Yearly Archives: 2006

A Fun Little Statistic for You

Not counting this entry or anything I write tomorrow, I’ve posted about 300,000 words to the Whatever in 2006, which comes out to about 825 words a day, every day. Add to that what I expect is an additional 200,000 words or so I wrote over at By The Way, and that’s roughly half a million words I’ve written online this year. Which is, you know, a lot.

But wait! There’s more! Add to this 92,000 words for The Last Colony, 12,700 for “The Sagan Diary,” 7,500 for “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story,” about 10,000 for reviews/columns for OPM, 25,000 in DVD reviews for the Dayton Daily News, and another 10,000 for various newspaper/magazine articles, and you come up with a bit over 650,000 words written by yours truly over the course of the year, or about 1,785 words a day, every day.

Which puts it in perspective. 650K words seems like a lot — that’s six novels and a YA — but 1.8k a day? I can do that. And, uh, apparently I did.

My Favorite Albums of 2006

Because I know you’re wondering: They are Black Holes and Revelations by Muse, and Begin to Hope by Regina Spektor. Why? Well, I’ll tell you, with the help of multimedia aids.*

First, Muse, performing their single “Starlight”:

I like this album because it pretty perfectly fills a long-absent slot in my list of musical needs, which is the slot of “Vaguely ridiculous and sf-obsessed rock band whose sheer force of operatic musicality overwhelms any feeling they’ve watched too many episodes of Doctor Who for their own good.” The last band that really filled this slot with any competence was Queen; I thought The Darkness might manage it, but they totally cratered with that last album. But Black Holes and Revelations is the gift that just keeps on giving. On one hand, it’s sort of deeply silly, and just the sort of pseudo-space opera that you might expect out of, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer, back in the day . On the other hand, unlike ELP or any other number of prog-rock bands of the 70s who took a swan dive into their own assholes with their over-read but under-comprehended ambitions, Muse figured out that along with all your old-school SF reading, you actually have to write sharp, smart pop songs that people can jerk their bodies around to.

And as they say, that makes all the difference. This album is packed with crankable pop tunes, with immediately catchy bits strategically deployed to hook into your memory center, from the “Mony Mony” bassline and piano cascade of “Starlight” to the Cure “Disintegration”-era bass and drum line of “Map of the Problematique.” And even when Muse finally goes off the rails and commits the heinous act of true rock opera, as they do with the closing track “Knights of Cydonia,” they at least keep it to just over six minutes — and, as the video of the song shows, the boys are entirely aware how deep they are into the cheese. But they commit to it, you know? And it works.

I think this may be their most successful album (they’re apparently huge in the UK) so part of me fears the unholy mess their next album could be, now that they will be entirely released from the need of having to rein in their whims. But that’s a problem for the future. For now, yeah, this works for me big.

Second, Regina Spektor, performing “Fidelity”:

Folks, I have a really embarrassing crush on Regina Spektor, partly because I have a notable weakness for smart and pretty Russian Jewish girls anyway (just ask my college girlfriend). Just so that’s out there. However, even without my hormones hammering away at my critical faculties, Begin to Hope would be an album I’d be interested in, because — when she’s not just being quirky for quirky’s sake — Spektor genuinely captures what it’s like to love and be loved.

“Fidelity” is a lovely example of this, as she describes both falling in love and being frightened of what it means for her — the desire for love pitted against the desire not to get hurt by someone else, and Spektor (or the character she’s playing) in the middle of these desires, detailing what it’s doing to her. The video, which somewhat unusually complements the song to which it’s attached, takes the theme of the song and uses it as part of a storytelling arc, in which a broken heart literally releases the singer from her indecision and allows her to love. It’s a lovely and complex idea, which is not exactly what one expects to see in a video these days.

Later on in the album, in “On The Radio,” Spektor manages possibly one of the best encapsulations of what it means to love someone else that I’ve seen in a while:

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

I’m not typically one of those writers who draws direct inspiration from music while I write, but I will say that this particular verse, and the song “Fidelity,” were strongly on my mind when I was writing “The Sagan Diary,” because much of TSD is about Jane Sagan trying to describe how she feels love, and in particular love for John Perry. These songs were actually useful for me, because they were on topic with what I was trying to write, and at some points, what I was having difficulty getting out. I’ll have to send Miss Spektor a copy, clearly; she wasn’t the muse of the story, but she helped me get at what the muse was trying to say to me.

For all that I do confess a mild exasperation with Spektor, in that I think she settles for cleverness at times where I think she should be aiming for something else. “On the Radio” is actually an example of this — the second verse is one that I’ve clearly engraved into my brain, but the first is mostly clever surrealism in which the main virtues of the images she pops up seem to be that Spektor can make them rhyme with the other images. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it means the song is hopelessly thematically unbalanced. I love the song, mind you, but I’m aware of its flaws.

