Whatever

Neil and the Bear: Perhaps Not a Children’s Book After All

Once upon a time, an author looked out the window of his writing shack.

Yes, this is what we do when we’re supposed to be writing.

The Big Idea: S.K. Dunstall

There’s what we know, and what we used to know — and sometimes the latter might be more valuable than the former. What does this have to do with the new novel, Linesman? S.K. Dunstall, the author(s), is ready to explain.

S.K. DUNSTALL: 

Two images—neither of which made it into Linesman —were precursors to this book.

In the first, we read about an early Comdex or Macworld exhibition where the first Apple Mac was on show. An old man stopped to look at the Mac. He picked up the mouse and moved it in front of the screen to see what would happen. Not surprisingly, nothing did, for this was an early generation trackball mouse that you had to roll along the desk.

The two young guys manning the booth laughed and laughed. For they ‘knew’ the complex, intricate, not-really-natural ways you had to move the mouse around on the desk to make something happen on the screen.

You know what? That old man had the last laugh, for nowadays we use touch screens, which is a lot closer to what he was trying than it is to moving a piece of plastic around perpendicular to the surface.

The second thing that inspired us was an article about old ways of healing which had fallen into disfavour but were coming back, because there was a scientific basis in their use and they worked.  Maggot therapy, where a diabetic woman’s heel became infected and she was close to having her foot amputated. The doctor went along with her request to use live maggots onto the infected skin to eat the necrotic flesh.  It saved her foot. Leeches, used as far back as Ancient Egypt, which are nowadays sometimes used to drain blood from limbs after reconstructive surgery, particularly in places were blood clots form easily.

It was the article on maggots that got us talking one night after dinner (we’d finished eating by then). The old techniques—like the maggots and leeches—are still dismissed by most medical practitioners. Humans don’t look back much. We like to look forward. Unfortunately, it means we lose a lot of knowledge that we once had.

Out of that dinner came one idea that stuck. How little we know and how much we have lost.

More, what if we didn’t know it to start with?

For example, we have no idea what the statues on Easter Island were built for. We can make educated guesses, but we’ll never know for certain. The only people who do know are the people who built them.

History is littered with artefacts we can only guess about.

Take it even further. What if the artefact wasn’t of human origin?

What if the first humans in space found an alien spaceship? A sentient alien spaceship?

Would they recognise it for what it was?

Probably not. Especially not if humans had been slowly expanding outwards on old generation ships that they had cannibalised over the years so they were nothing like the original ships.  They had lost contact with Earth a long time ago.  If the ship was abandoned, how were they to know it was alien? And how could the ship communicate with them, for it wasn’t built to interact with humans?

Going back to our Apple exhibition. Who is more likely to finally communicate with the ship? The two young guys who ‘knew’ that you had to roll the mouse along the table? Or the old man who waved the mouse in front of the screen?

Better yet, a child, still young enough not to question an alien ship talking to her, still young enough to listen when the ‘lines’ on the ship spoke to her.

That young girl was Gila Havortian, and she opened the way to the stars. Instead of travelling at sub-light speed, taking years to get to other worlds, humans learned to clone the lines of the alien ship and jump through the void to get from one place to another instantaneously. They gained instant communication within sectors of space.

Humanity expanded, and was still expanding five hundred years later.

But …

In five hundred years the initial knowledge of what the ship could do—small as it was—would be lost as people discover new ways to use the technology.  Like maggots as medicine, we find better ways to do things.

At the start of Linesman, line ships underpin the galactic economy.  The small number of humans who can ‘feel’ the lines and mend them are in high demand.  Especially the tens, who can fix the full set of ten lines.  Higher level linesmen are contracted to cartel houses and work from there.

Then humans find another alien ship.

Enter Ean, who came into the cartels late and is mostly self-taught. Even though he’s a certified ten, he is more akin to the old man holding the mouse up to the screen than he is to the young kids who ‘know’ what to do because they’ve been shown.

____

Linesman: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the authors’ site. Read their blog. Follow them on Twitter.

The Big Idea: John G. Hartness

Sometimes the band breaks up and the members go solo — but is the resulting music triumphant or discordant? Ask John Hartness, because in In the Still of the Knight, the latest installment of his Black Knight Chronicles, the band breaks up, so to speak… and the tone changes.

JOHN G. HARTNESS:

What do you have when you lose everything? Who are you when there’s no one around? Are you as good as you think you are when your support network is gone and it’s all on you?

These are the questions I wanted to play with when I started working on In the Still of the Knight, the fifth book in my Black Knight Chronicles series. Over the first four books I built a pretty solid ensemble of protagonists, a good little team of X-Men (or Avengers, if you prefer), and now it was time to see if I had a Wolverine in the bunch. In other words, it was time to see if my protagonist, Jimmy Black, could stand alone and become the hero he needed to be.

Let’s back this up a little, because there’s some credit due that I need to give. I’m a big Kim Harrison fan. Her Hollows series was the first urban fantasy I read, and it dragged me deep into the genre and never let me go. In one of her books, she does exactly what I’m doing here – she breaks the band up to force her character to stand alone and become stronger. So it’s not like I’m doing anything terribly original. Hell, the WWE is doing the same thing right now with its champion, Seth Rollins. They’ve taken away a lot of his supporting characters to make him become (or appear to become) a stronger villain.

So I wanted to see what would happen if I took everything away from Jimmy. I’ve spent four books giving him a girlfriend, slowly building their relationship through all the troubles a poor vampire nerd has while trying to date a living cop in today’s world. Now I yank that away from him.

