Monthly Archives: September 2006

Deliver Me From Temptation, Temptation Being Amazon

Dear Authors,

It has come to my attention that Amazon, the leading online bookseller, is now allowing comments on individual product reviews, including reviews of books (and therefore, your books). This means that now, finally, you can correct the views of all those poor unfortunates who gave your book less than the four or five stars it so richly deserved, and explain to them, in your enormously engaging way, why they were so very wrong about your book and should forever regret not understanding it sufficiently well to bask in its wisdom, and to give it more than three stars.

When the urge to correct an Amazon reviewer takes hold, and you find yourself reaching for the keyboard, here are some simple steps I suggest you do next:

1. Step away from the keyboard; go to the basement.

2. Turn on the bandsaw you have down there.

3. Run your hands through the bandsaw, at the wrists.

4. Turn off the bandsaw with your teeth. Safety first!

There! Thanks to the loss of your hands, you are no longer able to type your reply, and with the salutatory effect of massive blood loss, you are likely no longer in a frame of mind to respond anyway. Which is good, because not only are your readers entitled to their own wrong opinions, they’re also entitled to share them with others without the author turning up like a neurotic harpy to make a snarky retort.

“But wait!” I hear you say. “What if I sign on to Amazon and post my retorts under an entirely different name? Then I have the satisfaction of responding, but no one will know it’s me!” Yes, well. The term for using a fake name to respond to comments is “using a sock puppet,” and if you’re going to engage in sockpuppetry, this is how you should go about it:

1. Put a sock over each hand. You may decorate the socks to taste. You’ve made sock puppets!

2. Dip each sock, hands still inside, into the largest vat of honey you can find.

3. Feed sock-wrapped hands to the brown bear you have procured for just such an eventuality.

Once again, after the bear has finished its delicious little snacky-snack, you’ll most likely neither have the means nor the desire to respond to those mean and nasty Amazon reviews. And what a relief that will be! Now you can turn to more important things, like plotting your next work, training your voice-operated word processor, and developing a Zen-like detatchment regarding reviews, particularly the ones on Amazon. You’ll feel better. And they’re doing amazing things with prosthetics these days.

Just thought I’d share,

Your friend,

John

Linky McLinkerson

Want some links to pursue? Sure you do. Here are some links I thought would be interesting/people have recently begged me to pimp/I’ve been paid big money for:

* The megafabulous Justine Larbalestier — who finished the third book in her series just before I finished mine — has an interesting interview with author John Greene on the subject of lying. Apparently Mr. Greene and Ms. Larbalestier both are in the practice of telling untruths. Shocked, shocked I am! Here’s a telling quote from Mr. Greene:

I’ve always felt that lying can be perfectly noble: Say, for instance, that Sarah (my wife) got into a duel, and her opponent cut off her nose (as happened to the astronomer Tycho Brahe). Okay, so if a half-conscious and noseless Sarah said to me, “Am I losing a lot of blood?” And I would say, “No,” because I’d want her to stay calm and wait for help to arrive. That’s an ethical lie, I think.

I wonder what people said to Tycho Brahe. He walked around with a brass nose. “No, Tycho, you can hardly tell you have a metal honker.” Poor Tycho. He smelled terrible.

* This is cool: Debut author Joe Schrieber’s book Chasing the Dead comes out next week and got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly (“You’re not going anywhere until you devour every one of its tension-filled pages” — nice!), but Schrieber isn’t happy just to give you a book — he’s also created an affiliated blog, also known as Chasing the Dead.

What’s cool about the blog is that it’s an entirely separate but related story, told in blog form, featuring a school teacher researching some terrible events in several New England towns, who gradually discovers (of course) that some weird and terrible things are going on. I’ve skimmed through the blog and it’s totally get-you-sucked-in-able, and that’s a good thing. Here’s the first entry — work your way forward from there. This is a very neat idea and I’ll be reading to see how it pans out.

* My friend Doselle Young suggests that I pimp Seriocity, which is the blog of television writer Kay Reindl, and you know what? He’s right, because in addition to being funny as hell in person (Kay and I totally bonded over Canadian hard rock bands of the 80s at Worldcon — Hey! Kay! Triumph 4evah!!), she’s got a really interesting blog full of wit and interestingbles. Doselle in particular wants to point out this entry on music and telvision and life and stuff. And he’s right again! It’s a great entry. Doselle, how does it feel to be right all the time?

* Jason Sizemore, the editor of sf magazine Apex Digest, has run into a bit of a financial scrape and is looking for new subscribers. Here’s the whole story; check it out and see if it convinces you to drop a Jackson for a year’s subscription. This is a paying story market, so SF writers, the story market you save may be your own.

* Apparently I’m not the only science fiction writer trying to make people jump around like monkeys in the hopes of snagging a book. David Louis Edelman is giving away five copies of his faboo debut Infoquake, just because he’s that way. I’d accuse him of stealing my idea, but he actually posted his contest before I did. So, um. Yeah. Anyway, it’s a fine, fine book, so why not try to get it for free?

* Look! A scholarly examination of Bacon Cat. Terrifying, it is.