While I’m vaguely scared of what Muse’s next album will be, I’m very interested in what Spektor has up her sleeve. The artist Spektor reminds me a bit of is Jane Siberry, who made a series of emotionally complex but fragmentary and imperfect albums, and then got it all together and knocked it out of the park with When I Was a Boy, which is a devastatingly gorgeous meditation on life and death that I think is one of the best albums of the 1990s. I think Spektor is still in her fragmentary stage, and I’m looking forward to the one album of hers that entirely knocks me on my ass. In the meantime Begin to Hope is still one of my two favorite albums of 2006, which should suggest what I think I have to look forward to from Spektor.

Now: What music did you love in 2006? Tell me! I yearn to purchase new music!

(* I’ll note that embedding the videos for Muse and Regina Spektor I am, strictly speaking, violating copyright. But here’s the thing — these videos have been on YouTube for months, and YouTube isn’t exactly low-profile, nor does it hesitate to remove videos at the request of the copyright owners. After a certain point, I rather strongly suspect that if a video from a high-profile artist remains on YouTube, it’s because someone who can make a decision about it has decided that it should stay up. Which is to say I’m not feeling particularly guilty about embedding them at this point. And anyway, I bought Begin to Hope after watching the “Fidelity” video on YouTube, which suggests something, now, doesn’t it. Also, of course, if you check out this stuff and these artists and like them, then you should buy the albums. You guys know how I feel about these things.)

Books to Spend Your Gift Cards On

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All this talk about marketing and publicist guidelines and so on reminds me that there’s a stack of books on my desk that I’ve been meaning to chat about for a while but which I’ve neglected to because I’ve been all about me recently. Well, enough about me, let’s talk about some of these books for a while.

1. The Blonde, by Duane Swierczynski — Swierczynski’s a man after my own heart because he’s clearly a follower of the Theory of First Sentences, which states that the first sentence of your book damn well better grab your reader by the throat and then drag their eyes down the rest of the page. Anyone’s who’s read The Android’s Dream will tell you that I’m a subscriber of this theory myself, so it’s nice to see another member of the secret club. No, I’m not going to tell you the sentence. You should read it yourself. I will tell you the tagline on the back of the book, though: “It’s your typical love story: Boy meets girl. Girl kidnaps boy. Boy loses girl and is pursued by a professional killer carrying a decapitated head in a gym bag.” Boy, if I had a dollar for every time that happened to me.

Anyway, this is a fun hard-boiled thriller with just the tiniest dash of science fiction dropped in, and you’ll like it or I’ll send ferrets to chew off your toes. No, really. I will. I’ve just roped Swierczynski into an Author Interview, so you’ll have a chance to learn a little more about him in the next couple of weeks. But in the meantime, check this one out.

2. Hart & Boot & Other Stories, by Tim Pratt — Speaking of Author Interviews, another fellow I’ll harangued into an interview is Tim Pratt, and a good thing too, since I’m on a short story kick and this is a fine collection of a baker’s dozen of his stories. So I plan to learn all his secrets and suck his brain dry and leave him an enervated husk. Don’t tell him; it’s meant to be a surprise. The title story of this collection, incidentally, was selected for The Best American Short Stories 2005 anthology by Michael Chabon. Yeah, I don’t know who he is, either. But he does have pretty good taste, apparently.

3. Trial of Flowers, by Jay Lake — I’m a little behind on this one, since it came out in September, and I actually read it after Mainspring, Jay’s upcoming novel from Tor (which I liked quite a bit). I like this one too; one of the things I find interesting about it is how different it is from Mainspring, in various interesting ways. I think of Jay a bit like I think of Elizabeth Bear: writers who apparently won’t be satisfied until they write in every possible sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy. This is not a criticism, especially since (so far, at least) Jay and Bear are showing they have the chops for it. I think it also means that fans of Jay Lake’s work are ultimately fans of Jay Lake, and like the idea the he sprints after his muse no matter what direction she wanders off to.

4. Dreadful Skin, by Cherie Priest — This one’s not out until March, so I won’t go into too much detail now, but suffice to say that my reader crush on Cherie continues unabated. Don’t worry, my wife knows. And approves! Because she likes to read Cherie too. Remember that while you’re waiting, you can read the first third at the Subterranean Press Web site.

5. The Future is Queer, edited by Richard Labonte and Lawrence Schimel — What? An anthology of queer science fiction? Dude, that’s so gay. It’s also pretty good, although I have to confess that outside of Neil Gaiman and editor Lawrence Schimel, I’m entirely unfamiliar with the folks in this anthology. This is a feature, not a bug — it’s nice to read people I haven’t read yet — and I expect it says more about my need to read more widely in SF than the obscurity of the authors in the collection, since people in it have won Arthur C. Clarke and Tiptree awards, and have been nominated for the Nebula. I am abashed in my ignorance. I’m working to correct it.

