Monthly Archives: December 2006

Comment Moderation, Etc

I’ve gotten a couple e-mails on this recently from folks concerned when a comment of theirs drops into the moderation queue and then doesn’t eventually show up. So I’m going to post this and let it stand as a resource going forward.

First, understand that this site gets a huge number of spam comments a day — something along the line of 2,000 of them in a day, every day, all year long. The reason you don’t see most of them is because I actively and aggressively monitor and filter the threads. My own special cocktail of IP blacklists, keyword moderation, link policing and other secret ingredients punts the majority of these spam comments either into the spam queue or the moderation queue. The spam queue gets about 90% of these; I never look at the spam queue because it’s really almost impossible to land there unless you’re spamming. 10% of these drop into the moderation queue, which I look at least a couple of times a day. 10% of all spam messages is still a couple hundred messages a day.

When you try to post a message and it doesn’t appear immediately, it usually means that it’s gone into the moderation queue. You may or may not get a message from my site telling you this. If you’ve landed in the moderation queue, it’s usually for one of the following reasons:

1. You put in more than one URL link in your message (I’ve specified 3 links as the point at which moderation kicks in, however, other factors may cause you to get punted into moderation for as little as two links)

2. You’ve got a word in your comment that fires up one of my keyword comment moderation filters. These are largely pharmaceutical-based, although there are certain specific phrases that are commonly used in spam that are also filtered. If you try to tell me I have a “nice site,” for example, you’ll likely get the boot into moderation.

3. You’re writing from an IP address from which spam emanates. Use your anti-virus programs, people.

When you post a message, and any of these three factors are in play, they are weighed against other factors, including whether or not you’ve posted before (either by IP detection or by name detection). The MovableType software then assigns your comment a rating, and if the rating is less than my threshold rating for posting, off your comment goes, into the moderation queue.

Here are things you need to know about the moderation queue:

1. As noted, normally I check it at least a couple of times a day; usually during an average work day I’ll check it once an hour or so. So generally speaking, your comment should be released no more than 12 hours after posting, and usually (during workplace hours) within an hour or two.

2. I don’t vaporize comments made from real humans or otherwise leave them in the comment queue. If I find something of yours sufficiently jackassed enough to delete, I’ll let it post and then go into the comment and delete it, and leave behind my reasons for deletion. In other words, if you’ve offended me, what’s left of your comment will tell you why.

3. Inevitably, given the amount of spam that lands in the moderation queue, I will from time to time accidentally delete a comment post from a real live person. This person might be you. Please understand that it doesn’t mean I hate you, or that you’ve offended me in some unknowable way — as noted above, if you’ve offended me, I’ll let you know — or that you’ve lost your posting privileges. It just means I’ve accidentally deleted your post. It happens.

If you’ve posted a comment and you do not see it on the site, here’s what you do:

1. Don’t send me an e-mail about it. As noted above, comment moderation is not my passive-aggressive way of controlling people, it’s my way of dealing with spam. I don’t moderate people for their comments this way.* So you don’t need to worry about that. Now, if you’ve sent me an e-mail about this subject prior to me posting this message, please don’t send another e-mail apologizing. I’m not upset. I just don’t want you to think there’s a problem.

2. Do wait a few hours to see if your comment eventually shows up. I do occasionally have a life outside this Web site, so sometimes it’ll take a while for the comment to get published.

3. If after about 12 hours you do not see the comment — or alternately, do not see what used to be a comment from you with my note about why I deleted its contents — it’s likely I’ve accidentally deleted it. After you calm your righteous rage at my sloppy comment moderation skills, the solution is simple: post the comment again. The chances of my accidentally deleting the comment a second time are (hopefully) fairly small.

So there you have it: The ins and outs of comment moderation on the Whatever. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comment thread.

(* I say that I don’t use the moderation queue to deal with real live human commenters, but I will note that there are at least a couple of people who, after being warned several times in the comment threads to behave themselves, have lost their posting privileges entirely, and at least part of that enforcement includes moderation. Should you worry that you’ll be placed on this list? No. You really have to annoy me over an extended period of time, and if you do, I will let you know that you’re headed toward Blacklist City long before you get there. Most of you are not even close to achieving this sort of dubious distinction.)

NYT Review Fallout

There’s been some interesting commentary and discussion following Dave Itzkoff’s NYT Book Review piece on me and my books, so I thought I’d post links to some of them I’ve found, for the edification of Whatever readers. In no particular order:

* Instapundit notes the piece, and has some thoughts on the idea of Starship Troopers being fascist, roping in Spider Robinson to rebut that claim and also making a point about some of the “chickenhawk” rhetoric from earlier in the year. Also commenting on the Heinlein tip are Blue Crab Boulevard and The Colossus of Rhodey.