Those are my links for you today. And now, I declare the comment thread to be a link-pimp: If there’s something you want folks to read or see out there on the crazy tubes, go ahead and drop a URL or link into a comment. Please do tell us what the link is first; blind links aren’t cool. Also, if you put more than one link in a post, it’ll likely be held for moderation. Don’t worry, I’ll be springing those comments on a regular basis.

Yes, you may pimp your own links, but, you know. Try to share the love, too.

Why I Deserve an “Android’s Dream” ARC: A Contest

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The Goddess Kristine Blauser Scalzi is being the spokesmodel for The Android’s Dream, here in its “Advance Reader Copy” form — which is to say, the version that has all the stupid spelling errors I made. I’ve got a few of these, and so, in celebration of finishing The Last Colony, I’m going to give away an ARC of TAD to one of you faithful Whatever readers. That’s right, you’ll be able to read it more than a full month before the common rabble! Yes, you’ll be uncommon rabble, and that’s the best kind of rabble there is. But wait, there’s more! I’ll even sign it and personalize it for you! So when you use it to prop up a wobbly table, you can do so with pride.

But if you want the ARC, you’re gonna have to beat back all the other people who want it with a stick (please note: this is figurative. Please do not actually physically assault anyone for this book). Forthwith, here’s how to compete in the “Damn you Scalzi, Give Me That Android’s Dream ARC!” contest:

Tell me why you deserve the Android’s Dream ARC more than anyone else.

And now, the rules:

1. All responses should be placed in the comment thread for this entry.

2. When telling me why you deserve the ARC of The Android’s Dream, do not feel that you need to limit yourself to the truth. If you feel it will improve your chances, make something up. Yes, lie. Lie through your ever-lovin’ teeth, friends.

3. Apropos to point 2, if you are gonna lie, you know, make it a good one. Points for creativity, and all that.

4. You can enter more than once if you feel you must, but don’t be silly about it. If you’re entering for the fourth time, at least use a pseudonym so I don’t get bored with seeing your name.

5. Remember the contest is why you deserve the ARC, not why other people don’t, so don’t run down any other folks who are playing. Because that would made me sad. And if you make me sad, why would I think you deserve the ARC?

6. Clearly, I’m meaning for you to have fun with this. If you actually feel yourself getting competitive, you should probably sit it out.

The contest opens as soon as this entry is posted and closes at 11:59:59pm Eastern, September 24, 2006. I’ll announce the winner by noon eastern, Tuesday September 26. When I announce the winner, he or she can send me an e-mail with a mailing address, and I’ll sign the book, personalize it and pop it into a book envelope I have right here at my desk, and then Krissy will escort it to the post office where it will wing its way to you. And then, of course, you can lord over everyone else in a truly obnoxious fashion. Because that’s what winning is all about.

So there you have it: Tell me (truthfully or not) why you feel you deserve this Android’s Dream ARC. I’m looking forward to hearing your tales of… deservation? Deservement? Deservoisty? Whatever you’ll call them, I’m ready to hear ‘em.

Go!

Hugo Chavez Had It Wrong

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I am the devil! George Bush is, at best, an imp.

Yeah, I’m letting off some post-novel steam. Why do you ask?

I have to say, there’s something about my head that makes it particularly good for turning into your basic Photoshop devil. Personally I think it’s all about the eyebrows. In day to day life my eyebrows are, at best, unremarkable, but when required they are capable of Nicholson-like arching. I’ll note that the shape of the eyebrows above has not been Photoshopped in any way. That’s all me, baby.

What I’m particularly proud of is that I did this Photoshoppery after I finished my novel, not before, thus avoiding the dread “how’s the book coming along?” questions that would inevitably ensue. The book is done, damn you! And what I say damn you, clearly, I mean it.

Ironically, I did a photo shoot today for a magazine article. None of those pictures look like this one. So far as I know.

Public Speaking; Various Questions

So, I gave a talk last night at the public library in Marion, Ohio — Hometown of former (and dead) president Warren G. Harding — and I had quite a bit of fun, and hope those who were there did too. At the beginning of the talk I gave a rundown of all the sorts of writing I do — novels, non-fiction, newspaper and magazine, blogging — and asked the audience what they wanted me to talk about. Seems that most of them were there to hear me blab about science fiction. And so, that’s what I blabbed about, for about 90 minutes, pretty much non-stop.

It sort of amazes me that I can blather in public for 90 minutes on a subject and keep finding things to say about it. At some point I wonder if people just wonder if I’m ever going to shut up, but then I remember they’re actually there to hear me talk. So I just keep going. I didn’t end up doing a reading — I brought some work with me but I didn’t get to it — and part of me wonders if I should have. But the next thing I knew I was at the 90 minute mark, and I think I was only actually scheduled to speak for an hour. I’m just a wind-up toy, I am.

I think I did a reasonably good job; you’d have to ask the people who were there. I do know that I like doing speaking events. It’s fun to get up and talk and to have a conversation with the audience and what have you. Aside from the actual writing, it’s one of the most fun things about being a writer. Not all writers feel this way, incidentally. But I’m an attention hog. I eat this stuff up. So if you’re looking for a speaker, you know where I am. And I want to thank the Marion Public Library for having me come by. It’s a lovely library with lovely staff, and I had a great time.