6. Trouble Magnet, by Alan Dean Foster — Someone at Del Rey unwittingly has my number, because I feel about Alan Dean Foster pretty much the way I feel about the rock band Journey, which is to say he’s someone whose work I gorged on in my younger years and enjoyed so much that even today my residual affection for the author inclines me to enjoy his work fairly independent of the work itself. Incidentally, I think this says something very positive about Foster, because something like that doesn’t actually happen without talent. Foster has this science fiction thing down, he gives fine value for the money, and you walk away satisfied with the reading experience in no small part because Foster is extremely competent at the writing craft, and that baseline competence is, alas, always underrated (as it was, incidentally, with Journey, the members of which, individually, were amazing musicians). Now, clearly, I understand that not everyone wants a Journey-like experience in their science fiction literature; that’s fine. Just means more for me.

Hey, if there are any books written in the last year or upcoming that you’d like to plug, the comment thread is a fine place to do it. This is a non-self-pimping thread, however: Promote other people’s good works, if you would. You’ll have plenty of opportunities for self-pimpery here at other times, trust me.

And Now, On an Entirely Self-Serving Note

Hey, now that I think about it, why wasn’t I tagged by Microsoft for their nifty “here’s a laptop with some Vista on it” promotion? I totally have a higher Technorati ranking than most of these dudes! I get 25,000 visitors a day! I’ve got a punchy, engaging prose style! Clearly, there was an error in the selection process. They should send me that laptop with Vista on it. Also, Office 2007. And an Xbox 360 with the optional HD-DVD drive and Gears of War. And a pony. Which I know is not something that Microsoft usually produces or markets, but, you know. They have to make it up to me.

Indeed, I don’t know why I’m not entirely flooded by tech gadgets from tech publicists and marketeers all the time. I am the disposable income demographic. That’s all I’m saying. Tech folks, you know where I am, and you know how to get your stuff to me. I’ll be waiting. Oh, yes. Waiting.

World Domination via Blog Marketing: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Dean Esmay (who has a new book out, incidentally — congratulations, Dean!) pointed to my Publicist Guidelines yesterday as part of a larger column about a recent Microsoft blogger publicity attempt, in which Microsoft and its PR company Edelman shipped off bitchin’ new laptops with Windows Vista on them to a selected number of bloggers so they could try out the new OS — and, oh, yeah, they could keep the laptops after they were done looking at Vista.

This incensed geek overlord Joel Spolsky, who accused Microsoft of trying to bribe bloggers, which in turn prompted Esmay to tell Spolsky to take a nice cold shower. Now Microsoft is taking the position that, uh, the bloggers should, like, you know, give back the laptops they were told they could keep, a position which, strangely, some of them find annoying. Some intend to keep the thing (or give it to family or friends) and others are going to auction it off.

There are two things here. First, Microsoft wasn’t trying to bribe the bloggers, it was trying to overwhelm their tiny little brain circuits by throwing such sweet swag at them that the bloggers would explode with joy all over their blogs, and also mention Vista. Speaking as someone who spent years in the fetid swag pits of movie reviewing, giving away a computer as swag is excessive but not entirely outside the realm of publicity strategies. Excessive though it may be, I see it as basically harmless, as bloggers tend to be deliriously transparent about these things, and everyone with a brain larger than the size of a walnut is going to internally adjust their bias filters as soon as the blogger writes “Dude, Microsoft sent me this.”

I’m more interested in Spolsky’s cri de coeur about the evils of marketing in the blogosphere. Spolsky’s main concern seems to be that Microsoft is corrupting the credibility of the whole blog world by its nefarious attempts at publicity. I’m not especially persuaded by this line of thinking, first because I’m not sure how Microsoft is acting differently than any other corporation trying to convince consumers to buy its latest product. How dare Microsoft try to generate conversation in its products! It’s just a plot to get people to buy Vista! Well, yes. That’s indeed the point.

Leaving aside the idea of Microsoft being pure, unmitigated evil that destroys everything it touches, Spolsky is falling victim of a series of misapprehensions. First to the misapprehension that the blog world has monolithic standards on anything, which it doesn’t, second to the misapprehension that there was a halcyon time when the people who wrote blogs steadfastly refused the predations of commerce, which there wasn’t, third to the misapprehension that the blog world, as a whole, has any measurable standard of credibility, which is news to me, and fourth to the misapprehension that blog writers ought to have some obligation to act in a professional manner or only write about particular things in a particular manner, which, believe me, they surely do not. If the blogosphere has a motto, it would be “You’re Not The Boss of Me,” and Joel Spolsky is just as much not the boss as anyone else. His ability to dictate the policies of the blogosphere end at the borders of his own blog.

