Monthly Archives: March 2006

St. Patrick’s Day Blatherations

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, first off. St. Patrick’s came up on us rather by surprise, mostly because we’ve all been varying degrees of sick over here, and therefore not really paying attention to frivolities. I guess you can say I gave up St. Patrick’s Day for Lent. Not that I observe lent, except occasionally to note that my Catholic friends seem testier than usual (because of giving up caffiene or chocolate or whatever for Lent). But hey, they’re going to Heaven and I’m not, so what do I know.

Now, onto other things:

* Nick Sagan talks about playing doubles ping-pong with his dad on cruise ships, and the two of them totally crushing all comers. What a great story — one of the great popular science figures of the 20th century, kicking ass at table tennis.

* I’ve been alerted to the existence of Eventful, a very Web 2.0 site in which folks can find out about upcoming events in their area, and also create requests for events in their area that would feature their favorite creative folks. For example, if you lived in San Diego and wanted to see Wil Wheaton (and who wouldn’t), you’d create a "demand" and then other like-minded folks would sign on; the idea being that with enough demanding their presence, they might see it as worth their time to visit (I mention Wil because he is apparently very popular on the site).  Creative folks can also apparently sign on to help foster demand as well. I can see a site like this being useful for author types in that it could be useful in planning book tours (or, alternately, handing the data over to publicists in order to convince publishers to pay for said book tour). In any event, if you’re an author, it’s worth checking out (presuming, of course, people want to see you, or that you wish to see people).

* This was surprising: In addition to being offered by the Science Fiction Book Club, Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades are being offered by the Military Book Club as well. And it has nice things to say about TGB as well: "When we offer a novel, it’s usually a story based on some sort of reality, whether it’s the terrorist threat or new weapon technology. The Ghost Brigades isn’t even close. This is military fiction in its wildest form. Fantastic stuff." Very cool, and I hope it does well for them; it makes me happy to see the books jumping the fence and being presented to more than the usual audiences.

And, uh, that’s all I have for you today.  

 

An Astronomy Workshop for SF Writers?

Hey, SF writers, check this out:

Science fiction writer Mike Brotherton is also a professor of astronomy at the University of Wyoming, and is thinking about the feasibility of doing two-week workshop for SF writers about science (and particularly astronomy), possibly to be funded by NASA. But in order to pry the money out of NASA, he needs to able to show there’s a market for this — which is to say, that SF writers are interested in taking a couple weeks to learn more about the science that fuels their fiction. So he’s created a survey to poll SF writers about their interest/ability to do this. The survey is here.

Speaking as an SF writer who has also written a book on astronomy, I think this is a marvelous idea; I assume that SF writers are more literate than the average bear about science and scientific concepts, but there’s something to be said about a “hands-on” immersion into the field, particularly for SF writers who are not working scientists or science journalists/writers. As Brotherton himself notes: “People continue to learn from stories after college, and future scientists are often inspired to adopt their careers by an early interest in science fiction.” To the extent that we use current science in our work, or extrapolate from it, it’s helpful for us to get it right. Because if we don’t, who will?

The survey is open to all writing levels, so whether you’re beginner or an established novelist, you can take the survey and give Brotherton data to use to make his case to NASA. Naturally, feel free to pass this information to other SF writers you know; the more data Brotherton gets, the more useful this survey will be.

Magic Lessons

Many congratulations to my pal Justine Larbalestier, whose second novel, the delightful Magic Lessons, debuts today. It continues the journey of Reason Cansino, the young heroine who was at the heart of her first novel Magic or Madness, and see her struggling to deal with her family’s history and its implications for her own future.

In my opinion this is as strong and readable a book as Magic or Madness (which was in itself excellent). Don’t tell Justine this, but I nominated her for the Campbell Award, which is the award the SF community gives to its best new writers, on the basis of these two books (I had an ARC of Magic Lessons). If you’ll check them out you’ll understand why I did that, indeed, why I had to do that. As for me I’m looking forward to the final book of the installment, and to discover how it all ends.

When People Who Don’t Get It Attack

This fellow thinks I gave a “lukewarm” review to Glenn Reynold’s An Army of Davids for fear of displeasing his Instapunditness, who might then stop giving my books his all-encompassing love. He also calls me a hack. After I stopped giggling at both these things, I posted a long comment on his site, which I will now repost here.

“Scalzi’s bio screams HACK WRITER…”

Yup, I suck. However, I don’t talk straight out of my ass, which is what you’re doing here. Whatever you think you know about the relationship between Glenn Reynolds and my writing career is based on heaping amounts of ignorance, so it’s not entirely surprising you’re basically entirely wrong. Allow me to explain the many reasons this is so.

As to whether I fear to cross Glenn for fear of losing the creamy goodness of his InstaLove: Not really. His liking my novels has had a significant and direct effect on my sales, sure, because his readers trust him to make good recommendations, and he has a lot of readers. On the other hand, my current book has gotten good to excellent reviews in Entertainment Weekly, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal and a number of other places — all reviewed by people who don’t know me, I would add — so I think I would do just fine without him or his personal relationship with his readers. Indeed, my two biggest-selling books to date (Book of the Dumb and Book of the Dumb 2) were scarcely mentioned by him (which is to say one of them got one bland sentence, and the second wasn’t noted by him at all). It’s not at all likely he had any significant influence on those sales.

Likewise, my astronomy book The Rough Guide to the Universe has had the majority of its sales in the UK (which makes sense as the publisher is based in London). It’s gone through several printings and I’m about to update it for a second edition (it was rather well-reviewed by people don’t know me, too). You could make an argument that Instapundit has a vasty readership in the UK, too, but then, he’s never mentioned that book, either.

Did Glenn help sell my books? Absolutely. Am I grateful? You bet; it’s why I put him in the acknowledgments of The Ghost Brigades. He’s been important. My book sales don’t live or die on his whim, and I have rather more concrete evidence of that fact than you do to the contrary.

Now, as a practical matter, I cross Glenn all the time; his end-result politics and mine don’t exactly mesh, and there’s been several times over the course of the time we’ve had blogs where we’ve gone around on various subjects. Here’s one of the earliest: http://instapundit.com/archives/000480.php. If you think I’m scared to speak my mind because I don’t want to lose Glenn’s patronage, you’re an idiot (or, more likely, ignorant, to return to an earlier theme).

The reason I noted “Army of Davids” was because I liked the book — not in a lukewarm way you suggest, either. It’s genuinely interesting. If I hadn’t have liked it, I wouldn’t have mentioned it. The book is selling well enough that Glenn doesn’t need me to push it, and if you think he’s sitting there keeping tabs on who is recommending his book in order to punish or praise them later, well, we’re back to the “idiot/ignorant” thing again.

What you apparently have a hard time wrapping your head around is that personal blogs aren’t newspapers — they’re personal blogs. I haven’t the slightest hesitation in writing up a review on my own site of Glenn’s book or the book of any other people of my acquaintance because it’s a personal site, and it’s pretty transparent to my readers that I know the people I’m writing about. In the particular piece you’re all lathered about, I note in the entry that I am actually in the book. That would be your first tip-off that I am not a disinterested observer.