* Sarah Weinman declares that “Dave Itzkoff makes a good case for reading John Scalzi’s work,” among the other things she notes, and Jenny Rappaport, Toby Buckell and Gwenda Bond congratulate me for showing up in the Times (with Toby and Jenny adding additional thoughts regarding the review itself). Thanks, I wish I could say I did any or the work for that, but I suspect that thanks should go to my ever-fabulous publicist, Dot Lin.

* SF Signal praises me for not attacking Dave Itzkoff when I wrote my response to the review; apparently authors getting bent out of shape with reviews is the new black. Well, here’s the thing. First, of course, the review is generally positive concerning my work, so getting all bent out of shape would just be churlish. As I’ve said before, I’m happy with the review, and pleased Dave Itzkoff took the time to think about the books.

Second, even in the theoretical scenario where I wanted to scoop out a reviewer’s eyes, pour gasoline into his sockets and then light them aflame and chortle as he went howling blindly into the night, it’s just not a good idea. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, and in the long run, we all know if what we’ve written or created is good. I remember once I panned an album by The Cult, which led to lead singer Ian Astbury sending me a scathing e-mail. To which I responded, basically, “Dude, what are you doing? In a month people will forget I wrote the review, and you’ll still be Ian Astbury. The next time you have a groupie on top of you because you wrote ‘Love Removal Machine,’ you’ll look back on this and laugh.” To which Mr. Astbury admitted I had a point.

* Sarah Monette uses the moment to discourse on what reviewers don’t get about science fiction, fantasy and horror, which leads both to a lively discussion in her comment thread, and an amusingly rueful followup post.

* Andrew Wheeler is not impressed with Itzkoff’s review in the slightest, and GalleyCat’s Ron Hogan pretty much declares war on Itzkoff in his commentary. Note to self: Don’t invite Itzkoff and Hogan to the same party. Or, perhaps, do, and make sure the walls have been securely tarped.

That’s what I’ve seen. If you’ve seen other commentary about it, feel free to drop it into the comment thread.

Whatever Best of 2006

We’re now officially in the final week of 2006, which means it’s time for my annual “Best Of” list of Whatever entries, highlighting the entries I think were the most notable of the last calendar year. As it happens, this year’s list seems to be heavy on entries about writing, but all things considered I don’t suppose that’s all that surprising. I do think overall it was a good year for the Whatever, but as BaconCat reminds us above, all Internet dreams of fame — and pretensions of quality — are fleeting.

I suspect I may be doing a couple more end of the year compilation entries over the next week; beats having to think, you know?

Anyway, for your reading edification, in chronological order:

January is National Literary Fraud Month!
There is Always Another Way
The John Scalzi Agent FAQ
Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want to Work at Writing
The Money Entry
Interesting But Unverifiable Facts About the 2006 Campbell Class
Purity Balls
The 2006 Stupidest FanFic Writer Award Gets Retired Early
10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing
Why There Are No Great Video Game Critics (Yet)
How (And How Not) To Market To Me When I’m in Blogger Mode
The Value of (Long) Fiction Online
A Special Message for Scott “Pluto Hayta” Westerfeld
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
Clearly You People Thought I Was Kidding (The BaconCat Entry)
Thinking About The God Delusion
How to Make a Schadenfreude Pie
On Moral Cowardice
The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment
The Occam’s Razor Theory of Literary Rejection
On Theocracies
You Can Get This Book For Free. You Should Buy It.
On Carl Sagan
On the New York Times Sunday Book Review Piece

If there’s a Whatever piece from 2006 you’ve enjoyed but I’ve not put on this reading list, by all means give it a shoutout in the comments.

Enjoy!

Blindsight 2nd Printing; TAD Review in Flint Journal Review

Congratulations to Peter Watts: His book Blindsight is indeed headed for a second printing, giving more folks an opportunity to check it out. As you may recall, the second printing appeared in some doubt earlier, so I’m glad to see the book has reached that milestone.

Watts has graciously given some credit for this to me and Cory Doctorow and Kathryn Cramer, all of whom had pimped the book enthusiastically, and assures us each that we will receive a third of his first born. I think Peter will have to need to clear that with his first born’s eventual mother, who may be surprised at his plans, and take exception to them. Also, I’m not entirely sure what I would do with a third of a first born, or, also, how to explain how I came in possession of said third to whichever law enforcement official would inevitably question me about said possession. It may be better all the way around if said theoretical first born stay in one piece, and in Peter’s custody. But I appreciate the thought.