I’ve spent four books giving him a best friend that will stand by him through thick and thin, and you know that no matter how much they fight and bicker, these blood-sucking besties will have each other’s backs no matter what. Until Jimmy makes a decision that’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and suddenly his best friend isn’t there anymore.

I’ve given him secondary characters that are willing to pitch in whenever they can – gone. I’ve given him connections to the local police force that he can use to solve crimes – gone. I’ve given him a tense but cordial working relationship with the city’s Master Vampire – gone. I’ve given him a human Jiminy Cricket, a conscience with legs to help keep him on the straight and narrow – gone.

And then I put him into a fight he can’t possibly win, and can’t afford to lose.

All of this to see what kind of character I’d truly crafted. Had I built someone strong enough to stand alone and take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? Or would he be unable to bear his fardles?

Of course, right about the time I really got rolling on the writing of the book, life decided to imitate art and I got far closer to Jimmy Black than I ever wanted to. A series of unfortunate events led me to leave two different jobs over the course of one year, so I spent about half of 2014 unemployed and looking. And let me tell you, unemployed at forty with a theater degree is not where you want to be.

While I was looking for work, and trying to work on the book, I was also dealing with my mother’s declining health. She battled Alzheimer’s and dementia for well over ten years, and at the beginning of last year, her health took a nosedive. On Labor Day, on the last day of DragonCon, I got the call that she had died.

I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I guess no matter how it happens, you’re never prepared, no matter how you intellectualize things. I found myself sitting at this computer the day after we buried my mother, staring at a screen and feeling very much like someone had done to me what I was doing to Jimmy Black. I felt like my whole reality had been stripped away, and that all that was left was the raw core of me.

Turns out that raw core can crank out some words. I finished the last 20,000 words in the book the month we buried my mother, and when I finally typed “The End,” I put my head down on the keyboard and wept.

Don’t do that, it types all kind of stupid letters at the end of your manuscript. Much better to close the laptop first.

Last year taught me that if you strip away all the extras, you find out who you really are. In the rewrites and edits of In the Still of the Knight, the amazing Deb Dixon worked with me to do that to this book. I’m pretty sure we’ve done that to this character. Over the course of early 2015, Deb and I took out the parts that were “too much John, not enough Jimmy,” and left me with a deeply personal book that still fits with the series and everything that’s come before.

Jimmy Black and I have run through the fires together, and we’ve come out tempered, hammered, and sharpened. I hope that you enjoy the forging process I put myself and my character through; I think it made a hell of a story.

—-

In the Still of the Knight: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

 

To Stand or Fall, Episode Four of The End of All Things, is Out Now!

This is the end of The End of All Things — or more accurately, the final novella episode of the book. And just what happens in this one? Here’s the official synopsis:

“Back on Earth, the beginning and end of all things. The nations of humanity’s home planet have parted ways with the starfaring Colonial Union, the human interstellar empire originally established to keep the home planet free. The Union needs to regain Earth’s trust. The alien races of the Conclave have their own hard choices to face. All of these threads culminate in this, Part Four of the four parts of The End of All Things.”

It’s all so climactic! Here’s an excerpt, if you’d like a sneak preview. And here (for US folks) are some retailers where you can get the ebook:

Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks|Kobo

Obviously I don’t want to spoil the events of this particular novella for anyone, but I will say I was very happy with how this one turned out, and that I think it goes in a slightly unexpected direction; I did a zag where I think people might assume I was going to a zig. We’ll see! But in the meantime, I think we put the Old Man’s Universe in an interesting spot for whatever happens next, whenever it happens.

Happy reading!

The Big Idea: P.W. Singer and August Cole

What happens when two authors with combined decades of experience working in and chronicling the defense industry attempt to plausibly devise a war scenario only a few years into the future? You might find the book has uncomfortable parallels with the real world. But of course, as P.W. Singer and August Cole might tell you about their book Ghost Fleet, perhaps that’s the point.

P.W. SINGER and AUGUST COLE:

The two of us didn’t meet until we were in our 30s, but both grew up on a similar diet of science fiction, technothrillers, and big sprawling novels. We’d prepare for summer vacation trips by getting a stack of books from the library, that might range from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War to William Gibson’s Count Zero and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. A classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read on the beach might then be followed by staying up late to cram in just one more chapter from Michael Crichton.

Both of us would go on to become professional writers in the non-fiction world: August as a journalist working the defense beat at places like The Wall Street Journal, and Peter writing books on topics like private military contractors, drones, and cybersecurity. It was this work in the real world of DC policy that we met, as August explored topics like the story of China hacking our fighter jet programs and Peter writing books on the ramifications of cybersecurity becoming a new realm of battle.

But when we decided to team up on a book exploring the future of war and technology, we kept coming back to this summer reading list we had in common. So we set out to write a book that wouldn’t just peer into the potential future, but also try to take readers back to that kind of experience.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, out on June 30, explores what would World War Three be like. The idea that the looming Cold War between the US and China/Russia could ever turn hot is fiction today, but a real risk in the years ahead. After Russian landgrabs in Ukraine, NATO is on its highest alert since the 1980s , while China’s regime newspaper declared “war is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. Indeed, a US Navy P-8 patrol plane was chased away from a Chinese military facility this month…which happens to be the opening scene in our “fiction” despite being written 18 months ago!