Would I write a review of An Army of Davids for a newspaper or magazine? Clearly not, because to repeat, I’m in the book, and even if I weren’t there’s been enough of an interaction between the two of us that I couldn’t be disinterested. On the off chance that I did review something for a paper/magazine in which I had some personal interest, even a small one (such as when I recently did a DVD review for Proof, which was written by a college classmate of mine whom I had not seen in 15 years), I’d note it up front. Because that’s the responsible and ethical thing to do. And as it happens I do the same thing on my personal site as well.

Complaining that people are not writing in a disinterested fashion on their personal blogs is like complaining that water is wet; likewise complaining that people champion the efforts of their friends and acquaintances on their personal sites is pretty damn stupid. People write whatever the hell they want on their blogs; most blog readers, I suspect, are smart enough to understand they are reading a personal site and grasp what that entails. The vast majority of my readers do, in any event. The fact you don’t is interesting.

New TGB reviews

Hey! A nice review of The Ghost Brigades in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and it gives a shout-out to the idea that the book is fun to read even for folks who aren’t steeped in SF. This is happy news, because I aim for accessible. The review also gives a thumbs up to Questions for a Soldier.

TGB also got a nice review in Booklist, although the review isn’t up yet on the Amazon page (it’ll get there eventually, I assume). In the meantime, my publicist sense suggests to me this will be the pull-quote from the review: “Scalzi skillfully weaves together action, memorable characterizations and a touch of philosophy in a first-rate military SF outing.” Groovy.

Around the blogosphere, some recent reviews at The Volokh Conspiracy, VodkaPundit, and from Dave Smith, Yendi, Paul Robichaux and Suburban Joe. I’m happy the book seems to be getting around.

Coming Around to My Way of Thinking

An interesting datum from a new and largely disastrous new poll for President Bush:

President Bush’s declining image also is reflected in the single-word descriptions people use to describe their impression of the president. Three years ago, positive one-word descriptions of Bush far outnumbered negative ones. Over the past two years, the positive-negative balance has been roughly equal. But the one-word characterizations have turned decidedly negative since last July.

Currently, 48% use a negative word to describe Bush compared with just 28% who use a positive term, and 10% who use neutral language.

The changing impressions of the president can best be viewed by tracking over time how often words come up in these top-of-the-mind associations. Until now, the most frequently offered word to describe the president was “honest,” but this comes up far less often today than in the past. Other positive traits such as “integrity” are also cited less, and virtually no respondent used superlatives such as “excellent” or “great” ­ terms that came up fairly often in previous surveys.

The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is “incompetent,”and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: “idiot” and “liar.” All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago.

I just want you all to remember that I was calling him incompetent before calling him incompetent was cool.

Thoughts on An Army of Davids

I‘m reading Glenn Reynolds’ An Army of Davids, and I’m not in the least bit surprised to say I find not much of it surprising; this book includes much of the tech- and markets-related thinking that Glenn’s been working on at Instapundit and in his various online columns, boils it down into an easy-to-carry package, and makes it presentable to the folks who haven’t quite twigged to the whole blog thing. This is why I mention I don’t find it surprising that I don’t find it surprising: it’s not really for me, because Glenn’s been on my daily reading list for years, and I’m already hip to his thing. But it could be relevatory for my father-in-law, who (to put it mildly) has no interest in being online but who is interested in keeping up with what’s possible in the near future. In other words, this is a book for people who aren’t already in the choir, but who are outside the chapel and wondering what it is the choir is singing.

I’m also finding it an interesting companion piece to another recent book on innovations that will make a dramatic impact on the way we live in the near future: Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution. Garreau’s book is focused primarily on biotechnological advances, while Glenn’s focuses on what I suppose is best described as “socioeconomic tech”; both give some serious thought to what their respective tech will mean to how we live and interact with each other (there is some overlap in these two tech streams, and both books nod in the direction of each others’ tech). Combine the two books together in your head and you get some idea that the next 25 years or so could be very interesting times indeed — not in the incomprehensible “singularity” we-can’t-even-imagine-the-future sense, but simply in the sense that what is “normal” is going to change very rapidly, even by current standards.

I find the explorations in Glenn’s book a little more, shall we say, rooted and plausible than Garreau’s, but I suspect that I can more easily wrap my head around Glenn’s concepts because to a large degree I already live them (indeed, I’m quoted in Army on page 14); Garreau’s book involves tech and experiences that do not involve me, or at least do not involve me yet. I doubt Garreau’s superhuman scenario will get here in the timeframe he expects, but it’s on its way. The present Glenn details is of course here, even if, to paraphrase William Gibson, it’s not yet evenly-distributed. While I find Glenn’s book more focused on and consonant to present experience, I think both books are on the right track.

(Now, one major difference between Glenn’s book and the Garraeu book, which I’ll note but not explore now, is that Glenn’s is explicitly focused on a “bottoms-up” future in which the socioeconomic shift is toward the individual, while Garreau’s future is implicitly top-down, in that much of the biotech described in his book is funded, developed and necessarily controlled by governments and large corporations. If both tech are developing in tandem (and they are), this could lead to some very interesting repercussions, in the classic “may you live in interesting times” Chinese curse sort of way.)

Moving on to another subject now, one thing I find very interesting in An Army of Davids is the extent to which Glenn is namechecking prominent bloggers in the course of the book. One way of looking at this is that it’s Glenn playing to the blogger audience, but I don’t think that’s the right way of looking at it. As I noted earlier, if you’ve been keeping up with Glenn via Instapundit and his other online presences, his blogcentrism is unsurprising; namechecking Jeff Jarvis or Virginia Postrel or Josh Marshall won’t do much. On the other hand, for the people who aren’t familiar with the blog world (which is still most of America, remember), these are folks who are presented as authorities.

In effect, Glenn is using old media (his book) to bootstrap credibility for these folks who are largely currently notable through their new media associations. There’s a limit to this observation — Jarvis, Postrel and some other bloggers Glenn notes are also active and credible in “old” media, so it’s not an entirely pure bootstrap, as it were. But even this works to the credibility of the blog world to those unfamiliar with it; clearly it’s not all about cranks posting photos of their cats.

In all I’ve been enjoying An Army of Davids. As I noted it’s not surprising to me as a long-time reader of Glenn’s stuff, but I do find it quite interesting and fun to read, and also refreshingly optimistic, which is a tone that is sometimes diluted over at Instapundit due to whatever damn fool thing is roiling the blogosphere on any particular day. Glenn’s not some pollyanna futurist here, but he’s also clearly not threatened by the changes he sees happening now or in the near future, and he’s written what I think is a fine primer on these changes for people who are still wondering what it’s all about it. I’ll be giving this book to my father-in-law the next time I see him; I think he’s going to like it. If you’re not a regular Instapundit reader (all of whom, I suspect, have already bought the book by now), give it a whirl as well.

The Money Entry

An e-mail this morning:

You’ve said before that you make more than most other writers. If you don’t mind me asking, how much do you make? How do you know it’s more than what other writers make?

Just in case any of you were wondering whether people feel like they can ask me anything.

On the other hand, I have in fact suggested that I tend to make more money than other writers at my (low) level of notoriety, and I’ve talked dollar sums on convention panels where I’ve spoken about making money as a writer, so I don’t suppose there’s any reason not to talk about it here. And as it happens Krissy tallied up my 2005 income last week while preparing our taxes.