Likewise, I think Spolsky is deeply undervaluing one aspect of the blog world, which is that the sheer mass and diversity of the blogoverse means that it’s difficult for anyone to get away with much of anything. Microsoft decides to hand out free PCs; here comes Spolsky (and others) to complain about it. The result is that the publicity spin of the event is already out of Microsoft’s hands and curving away in an unexpected fashion. This is how the blog world works, precisely because it isn’t a monolith. Also, Spolsky appears to be under the impression that blog readers are stupid, and they don’t recognize blatant publicity handwaving when they see it, and neglect to factor accordingly. In this he is just as far behind the times as the marketers who are under the impression they can somehow control the blog dialogue about a product by putting it in blogger hands.

Now, Spolsky should know this already because he nabbed the same Sprint phone offer I did, hated the phone, and crapped all over it. Spolsky worries that getting a nice toy will cause some bloggers to feel some sort of reciprocity toward the toy giver, but inasmuch as he himself stands as an example of how that doesn’t work, I’m not entirely sure why he feels that other bloggers will fall into the trap he himself avoided, or why the blogger’s readership won’t see through transparent and blatant marketing for what it is.

I think Spolsky’s big problem is that he doesn’t like being seen as a dancing monkey by tech marketers and has decided not to play their games any more. This is of course fine; good for him. I support his lifestyle choice and wish him all the best. It should not imply that bloggers who are trying out tech doodads are being turned into zombie marketeers for the loss-leader price of a shiny new toy, or that, even if they are, their readers are guilelessly swallowing the lines these zombie blogger marketeers are feeding out. People aren’t entirely stupid, and the blog world shows a startlingly robust tendency toward overall transparency. No one in the blog world, blogger or reader, gets gulled unless they want to.

Since Dean Esmay points to my publicist guidelines as an example of perfectly ethical blogger behavior when it comes to marketing, it’s worth asking what I would do, if Microsoft asked me if I wanted the shiny new laptop with the Vista operating system on it. My first impulse is that I would ask if I could just get a copy of Vista Ultimate instead, because I already have several computers in the house, including the new one, which is more than Vista-ready. Also, as a practical matter, it’s useless to talk about an OS without talking about the process of installing it, so sending me a computer with it already installed is missing the point. If Microsoft insisted that I take the computer, after I was done using it I’d probably give it to my daughter and then take the computer she’s currently using and donate it either to her school or the local library.

Would this mean Microsoft is trying to use me? Well, duh. They’re trying use me just as much as book publishers are trying to use me when they send me book to mention in the Whatever, or DVD distributors are trying to use me in my guise as a DVD reviewer. This is axiomatic. Moreover, I am trying to use them as well. Why did I start reviewing music when I was in college? Because I was broke and it was a way to get free music. In the late 90s when I seriously got into video games, I started up a video game reviewing site (Gamedad) because in addition to offering a service that didn’t yet exist (reviews with clueless parents in mind), it also allowed me to get all the games I wanted at no cost to me. Today, I talk about books here on the Whatever and do author interviews on By The Way not only because I want to promote really excellent authors and books, but because — much to the despair of my wife, who lives to fight clutter — I also get tons of books coming my way, many of which I would not have known about otherwise (I still buy books, too, since I like giving money to writers I like. More clutter. More despair from my wife).

As far as technology is concerned, I am interested in it and do write about it, so being approached by any tech company to try out their wares just means I have more things to play with and write about. I’m not going to be corrupted if they don’t their toys back because, honestly. My price is so much higher than that.

Professional Rejection

A question in e-mail:

I’d be curious to find out what the rate of rejection to acceptance is among your professional writers. Would it be different for you from your commercial work, or the same?

This is actually two questions: What is the rejection rate among professional writers, and how does the rejection rate for my commercial work (by which I assume is meant the work I do for corporations) compare with my rejection rate otherwise.

As to what the rejection rate is for a pro writer, I think it really depends on the writer, and the circumstances. Some writers bang out a very large number of stories (if they’re writing fiction) or queries (if they’re writing non-fiction) and start sending these out to a very large list of editors. These people get rejected a lot — and they expect to, which is why they send out such a high volume of stories/queries. But if they’re good, something is likely to stick, and then they’ve got a gig. Other writers may choose to be more selective and send out fewer stories/queries and thus have relatively fewer rejections than that other fellow above, yet still overall get the same amount of work. As for me, I almost never get work rejected, but that’s because I almost never look for work, I let work find me instead. But I probably don’t work more or less than the other two writers above, either, presuming we’re all of equal competence when it comes to writing.

(This, incidentally, answers the second question: I get my commercial work by clients coming to me, so my rejection rate is really low. My corporate rejection rate is in line with my “creative” rejection rate, but that’s because I’m weird and don’t send out my work all that much. If I did things non-weirdly, my “creative” rejection rate would be quite a bit higher.)

