, that’s where we are, and everyone knows it. So let’s stop pretending. Because, holy shit, Trump.

The Big Idea: Ruth Vincent

In today’s Big Idea, debut novelist Ruth Vincent essays this issues of depth, darkness and delight, as they relate to novels in general, and her novel Elixir in particular.

RUTH VINCENT:

Does a story need to be dark to be deep? Does substantive always have to equal depressing in fiction? I’ve always firmly believed no, and in my debut novel my goal was to hit that point of intersection between joyful and thoughtful. My series fits the nebulous category of ‘urban fantasy’ because it takes place in modern times albeit with magic, and it’s set at least partially in a city (not just a city, but the city: New York). But I’d grown tired of the gratuitously grim urban fantasies that had become something of a trope in the genre. I wanted my book to be unabashedly fun, without being fluff.

How to do that, I realized, rested almost entirely on the narrative voice. And thus I wrote my story in the first person POV of a fairy. Fairies don’t have the same level of damage as vampires, werewolves, or other such supernatural creatures. They’re not cursed; they’re not tortured – they’re not necessarily good, but they’re hardly ever grim. Even the fairies in Celtic folklore, while a far cry from the sanitized pixies of Disney films and frequently malevolent, are usually depicted as playful. If I wrote a fairy heroine who wasn’t enjoying her own story, I wouldn’t be being faithful to the mythological roots.

My heroine, Mabily “Mab” Jones, has a unique perspective in that she’s a changeling; she’s in the human world but not of it. It’s a position that comes with inherent conflict – loneliness, inability to ever truly belong, plus hurt at her betrayal (she was tricked by the Fairy Queen into getting stuck in human form) and a deep-seated guilt over the human girl she unwittingly displaced. However, twenty-two years after the switch, when the story begins, Mab has learned to make the best of a bad situation. She’s a bit of an amateur anthropologist – a student of the human society into which she’s been thrust. She finds us humans fascinating, frustrating, but always wryly amusing. In the hands of a different author or through the eyes of a different narrator, this could have been a much darker story – but Mab still sees her human life as a grand adventure (though one she never chose) and her optimism is the filter through which we read some of the more brutal and disturbing aspects of the book.

Writing a book that reads as effortless actually requires a lot of effort, perhaps more than one that doesn’t. I wrote almost 1,000 additional pages of drafts that I ended up throwing out before I honed in on the voice I was seeking. Luckily, since it was my first book and I didn’t have a deadline breathing down my neck, I had the luxury of time to do that (this will not be the case with Elixir’s sequel, which releases later this year!)

When I say Elixir was the first book I ever wrote, what I mean is it’s the first book I ever finished. My hard drive is a burial ground where many unfinished manuscripts have gone to die – weighty, ‘important’ works that I grandiosely day-dreamed would win me respectable literary acclaim, but then ultimately abandoned, because I didn’t find these stories fun enough to sustain me when the writing got tough (as writing inevitably will.)

This doesn’t mean I don’t explore the dark side of the human heart in my fiction – I find fantasy the best medium for doing that – or that I can’t explore deeper societal issues. My stories have never been overtly political, and yet the opportunities for metaphor are rich. The series is about a society (fairies) utterly dependent upon a limited, non-renewable resource (Elixir) that powers all their magic and their way of life. They do increasingly unethical things to produce and control it, and innocent children caught in the crossfire pay the ultimate price. Sound familiar? But a reader could easily miss all that and simply be entertained by an adventure tale with a touch of romance. I tried to never lob readers over the head with any heavy handed message. I’ve always believed writers should just tell the story – and not deprive readers of the pleasure of their own interpretations by telling them what it means.

I was academically trained to write literary fiction, and I was afraid, if I wholly embraced writing the genre fiction I so delighted in reading, I would never become a “serious writer.” Perhaps that’s true. Urban fantasy novels don’t exactly get reviewed by The New Yorker. But in writing Elixir I realized I didn’t want to be a serious writer; I wanted to be a joyful writer.

Maybe we write the books we want to read? As a reader, I wanted a less brooding, less bloody book, a fantasy whose epic battles are of the internal variety. And as an author, I know what a long hard slog writing a novel can be. The only thing that sustains me, once the heady infatuation of the initial idea wears off and the rewrites seem Sisyphean, is joy.

It’s joy that I want to spread through my stories. After all, the world is depressing enough on its own – we don’t need all our novels to be.