The structure of Ghost Fleet reflected this idea of returning to the books we enjoyed . Rather than following one character or a single story thread, the story  follows multiple characters and settings, akin to the structure of Red Storm Rising, World War Z or Game of Thrones. This allows us to cover more ground and play with more “what if’s?,”  as well treat the war itself as a character. But here also, there was a point  in this structure in how fiction can be useful in laying out the underlying truths: the novel lays out how a 21st century war between the great powers would be different than the wars of today. Battles will take place not just on the land, but also at sea and air (where US forces haven’t had to face off against a peer power since 1945), and in two new places since the last world war: space and cyberspace. So to tell the story of the war, you have to dance across the settings in a way beyond anyone character’s single journey.

But what makes Ghost Fleet perhaps something different is we’ve experimented with melding two classic book genres, the technothriller and the nonfiction book. Think of Ghost Fleet as a new kind of “novel,” where the story is backed by 400 endnotes that show how real it all is. Every technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction-seeming, is drawn from the real world. The realistic scenarios and moments that we hope will thrill and chill were actually built by using nonfiction research that included everything from unearthing DARPA contracts to sharing lessons from various Pentagon war-games that we organized. Moreover, we put facts to work for our fictions, including using the story to reveal real world concerns from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain US weapons have already been hacked. Similarly, we met with real people who would fight in such a war (from US Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and Anonymous hackers), which improved the realism but also let us really get to know our characters.

Even the name reflects this approach. “Ghost Fleet” has a cool, ominous sound to it, but it is actually the real nickname of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. These are the old Navy ships kept in mothballs in places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco, just in case we ever need them again; they are the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of retired planes kept in the desert. Those dusty warplanes get their day too in our book.

There is a real world policy question of just why we keep these old ships around, which connects to bigger issues of whether a world war could happen again? But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could it go badly enough that the US would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes? Answering these questions also led us down neat story and plot pathways that are often overlooked when planning for future conflict, like how would the old gear, and the old sailors who know them, relate (or not) to digital age warships and sailors?

It has been rewarding to see how people are reacting to the project so far, which we think reveals that the mix of fiction and nonfiction can be both entertaining and helpful in thinking about the unthinkable. We’ve been able to talk about the real world lessons from the novel with groups that range from 600 Navy officers at the Naval War College to the Defense Science Board, as well as share early versions with readers who range from 4 star Navy Admirals (for the military side) to one of the inventors of the Internet (for the technical side), to the writer of HBO Game of Thrones and producer of Hunger Games (for the entertainment side). The result is perhaps the strangest ever Venn diagram of blurbs and reviews, but hopefully one that entices people to check it out, whether they are a military officer looking for insights into the future, or someone just looking for a read with a beer in hand at the beach. Or maybe both.

So that’s our big, but also classic, idea: that you can enjoy a novel, but also find the fiction “useful.”

—-

Ghost Fleet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book site. Follow P.W. Singer on Twitter. Follow August Cole on Twitter.

This New America

I was in the airport last Friday when the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage came down, and one of the first thoughts I had on that was, “Looks like I picked the right week to go to San Francisco.” And you know what? I was right! The city was, verily, bedecked in rainbow flags and happiness. After my events at ALA on Saturday I went with friends to City Hall, where the pride celebration was in full swing, and watched people being happy, all over the place (plus occasional hippie nudity, because San Francisco). It’s very rare to be in the right place at the right time, when history is actually and genuinely happening around you. But I was, and I was delighted in the happy circumstance that put me there.

I’m even more delighted that my country is now a better place than it was at 9:59am on June 26, when a minority of states still didn’t allow gays and lesbians the simple, basic right of marrying the person whom they loved and wished to spend their life with. Those days are now gone, thankfully, despite a few pockets of resistance, which I don’t suspect will last very long. Texas, as an example, is a place where the Attorney General is telling county clerks they may defy the Supreme Court; it’s also a place where two octogenarian men, together for more than 50 years, became the first same-sex couple to wed in Dallas County. Who do you think history, and Texas, will celebrate more: The two men confirming their decades-long love to each other, or the government official symbolically standing in front of the courthouse door to oppose their right to confirm that love?

Bluntly: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is going down in history as a bigot. So will Texas’ governor and lieutenant governor. So will Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and all the other politicians (and would-be politicians) who are thumping around now, pretending not to understand what it is that the Supreme Court does, or the legitimacy of its rulings under the Constitution, and pretending that their religion makes that feigned lack of understanding all right. Dan Patrick, the Texas Lieutenant Governor, has said “I would rather be on the wrong side of history than on the wrong side of my faith and my beliefs.” Well, Mr. Patrick, you’re not only definitely on the wrong side of history, but you’re also on the wrong side of your professed faith. Jesus never once said “be a bigot in my name.” If you believe He did, you might want to recheck your Bible. That admonition is not there, although the admonition to love your neighbor as yourself is.

On a related topic, this Time magazine article by Rod Dreher on orthodox Christians being “exiles in our own country” struck me as a bit dramatic. Not being in step with the mainstream of American life and opinion does not make you an exile, especially when you suffer no estrangement under the law. When the mainstream of American life did not include the idea that same-sex marriage was a viable thing, which was an opinion different than mine, I was not in exile in my own country — although same-sex couples may have been, as the law estranged them from the rights they should have had under the Constitution, now affirmed by the Supreme Court. The affirmation of those rights did not and does not take away rights from anyone who believes same-sex marriage is wrong. You may still believe they’re wrong; you just can’t stop those couples from getting legally married. Unless you think it should be your right to deprive others of their rights, everything’s the same for you as it was before. And if you do believe it’s your right to deprive others of their rights, then you’re a bigot, whether you cloak it in religion or not.