On to another subject entirely: In the wake of finishing The Last Colony, I’ve had a couple of questions about it and writing, and I thought I’d go ahead and answer them.

Colin F asks: “Can you give us a hint when we might see TGB released in paperback?”

I’m not going to hint, I’m going to tell you: The Ghost Brigades will be out in mass market paperback in May 2007, pretty much when The Last Colony hardcover hits the shelves. Since Old Man’s War will be out in mass market paperback in January, that means both of the previous books will be out there for people to grab along with TLC. Naturally, this makes me happy.

Those of you who are book nuts may note that while OMW had a trade paperback release, TGB is going directly into mass market; there are reasons for this involving advanced bookselling voodoo that I could tell you about, but then I would have to kill you. I don’t know if there will be a trade paperback version of TGB; right now I don’t think there are any plans for one, however. If this changes I’ll let you know.

Chang asks: “Do you have any sort of ritual for finishing up a novel? Besides crashing into the bed and not moving for a few days?”

Hey, don’t discount collapsing into a pile. It really does seem to be my post-book ritual. I finished TLC in the afternoon after having a nice long night of sleep, and I though well, at least this time I won’t fall into a coma, and then plopped on the bed to watch TV and woke up at, like, 9:30pm. Apparently finishing a book takes something out of me whether I want it to or not.

Other than that, no, I don’t really have a ritual. When I finished The Ghost Brigades I celebrated by buying myself a fancy-shmancy new dSLR camera, and this time around I thought about buying myself something else similarly expensive, but in fact I have not done so (yet). I’m itchin’ to buy a new PC, but I want to wait until the first quad-core PCs hit the market later this year, because I’m just that way. Other than that, there’s nothing expensive I really feel like buying at the moment (well. I would like one of those sweet new Mustangs. But I have no excuse).

I did change the look of the Whatever in tandem with finishing the novel; maybe I’ll make that a ritual from now on (I really like the new look, incidentally. I’m always happy when I do something I like). But then again, maybe I won’t. I don’t know that fetishizing the completion of a book is a smart thing do, at least for me. For one thing, developing a ritual takes work. And you all know how much I am against that.

From e-mail: “I was just wondering what word processor and writing tools you use while writing. Do you have a Windows or Mac PC? Laptop or desktop? Do you use Microsoft Word or some other word processor? If it’s MS Word, does the product handle a 90k+ word document well, or do you have to break it up into seperate files? Are there any special templates, tools, or funky font settings that you mess with, or do you just ignore all of that stuff and worry about it after you’re finished and passing the manuscript on to your publisher?”

Well, it’s interesting. I wrote The Last Colony on three separate machines using two separate word processors, and in the end I’ve come to the conclusion that whether I like it or not, I write better using Microsoft Word than any other word processing program. Part of the reason for this is familiarity: I know Word’s quirks better than any other processor, and I know its format better as well. But part of it is that even if you save a document as a common format (I tend to use .rtf), different programs will open and format it differently. Eventually for the sake of sanity I had to choose just one program to use, and that ended up being Word.

Also, and sorry to say this, but all other word processors for the Mac just plain suck. I wrote The Ghost Brigades and part of TLC on the Mac using TextEdit, which was adequate but not optimal. Pages — the Apple word processor — is just plain useless; I ended up taking it out of my dock completely. In both cases you have to be careful about changing fonts globally because when you do both the programs wipe out various formatting, which is ridiculous and stupid (yes, it’s possible this is just me not know how not to do this, but come on, people: If the default for changing a font wipes out formatting, it’s clear the program was not designed to be used on a regular basis).

I ended up having to have two sets of documents for TLC: the ones I edited on the Mac and the ones that I edited on my laptop. Eventually I decided this was stupid downloaded the 30-day trial version of Word for the Mac, and then used that to collate all the files into a single document that I could then use whatever computer I was using. The trial version of Word:Mac is going to expire in a couple of days; I’m going to go ahead and buy the damn thing so I don’t have to do this sort of ridiculous byzantine multi-format nonsense again (to answer the specific question: Yes, Word handles very large documents just fine. I sent my novel to my editor as a single file).

On the formatting side, when I write, I tend to write using one of two fonts: Optima or Times New Roman, in both cases because I like the look of the font and they’re easy for me to read. I tend to use either 10-point type blown up to 125% view or 12-point type at 100% view — if it’s any larger it annoys me. As I’m writing I tend to use what has become the “Web Standard” formatting: no indent, single spacing, double space between paragraphs. The fact is I do the majority of my writing online, at least in terms of volume, and so this has become my default way of writing. Before I send the final document to my editor, however, I reformat it into standard manuscript formatting, because I want to make him happy, and reformatting is not difficult to do (in Word, anyway).

Other than the formatting I note above, which requires no special tools of any sort, I don’t use any templates or fancy formatting or whatever. I just type. Fiddling with formats and templates in my opinion is mostly procrastination, ar at least it’s procrastination for me. So I don’t bother. I just type.