—-

Elixir: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Books|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Two New Books in 2016 That Have Me In Them. Well, Three. Actually, Five

As we all know, I don’t have a new novel out this year — although the mass market paperback of The End of All Things is out May 31, hint, hint — but that doesn’t mean I’m not showing up in new books in 2016. Above you’ll see two new books that I’m in, one already out, and the other upcoming. The one that’s already out is The Books That Changed My Life, edited by Bethanne Patrick, in which notable folks (including, uh, me) talk about the books that made a real impact on them. Other folks featured in the book include Margaret Atwood, Rosanne Cash, Dave Eggers, Kate Mulgrew and Al Roker. This is a pretty wide net, folks.

The one that hasn’t come out yet is Mash Up, which is the printed version of the audio anthology Rip-Off! which you may recall came out about three years ago. The audio version did very well — nominated for an Audie Award, whilst Mary Robinette Kowal’s contribution scored a Hugo — so it’s lovely to finally see this anthology in print. And as you can see on the cover, this is a hell of a line up of authors. Mash Up will be out June 7th — also, coincidentally, the release date of the other anthology I’m in this year, Black Tide Rising, which features a story I co-wrote with my pal Dave Klecha. Basically I have a very busy two weeks coming up at the end of May and early June.

So, that’s three books in 2016 so far! Plus my audio-first novella The Dispatcher should be out later this year (with the print version from Subterranean Press to follow after the audio’s exclusive period), plus, speaking of Subterranean, I’ve turned in another book project to them a couple of weeks ago, which should be out later this year. I’ll wait until Subterranean officially announces that before I say anything else about it.

So, to recap:

  • The Books That Changed My Life — already out.
  • Mash Up — out June 7.
  • Black Tide Rising — also out June 7.
  • The Dispatcher — scheduled for this year in audio.
  • Secret SubPress Project — also scheduled for this year (I think!).

And the mass market paperback of The End of All Things, out May 31st.

Wow, for not having anything out in 2016, I sure have a lot of things out in 2016.

New Books and ARCS 5/2/16: Special Baen-apalooza Edition

I got a smidge behind in showing off the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound, so I figure the semi-hiatus would be an excellent time to catch up on this score. To that end, please peruse this very fine stack of books courtesy of Baen Books, all titles that are just recently out or about to be. What looks good to you? Tell me in the comments!

Today is the Day I Figured Out My Wife May Be the Highlander

The first picture here is of Krissy in 1994, when we got engaged; you can see my goofy face cropped halfway off there. The second is from 2007, nine years ago. The third is from 2011, five years ago. The final one is from this weekend, at Penguicon.

Best guesses: Highlander; vampire; has a painting in the attic; deity slumming around on planet Earth just for kicks. I mean, you tell me.

No matter which it is, I’m happy to spend my time with her.

I do not look like I did in 1994. Alas.

May 2016 Semi-Hiatus is Now ON

Get ready for less!

(Although I will probably post a kitten picture when I get home from Penguicon later today. I’m not a monster.)

One quick note: As part of the deal with the semi-hiatus is spending less time here, I’m trimmed back the time entries are open to comments to two days. This means some previously active comment threads here are now closed. I figure most of you will be fine with that. Commenting periods will be back to their usual length in June.

View From a Hotel Window, 4/29/16: Southfield, MI

It has not just a parking lot, but an entire parking garage. And a vaguely Ballard-esque high rise in the background. Don’t forget that.

You guys have a great weekend.

This Picture Was Photoshopped

Specifically, I used Photoshop to remove the light switch on the wall directly above Krissy. Because it ruined the composition, that’s why! Man, Photoshop is handy sometimes.

In other news, I’m off to Penguicon in a couple hours, where I’ll be doing a reading (with Dave Klecha) and a panel and otherwise just, you know, hanging about. Come say hello if you’re there. If you’re not there and you say hello, that’s fine, but I may not hear you. Sorry.

The May Mostly Hiatus

As a heads up for folks:

My May is going to be super busy with things that don’t involve being online, including writing and travel, so that means that I’m planning to spend most of May offline. I’m not closing down Whatever because I’ve scheduled Big Ideas, but content here is likely to be those pieces and the occasional photo of cats and/or sunsets and the even-more-occasional entry with words (one’s likely to happen on my birthday, for example).

Also, and for the same reason, I’m likely to cut back substantially on social media in May. My current plan is to sign on in the evening if at all; we’ll see if I stick to that, because social media is like crack. But that is the plan.