So: In 2005, from writing and editing, I made $100,600. And as it happens that is pretty much dead-on average for my writing income since 1998, which is the year I became a freelance writer. Some years I make more (the top year was 2001, when I made about $150,000 due to a huge amount of corporate work) and some years I make less (in 2004 I made about $80,000), but put it all in the pot and 100K is more or less where it averages out. This is my writing/editing income solely; our household income (which includes Krissy’s salary, rental income and other income sources) is naturally higher, and you’ll forgive me if I don’t break that out for you because while I’ve talked about my writing income before, the rest of it is not for public consumption. Regardless, we’re doing okay.

Where does this writing income come from? In roughly the order of percentage of income, thusly:

1. Corporate work: Work I do for various business clients, primarily in the financial and online sectors. I work with some of these folks directly and also work as a sub-contractor for marketing and consulting firms. This is the stuff I consider my “day job,” in that it is consistent, to the extent that any freelance work can be, and therefore I can reliably budget this income (or more accurately, Krissy can, since she handles the finances in the Scalzi household). This is the stuff that pays the bills (my AOL blogging income is in this section).

2. Book income: This is primarily income from book advances, although last year for the first time I had income from royalties (on Book of the Dumb and The Rough Guide to the Universe) and also from foreign sales. Aside from the books that carry my name, this also includes contributions to the Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers, in which contributors get an acknowledgment but not a byline. They pay well enough (and writing the stuff is fun enough) that I couldn’t possibly care if my name is on every piece I write for them.

3. Magazine/Newspaper income: This is primarily from two sources: The Official US PlayStation Magazine, for which I write DVD reviews and commentary columns, and the Dayton Daily News, for which I write a separate DVD column and occasional features and columns. I will also occasionally sell a Whatever as a reprint to newspapers; two examples of this are the “Standing Up For Dubya” entry, which I sold to the Philadelphia City Paper, and the “Being Poor” piece, which was in the Chicago Tribune and other papers (although, as it happens, I chose not to take payment for that particular piece, which is not a usual thing for me). The OPM and DDN income is also predictible (I’ve been writing for both for a number of years), so this also gets put into the “money to pay bills with” planning ledger. For 2005, this amount also included income I got from guest-editing Subterranean magazine.

4. Short Fiction income: This is a new addition, based on the chapbooks I wrote for Subterranean last year (“Sketches of Daily Life” and “Questions for a Soldier”), for which I was paid pretty well (which is to say, higher than the general rate for SF short fiction). Be that as it may, short fiction is, by a significant divisible, the smallest section of my income. I don’t tend to do much short fiction purely for economic reasons — my experience with Subterranean notwithstanding, I can be paid significantly more for writing short non-fiction than short fiction, and there are more places and opportunities to write short non-fiction. So that’s what I gravitate to. Now, I do intend to write somewhat more short fiction in the near future (it’s a form I want to get better at), but given the generally very low rates the field pays, I don’t ever expect it to be a significant part of my income.

Generally speaking, there are four reasons I am able to pull down low six figures from writing on a regular basis. First, I am a reasonably competent writer who is reasonably easy to work with; I make it part of my writing ethic not to be a pain in the ass to clients and editors, and also to do what I can to give them what they want and need the first time. This is particularly the case in corporate work; my ego there is focused hitting the clients’ needs (it helps I have other outlets where I can do what I want when I want to). But all the way around I try to be useful and not a problem for the people I work with.

Second, which is an extension of the first, I have a lot of contacts in various writing spheres and an extensive writing history, which makes it easy for people to hire me/buy my work, because they can see what I’ve done before and know I can hit the marks that need to be hit. Third (and again, an extension of the first two), I have multiple writing competencies, so when work in one sphere is slow, I can work in another sphere of writing. This also allows me to develop additional competencies while still pulling down income in things I already have a track record in.

Finally: I write a lot. An average week will see me writing 20k-30k words across the various writing jobs I have (and also here at the Whatever, which does not generate income directly but which has significant indirect benefits). That’s a million words a year, most of it pay copy. It adds up.

(Oh, one other thing: I’m also selective, which means I don’t write everything that’s offered to me; I have to see whether the job is actually worth my time relative to other opportunities that exist. This can lead to some painful choices; last year I turned down an opportunity to do what would have been a really fun book because I couldn’t make it fit with other things I wanted and needed to do. I’ve also passed on work simply because there wasn’t enough money there to make it worth my while. Turning work away is still painful — the paranoid voice in my head who says you’ll never work again shouts the loudest at these times — but it’s eventually necessary.)

I think it’s possible that any competent writer who is not a pain in the ass to work with can pull down a reasonable sum of money working as a freelance writer, but I will also note that my ability to make a lot of money as a freelancer from my first year is non-typical and a little deceptive. I didn’t begin as a freelance writer without experience; by the time I went freelance I had done a seven-year writing apprenticeship inside the confines of corporate America, first as a newspaper writer and then as a writer and editor at AOL. Both of these were extremely useful — the newspaper for writing quickly and to specification, and AOL for both corporate world experience and because AOL was a hothouse for ambitious folks who went out in the world to their own start-ups and called on me when they needed work done because they remember who I was. So a lot of the years in which I should have been a starving freelancer, building up my chops, I was toiling happily for The Man and doing my chop-building there. Also, I was lucky in that the people I worked with were both ambitious and happy to get in touch with me for work. I have never been shy in admitting that luck has had a lot to do with my career; here’s another example. Of course, luck only gets one so far; sooner than later I had to back up the luck with competence. Even so, It’d be disingenuous to suggest it was all me.

My experience is why among other things I tell people not to be in an all-fired rush to give up their day jobs. My time in corporate America allowed me to build a portfolio of skills that were useful when I went (somewhat unwillingly) into the freelance world; other people can and should do the same. Now, my corporate experience was directly on point to writing, which was additionally helpful, but even those folks with day jobs that are not directly related to writing still can get advantages from them while they are also working on their writing. And of course, all this comes in handy whether one intends to make writing ones primary revenue source or not.

Let me note two obvious things. First, writing income is not necessarily an indicator of how good a writer is stylistically, since speaking personally I can think of several writers who I think write better than I who make less than I do — and several who I think write worse who make more. Second, writing income isn’t necessarily an indicator of writing happiness. Some writers don’t care all that much about money and write either for fun or because they feel compelled to; using writing income as a metric for them isn’t very useful or relevant. As for me, I think it’s possible I could make more as a writer than I do, but at this point in time it would mean taking on more work I have no interest in, which wouldn’t make me very happy.

What writing income corresponds to is competence, opportunity and willingness. I am a competent writer; I am fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to sell work and I’m willing to do a lot of work, including some stuff which isn’t particularly exciting in the “writers are so bohemian” sense. Commensurately I make a fair amount of money doing writing. Most writers have these three factors in varying amounts and make corresponding amounts of money. There are other factors to be sure; these are the three big ones, however.

Naturally, I’m happy with what I make, and I think overall I have a good balance of work that’s fun and interesting, and work I’m happy to do because it gives me a stable income base for my life and my family’s needs (and when those two factors overlap, as they sometimes do, even better). I wouldn’t mind making more, although not at the expense of my current quality of life in terms of family time and range of projects. I don’t mind making less, as long as my family’s needs are met and the work I get to do is sufficiently appealing for its own sake. Writing is a business for me, and also a calling. The key is being able to get to a happy medium between those two axes. Where that medium is, work and income-wise, is different for everyone. I think you find it out mostly by doing.