I suspect that this is the thing Dreher is really worried about, whether he’s aware of it or not — that the perception of certain religious sects will change from them being depositories of rectitude to cisterns of intolerance. Well, this is a fair concern, isn’t it? Over the last twenty years in particular, nearly every American learned that someone they cared about or even loved — a family member, a friend, a co-worker or neighbor or a person they admired — was not straight, or 100% conforming to society’s ideas of gender. Over the last two decades, Americans decided it was more important to tell those people they still loved them and that they deserved the same rights as everyone else, than it was to listen to those people who said, through their words and actions, that these people we loved represented some sort of threat. Your mom is not a threat to America, if she happens to be gay or bisexual. Nor is your dad. Nor your sibling, or your best friend, or Doug from Accounting or Jillian down the street or Ellen DeGeneres. Who are you going to choose to stand with? Your sister, or some dude at a pulpit demanding we believe the bowels of Hell will empty if she marries her girlfriend? Your sister’s girlfriend is awesome! That guy is a jerk!

Which is the thing: the religious sects terrified that they will now lose their moral standing lost that standing long before, when they said, in so many words, in so many actions, that the people we love and know and know to be good, and their desire to have the same rights as everyone else, are what’s wrong with America. Dreher laments we now live in a “post-Christian” America, but he’s wrong. The Americans who are standing with their loved ones and neighbors are in fact doing exactly what Jesus asked them to do, when he said that we should love each other as we love ourselves. It’s possible, however, that we live in a post-accepting-bigotry-cloaking-itself-in-the-raiments-of-Christ America. And, you know. I can live in that America just fine.

Regardless, the America we do live in now lets anyone person marry any other person who they love. I like this America. I am glad I live in it.

The Big Idea: Sam Munson

If I knew nothing else about the book, I would give a thumb up Sam Munson’s novel merely for the title alone: The War Against the Assholes. Fortunately, there’s more to the book than the fabulous title, as Munson explains below.

SAM MUNSON:

What animates The War Against the Assholes philosophically (its author asked, rhetorically and pretentiously)? I am too close to the book to speak with critical authority, here, but I suppose there are two questions or two groups of questions.

Why do clerical, hierarchical ideas of magic dominate our thinking on the subject in literature? From the unfortunate Lucius, protagonist of Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, to the eager students at Hogwarts and Brakebills, we can find a deep-rooted view of magic as governed by learning, by essentially academic ability: mastery of rituals and formulae, penetration into theories of physics and biology, philological skill.  This view — which it is quite reasonable to find so widespread, being, it seems to me, anchored in the real-world history of magic — informs even departures from the trope, where magic that exists outside the ambit of a secret clerisy carries with it a tint of darkness, excites suspicion, and often undoes its practitioners.

As a lifelong poor student and reader of novels of the fantastic, I found this preponderant view fascinating and also provoking. The basic principle of magic, as it has been understood historically and in literature, is the unmediated effectuation of one’s will. It seems psychologically unlikely, to say the least, that defeating the immutable physical laws of the universe would leave one much attached to the reclusive and repetitive tasks scholarship entails.

This is doubly true, it seems to me, in the case of young people, of adolescents – a perennial subject in fantastic works. Here the fidelity of literary magic to historical magic diverges: the magical young appear most often as studious, serious, well-intentioned, and highly moral bearers of a world-shaking imperative (the discovery of which is inseparable from their initiation into magic). The youth of this world, sadly and joyously, are free of such burdens by nature; if they bear them they amount to little more than an affectation. And how could they not? To be young is to be more or less a sociopath, more or less a fragment, more or less nothing; add to this the world-defying power magic by definition brings with it, and the idea of

being at once a young magician and scholarly do-gooder seems like a contradictio in adjecto. I do not want to cite any such figures by name; I do not want to be invidious, here — merely to point out that this is a trope and as such warrants investigation. Why not posit, for example, a theology of magic that rests far more on the ability to harness willpower, irrespective of academic ability? Why not posit a formal theory of magic that does not rest on reliable tools — fetishes or incantations — but rather on the particularities of the magician’s personality? Why would magic, being the effectuation of a will, necessarily be uniform from one practitioner to another?

The magicians who form the narrative core of The War Against the Assholes practice that form of magic — and they and their colleagues suffer massive and violent oppression as a result, albeit oppression totally invisible to larger, non-magical society. Mike Wood, the narrator, is an academic failure, a violent football player; his close colleagues are, for the most part, his equals in animal cunning and suspicion of received authority. Their opponents, the titular assholes, are the academic magicians, servants of authority. This antinomy is of course an oversimplification – compromise, often at a murderous cost, forms another central narrative strand in the book. But the idea of approaching the formal side of building a magic not from a clerical standpoint but from an anticlerical one, I admit, was a task that drew me on and on into the book.

This of course leads into the other central question: whence authority? Whither authority? Does it proceed from expertise or from innate virtue? Does talent justify its own excesses? Is the power to command purely and solely resident in a system or does it spring from the person commanding? The hierarchical world Mike and his colleagues struggle against is opulent — they own, for example, a private magical academy on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, one that obtrudes into an enormous forest in another reality, making them masters in two worlds, not just one. They nepotistically promote their own kind above objectively more talented magicians. And they greet any threat to their authority, even a comparatively mild one, with orders-of-magnitude-greater-than-necessary violence and speed.