I mention this to make a point that from a professional point of view, rejection rates don’t matter; what matters is if you’re finding the amount of work that suits your interest in (and capability for) writing. If you’re getting rejected 50% of the time but the 50% of stuff that gets accepted keeps you busy, great. If you’re getting rejected 90% of the time but the 10% that gets accepted keeps you busy, great. How much you get rejected doesn’t matter. Nobody other than you is keeping score that way. What score is being kept (and there’s not much of it) is kept by how much you’re published, and whether what you’re publishing is good.

Let me get back to me for a minute. I don’t get rejected much today, but that’s only because I don’t query or send out work much. If I were to send out queries or stories like normal, sane writers, my rejection statistics would be, I expect, fairly high. I say this with some authority because when I was pitching stories and queries, my rejection rate was fairly high. I used to freelance for the Chicago Sun-Times; I wrote music features for that paper my senior year of college. Every week I’d get a copy of the Chicago Reader and find out which bands were coming to town, and then I’d call up the features editor and just walk down the list of bands. Some of them she had no interest in; some of them their on-staff guy was already dealing with. I would pitch nine stories (or so) for every one that she took, and I made enough money from the gig to pay my rent and at least some of my tuition bill my senior year.

This told me two things: One, a high rejection rate doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting the work you need; two, spending any amount of time worrying about rejection is foolish. When my editor didn’t want a story, I moved along to the next story idea. It was good training, both in dealing with the ego issues (i.e., rejection isn’t personal failure, it’s just rejection) and understanding that the writing business is actually a business, and one of the best ways to deal with it is as a business.

Now, I think writers do well to minimize their rejection rate when possible, and this is achieved through the usual tricks and tips of knowing one’s markets and creating stories/queries that are actually interesting to an editor. Also, of course, if you’re just spamming editors with hundreds of story ideas in the hope they’ll pick one, if only to get you to stop bugging them, you’re going to get yourself blacklisted from a market. Use your brains, people, that’s what brains are there for. If you’re sending out stories and queries in an intelligent fashion, you’ll likely be fine.

So in short: How much pro writers get rejected isn’t really relevant. What’s relevant is the work. Readers don’t see the rejection, they see the work. Focus on the work, not on the rejection.

Android’s Dream Accolade

The literary site Bookgasm declares The Android’s Dream one of the five best science fiction books of 2006:

Straight, fun sci-fi adventures are hard to come by these days, and Scalzi has done an awesome job with this one, with great characters, plotting and dialogue wrapped up by a plot that always stays 10 steps ahead of the readers.

Neat. Congratulations also to my pals David Louis Edelman and Toby Buckell, whose books made this list as well.

Fun trivia fact: Bookgasm posted this list at 8:19 am; I found it at 8:24 and posted this a couple of minutes later. This is my ego search kung fu, and it is strong.

My 2007 Literary Output: A Review

What will you see from me in 2007, and what won’t you see from me in 2007, but I will be working on, nonetheless? Here’s what I know I’m doing, so far:

Stuff coming out in 2007 that I have dates for:

1. Old Man’s War (mass market paperback edition), January 2007: Those of you waiting for OMW to come out in the supermarket racks, here you go!

2. The Sagan Diary, February 2007: As most of you know, this is a novelette (it comes out to about 100 pages) written from the point of view of Jane Sagan, one of the major characters in my Old Man series. It’ll be available in hardcover and in deluxe leatherbound editions. Both are limited editions, the leatherbound version more so than the other. This novelette is almost entirely different, stylistically, than anything else I’ve ever written, so those of you who pick it up are going to see a side of my writing you haven’t seen before. It’s good, trust me. It’s just different.

3. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop Into a Coffeeshop: Scalzi on Writing, March 2007: My book on writing and the writing life is now going out in early March, I think, and should be a lot of fun; it collects up a number of essays on writing originally published here on the Whatever, including some that are no longer archived on the site, so the book will be the best way of seeing them. This is a signed limited edition hardcover.

4. The Last Colony, May 2007: The third and for now final book in the Old Man series, which reunites John Perry and Jane Sagan, and pits them against, oh, most of the entire universe. You know how it is. I think this book finishes off this particular series in a really compelling way; I like it a lot, and I suspect I’ll be promoting my brains out over it. This will be a hardcover release.

5. The Ghost Brigades (mass market paperback edition), May 2007: This hits around the same time as the hardcover edition of The Last Colony. Collect it! In convenient summer reading form!

Stuff coming out in 2007 I don’t have dates for:

1. The Rough Guide to the Universe, Second Edition: I’ll be getting new and updated chapters to Rough Guides in August, so I’d say to look for the second edition of this book sometime around the holidays of 2007 or possibly early 2008.

2. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: Collected Writings, 1998 – 2006: This limited collection of Whatever essays was originally planned for 2006 but we held off for various reasons. Now it’s on track for sometime in the second half of 2007, which gives me time to update the text with some of my favorite stuff from this year.