The Popping Sound You Hear Comes From Conservative Heads Exploding Like Eggs in a Microwave

Hugo Chavez. Holding a book by Noam Chomsky. While he speaks at the United Nations. And calls George Bush the devil.

Man, I’m glad I’m not a conservative. Because I wouldn’t even know where to begin with this picture. It’s like Christmas, Hanukkah and Skull and Crossbones initiation night all in one picture. It’s the gift that won’t ever stop giving. Frankly, I’m afraid to wander over to conservative political Web sites at the moment. I can’t even imagine what they’re saying about this picture. I’m not sure I want to know.

Thoughts on The Last Colony

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As I often do when I finish up a novel, I have a couple post-writing thoughts on The Last Colony. Here’s what I’m thinking about it at the moment.

* First, I like this book, which was not a guaranteed thing, let me tell you. There was a fair amount of time at the beginning of the writing where I was sure I didn’t like this book, and, naturally, that would have been a problem. This book ending up having to prove to me that it was worth liking, and worth me writing. I think eventually it made its case pretty well, and once it did, I had to make sure that I made the case for the book to the readers. I’ve been very lucky that Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades have been well-received, and I didn’t want to trip up here at the finish line. I don’t think I did.

* Spare a moment, if you will, for Sameer Desai. Who is he, you ask? Well, he’s the main character of The Last Colony whom you will never meet. Originally, I was going to do in TLC what I did in OMW and TGB, which was to introduce a new main character and then have some recurring characters in the background. In this case Sam was going to be my new main character: A young American of Indian ancestry who through various turns of plot found himself herded onto a colonization ship one step ahead of the law and to a new colony, which would be headed up by John Perry and Jane Sagan. While there, he and Zoe Boutin (now 18 years old or so) would make a discovery that would threaten the safety of the entire colony, complete with a possible interstellar war. You know, like you do. Eventually he and Zoe would figure out what the Hell to do and off we’d go to the happy ending.

The problem was, the more I wrote Sam — and I got about four chapters into the book with him — the more I didn’t like him. Fact was, he was something of an unlovable, whiny twit, and eventually I found myself pushing the plot along without regard to story quality just so I could get to John and Jane and Zoe. At which point I thought, well, crap, if I’m really interested in John and Jane and Zoe, what the hell am I doing with this jerk? So, as I believe I mentioned before, what I ended up doing is taking Sam for a walk to that old abandoned well I have on my property (metaphorically if not literally) and pushing him down into it. Then I went back to my office and wrote an e-mail to Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor, which went as such: “My main character was an annoying putz. I’ve pushed him down a well and you’ll never meet him. I’ll need a couple of extra months to finish the book.” To which PNH’s response, to his credit, was: “Fine.”

I don’t know how much I should really blame poor Sam for this; in some ways he’s the victim here, and not just because I’ve pushed him down a well. It’s entirely possible that someone else could have written him better; it’s possible that he was the right character, just in the wrong book. Whatever the reason, however, I just couldn’t hang with the boy, and now he’s gone. If you ever visit the Scalzi Compound and hear a muffled yelling, as if from a desperate voice somewhere underground, do try to ignore it. Don’t want to encourage Sam.

* Once Sam was out of the way, I got it into my head to do something I thought was clever, which was that I planned to alternate first-person chapters, with John Perry as the main character, with third-person chapters, which would feature a new character, an alien named General Tarsem Gau. And I wrote four chapters of that book before I realized something, which was that if I kept writing the book like this, the book would end up being 200,000 words long. And there were two problems with that: The first was that I was contractually obliged to turn in a book about 100k long, and the second being that if I tried to write a book that was 200k long, I might have to murder myself (to give you perspective, the book ended up being 91k long, and both OMW and TGB were in the 94k-96k range). What I was writing was good, in my opinion; the problem was it was just too much. Thus, another craven e-mail to PNH explaining the situation, and then another overhaul of the story. Out went the third-person chapters, and in came a new focus on John Perry and his point of view.

This frankly turned out to be a blessing. One of the mechanical aspects of the book is that it employs just in time plot, which is to say that as John Perry goes along he keeps uncovering new information about his situation which gives that happened before new context (as I’ve explained before: it’s twisty). If you keep yanking the reader around from one character to another, and from first-person to third-person narration, that sort of “reveal more” mechanism doesn’t work as well — or at least, it wasn’t working as well for me. Once I settled down and stuck with Perry’s point of view, things came rather a bit easier. And as a consequence, the book became better.

* And indeed, I think this is a good book. One of the things that I like about it is that although it has more than enough action in it — ships blowing up, people bringing guns to knife fights and so on — it’s less of an action story and more of a poltical thriller. The first two books in the series have hinted at what sort of government the Colonial Union is and why; this book goes rather a bit deeper into that aspect of things. I won’t go too much into it because I don’t want to give away much about the book; I will say that I think the folks who wanted to learn more about the CU and how and why it does things will get a kick out of this book.