Again, this tension is not meant to be taken as a formula for moral understanding: Mike is a child of real-world privilege, as are all of his younger colleagues (his older ones less so), and their insurgency is colored by concomitant anxieties. The war he and his friends conduct is blessed by no obvious superiority to the war being fought against them. Authority comes, as much for Mike as for his opponents, from the will to seize it.

At least he’s not an asshole, though.

—-

The War Against the Assholes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

 

View From a Hotel Window, 6/26/15: San Francisco

It’s a nice view!

Here in town for the American Library Association meeting; I get to hang out with librarians, who are some of my favorite people in the world. Also, rumor is, there might be some celebrating here this weekend. Well, I’m up for that as well.

Don’t expect too much here over the weekend; they’re keeping me busy. But I’ll be back on Monday for sure. See you then.

Love Wins

I’m traveling at the moment so I can’t add much more to this than: Hooray! Marriage for all!

Also: Hey, I’m an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church. I can marry people. I’m just saying.

Here’s the Supreme Court decision. Read it and enjoy.

I’m going to be in San Francisco this weekend. I suspect it’s going to be a hell of a party. I’m delighted I get to be there for it.

Oh! And! I wrote this eleven years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to allow same sex marriage. I’m delighted to say that now it applies in every state.

It’s a great day. I’m glad to be here for it.

I Have a Note From My Brain

It says: “Duuuuuuuuuuuuhhhhhoi.” Which I think means it’s taking the day off? Maybe?

Anyway, yeah. Sorry, it seems like my post-vacation daze has gone on a bit longer than expected. Maybe I’ll have something for you tomorrow. Maybe.

Anyway, how are you?

Can Long Endure, Episode Three of The End of All Things, is Out Now!

It’s Tuesday, and that means another episode of The End of All Things. “Can Long Endure” is now out and available from your favorite eBook retailer. Here’s the official description:

“They signed up to defend humans from hostile aliens, but this group of Colonial Union soldiers finds themselves, instead, repeatedly sent to squelch rebellious human colonies that want to leave the CU. It’s not a sustainable situation. Something has to give.”

Yup, that’s about right. Here’s an excerpt of the story for you. And for the US, here’s a stack of eBook retailers to get it from:

Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks|Kobo. Other countries, please check your local retailers.

For those of you who like the military science fiction side of the Old Man’s War universe, this is your novella — it’s focused on a single squad and features lots of action, adventure and explosions in all their various forms. Plus, you know. Other stuff too.

It’s a good one. I hope you enjoy it!

The Scalzis Go to London

Krissy and I celebrated our 20th anniversary last week, which we felt gave us ample excuse to go on a vacation. For our vacation spot, we chose London, because we had never been and we had always wished to go. So we did! And it was wonderful: We saw all the touristy things, visited with delightful friends, and generally had a very fabulous time.

Would you like to see some of what we did? Sure you would. Which is why I created this Flickr album of our travels there. Enjoy! We did.

Amazon Tweaks Its Kindle Unlimited System. It Still Sucks For KDP Select Authors

Now that I’ve returned to the US and have parked myself in front of the computer again, people are asking me what I think of Amazon’s plan to tweak the way its Kindle Unlimited system pays KDP Select authors. In the past, Amazon would designate a certain amount of cash ($3 million this June, according to this Verge article, although in the comments Annie Bellet quotes a higher figure) as a payment pot, and all KDP Select authors participating in Kindle Unlimited would get a small bit of the pot if someone who downloaded their book read more than 10% of it. This predictably led to authors making short books in order to get to the 10% mark as quickly as possible, and equally predictably diluted the effectiveness of the tactic. It also made authors of longer works complain quite a lot, as they had to compete with bite-sized books for the same tiny bit of the pot.

As a result, Amazon is now tweaking its system so that instead of getting paid when one reaches that 10% marker, KDP select authors will get paid for each page read — a move that will, within the context of the KU system, at least, address the “small book vs. big book” disparity. The system will also define a standard “page” so fiddling with margins and type size won’t fool it, and somehow track how much time you spend on each page, so just clicking through all the pages as quickly as possible won’t do the trick (this makes me wonder what Amazon defines as a decent amount of time to read a page). The short version is: You get paid for what your readers read. If your readers don’t read the whole book, you don’t get paid for the whole book.

I have a lot of questions about how this will play out in theory — will an author get paid if you re-read a book? What about if you go back and re-read a page? Does that count? Doesn’t this mean that authors of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books get really screwed? Not to mention any author who is writing anything other than a page-turning narrative? — but ultimately any objections or praise I might have for this new Amazon model is irrelevant, because of a simple fact:

Amazon is still making KDP Select authors compete against each other for a limited, Amazon-defined pot of money, and no matter how you slice it, that sucks for the authors.

Why? Because Amazon puts an arbitrary cap on the amount of money it’s possible to earn — and not just a cap on what you, as an author, can earn, but what every author in the KDP Select system participating in Kindle Unlimited can make. Every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited can not, among all of them totaled up, make more than what Amazon decides to put into the pot. Why? Because that’s the pot. That’s how much Amazon wants to splash out this month. And the more pages are read in the month, the smaller any bit of the pie that you might get for your pages read becomes. It’s a zero-sum game for every KDP Select author participating in Kindle Unlimited. Next month, who knows what the size of the pot will be? You don’t — only Amazon does. But whatever amount it is, it’s an amount designed to benefit Amazon, not the individual authors.