3. An Untitled Fantasy Novella. It actually has a title, but I don’t want to say what it is yet, because it gives away something crucial about the plot that I don’t want to discuss until I finish the novella. However, yes, I will be trying something on the fantasy side of things. Should you be afraid? Oh, I don’t know. I think this could be fun.

4. Various short stories. I’ve agreed to write some short stories for some people. These will come out when they come out, and of course I’ll let you know when they do.

5. The Android’s Dream (mass market paperback edition): I imagine this will hit very late in 2007, possibly just ahead of the hardcover release of the sequel, which is slated for very early 2008.

Note that stuff in 2007 that doesn’t have dates is fungible — some of it could move to 2008; some of it might not happen at all.

What do I know I am writing in 2007? Much of it is already noted above: I’ll be tackling a sequel to The Android’s Dream, updating my Universe book, writing the fantasy novella and getting out those short stories. I’ll also be writing at least one more novel, most likely the first book of the Super Secret Project I Can’t Tell You About. In addition, I’m contributing to at least one more Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, and will be writing some magazine articles. I’m also continuing my work with AOL Journals in 2007, which means I’ll be continuing my Author Interview series. And of course I’ll continue writing Whatever here.

I think all of this should keep me busy in 2007. For 2008: Nothing concrete planned outside the release of the sequel to TAD, but in 2007 I hope to submit proposals for a couple of novels, including possibly a YA, and a proposal for a non-fiction work I’ve been mulling over for some time now. For 2009: Geez, who knows.

That’s what I’m up to, writing-wise, in 2007.

Rembrandt, Up Close

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The Dayton Art Institute is hosting a traveling exhibit from the Rijksmuseum, featuring a number of famous works from Rembrandt as well as other Dutch masters and Rembrandt apprentices, including Jan Steen, Adriaen van der Werff, Nicholaes Maes and Gerard Dou. Apparently the Rijksmuseum doesn’t let its work travel all that much, but right now its undergoing an extensive renovation, so the thinking is that there’s no harm done in letting somee of this work travel about while the museum is getting fixed up. And thus: Rembrandt and friends in Ohio.

We went to it today, and it was really delightful, and a reminder that some things are better experienced in real life. The picture above, for example: The Denial of Saint Peter. Here on this page you have a nice picture of it, and you can see Peter, questioned about his acquaintance with Jesus, saying he doesn’t know them. The composition is good, the lighting (via a hidden candle held up to Peter’s face) evocative, and the whole piece clearly a great work. Then you go see the actual thing, and it’s like going from black and white to color. You can see how completely Peter is torn, as his heart longs to say how he loves Jesus but his mouth says he knows him not. You see how the light in the picture actually seems to glow, illuminating Peter’s torment. And you can see, in the background, Jesus turning to hear his beloved disciple renounce him, his expression sorrowful as Peter’s is tormented. And you know why this is art: Because you feel Peter’s denial as if you were there yourself, wrung from you through the use of oil, canvas and varnish. You can sense all of this when you see the picture in some other medium; you feel it when you stand in front of it. Art is a tactile medium.

I went in knowing I’d enjoy seeing Rembrandt’s work, both his paintings his print work, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much I enjoyed the other art work as well, particularly the work of Nicholaes Maes, a student of Rembrandt whom I had not known of before. Maes seemed taken with loading his work with symbolism; a picture of a young servant pensively lookig out of a window, for example, is supposed to be an allegory for the sin of sloth. I don’t know how I feel about that; I think she just looks like she’s having a moment to think about something, which doesn’t seem especially slothful. But then I’m not a 17th century Dutchman, either. Another painting in the exhibit had a hunter coming back from the hunt and offering a woman a partridge; to your golden age Dutchman, this picture was apparently screaming that the guy wanted to get busy with the woman. You miss a lot of allusions over the gulf of 350 years.

We naturally took Athena to the exhibit with us; she’s just old enough to appreciate something like this, so long as we didn’t linger too long in one place or another. We timed our pace so we finished the exhibit just as her tolerance wore out, which I thought was nicely done. The exhibit did something I thought was very smart, which was that it had a kid’s level audio program as well as an adult level audio program, so Athena happily went from picture to picture and listened to what was going on in the picture. I didn’t bother with an audio program myself, but I’m glad someone thought ahead about how to keep an eight-year-old amused at an art exhibit.

I think this is one of those things she’ll appreciate more as she gets older; Rembrandt doesn’t mean much to her now, but as she learns more I think she’ll be happy she saw some of his work in her hometown. As it is, she came out of the exhibit declaring that she wanted to be an artist, including that with her two now-long-term planned professions of dentistry and building demolition. I told her I was proud of her multi-disciplinary ambitions. And I am.