Subterranean Magazine Cliche Issue Available for Pre-Order

Um, the title to this entry pretty much says it all, so there’s no need to elaborate on it, I suspect. Here’s the link to pre-order.

The magazine comes in two flavors: The standard magazine ($6 single copy US; $9 non-US), and a limited hardcover edition for $80 which will be signed by many (if not most) of the contributors, and will also include a chapbook of my short story “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story,” which will not be otherwise available. And here’s the official story list, in case you’ve forgotten:

* “Scene from a Dystopia” by Rachel Swirsky
* “The Third Brain” by Charles Coleman Finlay and James Allison
* “It Came from the Slush Pile” by John Joseph Adams
* “A Finite Number of Typewriters” by Stuart MacBride
* “Cliche Haiku” by Scott Westerfeld
* “Horrible Historians” by Gillian Polack
* “Hesperia and Glory” by Ann Leckie
* “What a Piece of Work” by Jo Walton
* “Remarks on Some Cliches I Have (By Definition) Known Too Well” by Teresa Nielsen Hayden
* “The Last Science Fiction Writer” by Allen M. Steele
* “Shoah Sry” by Tobias S. Buckell and Ilsa J. Bick
* “Labyrinth’s Heart” by Bruce Arthurs
* “The NOMAD Gambit” by Dean Cochrane
* “In Search Of…Eileen Siriosa” by Ron Hogan
* “Tees and Sympathy” by Nick Sagan
* “Last” by Chris Roberson
* “Refuge” by David Klecha
* “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” by Elizabeth Bear

See? 18 golden hits from your favorite science fiction writers and the best new talents, for just $6! That’s just 33 cents per story! Honestly, you can’t afford not to get this issue of Subterranean Magazine!

(Rumor also has it that a simple touch of its pages will cure all sorts of ailments from quinsy to dropsy, and will also make the toucher up to fourteen times more attractive to members of the sex that they are most interested in. However, these claims have not been tested by the FDA. So, really, just pick it up for the stories. They’re good enough.)

If I Ran the Nebulas

Not that anyone’s actually asking, but if I were in charge of the Nebulas, the awards the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America give out to honor the best writing in the genre, here’s what I would do:

1. Put the awards on a calendar year schedule. The Nebula awards are currently on a "rolling" nomination schedule, which means one can nominate a novel for 12 months after it’s published. For example, if your novel or story is published in June of 2006, someone may nominate you for the Nebula through June 2007. Now, if your work gets enough nominations from SWFA members (10 will do it) by the end of the calendar year of 2006, you’ll go on the 2006 Nebula long list, from which the nominees are ultimately selected. However, if it doesn’t get enough recommendations until 2007, then it’ll go on the 2007 Nebula long list. In effect, one can win what is an annual award for a work that was put out two years previous.

Now, maybe that makes the Nebulas more fair for books printed up in the second half of a calendar year, but it also makes them stale; one of the Nebula nominees this year is Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004 — and which has already won the Hugo and the World Fantasy Award. Whatever its inherent qualities as a work (I quite like it myself) it is old, old news. This also makes the nomination process more confusing than it needs to be, which is no good for anything.

Stale and confusing are not good things for an awards process to be. Simple solution is to get the Nebulas back on a calendar year schedule. I’m not entirely convinced books published later in a calendar year would be at a disadvantage; Clarke’s Strange was published in the second half of its year (September) but won the calendar-year-oriented Hugo, as did Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (Published October 2003) and Gaiman’s American Gods (July 2001), and Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (July, 2000). Indeed, four out of five of the most recent Hugo winners were published in the second half of their year (and four out of the five — the same four out of five — were also fantasy novels. Discuss).

Maybe SFWA writers will complain that they don’t have time to read all the eligible books or whatever, what with all the writing they have to do, but, you know. The people who nominate for the Hugos have full, rich lives too, and yet they manage just fine. Also, if the Nebulas didn’t look like were trailing every other genre award, people might care about them more. Yes, the Oscars are the last set of movie awards, and it doesn’t hurt them. On the other hand, it’s not like Sideways or The Aviator were nominated this year, either. The Academy stuck to the films in 2005.

2. Abolish the pointless and stupid Best Script Nebula. Because no one cares. As with the dramatic presentation Hugos, this is a downstream award, which is to say the award is given with the hope that the award giver will be recognized by the award recipient as worthy of attention. This is not a good place for an award to be. The Nebula is as likely to become a significant award for Hollywood as I am to sprout opposable thumbs out of my back; there aren’t enough SFWA members actively working in Hollywood to justify its inclusion. Best to chop it out and focus the Nebulas on what the vast majority of SFWA members are themselves focused on.

3. Make the nomination process anonymous. When one nominates a work for a Nebula, SFWA notes the nomination and that it’s you making the nomination, so the person whose work you’ve nominated and every other SFWAn who cares to look will see that you’ve done it. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to say to a friend "dude, I recommended you for a Nebula," and then back it up with documentary evidence. On the other hand, it opens the process up to unseemly accusations of quid pro quo, in which people get nominated by other people in an endless backwashing circlejerk of gladhanding (yes, I intended to mash-up all those metaphors).

Authors don’t need to know who recommended them; all SFWA needs to know is whether the person recommending a work is actually a SFWA member. This can be fairly easily done and will trim down the perception of incestuous recommending (and possibly any actual incestuous recommending as well).

4. Ditch the Nebula Weekend. There’s some discussion among SFWAns about the utility of the Nebula Awards Weekend, which is the in-house get-together SFWAns have to have the Nebula awards banquet and to do some SFWA business. I’ve been a SFWA member for a few years now but I’ve not gone to one; from the program listings they don’t seem to have a lot going on that’s appealing for me. While that may contribute to a "relaxicon" feel, if I’m going to travel to a distant city, I want at least the option of doing more than sitting in a bar, watching fellow SF writers drink themselves blind. I did give some thought to going last year, when the Nebulas were in Chicago, but that was more because I had particular friends attending and because I went to school in Chicago than for the Nebulas themselves. This year they’re in Tempe, where I didn’t go to school and where none of my friends live nor plan to attend, and as I’m not nominated this year I can’t see why I would want to go. Even if I were nominated I’d have to think about it.

I’m not at all opposed to SFWA doing something to celebrate the Nebulas, but I’m less than enthused about a large chunk of my membership money going to pay for an event I have no interest in attending and that apparently quite a few other SFWAns are ambivalent about.

Fortunately, I have a solution, and it involves something SFWA is presently critically lame at doing: Fan outreach.

5. Have the Nebula Awards at an already-established SF convention. The Nebula awards are (so far as I know) held sometime between April and June; there are any number of well-established and well-attended SF conventions in that timeframe that would probably be very happy to host one of the premier awards in science fiction (and if there aren’t then the Nebula’s problems run deeper than I imagined). The nominees could connect with fans and participate in a special track of Nebula-related programming as well as the convention’s other programming; the awards banquet could be opened to con attendees or turned into an audience event outright. The Nebulas wouldn’t have to be nailed down to a single convention year after year; conventions could bid to host the Nebulas, so SFWA could share the love.