So if things seem a little sparse here in the next month and you don’t otherwise see me online much, you’ll know why. I’m not dead or sick or in hiding. I’m just busy with work in the real world, and sometimes that’s the priority.

Four Things About the Hugos, 4/27/16

First off, gaze upon Chuck Tingle’s latest story, above (and for sale here). That’s kind of awesome.

Second off, I see some people here and elsewhere swearing they’re going to put anything that was on the Sad/Rabid slates or recommendation lists below “No Award” this year. Bluntly, you’ll be foolish if you do this. As I noted in my LA Times piece yesterday, the Puppies this year slated things that were already popular outside their little circles, like, for example, The Sandman: Overture, by Neil Gaiman.

Come on, folks. Does anyone really think Neil Gaiman holds active membership in the Puppy brigades? Or Stephen King? Or Alastair Reynolds (who specifically asked to be dropped from the Puppy lists, and was ignored)? Or Lois McMaster Bujold? Or, for that matter, probably Chuck Tingle? I mean, hell, someone put me on the Sad Puppy recommendation list for a while*, despite the fact I rather publicly dropped out of consideration for awards this year, and the fact that many people who identify as Sad Puppies wouldn’t piss on me if I were on fire.

Don’t give credit for the Puppies slating already popular work and then acting like they got it on the ballot, or for dragooning unwilling and unwitting people onto their slates for their own purposes. That’s essentially victim blaming. Rather, use your common sense when looking at the work and people nominated. The Puppies would be happy if you didn’t do that, mind you. I’m hard pressed to understand why you would oblige them so.

(But then the Puppies win! Yeah, folks, about that: They’re going to proclaim victory no matter what; they did that last year when they got their collective asses handed to them at the Hugo Award ceremony. We totally meant to lose! It validates everything we did! Well, fine, whatever. Personally, I’m going to ask what I always ask: Is this work worth giving a Hugo to? That’s a question that has an answer irrespective of any Puppy “strategy.”)

Third off, and on the subject of victim blaming, I do see a number of people exclaiming that because the Puppies have stuffed ballot boxes yet again, it’s the Hugos that suck and are horrible, etc. Folks, no. The Hugos are a nice fan/industry award, and didn’t do anything to deserve the nonsense that’s happening to them, except to have an exploitable flaw in the nominating process that previously no one really exploited because no one wanted to be that asshole. The people who are currently exploiting that flaw in the process are the ones who suck and are horrible, and the ones being assholes. They’re targeting the Hugos because the Hugos don’t actually suck or are horrible, and because they know that doing so hurts other people, and they like that, because, again, they’re assholes.

So, please, differentiate between the two, would you? It’s actually kind of important to make that distinction. And as a bonus, making the distinction gives at least some honor to the people who are working behind the scenes of the Hugos, this year and last year, who have had to deal with malignant trolls fucking with a thing they love. Giving them that tiny bit of honor would be nice, too.

Fourth off, one of the finalists for Best Short Story, Thomas May, who was on the Rabid Puppy slate, has left the ballot, for admirable reasons. All respect to him for a difficult decision. I don’t believe this should be a signal for folks to hint to other finalists that they should follow his example, for reasons I outline above, i.e., this year’s slates were filled with people and work the Puppies put in for their own strategic ends, and are essentially blameless for an association that is unintended and/or unwanted. If you’ve got a mind to pester people about this, please consider not. Let them do as they will, just as you do what you will when it comes time to vote.

Thanks.

(* Yes, I know the Sad Puppy recommendation list was open to all to put things on it. I also suspect, perhaps uncharitably, that the Puppies know their own and used the recommendation lists with that fact in mind. This is why I suspect I wouldn’t have gotten many votes out of that “recommendation” in any event. This is also why I’m not entirely convinced it wasn’t used for slate-y purposes (and a further reason why I’m not inclined to hold a work being on that recommendation list against it). That said, and as with last year, the Sad Puppies were a sideshow to the Rabids, who straight up slated.

I also recognize that many Sad Puppies don’t like being conflated with Rabid Puppies, but, you know, it was the Sads that brought the Rabids to the party, and I expect there’s still sufficient overlap in goals and strategy to tie them together, so, yeah, color me not entirely convinced. If the Sads want to really differentiate themselves, a change in branding would be the very smallest start.