Gerald Ford

My first memory of Gerald Ford was one of annoyance; this jerk was on my TV when my TV show was supposed to be on! And he was on all my TV stations! Logic tells me that I should be equally annoyed with Jimmy Carter, who would have been his debate partner and thus equally culpable of hogging space on my TV, but I have no memory of him at all, just Gerald Ford, stolid and refusing to get out of the way of, oh, Happy Days or Good Times or whatever it was I was wanting to watch. If I could have, I would have voted against Ford just for that. My excuse for such a vengeful, uninformed vote would have been that I was seven at the time.

Indeed, while I was alive when Ford was President, his entire administration occurred well before I had any knowledge of or interest in politics of any sort, so I note his passing with at most a sense of detachment. My memories of Ford are mostly of him being parodied as clumsy for falling down stairs and appearing on an ad for the Boy Scouts, and then, some time later, being the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit in which Dana Carvey, playing a Tom Brokaw trying to get ahead on his canned stories, declares that Gerald Ford had been consumed by wolves, and that he was delicious. Upon discovering that Ford had died, my first impulse was to check Fark.com to make sure its note of Ford’s passing included a shout-out to that skit. I was not disappointed. I suppose it may be telling that my entire cultural legacy of Ford consists of him being mocked and/or fitting himself into an Eagle Scout uniform, but whether it’s telling more about me or him is something I’ll leave untouched for now.

I wish I had something more substantive to say about the man. Which is to say I know I could speak more substantively about him — my grasp of recent American history and the implications of his presidency are pretty firm — but I lack any compelling emotional or intellectual impetus to do so. I don’t really remember him as anything but a reasonably genial ex-president, of the old school of ex-presidentery, the one that says you spend your sunset years playing golf, doing charitable work, and generally staying well out of the way. He did that well enough that I don’t really miss him. I wonder what he’d think about that.

All Caught Up (I Think)

I just went through my e-mail for the last two weeks and caught up (I think) with all the straggling bits of correspondence. And I’m pretty sure before that I was all caught up. Be that as it may, if you sent me an e-mail in December for which you were expecting a response, and you didn’t get one, you’d be best sending it along again, because clearly I have no recollection of it. Since the only things I have planned for the rest of 2006 are hanging out with my family and farting about, there’s a reasonably good chance that any e-mail sent to me between now and the end of the year will be responded to in a fairly rapid fashion.

That is all.

Starship Troopers, The Movie: A Review

The NYT Times piece on me and my books has tangentially re-ignited the “was Heinlein a fascist” thing yet again (the latest entrant: Brad DeLong), and the additional discussion of whether the question of whether the reputation of Starship Troopers the book has been damaged by Paul Verhoeven’s movie of the same name. So I thought it might be interesting to exhume a review of the movie I wrote when it came out, back in ’97. It offers some insight into what I think of the Heinlein = fascist thing (not much), and of course my thoughts about the movie, which I enjoy, actually, but which I don’t think has all that much to do with the book.

Starship Troopers
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven is a director who can give you everything you want in a movie, as long as you want too much of it. He’s made five films in English, not one of which could remotely be described as “restrained”: Robocop and Total Recall spilled more of the red stuff than a bloodmobile in a four-car pile-up, and Showgirls gave viewers as much sex as it was possible to have without actually doing it onscreen. Basic Instinct, of course, was a whole lot of both — kiss kiss bang bang ad infinitem.

This isn’t a criticism of Verhoeven. It’s just a fact. Paul Verhoeven makes movies like tuberculosis patients make fever dreams: vivid, disjointed, with all the human emotions pumped up so far that they bleed into each other like a swirl. A lot of people confuse it for camp, but Verhoeven isn’t out there, winking to the audience. He’s as serious as a heart attack. It’s what makes him unstoppable — if Verhoeven had actually tried to camp up, say, Showgirls, his head might have exploded right then and there.

Starship Troopers is more of the same, for Verhoeven and for his audience. It’s one-half cornball teen drama, one-half unspeakably violent science-fiction action film. Verhoeven treats both halves of the film equally importantly, which is bound to be profoundly irritating for the folks who have come to see guys with guns shoot up some bugs. But that’s what you get with this director. It’s not all or nothing — it’s just all, period, end of sentence.

The movie is based loosely on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, and follows the same general plotline. Spoiled rich kid Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) is finishing high school and rather aimlessly drifting into Harvard, when he gets sidetracked by his best friend Carl and girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards) who are joining the Federal Service. The service is futuristic armed force, which is occupying its time battling The Bugs, a semi-sentient race of giant insects. The bugs want the same real estate humans want, and are either not programmed or not inclined to be nice and share.

When the insects get mad, they hurl asteroids towards earth with the hope of splattering a major city or two; the humans retaliate by shipping a couple hundred thousand troopers to a Bug planet and shooting everything with more than two legs. As the movie begins, the bugs are having more success with their formula than the humans are having with theirs. We follow Johnny and his pals through the last days of high school and then boot camp training, after which we transfer to the battle zone, where bugs abound and humans have a tendency to lose their heads (and arms, and legs) in the heat of battle.