What will the conventions get out of it? Aside from the added con value of hosting the awards, they’re likely to benefit from the appearance of a reasonably high percentage of Nebula nominees and other SFWA members, which will make the con more attractive to more than the local SF fans. It’ll also help raise the profile of the con in the local media, since a city hosting significant genre awards is likely to be a good story for any paper outside New York and LA (this also serves SFWA’s purpose of raising the profile of the Nebulas in the general population).

So, basically, the con gives the Nebulas an established convention infrastructure in which to do its thing (at relative low cost to SFWA), and the Nebulas give the con some status. And one other thing, to sweeten the deal:

6. Introduce one Nebula awarded by fans. As a way of saying "thank you" to the con for hosting the  Nebulas, SFWA should establish one Nebula award that the attendees of the convention should be allowed to vote on: The Fan Favorite Nebula, celebrating the novel-length work attendees of the convention enjoyed the most (or felt was the most significant, or whatever) in the previous calendar year. The nominations would be decided by pre-paid members of the year’s convention (and the attendees from the previous year, a la the Hugos), and the balloting for the winner could take place at the convention itself.

This achieves two things: One, it gives the con a concrete benefit in hosting the Nebulas — something to sell attendance locally and nationwide — and lets the con folk have a hand in making SF award history, which is not a bad thing. For SFWA, it could raise the consciousness of the entire Nebula award slate among fans and — this is the most important thing — give the fans an investment in the Nebulas that they don’t currently have. The Nebulas are a great award and they’re different than the Hugos in significant ways, and that’s a good thing. But in the real world of fandom (heh), the prestige of the Nebula is a distant second to that of the Hugo, and one suspects the economic and reputational benefit of winning a Nebula is likewise diminished for the writer, relative to the Hugos.

More than that, allowing the fans to have their own Nebula would be an explicit recognition by SFWA that fans are critical to the life of SF genre publishing — and by extension to SFWA itself. I suspect that SFWA is generally entirely opaque to readers of SF in general, and I further suspect that SFWA is increasingly irrelevant to fans. As the fan perception of SFWA goes, so goes the importance of the Nebulas as an award, and as a standard of quality, in the SF lit community.

Creating this one award will not substantially change the tenor of the awards (they will still be substantially different from the Hugos), but what it will do is make the Nebulas more relevant to the lives of the people who really care about SF literature. That’s worth doing. I’m personally willing to sacrifice the pointless and stupid Script Nebula to get this one on the boards.

Okay, those are my thoughts. Now tell me why I have got this all wrong.  

Flooding, Plus Links

flood0312a.jpg

As you can see, the monsoons have returned to western Ohio — soon it will be time to plant the rice. Alternately, this is what you get when a big-ass strom front drops three inches of water on already-saturated ground. My understanding is that there is more rain coming as well. Fortunately I am stocked up on multivitamins and Coke Zero. I am prepared for whatever happens next.

Aside the from imminent waterloggination, things are pretty good. And there are a couple of nice reviews of The Ghost Brigades out today. The first is from the Philadelphia Inquirer, which writes:

The premise of the schizophrenic soldier allows Scalzi to explore the essence of consciousness and the ways in which it is shaped and influenced by memory, experience and the individual’s intrinsic personality. Combine that with good battle scenes, clever storytelling and the ability to juggle abstruse scientific principles without breaking a sweat, and it makes for an impressive piece of work.

There’s also a review in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

It’s a fast and deep stream, military machinations mixed with gorgeous technical notions, and cut through by the arc of Dirac’s life. I like the galaxy this author’s playing in, the characters he limns, the situations he’s playing with, and I’m glad there’s at least one more volume on the way.

Neat. Now, the Philadelphia Inquirer is also supposed to have up a podcast interview with me, but apparently it’s not been posted yet. When it goes up I’ll let you know. If my house hasn’t floated away by then.

OMW Hardcover, Out of Print

It looks like all the hardcovers of for Old Man’s War are gone: I can’t find anyone selling it online (well, for less than $39.27, which I don’t suggest you pay), and since I don’t think I actually ever personally saw it in a bookstore, I don’t suspect there are many hanging around the shelves, either. It’s still (and amply) available in trade paperback, of course, but if you wanted it new in hardcover, with the Donato cover and everything, well, um, sorry.

Patrick’s currently in Ireland (and it’s 1:30 am on a sunday morning) so I can’t ask him at the moment, but I’m curious to know what the sell-through was — that is, how many of the books that were printed were actually sold, rather than returned and then turned into remainder table fodder. The scarcity of the hardcover suggests to me it sold through pretty well, but having never been to this point with a book before, there’s lots I could be missing there.

If you do want OMW new in hardcover, this is one option remaining to you, which is to get a Science Fiction Book Club edition. But be prepared to wait a couple of weeks; the Web site says it’ll be available on March 26th. Patience is a virtue, especially when you have no choice.

Reader Request Week 2006 #7: Writing on Writing

We’re getting to the close of Reader Request Week 2006 — and a successful one it was — so to clear the decks, I thought I’d do an omnibus entry featuring questions related to books and writing. So let’s line up your questions and see what pithy answers I can pull out of my head.

Rick McGinnis: "The Death of the Book: Inevitable, desirable, or just a crock of propellerhead hype?" 

I don’t really see the end of physical books anytime soon, because the metaphor of the book is an excellent one for the storage and use of text: It’s convenient, the access is intuitive, and it’s cheap. Now, people will point to the current transformation of music out of physical storage into iPods and other jukeboxes and will suggest the books are generally heading the same way, but I think what they’re missing is that music files (and the tiny storage devices we put them on) are a vastly better way to manage and archive our music libraries than stacks of CDs or LPs, which are constrained by their physicality to storing only a couple dozen tracks at best. iPods also fit the way people listen to music — people like variety and they want to be able to carry lots of music with them, and the sound quality is acceptable for having it coming at you from earbuds. People don’t feel the same need for volume with books, nor is the way e-books are organized and accessed as comfortable as with electronic readers. That may change with the new generation of e-readers (which display text more naturally), but in terms of being easier than books, they’ll still have a way to go. Frankly, today’s novels are too damn long for most people to read as e-text.

What I see e-book readers possibly doing is helping to revive the short story format, because a short story works for the electronic metaphor: short, snappy pieces of entertainment that you can read in just a few minutes, are cheap to acquire, and you can store thousands and line them up to suit your mood, a sort of "build your own anthology" setup. Someone creates an iTunes for short stories that works (Amazon is trying to do that with its short story service but I’m not so sure how well that is working) along with a cheap, easy-to-use reader, and suddenly we’d be looking at a new age of short stories. Which definitely would not be a bad thing. And we’d still have books, because that’s a better way to read longer works.

Nina Armstrong: "New Nebula Award for YA-good idea or bad?"

Nina’s talking about the new Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, given out by SFWA. Technically it’s not a Nebula Award, but since it’s given out by the same organization at the same ceremony and uses the same selection process, this is a distinction without a difference.

I think it’s a perfectly fine idea. YA books are critical gateways to get people to read (and in science fiction and fantasy, to get people to read those genres). There are some excellent writers doing work in YA today, and for whatever reason YA books are likely to be given short shrift at awards time simply for being YA, so why not? I wouldn’t be opposed to a Young Adult Hugo award, either; it can be swapped in for the asinine "dramatic presentation" Hugos, which are a complete waste of time and effort.