* As many of you know, when I wrote The Ghost Brigades I wrote it so that people who hadn’t read Old Man’s War would be able to read it as a stand alone. When I started The Last Colony, the intent was to do this again — in effect, have three stand alone books in the same universe. But once John Perry and Jane Sagan became the lead characters, I rethought that philosophy. Also, when I was writing TGB, I was working under the assumption that not a whole lot of people would have had the opportunity to read OMW yet. Here and now, the assumptions are a little different; OMW was Hugo nominee, TGB is selling very well in hardcover, and when TLC comes out in hardcover both OMW and TGB will be in mass-market paperback. It’s safer to assume some of the folks interested in TLC will have read at least one of the previous books, or that one of the other two books will be on hand from them to grab as well.

So: The Last Colony is a sequel. I think it’s possible to read it without reading the other two and still have a good time with it, but this time around, reading at least one of the other two will help, and having read both will be best of all.

* Yes, this is the last book in the “Old Man” series. This is not to suggest I won’t come back to this particular universe; I may. Indeed, I’ve been giving some thought to writing some shorter work in this universe, just for fun. But this is the last novel that will feature these particular characters, in this particular time, and, as it happens, I do something in the novel that pretty much assures that I can’t go back.

Bwa ha ha ha ha! That’s right! I did! And I won’t tell you what it is! You have to wait until May! Bwa ha ha ha ha!

No, really, I did. No, really, I won’t tell you now.

But even if I hadn’t, three books is sufficient. I like this universe I’ve created, and I like my characters, particularly Jane Sagan, who is the only character to appear in all three books — indeed, you could make the argument that these three books are about her journey in this universe — but I think the secret of building a successful SF universe is like the secret of attending a good party: Leave while you’re still having fun. I’ve had a great amount of fun in this universe. It seems like a good time to head to the exit, at least as far as the novels are concerned.

* For those of you wondering, the illustration above is the one which — I think — will be featured on the book cover. It’s by John Harris, who did the trade paper cover of OMW and the hardcover for TGB. It’s keeping with the theme and all.

Also, for all those who want to know, the current plan is to have The Last Colony in the stores in May 2007. It’s a birthday present to me!

* What I’m going to do now: Take a break, man. I’m taking nap through the rest of September, and then it’s time to start The Secret Project I Can’t Tell You About Yet. But I will tell you this about it: It’s complex enough that I’m going to do something that I’ve never done with a book before:

Outline.

Yes, boys and girls, when I decide it’s time to outline a novel, you know things are getting weird. I hope you like it, when it comes out in late 2007.

Where I’ll Be and What I’m Doing 9/20/06

For those of you who care, a quick catch-up on everything I’m doing for the next couple of months.

1. Reminder that I will be at the Marion Public Library tonight at 7:00 to talk about writing, science fiction, being a dork and what have you. I’ve found that library appearances tend to be a lot of fun, so I hope some of you central Ohio folks can make it.

2. However! This will not be my only mid-Ohio area appearance this year. I will also be doing an appearance/signing/whatever at the the Barnes & Noble at 4005 Townsfair Way in Columbus on Thursday, November 9th at 7pm. That’s the B&N in the Easton Town Center, for all you Columbus types (I’d call you Columbians, but I don’t know how you’d feel about that). This appearance would be a lovely time for you to pick up The Android’s Dream and have me sign it, hint, hint.

I’m looking in to doing at least a few other Ohio bookstore appearances this November; I’ll let you now what pans out.

3. The folks at Philcon have extended their invitation to have me show up and blather, and I took them up on the offer. So I’ll be there, November 17-19. Charlie Stross will be the guest of honor, so you know it’s going to be fun. This will also be a good place to have me sign your new Android’s Dream book.

4. Now some bad news: Because I’m a complete moron and forgot about a previous personal commitment from which I cannot back out, I will not be attending Capclave this year. This sucks for me in all sorts of ways, among them being that quite a few of my friends will be there, and the entire line-up of participants reads like a who’s who of people I want to hang with. And of course I feel like a dick for backing out. But there’s not much to be done about it. I hope the one or two of you who were thinking of attending Capclave because of me will join the hundreds of other people who are attending it for other reasons anyway; it looks like a great convention, and I’m sorry I’m going to miss it.

5. A couple of weekends ago I made an appearance at the Kerrytown Book Fair in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I spoke on a panel with fellow science fiction/fantasy writers Toby Buckell, Sarah Zettel and Anne Harris. We had an almost obscene amount of fun on the panel, and fortunately the panel was recorded, and turned into part of a podcast here. We are both amusing and full of useful thoughts on the science fiction writing life, which is a good combination. The panel portion of the podcast starts about 25 minutes in. Enjoy!

6. And now for something that’s not entirely about me: I’ve been a little slack in the last month about my author interviews on AOL, mostly because, well, you know, I was trying to finish my own book. But I’ll be ramping those up again, because they’re fun and also because the response to them has been very good — good enough, in fact, that I may be doing something new through AOL to highlight them (and writing in general) in the next few months. I’ll have more on that when/if it happens, but in the short term you can expect the interviews to return, hopefully within the next couple of weeks. Folks I have on the deck for interviews include Jo Walton, Mark Budz, Sean Williams, Karen Traviss and Catherynne M. Valente. Now all I have to do is get them all their questions. Yes, I’m the weak link here. Kill me now.