Verhoeven and Ed Neumeier, his screenwriter (with whom he also did Robocop) kept the structure of the book, but they didn’t bother dealing much with the book’s intent, to which the structure was tied. The book was a cover for Heinlein, a proto-libertarian, to lecture personal and political responsibility to his clutch of young, fervent readers. The movie doesn’t have much time for that — it pays the mildest of lip service to the concepts of the book and then covers for the rest of it by envisioning the future as pop culture fascism, complete with newsreel-type government infomercials, which look something like Nike ads done by Leni Riefenstahl.

It’s in line with Verhoeven’s other glimpses of the future; you could plot a direct line between the fascistic corporations of Robocop and Total Recall to the planetary government in Troopers — and no doubt some desperate film student will, one day, for a thesis. But it’s likely to annoy true Heinlein fans. Heinlein was occasionally confused with being a fascist, just like Ayn Rand, a writer who Heinlein, for better or worse, shares much of his reading audience with. He wasn’t (neither was she, for that matter, though sometimes you have to wonder) but this film isn’t going to help his reputation much on that score.

Without Heinlein’s political noodlings, there’s not much call for the high school and boot camp half of the story (where, in the book, Heinlein did most of his philosophizing). But Verhoeven leaves it in anyway. You have to figure Verhoeven wanted to leave the scenes in to give the audience time to get into the character’s heads — and indeed we get a lot of that, particularly through Johnny and Carmen, who break up, find new lovers, lose friends and grow up, all at typically high Verhoeven volume. But all this does is give the audience time to think about how shallow these people really are. Verhoeven has populated his movie with kids who are fun to look at but who don’t appear ever to have had a thought in their pretty heads — either the characters or the actors who play them. Everybody looks perfect, and perfect people don’t have to think. Why go for the A+ when you get the A? (This, by the way, would have sent Heinlein into a tizzy.)

Only two characters appear to have anything above rudimentary thinking skills at all. One is Dizzy (Dina Meyer), who has a crush on Johnny and follows him into the federal service; She’s not thinking well — one has to wonder what she sees in Johnny other than his hunky, square jaw — but at least she’s making the attempt. The other is Carl (Neil Patrick Harris, looking like a fresh-scrubbed Quentin Tarantino), who is psychic and who gets a job reading the minds of the aliens. In the late part of the film, when the film really overloads on the fascistic imagery, Carl wanders around in a getup that makes him look like a SS officer — Dr. Doogie Mengele, M.D.

The reason for having such a good looking cast becomes clear in the second half, when Verhoeven takes all these perfectly sculpted, achingly desirable kids and feeds them to the vast army of 30-foot bugs, who gleefully rip their beautiful bodies into kibble. Verhoeven finds more ways to dismember the cast than you would have thought humanly possible (which is why, perhaps, he has the bugs do it). To be fair, the Bugs are beautiful too (credit special effects wizard Phil Tippet, who makes the Bugs the most believable computer-generated creatures to date — they look real enough to make people afraid of spiders twitchy for a month), and they get blown apart just as frequently.

The battle scenes are marvelously violent, action-packed and actually arousing — the sort of scenes where most guys end up leaning slightly forward in their seats, breathing shallowly through the mouth and hoping they don’t have a reason to suddenly stand up. But more than most, they’re scenes where it doesn’t pay to bring your brain along for the ride. This is the sort of film where they go after two-story high insects with rifles that hardly look powerful enough to bring down a bunny at 30 yards. It makes for fun battle scenes, but you have to think that after the first encounter with the Bugs, someone would have had the same sort of epiphany that Chief Brodie had in Jaws, when he saw the great white for the first time and said, “We need a bigger boat.”

But let’s remember: this isn’t really a movie, it’s a fever dream. As fever dreams go, this one fits the bill — it’ll stick to your brain long after you drag yourself, dazed, out of the theater. That’s the sort of impact Paul Verhoeven seems to like making on his audiences. No one would say he isn’t doing just that.

2006 Author Interview Archive

In 2006 I began interviewing authors over at my AOL site By The Way, and I have to say I was thrilled at how well the interviews have turned out. For those of you who missed these interviews the first time around, here’s a chance to catch up. If you are an author and want to participate in interviews in 2007, don’t worry, I’ll be posting another entry about how to do that. In the meantime, enjoy these interviews and buy these authors’ books.

The interviews, in order of their appearance:

Chris Roberson
Nick Sagan
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Tate Hallaway/Lyda Morehouse
Pamela Ribon
David Louis Edelman
Alan DeNiro
Ellen Kushner
Naomi Kritzer
Jo Walton
Mark Budz
Cherie Priest
Catherynne M. Valente
Karl Schroeder
Karen Traviss
Charles Stross
Sarah Hoyt
Sean Williams

I’m looking forward to doing many more of these in 2007. Because authors are interesting people.