With all that said: Be aware my point of view re: the Puppies also comes from being a direct target of their ire for several years running. Your mileage may vary.)

Dear Cruz, Kasich and Sanders: Guys, It’s Over

I just wrote a much longer piece going over last nights results in detail, but other than the line where I called Ted Cruz “a malignant teratoma with a law degree” it was just boring as hell, so, here’s the shorter version:

Hey! Cruz! Kasich! Sanders! You got no shot! Let it go!

They won’t, of course. They all think they’re going to get something at their conventions (Cruz and Kasich: A presidential nomination that they won’t get and which would be toxic they moment they pried it from Trump even if they could; Sanders, rather more reasonably: A seat at the table when it comes to strategy), so I expect they’ll keep trudging along. But the rest of us don’t have to pretend that these three aren’t in garbage time, as far as their presidential chances go, do we? The rest of us don’t have to pretend they’re doing anything other than “playing for pride” at this point, right?

Okay, good.

My only real regret with respect to any of these three is that Cruz didn’t emerge as a stronger presidential contender this cycle, because this means he’ll be under the delusion that he’s got a shot in 2020. I mean, on one hand, okay, that’d likely give Clinton her second term? But, oy, Cruz all over the TV, again. For months. Just shoot me into space, already.

Anyway: Come on, guys. Wrap it up. It’s time.

 

Quick 2016 Hugo Finalist Thoughts (With a Link to Even More Hugo Thoughts)

Thoughts on this year’s Hugo finalists (the list of which you can find here):

* First, as part of my new gig at the Los Angeles Times, I wrote an analysis of this year’s ballot there, so head on over there if you want to see it (Note it’s geared toward a general audience, so there a lot of explanatory stuff in there folks here will likely already know). As I’ve already written substantially on the Hugos there, what I write here will be brief.

* Overall, the nominations in several categories look pretty decent to me – Best Novel is particularly not bad at all! At least a couple of categories are a tiresome shitshow, however, thanks to the Puppies, again.

* Which we knew might happen again, remember? Fixing the slating issue was a two-year process. This is year two. Keep working on it, folks.

* The Puppies are once again trying to troll a bunch of people (the Best Related Category is one particularly obvious troll) and while I don’t mean to downplay the basic craptasticness of their actions, I’m finding it all that difficult to get worked up about it. I mean, I know the Puppies are hoping for outrage? Again? But as noted, we’ve seen this act before, and this time it’s just boring. Yes, yes, Puppies. You’re still sad little bigoted assholes screaming for attention. Got it, thanks.

Bear in mind I’m a direct target for their nonsense; at least two of the finalist works go after me in one way or another. I’m very specifically someone they’re trying to get worked up (and to tear down). And yet I just can’t manage it. I’m pretty much over the Puppies. There’s only so many times a toddler can throw a tantrum before you just shrug. You still have to clean up after the toddler, mind you. But you don’t have to let the toddler dictate the terms. Pity these particular toddlers are grown humans.

Aaaand that’s about all the energy I’m willing to expend on the Puppies this year: A tiny bit of pity, and then consideration of the things on the finalist ballot worth my time – which, fortunately, there are several, and would have been no matter what the Pups did.

The Big Idea: Marko Kloos

It’s not often that a highly successful military science fiction series involves me in some way. But here’s Marko Kloos explaining how I was in a small way tangentially a part of the creation of his highly successful military science fiction series, of which Chains of Command is the latest installment.

MARKO KLOOS:

The first book of what is now called the Frontlines series came to be because of a highly effective motivator: last-minute deadline panic.

Eight years ago, I applied for a slot in a writing workshop called Viable Paradise. I knew a few people who had attended VP, and they all spoke highly of it. When I checked the roster of instructors, I was happily surprised to see the names of some heavy hitters in the SF business: Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, Elizabeth Bear, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Jim McDonald and Debra Doyle, and some guy named John Scalzi. To top off the list of arguments for attendance, the workshop was reasonably affordable, geographically close (it takes place every year on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m in New Hampshire), and took only a week, which was eminently swingable on both my stay-at-home parent schedule and stay-at-home parent wallet.

The only trouble was that I heard about the workshop a week before the close of the submissions/application period, and I needed a few short stories or novel chapters to send in as application pieces for evaluation. I had neither.

So I sat down and wrote a few chapters of a fantasy novel that, in retrospect, should have been titled “The Journeys of Generica: Book One of the Derivative Kingdoms Saga.” At the time, I thought it was decent enough, and I gave the samples to my wife to read. She did so, and then tactfully suggested that I may want to send in, uh, something else.