New Look 9/19/06

To celebrate finishing The Last Colony, I’ve gone ahead and given the Whatever a visual refresh. If you don’t see it immediately, hit refresh a couple of times and you’ll see it.

The funny thing is, I’ve got about a dozen of these sorts of announcements in the archives, and outside their immediate context none of them make sense. Welcome to the crazy world of blogs.

Avast! Here Be a Scurvy Lass

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Athena, apparently eager on Talk Like a Pirate Day to replicate the visage of a scurvy-afflicted 17th century sailor, went and lost two teeth today, one on top and one on bottom, the latter coming out after she went to bed and the previous tooth had been nabbed by the “tooth fairy” (while Athena was still awake, how sneaky is that). The tooth fairy’s lookin’ for a Hamilton now, since the current tooth bounty is $4, and you gotta figure there’s a $2 bonus in a two tooth day.

Local Newspaper Love

Look: An article about me in the Greenville Daily Advocate, the local newspaper of Darke County, which is where I live. The article actually ran first in the Piqua Daily Call, which is the local newspaper of the city two towns over, but both the Advocate and the Call are owned by the same publishing company, so they share a newswire. The story was on the front page of the Piqua paper, which was nice; don’t know where it was located in the Greenville paper, since I haven’t seen a physical copy yet.

I think the article is very nice, although I would like to note that the opening sentence makes it sound like writing was my desperate refuge in a world gone wrong: “For author John Scalzi, writing was easy in a world where he found everything else so difficult.” In reality it was not so dramatic; it was just that writing seemed pretty easy and everything else was, well, you know, work. And I’m lazy. What are you going to do.

Somewhere Popeye is Screaming in Terror and Confusion

FDA to consumers: Don’t eat ANY fresh spinach

There’s a headline I never would have suspected I would see in my lifetime. Now I’m looking forward to the one that says “FDA to Consumers: Smoke more, eat more bacon.” Because nitrates and nicotine battle e.coli bacteria for supremacy in your body, you see. Yes, yes. I’ll be expecting that headline presently.

Fortunately, you may still eat lima beans. Children everywhere shall cheer the news!

Step Away From the Political Blogs

It’s getting to be about that time in the election cycle where for my own personal mental safety, I stop reading political blogs. On an average day I can handle the screediness, but now that we’re less than two months out from election day, I find they give me toxic amounts of electoral anxiety, and I don’t really need much of that. I already know for whom I am voting in November: Ted Strickland for Ohio governor, Sherrod Brown for US Senator and no one for US Representative, because I don’t particularly care for John Boehner’s politics, even if he’s got a plum role in the House, and because Boehner’s Democratic candidate, Mort Meier, is so damn hapless that his only real campaign position is that he’s not John Boehner (note his political campaign Web site is not mortmeier.org but victimsofjohnboehner.org, which is like Pepsi selling itself as CokeSucks Cola), and that doesn’t exactly inspire loads of confidence.

So my candidate shopping is done, settled and out of the way. All I need to do now is get my absentee ballot because that way Diebold can’t change my vote I’ll be away on election day, and I’ll be set. That given, I’m not entirely sure what the benefit for me is in hanging out at a political blog and getting worked up over which candidates who are not mine are up or down on a minute-by-minute basis, or what latest campaign ad outrage is happening in Montana or whatever. This not to say I don’t plan on keeping up with the news — nor that I’ll stop talking about politics here — but there’s a difference between keeping up with news and reading foam-flecked partisans seize with outrage over their keyboards. One is useful for me, one is really not.

Now, this should not be construed as me telling you not to read the political blogs of your preference. Really, do what you want. But I’m going to stay out of them until the first Wednesday of November at least. I expect this will keep me happier and more relaxed than otherwise.

Thinking About The God Delusion

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One of the nice things about doing a signing at a bookseller’s trade show is that afterward you get to wander through the tradeshow floor and admire all the marvelous books that publishers are giving away to booksellers, and maybe snag one or two for yourself. I had to be careful to limit myself to just a few, on account I brought only my backpack with me, not a packing box; even so I walked out of there with five books. One of them is Richard Dawkin’s latest book The God Delusion, in which the eminent public scientist enthusiastically takes a cudgel to the very notion of God, representing Him as unneccesary, something of a bother and a definite public health hazard.

And by “Him,” we’re specifically talking about Yahweh, the god who is the God of half the people on the planet. Indeed, Dawkins is cheerfully rude about Yahweh — he calls Him psychotic, in point of fact — and appears to relish the idea of getting the religious host entirely bunched up about it. One portion of his book has him airing some e-mail he gets from some of the more idiotic and intolerant religious folk; as I was reading it I wondered if he was merely excerpting a blog entry he did somewhere along the way. Much of the book has the informal “whacking the idjits” feel of a blog entry, just in printed form. Perhaps this is an intellectual atlas of stature: When you’re student, grad student or associate professor, you vent in your blog; when you get tenure, you get to vent in a book.