This is a bad situation for the authors participating — bad enough that ultimately the minutiae of how the money is allocated is sort of aside the point, because the relevant point is: You will never make more for your work than Amazon wants you to make. And yes, just Amazon, as the work KDP Select authors put on Amazon are exclusive to Amazon.

I’m not one of those people who believes Amazon is glowy-red-eye evil — I remind people again that I’ve rather happily had a fruitful relationship with its Audible subsidiary for a number of years — but Amazon is looking out for Amazon first, and when it does, it’s not an author’s friend. There is no possible way in this or any other timeline that I would ever, as a writer, participate in the sort of scheme that Amazon runs with its KDP Select authors on Kindle Prime. I don’t approve of putting a cap on my own earnings (particularly one I have no say on), and I don’t approve of being in a situation where my success as an author comes by disadvantaging other authors, or vice versa. In the system in which I currently participate (i.e., the open market), there is no limit to the amount I can make, and no limit to what any other author can make. It’s a great system! I support it, and so should you.

So, yeah: By page, or by percentage, KDP Select authors on Kindle Unlimited still can’t make more than Amazon says they can. That sucks, and that’s the long and short of it.

Just Putting These Here So They Can Be Part of the Permanent Record

From the day itself:

And then from the next day:

It’s been interesting watching Dylann Roof be, in himself, the very best rebuttal against all the (almost entirely white) people who were desperate for his massacre to be about anything other than what it so very obviously was: racism and racial hatred. All the scrambling and denial, from presidential candidates to news networks to Twitter commenters, all undone by Roof’s insistent, persistent desire to hurt black people. There was no rationalization that stood up to that simple hatred.

Not that there probably still aren’t people who are willing to try to pretzel themselves into arguing it’s something other than racism or racial hatred. So, you know, again, and to be clear: If you are arguing that a white man who clearly held racist beliefs, going into a place where he knew he would find black people, waiting an hour in pretend fellowship with them, announcing he was there to shoot black people, shooting them while spouting racist comments at them while they begged him to stop killing them, reloading several times, and then when arrested declaring that the reason he was killed all those innocent people was to start a race war, wasn’t motivated by racism and racial hatred,

a) you are so very laughably wrong;

b) you are being as racist as you can possibly be.

Dylann Roof is a racist. His attack was a racist attack. The denial of his racist attack being racist is racist. There were an appalling number of people being racist in the aftermath of this fundamentally racist act. And despite everything, there are people continuing to be racist about it now. I am continually amazed at how difficult it was, and is, for people to recognize that this was a racist attack, by a racist. I’m continually amazed by everyone who still has a hard time admitting that this country is still racist as hell, and especially toward black people.

All of the above is stupidly obvious. And yet some people choose to be stupid about this. This willful ignorance embarrasses me as an American. I was in the UK when all of this happened. No one over there had any doubt what it was about, as far as I could see. And when it was made clear to them that I wasn’t intentionally stupid about it either, the attitude I received the most was: Sympathy. The UK has its own social crosses to bear, to be sure. They easily enough recognized the one my country bears.

I’m very sure most of us knew immediately why Dylann Roof did what he did. It’s just that so many the people who argued so very hard against the obvious are those who want to control the levers of our politics and discourse. It’s embarrassing to me that so many very clearly intelligent people worked so mightily to pretend this killing was something it was not. It’s ironic how difficult Roof made it for them, and gratifying that this very fact exposed their mendacity for what it is: Ridiculous, risible, and racist.

Note to WSFS Members: Killing the Best Novelette Hugo is a Terrible Idea

(Note: Hugo neepery follows. But not the usual Hugo neepery! This is entirely new Hugo neepery! However, if you’re bored with Hugo neepery in general, then avoid this.)

Every year at Worldcon, there’s a business meeting where World Science Fiction Society members may, among other things, offer up amendments to the WSFS constitution. A very active set of amendments relate to the Hugo Awards, as might be expected because the Awards are the most public-facing thing the WSFS does, arguably excepting the Worldcon convention itself. This year there are four proposed amendments relating to the Hugos, for example.

One of these proposed amendments is for “Best Saga” (You may see the proposed amendment, as well as all the other proposed amendments this year, here. The “Best Saga” proposal is “B.1.3″). The amendment proposes to create a Hugo category to award continuing series of works whose total word counts exceed 400,000 words; any series with a new installment in any particular calendar year would be eligible for consideration in that year. So, for example, if the Best Saga Hugo already existed, then the Old Man’s War series would be eligible for the 2015 calendar year award, because the whole series clocks in at over 400,000 words, and I’ll have a new installment this year (The End of All Things).

I have thoughts about the desirability and necessity of a Best Saga award, but independent of that, the creators of the “Best Saga” amendment would “make room” for the Best Saga Hugo by rejiggering the short fiction Hugo categories, notably by paring them down from the three current categories (Short Story, for stories up to 7.5k words; Novelette, for stories between 7.5k and 17.5k words; Novella, for stories between 17.5k and 40k words), to two: Short Story (up to 10k words) and Novella (10k to 40k). This snips out the novelette category entirely.

Speaking as someone who writes very little novelette-length fiction, and could very obviously personally benefit from a Best Saga Hugo category, I very definitely oppose this proposed amendment. Let me explain why.