With six days to go on the application deadline (and having to subtract two days from that to account for Priority Mail), I was in a bind. While I had always wanted to write SF or fantasy, I had no finished or even reasonably progressing projects in either genre on hand. I had two trunk novels sitting on my hard drive, but they were general fiction. I had recently read a novel called Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and figured that because I enjoy reading military SF, I’d probably enjoy writing a military SF story. I served in the German military during the tail end of the Cold War, and I had always wanted to have a vehicle to make use of all the little sensory details and experiences from my own military service, and baking it all into a Military SF novel seemed like a good idea.

The boot camp sequence is practically a trope in the Military SF genre, and “Young Person Goes To War” is shorthand description for three quarters of Military SF debut novels. That’s not a terribly bad thing—when you go to the zoo, you’re either happy to see the giraffes again or you aren’t, and Military SF readers in particular like to see the giraffes, so to speak. But I had this idea in my head to put a different spin on my version of Space Marine Boot Camp. Current recruiting practice treats the new applicant as a valuable resource because the military usually has to work hard to fill all its slots with volunteers. Most future boot camps in fiction do the same—the old saw about tough drill instructor love, motivating the recruits to excel and be All They Can Be.

What if you had a future military that was so swamped with applicants that the D.I.s wouldn’t have to give a rat’s behind whether their charges make it through training or not? What if the D.I.s could wash people out at will because they knew exactly that five hundred applicants would stand in line tomorrow to take that slot?

From there, it was a simple exercise: thinking up a near-future version of North America where life sucks. Overpopulation, pollution, rampant crime, scarce resources, a population limited to 2,000-calorie-a-day rations of processed crap that’s made to taste awful on purpose to discourage overconsumption. Things would have to be so awful so much for the majority of the population that the prospect of death in battle would seem a fair trade for a shot at a paycheck and food that isn’t made from soy and recycled human waste.

With only a few days to think about the world-building and actually doing the writing work, I drew that crapsack world in rough sketches—just enough detail for the reader to get the idea, not so much that I’d have to spend weeks and months making up maps and diagrams and elaborate timelines. So Terms of Enlistment, the first Frontlines book, established the main conceit of the series, the grunt’s-eye view of the conflict, told in first person perspective. We see what the protagonist Andrew Grayson sees. We know about the world and its technology what he knows—no more, no less. It sort of puts the tech and the political machinations into the background bit and makes them scenery. With that kind of storytelling approach, other things move into the foreground: all the sensory details and awfulness of battle as experienced by the guy who doesn’t have a god’s eye view of events, filtered through the worldview and morality of a twenty-year-old kid from the future version of the projects.

With Chains of Command, the Frontlines series is now four books strong, with a fifth one in the works and a sixth under contract. My hasty half-ass first few chapters set the foundation for everything that followed, and it turned out to be a fortuitous restriction. With the immediate viewpoint and the broad-stroke pictures of the world as Andrew sees it, I was free to focus on character development instead of meticulous world-building and exposition. And as Andrew gets older and more experienced, the novels start addressing things that he would begin to think about after a few years of service to a system that tries to hold the lid down on a pot that’s about to boil over. Do you always follow orders, or are there just and unjust ones? At what point do you use your own judgment and question authority while fulfilling your oath of service? Military SF is often focused on the pulling of triggers (complete with three-page descriptions of the weapon system to which said trigger is attached), but how do you decide when not to pull the trigger?

Frontlines makes an attempt to address that conundrum, and it has been great and challenging fun to let young Andrew Grayson mature over the course of four novels and find his own answers to those questions.

—-

Chains of Command: Amazon | Indiebound | Powell’s | Audible

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Scammers and Fixed Pots

Lots of news in the last couple of weeks about Amazon Kindle Unlimited scammers, who are creating 3,000-page books filled with mostly garbage because that’s what lets them take advantage of the way Amazon pays authors participating in the KU scheme: Amazon tracks the last page synced and pays out by how far into the book someone’s gone (as opposed to read).

This is bad news for actual authors with actual books, because a) actual books are generally much smaller than three thousand pages, and b) Amazon doesn’t pay a set rate per page — it defines a KU “pot” of money for each month and then pays out to authors by the number of pages they register readers as having gotten through, as a proportion of total pages read on the service that month. So if (purely as an example) Amazon defines the payout pot for KU as $1 million for a month, then all the authors participating have to split that $1 million — and the scam artist with the fake 3,000-page book is going to get a larger chunk of that $1 million than the actual author with a 300-page book.