I think The God Delusion is a very good and interesting book, but I have an ambivalence regarding Dawkins’ delight in trashing God and religion. As far as things go, I suspect Dawkins and I are in the same boat regarding the existence of God, which is to say we’re agnostic about it, roughly to the same amount we’re agnostic regarding invisible pink unicorns. On the other hand, unlike Dawkins, I don’t tend to believe the concept of religion itself rises to such levels of risibility that those who follow one must be apprehended largely as credulous dolts. Even if I believed they were, as long as they kept their credulous doltery out of my way, I would be fine with it. My quarrel with religion, when I have one, is when those who practice it wish to impose it on me, often in ways counter to the expressed beliefs and goals of the religion they espouse, or counter to the Constitution of the United States, the wisdom of the freedoms and rights granted therein I find myself progressively astounded by as the years go on. Enjoy your religion, folks. Just keep it to yourself, if you please.

Also, there’s the nagging question in my mind of how much, on a purely practical level, the human condition would change if our species were somehow magically innoculated against the idea of God. In the book, Dawkins posits the idea that religion is a byproduct of some useful human evolutionary adaptation — a byproduct that has gone awry, much as a moth spiraling in toward a flame is an unfortunate byproduct of the evolutionary adaptation that allows the moth to navigate by starlight. In this particular case, Dawkins speculates religion might be a byproduct of an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation that makes children susceptible to guidance by parental (or elder) authority.

(Dawkins is careful to say that he’s just throwing out that particular possible explanation as an example, and that his real allegience is to the idea of religious belief as a less-than-advantageous offshoot of a more useful evolutionary adaptation, but I have to say that I find that particular idea intriguing — I’m projecting onto Dawkins here, but when I read this hypothesis of his I couldn’t help think about the idea that mentally speaking, dogs are child-like wolves; that is, as adults they have activities (wagging tales and barking being the obvious ones) that wolves outgrow. Grey wolves and dogs are the same species — taxonomically dogs are a subspecies. Would Dawkins suggest that religiously-minded humans are to agnostic humans as dogs are to wolves, i.e., mentally suspended at a pre-adult stage in some critical way? Again, to be clear, this is my supposition of Dawkins’ possible implicit argument; don’t go blaming him for my trying to model his thinking process. But this is what my brain lept to, and I wonder if Dawkins had left that there for the biologically-adept to pick up.)

If Dawkins posits that religion and religious belief are merely an evolutionary byproduct, then the problem is obvious: Even if we flush God down the toilet and send the religions of the world swirling down with Him, the biological root cause of the God delusion is still extant, and will inevitably be filled by some other process, just as getting rid of all man-made open flames won’t keep a moth from circling another sort of artificial light source, be it a lightbulb or a glowstick or whatever. God knows (sorry) that entirely atheistic authoritarian schemes have exploited the same human tendency toward obedience, and Lysenkoism, for one, shows that you don’t need a religious doctrine to pervert science. Getting rid of God intellectually doesn’t change the human condition biologically. It will simply create an ideological vacuum to be filled by something else. Which it will; nature abhors a vacuum.

Perhaps Dawkins is an optimist about humans and their ability to plug up the God hole with a more pleasant and useful alternate scheme; I regret I would not share such optimism. Indeed, if an agnostic wanted to make an argument for the continuance of religion, it would be the (no offense) “devil you know” argument: Most religions give at least lip service to the idea of love and peace, so clearing that out of the way is not necessarily a good thing from a practical point of view. Say what you will about Jesus, for whom I have nothing but admiration even without the “son of God” thing, but one of the things I find him useful for is reminding people who allege to be following His teaching just how spectacularly they’re failing Him, in point of fact. The Book of Matthew is particularly good for this, I’ve found.

I don’t doubt Dawkins could make a perfectly good rebuttal for this (possibly along the lines of if we’re going to look at it practically, the cost-benefit analysis suggests that religions do more damage than the thin line of agnostics/atheists berating religionists to live up to their role models could possibly ever hope to repair through public shaming), but for the rest of us it’s worth thinking about: one may argue that a belief in god or the practice of a religion is bad, but what suggestion do we have that what follows after God and religion will be any better? This may or may not be an argument against eradicating God, or at least attempting to do so, depending on one’s taste; it still ought to be considered.

Moving away from this particular aspect of the book, one thing Dawkins notes is that here in the US, being an atheist is the worst possible thing you can be; people would apparently prefer you to be gay than godless (which means, of course, pity the poor atheist homosexual, particularly if he wants to marry his same-sex partner). Dawkins notes that the Atheist-American community (which would apparently include agnostics in the same manner that the gay community accepts bisexuals) is a pretty large community (22.5 million strong, according to the American Atheists), but that it’s politically pretty weak, in part because atheists and agnostics in the United States don’t have the same sort of strong lobby that, say, the Jewish community has.