1. It is unnecessary to get rid of the Best Novelette category in order to “make room” for the Best Saga category. I’m unaware of the need in the WSFS constitution to limit the number of Hugo Awards given out; it’s not a zero sum game. Speaking as someone who has both emceed the Hugos and sat in its audience, I understand the desirability of not having an infinite proliferation of Hugo categories, because the ceremony can be long enough as it is. But that’s not a good enough reason to give one fiction category the axe at the expense of another, nor can I think of another good reason why the inclusion of the “saga” category requires the doom of another fiction category. It is, literally, a false dichotomy.

This false dichotomy is bad in itself, but also offers knock-on badness down the road. For example:

2. It privileges novel writing over short fiction writing. Bud Sparhawk, a writer and human I admire rather a bit, complained to me once (in the context of the Nebulas) that calling the Best Novel award “the big one,” as many people often do, is an implicit disrespect of the art of short fiction writing, and of the skills of those who write to those lengths. You know what? He’s right. Speaking as someone who finds writing novels relatively easy and writing shorter lengths relatively harder — and as someone who has needed more time to write a shorter-length work than I needed to write a novel because of those native skill sets — I’m well aware that the skills required to write short are no less impressive than those required to write long.

Also, speaking as best novel Hugo award winner: Would you argue to me that I am more essential to the field of science fiction and fantasy than, say, Ted Chiang, who is inarguably one of the pre-eminent SF/F writers of the 21st century, and who has not published a novel? Am I more essential than Eugie Foster, whose all-too-short canon of work is in short fiction? Or any other of a host of brilliant contemporary writers who write to shorter lengths? Do I and my work somehow trump grandmasters like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, whose many Hugos come not in the novel category but in categories of shorter works?

Novels aren’t inherently better than shorter works; I’m not at all convinced they need another category at the expense of those shorter works.

3. It privileges the established writer over the newer writer. Almost by definition, the authors who are eligible for the “Best Saga” award are very likely be writers who are already successful enough to have a long-running series and the ability to publish in those series on a recurring basis. It’s theoretically possible to have someone toiling away on a series in utter obscurity and suddenly emerge with a knockout installment that would pop that writer up into “Best Saga” consideration, but as a practical matter, it’s almost certainly more likely than not that the nominees in the category would be those authors with perennially popular series — people, to be blunt, like me and a relatively few other folks, who are already more likely to have won the “genre success” lottery than others.

Meanwhile, short fiction continues to be a really good way to find new writers and new voices and new perspectives. For many of these new voices, award consideration and recognition continues to be a fine way to raise their profile in the field. Culling out a short fiction award to benefit an award for series is very much offering an advantage to the successful few at the expense of the emerging many. I think that’s wrong.

(NB: The “Best Saga” proposal points out anthology series like “Wild Cards” are eligible, but I don’t know if offering up an example edited by the current most successful novelist in all of science fiction and fantasy actually invalidates the point, especially if in those cases the Hugo goes to the anthology editor rather than the (numerous) individual authors, as I suspect it would. As a practical matter, I see this benefiting the already-successful more than the up-and-comers by a considerable margin.)

4. It ignores the fact we are living in a new golden age of sf/f short fiction. Aside from the traditional magazines that already existed for short work, think of all the venues for short fiction that have blossomed online in the last decade and a half. Think of all the anthologies Kickstarted or otherwise crowdsourced, and all the writers using Patreon or other direct-compensation systems to connect with fans. Think of all the micro- and mini- and indie publishers putting out short fiction anthologies and collections. Think of all the writers self-publishing and taking their short work directly to fans and readers. Think of the wide breadth of voices and stories and writers that have come to market in the last several years.

Now, right now, is without question one of the best eras for short fiction in the history of the science fiction and fantasy genre… and we’re proposing to cull out an award available for short fiction so we can give another award to novels? That’s not just silly, it’s almost breathtakingly short-sighted. It would be a community turning its back on one of its greatest engines of creation.

Finally, I have this problem with the proposed amendment:

5. It feels like a sneak attack on short fiction, under the cover of an unrelated proposal. I don’t suspect that those who proposed it meant it that way — I’m sure they were simply trying to craft a proposed amendment that would attract the most votes. Even if that were the case, however, as a practical matter this proposed amendment, under the guise of doing one thing (creating a new Hugo category), is in fact doing other things (disposing of a short fiction Hugo category and reorganizing the remaining short fiction categories in ways that don’t necessarily make sense for storytelling purposes) and doing so in a manner which suggests that of course it would have to be done this way in order to make space for their new Hugo.

Well, no, it doesn’t. If you want to propose a “Best Saga” Hugo, then do that. If you also wish to get rid of the “Best Novelette” category, then you can do that too. But these are two separate things, and each deserves a separate argument on their respective merits. There is no systematic reason to combine the two proposals. Moreover, as a matter of rhetoric, the way the current “Best Saga” proposal is built makes it seem like the proposers are trying slip under the table a move to hollow out the Hugo’s ability to honor short fiction, by distracting the potential voters with another issue entirely. It’s a bad way to do things.

For that reason, even if I were inclined to consider a Best Saga Hugo award, I could not and would not endorse this particular proposal for its creation. Whether it was intended to be or not, it is an attack on short fiction, on the merits of short fiction as a class of expression, and on the writers of short fiction. It’s not worth creating a Hugo to benefit the relative advantaged few, if it means taking away a Hugo from a much larger pool of people who could benefit from a nomination — or a win.

This is a bad proposed amendment, and I hope it fails.