Soni: "What is your take on the direction that the swelling ‘free for
all’-minded generation is going to take us? Seems I can’t log onto the
Internets lately without hearing about how more and more people are not
only expecting to get stuff (music, literature, software, etc) for
free, but on the other side of the spectrum there is an equally
fast-growing number of folks who are creating their own stuff and
giving it away for free as a matter of course."

Well, and you also can’t get online without hearing the head of a telecommunications giant saying he wants for his company to be able to start charging online companies for preferential access to its customers, either. So there’s pressure on both ends of the pay structure.

But I don’t really think the free end is all that much of a problem. The Internet certainly creates and fosters a forum for amateurs — people who make things up for the fun of it and who don’t particularly care whether they get paid for it or not. I’m certainly part of that myself; I used it to my advantage with Agent to the Stars, and I’ve also posted music I’ve made online, and I never expect to be paid for that. People like playing and sampling and having fun: The Web is one big amateur sandbox.

But it’s also not stopped me from making money: My books are doing well, even Agent, which is available for free, so people really do have to make the conscious decision to buy it. Giving away a certain amount for free fostered those sales, I’m sure, both by assuring people of the quality of the work and also creating a community of people who are happy to see me succeed (and help me do so buy occasionally buying something of mine).

All the Internet is doing is changing the dynamic of how people make money from their creative work. People will still pay for work they like from people they like. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

Tim Walker: "The whole Chabonesque ‘genre fiction versus "literary" fiction’ thingy.
Are boundaries between them useful? Morph this into a general
discussion of where you see fiction headed, if you like."

Literature genres are a matter of two things: marketing on the part of publishers and booksellers, and self-identification on the part of the audience. It has nothing to do with quality of writing, or quality of story, or whatever. Why is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go marketed as literary fiction? Because that’s where Ishiguro’s audience sees itself as. Why is China Mieville’s stuff marketed as dark fantasy? Same reason. But Ishiguro’s audience would probably love Mieville’s work; Mieville’s audience, likewise — if only they admit they could read that other stuff. The mechanics of fiction are universal; you use the same mechanics to write literary fiction as you do to write science fiction and fantasy. Moreover, the mechanics of fiction will continue to be universal.

I write genre fiction and unapologetically so, but at the same time I don’t accept that my readers only have to come from genre audiences. I want the skiffy geeks to read me, but I want other people to read me too. At the same time I think the SF geek who only reads SF/F is doing himself a disservice; he needs to get out and see how the other half lives. The best readers, I find, are promiscuous readers. I certainly feel that way. I’m a book slut; I’ll read anything once, twice if I like it. Speaking as a writer, that’s why I feel I can write to appeal to people outside my typical genre audience.

The boundaries between genres will exist as long as they help to sell books. I think that’s fine, but I think booksellers also need to help train readers to accept there is more out there than their favorite genres (publishers too, although to a lesser extent — one doesn’t expect, say, Baen, to go out of its way and help people find romantic mysteries). People will still read as much as they do in their favorite genres; they’ll just maybe try other stuff as well.

John H: "From a SF writer’s perspective, what futuristic technologies do you think we should be pursuing?"

Why as an SF writer? I’m an SF writer in part because of my interest in science, not the other way around (yes, this is true: I was into science long before I read my first SF book). I think we ought to be perusing technologies to make energy production as cheap, sustainable and pollution-free as possible, and we ought to be accelerating our study of biotechnology by significant amounts, because I suspect we’ll need both in the very near future.

Josh: "We already know that you’re planning on writing a third book in this series-which-is-not-a-series, but I’m curious: would you ever consider ‘loaning out’ the world you’ve built for a series of paperback originals? For that matter, how would you feel about your family and/or friends carrying on the universe once you’re dead, ala Dune?"

If the Old Man universe became so popular that people wanted to play in it, they would do it anyway a la fan fic. As toward a concerted commercial attempt to exploit the universe while I was busy doing other things? Well, I think that would be fine as long as the books didn’t, you know, suck. I think quality control would be an issue here, and without castigating media tie-in writers in general, many of whom are in fact very good writers, the fact is that with some media tie-in series, quality is clearly not job one. If we’re going to bring other writers into the universe, they should bring something to the universe too, not just grind out some slap-dash military porn thing.

For example, I hear that John M. Ford’s two Star Trek novels, The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet? are not well-loved by Paramount because they futz with the established Star Trek formula. I say: Get me John M. Ford! Aside from the simple high caliber of the man as a writer, I’d want to read a book where the author gave me something worth reading for its own sake, not just as comfort food from the Old Man universe. And if I can’t get John M. Ford, get me someone who is as fearless as he. That’s what my universe deserves.

How do I feel about family/friends carrying on the universe after I’m dead? Well, I’ll be dead. What will I care? I’d simply hope the "don’t have it suck" admonition would cast a long shadow.

There, I think that’s enough writing on writing. 

Reader Request Week 2006 #6: Paranoid Parents

Thoughts on childhoods past and present, from cisko:

Why have we changed so much, in the past 20 years, about how we protect our kids? And what is (or would be) going too far?

One example: As kids, my brothers and I would spend all day riding our bikes around the neighborhood, playing with other kids and generally having a ton of self-directed fun. Today, that just wouldn’t be acceptable — kids need to be supervised all the time, seemingly into at least middle school.

Is your experience similar? And what do you think it means for the kids and parents, both now, and as the kids grow up?

Related to this, this question/comment from Eric B:

Some time ago my brother posted some pictures online of our older sister’s two children, including their full names. My wife saw it, freaked out, notified older sister about it, and within a few days the pictures were taken down.

When I heard about the situation, I at first was a bit curious why it was a problem, since I’d been reading about Athena here on the Whatever all the time. So I wonder, what fast and hard rules do you think there are to putting kids’ information online. Granted, a parent should have more control than other family members in such matters, but does it make a difference if one lives in a rural or (sub)urban location, has an unlisted number, or other factors.

It’s interesting. Toward the last of these, every few months or so I get an e-mail from someone genuinely concerned that me posting pictures of Athena is an open invite for the pervs and freaks to come down to the Scalzi Compound and stalk my little girl. Typically speaking I appreciate the concern (except the one guy who said something along the lines of "I hope you don’t ever have to live with the regret of having been able to have prevented your child from being molested if only you’d not posted pictures of her online," to which my response was, hey, fuck you), but I’m also not overly worried.

I’m not overly worried (which is not the same thing as "not worried at all") for a number of reasons: I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I have a really excellent idea where my kid is all the time. Athena is very smart and knows about the potential danger of strangers. Our home, by virtue of being removed several hundred feet from the road (any road, on any side), and by being the home of a dog who sees it as her job to alert us when anyone approaches on foot or by car, is not one which is easily approachable by stealth, and I’m home almost all the time in any event. Athena’s school won’t let her leave the school with anyone without me or Krissy having come in and approved it. Finally, Athena’s online presence is now and for quite some time will be mediated by me and Krissy, and aside from knowing where she is online at all times we’ve also been not shy in telling her that pervs and jerks exist online.