Bear in mind that no matter what compensatory scheme Amazon does for its KU system, someone is going to find a way to maximize it. Before the current “pages read” scheme, Amazon paid out when a certain percentage of a book was gone through, which drove authors to create very short books that would hit their payout percentage with just a couple of page flips. It was this gaming, presumably, that caused Amazon to change how it did its payout. If and when Amazon changes its payout scheme (again), people will find out how to game the system under the new rules. It’s what happens.

(Nor is adjusting one’s work to take advantage of the market a problem; publishers have always done this. Is the money is cheap paperbacks? They will make cheap paperbacks. Is the money in hardcovers? They’ll make hardcovers. What, novellas are the next big thing? They’ll all make novellas! Likewise, if Amazon is saying to self-pubbed authors (and, by extension, scammers) “[X] is the way we decide to pay you,” then it’s rational to do [X].)

The problem with the Kindle Unlimited scammers isn’t really the compensatory triggers of KU or the fact that everyone, legit author or otherwise, is looking for the way to squeeze as much money as possible from it. The problem is: who bears the immediate economic brunt of the scammers taking advantage of whatever scheme Amazon decides upon? Well, it’s not Amazon, that’s for sure, since its financial exposure is only what it wants to pay out on a monthly basis; scammers in the system or no, Amazon only pays what Amazon wants to pay. The readers also get off lightly; their economic exposure is only they flat fee they pay to access KU.

So that leaves the actual authors, whose share of a fixed amount of money is being diluted by bad actors who see how the system can be gamed and are cheerfully gaming it as fast as they can. It is the authors’ problem because Amazon doesn’t pay out like it has to pay out for printed books, where each unit sold has a contractually-defined royalty that is independent of any other book or author and how well they are selling. Again, Amazon pays from a pot it defines and controls and which is limited; in effect pitting authors against each other, and all of them against the scammers. In this case the scammers are winning because it takes almost no time to create a scam book, assign fake accounts to “read” it, and profit; meanwhile writing real books actual people would invest their time in is still the same time-intensive effort it always was.

Is this fair? Well, life’s not fair, and in business (which this is) you get what you contractually agree to. Kindle Unlimited authors presumably know that they are only going to get what Amazon is willing to give them for their participation; they also presumably know that their marketplace is “fair,” with regard to scammers, to the extent that Amazon wants to make it so; they also presumably know that their ability to force Amazon to do anything to deal with scammers is exceptionally limited because the KU agreement privileges Amazon over individual KU participants to an extraordinary degree. KU participants, by participating, have agreed to let Amazon shift the financial risk over to them.

(Well, some of them. It’s my understanding that there is a tranche of authors — generally hugely best-selling, generally not self-published — whose participation in KU is through other deals where their compensation is not tied into an Amazon-defined pot. Good for them! And another reminder of the issue of “fair” in publishing — nothing’s fair, everything is what you agree to in contracts.)

That being said, if Amazon doesn’t eventually deal with the scammers, then it will become their problem: Authors, quite reasonably, won’t want to participate if scammers are taking money that should be going to them, and readers won’t see the value of the KU subscription if authors stay off the service. Humans are bad-experience avoidant, and it doesn’t take many bad experiences to keep people away. It’s in Amazon’s best interest to fix this. Eventually. I’m pretty sure it will.

But only to a point. Amazon is very very very unlikely to ever make Kindle Unlimited a scheme that doesn’t rely on a fixed payout, defined by Amazon itself. And that is why, at the end of it, KU (and, to be clear, other subscription services with a service-defined payout pot) will always disadvantage authors in terms of how much they can make, and why these authors will always suffer first and foremost from scammers — because there’s only so much money for authors in the scheme, and that’s the money scammers are taking. There will always be scammers and people who will game the system; so as long as the KU scheme pays out from a fixed pot, authors participating in it will always be the most vulnerable to their actions.

Amazon should deal with its KU scammers. It should also compensate KU authors for their work independent of how other authors are doing, or what they are doing, or what scammers are doing. The first of these is rather more likely than the others. If you’re an author participating in Kindle Unlimited, know what you’re getting into, and the fact that it’s you whose money is on the line when the scammers game the system.