(P.S.: If you’re interested in my thoughts on a “Best Saga” Hugo on its own theoretical merits, I’ll put those into the first comment in the comment thread.)

Back in the US: A Housekeeping Note

I’m back home after a long, lovely week in London with my bride on the occasion of our 20th anniversary. More on that later.

Housekeeping notes:

1. The comment threads, which I had trimmed back to being open only for a couple of days whilst I was away, are now open to their usual two weeks length, so if you wanted to leave a comment on a post from the last week but were temporarily limited, go to it.

2. I’ve taken down my “I’m on vacation” email autoresponder, so my mail situation is now back to normal (i.e., the usual haphazard “why do I have so much email whyyyyyyyy” state of affairs).

3. That said, you might want to give me a couple of days to get completely back up to speed, because of the whole “returning from vacation and dazedly reintegrating back into the real world” thing. Tuesday! Tuesday would be a fine day to assume I’m fully back in the swing of things.

Thanks.

To Be the Anti-Scalzi, and Other Foolishness

From earlier today on Twitter:

And no, I’m not going to bother to name these fellows. It should be obvious to some of you, and the rest of you are better off being in blissful ignorance. I will say this: Writers — and indeed anyone else — when you decide to define yourself as being in opposition to someone else, then you give that person immense power over you. That person doesn’t have to have anything to do with you, and often won’t; you’re the one who has to do all the work, tracking their positions and attitudes and setting your own life in opposition. In effect, you’re letting them live in your brain, all the time, without cost. Whereas they will think of you only when they have no other choice.

How much better for you to instead to simply work on being the best possible version of yourself, which requires no concern about what anyone else does, or says, or is. It is what I do. It’s worked so far.

Comments off because I’m on vacation.

The Big Idea: John Ayliff

In Belt Three, author John Ayliff posits the end of the world as we know it. Do the survivors feel fine? Well, it depends on your definition of “fine.”

JOHN AYLIFF:

Aliens threaten to destroy the Earth in any number of sf books and movies. In most cases, daring space heroes defeat them and all returns to normal. In the rare cases when they don’t, it usually spells the end of the human race, at least as an independent civilisation; individuals might survive, but only by hitching a ride to safety with more benevolent aliens.

The big idea of Belt Three is that neither of these extremes happens. By cosmic coincidence, the Worldbreakers arrive during a quite narrow window in human development: we’re not advanced enough to defeat them, but we’re advanced enough to survive. Three hundred years later, people live in cities built into the asteroid belts that once made up the planets. The Worldbreakers are still around, destroying these debris pieces one by one (they’re slow but thorough), and populations scramble to evacuate whenever they approach. To build the world of Belt Three I tried to imagine what life would be like under these conditions.

The details of the evacuation of Earth would leave a large mark on the society that would emerge. I’d read somewhere that there may have been a human population bottleneck around 70,000 years ago, in which the human race was reduced to a few thousand individuals, and I decided that a similar thing happened here: only around a thousand families managed to evacuate in time. These near-future refugees had more resources than our prehistoric ancestors, though, and they also managed to save banks of genetic material from a larger population, and the technology to create clones from this material. However, a flaw in the hurriedly-designed cloning system meant that the clones were sterile. Three centuries later, the most important social divide is between the “true-born” ruling class and the “tank-born” majority, and the mythology of the thousand surviving families is an important part of true-born identity.

Secondly, the way people understand their place in history wouldn’t be as straightforward as “alien robots destroyed the planets and now we’re living in the debris.” That’s too cold for most people to find comforting. Instead, various religious groups offer their own explanations for the Worldbreakers; and because these religions pull in different directions, the society-wide consensus has become a sort of agnostic shrug: “No one knows what the Worldbreakers are.”

I find religion fascinating, and I wanted to make it an important part of my worldbuilding. I decided that creating a single dominant religion would be too neat, so I invented several small religious groups. The one that features most prominently is Scriberism, which teaches that the Worldbreakers are angels sent by God to dismantle the universe and bring the spiritually pure into paradise. At the highest level of the religion, believers purify themselves then board ships that fly into a Worldbreaker’s energy beam. Other religions include the Arkites, who interpret the Worldbreakers as a second Flood, which will eventually end and reveal a new set of planets; the Eternalists, who believe that the planets are destroyed and recreated in an endless cycle; and the True Belters, who believe that the planets are a myth and the universe has always consisted of belts and asteroid cities.

Outside of religion, society’s received wisdom would reflect its circumstances in more subtle ways, common assumptions that no one questions because no one thinks about them at all. Whatever the Worldbreakers are, everyone knows that they can’t be fought, and that the human race is living through its last few hundred years. That’s enough time to grab the best life you can for yourself and (if you’re a true-born) your children, but not long enough to think about grand projects for improving the world. For someone who’s grown up with the idea of the doomed human race, it wouldn’t be frightening, and might even be a source of comfort; nothing you do really matters, so there’s nothing to worry about. When one character has this belief challenged, they react not with hope but with bafflement.

That’s some of the thinking that went in to the background of the novel. In the foreground is the idea that there are always a few individuals who don’t accept society’s commonly accepted wisdom. The main character isn’t such an individual (at least not at first), but the pirate who kidnaps him is: she knows it’s impossible to strike back against the Worldbreakers, but she’s on a personal quest do do so anyway, and she’ll tear down any part of belt-dwelling society that tries to stop her.

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Belt Three: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iBooks|Kobo

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