And of course, I’m also not entirely stupid in what about Athena I post online. It’s one thing to show Athena hungrily eying a cat or suffocating dear old dad or posing as a vampire; it’s another thing to show her in the tub. You’re not going to get any of the latter. But this is all of a piece anyway, and something I’ve been very open about here at the Whatever, which is that I’m perfectly happy to share any number of superficial things, but my private life — and the private life of my family — is (no offense) none of your damn business. I’m happy to tell you how my book is doing and how I feel about my work. My personal relationship with my wife and child: not so much, other than in generalities. Athena’s pictures here tend to be silly and fun and I’m happy to share surface-y anecdotes and such, but there’s lots you don’t know about her, nor are likely to. Not because I’m worried about freaks and pervs using the information to gain her confidence, or any such thing. But simply because she deserves to have a life that’s her own and not available for general comment.

On her side, Athena is pretty savvy about what’s going on; she understands the concept of a Web site and she understands that lots of people check in here to see what I and occasionally she are up to. She will in fact from time to time suggest a picture for me to take or ask me to take a picture of a drawing for the purposes of displaying it online, which is why you get the occasional monster collection. I also clear with her anything about her I want to put online — and yes, she’s exercised a veto before. Is Athena being aware of this stuff make her safer? Yes, to the extent that understanding any process can make one safer. It also gives her a measure of control over her own life, and commensurately an expectation that she should have some control and that this desire should be respected. It’s not the same as giving her mace and instructions to spray pervs in the eye if they rush her, but it’s not insignificant.

Now, the thing to note here is that this is my kid I have on my site; as a general rule I don’t put other people’s kids on my site without explicit permission from the parent(s). Why? Because they’re not my kids, and people have every right not to have their kids’ pictures plastered about teh Intarweebs without their permission. So, Eric B, I think your wife’s reaction is not entirely out of line — not because suddenly a Web of pervs have a line on those kids (which is unlikely), but simply because those responsible for the well-being of the kids didn’t get a say about whether they were out there on the Web. I’m confident I am not at all endangering my child with the occasional picture of her on my site, and I feel likewise confident that the vast majority of kid pictures put up on the Web are not perv magnets, but you know what? What I think about other people’s kids and their pictures/info online doesn’t matter. It’s up to the parents.

(Some of you may ask: All this talk is about you and Athena, John — doesn’t Krissy get a say? The answer: Well, obviously. If Krissy were ever uncomfortable with a picture of Athena or something I wrote about Athena online, it would come down instantly; moreover if she decided that there was to be no more Athena on the Whatever, there would be no more Athena on the Whatever. This is all axiomatic.)

"Up to the parents" bring us to the first question, which is, essentially, whether today’s parents are overly paranoid about keeping track of their children at all times. Well, to begin, if you read the paragraphs above detailing how I pretty much know where my kid is at all times, then you know that I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have your kids’ whereabouts down to a science. Second: Yes, I suspect we probably are paranoid as hell, and probably overly so. When I was Athena’s age I essentially roamed the neighborhood at will; I don’t think my mom had the slightest idea where I was most of the time. Second and third grades I would get on my bike and disappear for hours at a time, tooling around the entire city. And of course I was generally getting into things and places that would have given my mother an absolute stroke had she known.

And I’m still alive, as are most of the former kids of my generation; most of the kids of recent previous generations also managed to make it to adulthood despite the lack of almost-constant parental supervision. Thanks to a media cottage industry in making parents feel inadequate no matter what they do, today’s parents certainly feel like the world is more dangerous than it was when we were cruising around on our Huffys, but I’m pretty sure that statistically and overall, this day and age is actually safer than the mid-70s, early-80s world in which we grew up.

I suspect that somewhere along the way, the framing of childhood shifted from the actions of the kids to the deficiencies of the parents. A good example of this was a term that became popular when I was growing up: "Latchkey kids." These were the kids who came home to empty houses after school because their parents worked during the day; without that parental supervision, you see, it was natural the kids would be up to no good. The thing about this was that even the kids who weren’t latchkey kids were up to no good — mom or dad may be at home, but as soon as a kid said "I’m going out with my friends" and they kicked open the screen door, the kid was still going to do what the kid was going to do, for hours at a time, away from the parents. But the point of view was shifted to suggest that kids were suffering because of lack of parental supervision. Undoubtedly some were, but I think most kids were not in a rush to have parents hovering no matter what. Go back in time and you’ll realize you probably didn’t want to hang with your mom or dad all the time either. But when my generation started doing that "Gen X" thing we had going there, blaming absent moms and dads for our hip cultural alienation was sure useful.

Gen-X parents want to be more engaged than they remember their own parents being, which I think is well and good, but wanting to tag our children with tracking devices to know their whereabouts 24/7 — or alternately, scheduling them with so many structured activities in and out of school that they don’t have time to breathe, much less get in trouble — is very likely to backfire. Look, I’m in the same boat here: I’d like to have a cute little GPS device my daughter would be delighted take with her always, so no matter where she is I can track her location with Google Maps. On the other hand, I also fully expect that if I did that, sooner rather than later my adorable little daughter would tell me to go fuck off. Kids want and need their space and the ability to do things alone, or at least, without constant adult supervision. And they’ll carve out that space whether we want them to or not. I think we all think we’re hip to our what are kids are up to, but come on, people. Think back on all the things you did when you were a kid and a teen that you know your parents had no idea about. News flash: You’re as clueless now as your parents were then. Sorry, but it’s true.

Athena is easy for me to watch now because she’s seven and I’m at home — and she actually likes spending time with me. When there comes the day when she wants to hang with her friends and do her own thing, I’m probably going to hate it, but I’d rather have her believe that I and her mom are willingly giving her space than have her believe she has to take it in spite of us. The positive benefit of that is that then when we ask her "where are you going?" we’re likely to get a more expansive answer than "out." And maybe then she will take that cell phone with the GPS chip in it, because she’ll know it’s not that I want to track her every move, I’ll just want to know where she is if she falls down a well. That seems reasonable.

Reader Request Week 2006 #5: A Political Judiciary

Activist judges everywhere! Ohako asks:

“When did the judiciary become so political? Activist judges here, there, and everywhere!!

I once sat on a jury, and when we were done, we explained our verdict a little to the judge. He didn’t care, and I was impressed because I realized that it was his job not to care, one way or the other. His duty was to render fair justice, without any personal bias at all.

So why is it now that being a judge, at any level, seems to be another Red State/Blue State dichotomy thingy? Rather than being just another technical sort of job?”

Well, Ohako, to the first, the phrase “activist judge” is crap propoganda. “Activist judge” is the rhetorical bludgeon that the right-wing folks currently in power have decided to use any time a judge gives a ruling that doesn’t fit their agenda. As I’ve said before, the most “activist” ruling of the last decade, if we’re talking about the judiciary thwarting the will of the people, was the Supreme Court ruling that gave the presidency to George Bush. Yet no one seems to be calling Antonin Scalia an “activist judge.”

Having said that, “activist judge” is a brilliant rhetorical phrase, because regardless of its relationship to reality, it allows its users to describe their enemies in ways that both put their enemies on the defensive and also gull the unsophisticated masses. Most people don’t know or understand the role of the judiciary, nor understand (at the federal level at least) that it is explicitly designed so as to be insulated from the day-to-day electoral and political pressures the other two branches of government face. Complaining that “activist judges” are not responsive to the “will of the people,” particularly when that “will” is expressed by the political “want” list of the executive or legislative branches (even if both branches are currently polling below 40% approval) is in many ways complaining that the judges are doing their job as defined by the Constitution. But most people don’t get that; they turn on the talk radio and listen to bloviating right-wing lard brains model a version of separation of powers that has absolutely nothing to do with Constitutional reality.