I find this an interesting point. Personally speaking I have yet to feel marginalized or discriminated against because I am an agnostic. Part of this, I’m sure, is because I also happen to be a white, educated, heterosexually-bonded non-handicapped male of above average financial means, and those facts matter more in this society. Another part, I’m sure, is that I simply don’t care what other people think about my agnosticism, and I also know my rights, so in general an attempt to marginalize me probably wouldn’t really work. Another part is that, in fact, I haven’t been marginalized or discriminated against for my unwillingness to adhere to a religion. I’m not suggesting it doesn’t happen; I’m saying it hasn’t happened to me. It may be possible that if I were to run for public office, my agnosticism would become a campaign issue; what I think would be more of a campaign issue is that I’m neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Which is to say I would have an uphill climb even before my agnosticism were an issue.

I’m an open agnostic — ask me, I’ll tell you — but I don’t spend a lot of time defining myself through my agnosticism, and I pick and choose my battles. Teaching creationism (disguised as “intelligent design” or otherwise) in classrooms? Fight worth having. Getting worked up about “In God We Trust” on the coinage? Someone else can shoulder that load. I suppose this triage might upset some certain segment of folks who self-identify as agnostics and atheists, but honestly, if I’m not going to get worked up about God’s vengeance, I’m not going to get worked up about their pique.

Also, as previously suggested, I worry more about the religious when they want to impinge on my rights from the point of view of a US citizen than the point of view of an agnostic, because my rights as the latter are predicated on my rights as the former. This is an important distinction to make, because there are more US citizens than US agnostics/atheists, and because as it happens, when the religious-minded wish to impinge on my constitutional rights, they also usually end up impinging on the rights of others who are not the same religion as they, or if they are of the same religion, have beliefs that do not require they try to shove them on others. Therefore, I have common cause with religious people who, like me, do not wish their rights abridged by some noxious group of enthusiastic God-thumpers who believe their religious fervor outweighs the US Constitution. And I’m happy to make that cause with them, and I’m not going to go out of my way to say to them “thanks for your help, even if you are a complete idiot to believe in that God thing.” I’ll just say thanks.

I think that should be sufficient for anyone, including Richard Dawkins.

Eight Years of Whatever

Thanks to the pointless insanity that was Bacon Catenter the phrase “Bacon Cat” into Google, incidentally, and see where you go — I completely forgot to note that September 13 was the eight-year-anniversary of the Whatever. Yes, eight years ago last Wednesday I posted my first Whatever entry, blabbing about how I was doing this to keep sharp for the newspaper column I hoped someone would give me one day (I had had one before, you see). To date, no one’s given me that newspaper column, damn the luck, but then again I doubt any sane newspaper editor would have let me run a column that was entirely about taping bacon to my cat, so you tell me if this is a bad thing. And the rest of my writing life seems to be going okay. I’ll survive.

(Bacon Cat addendum: Apparently the #2 blog post on the Web yesterday. Insanity.)

That said, I think it’s some nice synchronicity that my highest-traffic day here was on the anniversary of my starting this thing going. It’s coincidence, but it’s a nice coincidence. It’s also nice that the last several days have been just about perfectly representative of the “whatever” ethos of the site — from the wife brushing back a drunk to book talk to politics to blogging issues to just plain idiotic silliness, we’ve pretty much hit it all. I think that’s what makes the Whatever work, personally. Most of the other blogs with the Whatever’s level of readership or above tend to be single-issue blogs (generally politics or tech), so it’s nice to do things a little bit differently than the rest of them. As I’ve noted before, it pays off in me not being bored, and also in bringing in a diverse crowd of readers and commenters. Other sites may have more visitors, but I wonder if any of them the range of visitors. There’s no way to know for sure, so I’m just going to say they don’t. Hah! Prove me wrong!

I’ll stop before I delve any further into pointless self-congratulating twaddle, but I do want to make sure I thank you all for swinging by. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m geographically isolated in a small rural community and spend most of my day in a single room typing ceaselessly into a glowy box talking, but I’m glad you come by and comment, and check to see what damn fool thing I’m writing about today. It really is appreciated.

Onward into year nine, then.

Go, Senate Republicans, Go

Senate panel rejects Bush anti-terrorism plan

A rebellious Senate committee defied President Bush on Thursday and approved terror-detainee legislation he has vowed to block, deepening Republican conflict over terrorism and national security in the middle of election season… Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, normally a Bush supporter, pushed the measure through his Armed Services Committee by a 15-9 vote, with Warner and three other GOP lawmakers joining Democrats. The vote set the stage for a showdown on the Senate floor as early as next week.

A nice reminder for those of us who don’t typically think well of the GOP that some of folks in that camp really are saying “enough” to the president when it comes to his fetish for pointless authoritarianism for the sake of pointless authoritarianism. We can argue whether they’re doing it because of political triangulation away from an unpopular president in an election year, because they want to remind the administrative branch that the legislative branch is a co-equal branch of government, or because they believe that Bush’s policies are morally repugnant and not at all in keeping with the national charater or Constitution. Or some combination of the three; it’s rarely just one thing.

Thing is, on one level, I don’t actually care which of these it is. What I care about is that we’re steadily and increasingly moving away from the “president as king” model of government this administration has been cultivating lo these last six years. We’re getting closer to what we’re supposed to be: questioning our leaders, even and especially when they don’t want us to. This is a result worth having. If certain Republicans are an instrument of this, all I can say to that is: Thank you, senators. I appreciate it.