Those in power know the model they’re promoting to the politically unsophisticated is a bad one, and what should be particularly galling to the people they’re selling this Constitutional snake oil to is that in reality, those in charge on the right don’t actually want the judiciary to be more politically responsive and less “activist” — otherwise Bush wouldn’t be so busy trying to jam people onto the Supreme Court (and into lower courts as well) whose political and judicial theories are far to the right of the general population. The Bushies rely on the staying power of an insulated judiciary to extend their political agenda long after Bush will be out of office — and indeed hope that these judges will be “activist” in their political direction, batting back the electoral will with their own unique view of US Constitutional law.

This is par for the course for the Bushies and their right-wing fellow travelers who prize their unchecked power over the constraints of the Constitution and whose theory of politics is best described as “feckless,” since the same right-wing bootlickers who are busy eviscerating the Constitution for the benefit of Bush today will the ones climbing the ramparts to take it all back if a Democrat gets elected president in 2008. There is no political theory on the right today; there’s just what they think they can get away with. This is sad for Republicans and conservatives who actually do prize the US Constitution and the rule of law, of course. Maybe next time they’ll run a presidental candidate who can actually think. In the meantime, of course, the monkeys are in charge, and they can take comfort take that the morons on the left are so ineffectual that they can’t actually get it together to counter a phrase as politically vapid as “activist judge,” much less counter any of the concrete violations of the Constitution currently taking place.

Now, before it looks as if I am blaming every bad thing ever on the Bushies, let’s review US history, in which we find that presidents have ever played politics with the federal judiciary. Indeed, one of the great Supreme Court rulings, Marbury v. Madison (which established the right of the Supreme Court to be the Supreme Court as we understand it today) arose because outgoing president John Adams created a bunch of judicial positions and packed them with his political fellow travelers in an attempt to thwart the political plans of Thomas Jefferson, who had just crushed Adams in an election. Closer to our own time, and on the recognizably opposite political end of the spectrum from the current Bush administration, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 tried to get around a Supreme Court hostile to his New Deal by proposing to add a Supreme Court justice for every sitting justice over the age of 70 (thereby allowing FDR to appoint judges sympathetic to his politics). This didn’t fly, but it seems to have scared the then-sitting judges into allowing some New Deal provisions they seemed otherwise to be ready to bounce. For the record, I find FDR’s (and Adams’) attempts at court-packing fairly loathsome; say what you will about Bush, but his people aren’t imaginative enough to pull stunts like these. But the point to be made here is that being political about judges really is nothing new.

Are today’s judges “activist” — meaning they arrogate to themselves the powers that should reside with the other branches of government? By and large, I think not — I believe the majority of federal judges, even the ones whose judicial philosophies I disagree with, try to do their job faithfully and in accordance to the Constitution (moreover I also suspect that state and local judges do the same under the laws by which they rule). What is different — at least in very recent time — is that currently the right wants to suggest the judiciary is unchecked, arrogant and politically-minded. But inasmuch as many of the rulings decried as the result of “activist judges” are legally rigorous and sensibly ruled — just not what the folks on the right wanted — it’s pretty transparently partisan whining.

When will the howling about “activist judges” die down? I suspect when and if people come to power who understand that the role of the judiciary under the US Constitution is not, in fact, to let the president do everything he wants to do because he feels like it’s something he wants to do. In other words, when people come to power who actually respect the US Constitution.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)

Reader Request Week 2006 #4: The Nintendo Revolution

Mmmm… let’s talk video games! Greg Lescoe asks:

Having been a videogame journalist for some time, I would assume you’re keeping tabs to at least some degree on the industry itself. That said, what do you think about Nintendo’s potentially risky gamble to eschew better visuals (at this point not as significant an upgrade as in previous generations) in favor of other, non-graphics-related upgrades? And do you think that their refusal to do the "let’s put everything imaginable into a silver box and charge half a grand for it even though nobody will use it for anything but videogames and maybe movies early on" thing will help or hurt them in the end? 

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I think Nintendo is going to come out of it just fine, as long as they can manage to get the Revolution in at the $200 price point.

I think it’s important to note that Nintendo is not actually playing the same long-term game as Sony and Microsoft. Sony and Microsoft are in a battle to the death for control of your widescreen HDTV in the living room, not just for the purposes of game playing but for the rather more nebulous purpose of being your front-line "media center." There are rather more levels to it, of course (I just wrote an OPM column about this so I won’t get into it here, but if you think Sony’s dropping Blu-Ray into PS3 just to have a more convenient game storage medium for its games, you are wrong wrong wrong wrong), but essentially those two are in a war for your living room.

Nintendo, I think, doesn’t want to be in your living room; it wants to be in your ten-year-old’s bedroom, hooked up to the little TV in there. Or if it is in your living room, it doesn’t necessarily want to be there first, it just wants to be there too.

And I think that’s wise, actually. Speaking for myself as a parent, I know that the video games Athena likes are the video games Nintendo excels at (and excels marketing itself as a platform for), the silly and mildly-but-not-too-challenging sidescrollers and jumpers. These games need not be super-intensive graphically, they just need to be fun. When Athena goes over to her grandparents, they haul out their Super NES and Athena goes to town on the Mario Brothers games for that. Does she care that the graphics are from four console generations ago? Not a bit. Heck, right now one of her favorite games is Demon Attack, which was was originally for the Atari 2600, and which she has emulated on her PC (also, in case anyone asks, why yes, I do own in on cartridge, as well as owning an Atari 2600). If she can groove on Demon Attack, she’s not going to give a crap whether the Revolution is going to have the same level vertex shading as the PS3. She just wants a fun game. As, I suspect, would most folks.

Again, the key here is price point. $200 is key. At $200 — and especially compared to the Xbox 360 and the PS3 — the Revolution comes in looking like a nicely affordable toy, something that you can get for the kids or that you can get for yourself without busting the bank (in fact $200 is not trivial. It just looks good in comparison). If Nintendo can hit $200 with the Revolution, they’re going to be golden. I mean, I would buy one just to give to Athena. If they come in higher than $200, well, now you’re talking real money, aren’t you? And it becomes less attractive.

You ask: What value is there in being the second game console in a house? Well, think about it: How many second TVs do Americans have? How many second computers? How many second cars? How many second everythings do we have? Americans (and I suspect others) like having second things, which typically are of lesser capabilities (or at least lesser dimension). You have the big screen TV in the living room and the 19-incher in the bedroom. You have the desktop and the laptop. You have the new car and the auxiliary car. You have the big dog and the little dog you got to keep it company. And so on and so on.

The folks making those 19-inch TVs are not laboring under the impression that TV is going to be the primary TV in the house; they just know you want another TV. Similarly, it’s not really a stretch to conceive of a console marketing itself as the second console, especially when so many gamers already own some combination of PS2, Xbox or GameCube, all of which will die a death when the next-gen consoles are all out. Gamers are already tuned into the idea of having two consoles, and having a $400 and a $200 one is a heck of a lot cheaper than having two $400 ones.

If Nintendo can manage to pull off the "second console" thing, they’re going to end up looking really smart, and their success will be in addition to, rather than at the expense of, the PS3 and the XBox 360.

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(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here