As for me, The Android’s Dream has garnered another positive review, this time through the good graces of Gene Mierzejewski of the Flint Journal Review:

This is a zany, exciting and hilarious yarn that spins in more directions than a weather vane in a tornado… “Android’s Dream” is a joy that provides more proof that John Scalzi soon will command a slot among the genre’s best-loved authors.

Shucks. And here I was planning to become one of the genre’s best-loved authors by embedding candy in every book I sell. But I’ve been informed by Tor that the “candy-encrusted pages” plan had to be suspended because caramel wreaks havoc with the printing presses. Clearly we need a new generation of candy-tolerant presses, and I call on engineers everywhere to solve this pressing crisis.

One other bit of book trivia: When I checked my Amazon rankings this morning, as all authors do the first thing they do in the morning, before they shower or shave or even open their eyes (the braille reader is paying off!), I saw that Old Man’s War was ranked at 1,041, and The Ghost Brigades was at 1,042. Sequential Amazon rankings for sequential Scalzi books! I love it when teh Intarweebs line up their tubes like that to amuse me.

Greetings From the Politburo

scalzinytcccp.jpg

To answer a couple of e-mails I’ve gotten about the John Hersey illustration accompanying the NYT Sunday Book Review article about me and my books, yes, I think it’s supposed to be me, and as evidence of this, I have paired it above with what I suspect was its model, the picture on my bio page, in which I am glowering into the camera. Paired up as they are, you can see how you can get from one to the other. I suspect that this was all Mr. Hersey was given to go on, in terms of pictures of yours truly.

I kinda like it, although I also think it looks less like me and more like a cautionary tale of what I might look like in a quarter century if I don’t go easy on the bacon and vodka. Somewhere else someone has described it as looking like a 60-year-old Russian gangster; I was thinking more of politburo type myself, which is six of one and half dozen of the other, I suppose. I also think it looks a bit like what might happen if Yul Brynner and I got into a bit of rough trade in the teleport pods from The Fly and then had our genes splice at a critical moment. I’m not sure that’s really an image you want to conjure up, however.

It could be a lot worse, though, because for a while I’ve been thinking of replacing that photo on my bio page with this one:

Imagine what might have happened if poor Mr. Hersey had had to work with that.

Exit Interview From the Seventh Year

athena122306.jpg

Athena, you are eight years old today. How does it feel to be eight?

I’m not eight yet.

What do you mean?

Because I’m not eight until 3:31.

Fine. Today is your eighth birthday. How does it feel to have reached such a momentous milestone?

I feel fine, except that you were just being sarcastic.

Well, I’m sarcastic out of love.

Crazy.

Do you have any advice to people from all your years of experience? You know, things you have learned that you want to share with people. For example, what have you learned about pets?

That they’re cute and cuddly, unless you shave them.

Do you advocate shaving your pets?

No, because they’re cute when they’re not shaved.

Tell what you what you’ve learned about boys.

Some of them are really stupid. And, some of them are nice and smart. That makes them cute.

So, being smart and nice is more important than being good-looking?

Kind of.

What are your thoughts on education?

It’s boring.

Why is it boring?

It just is.

How would improve your educational experience?

I would make it so that you could stay in your pajamas, and there would only be three minutes of school. And you would have helmets for learning, for math facts or something, instead of having the teacher tell you or to having to take time tests, because time tests stink.

Is there anything you like learning about?

I like outer space stuff. You learn stuff on posters, and for pictures they’re really neat. You’re on this planet, and you see more planets and falling stars. And space is so big that nobody’s ever gone where it ends. And there’s so many things to learn about space, and I like to learn, but not in the old-fashioned way.

Do you think there’s life on other planets?

No, unless you see another human.

So we’re all alone in the universe?

No, someone else could go with you in the rocket.

No, I mean, that humans the only intelligent species in the universe.

Yes. But there are animals in the universe.

In the last year, what have been some of your favorite books, movies, and music?

For books, Magic Treehouse books rule, and my favorite music is “Bring Me to Life” and “Since U Been Gone.” For movies, I liked Hookwinked and Flushed Away.

What life lessons have you learned?

Not to crack your knuckles.

What’s wrong with cracking your knuckles?

It’s bad for you.

Any final thoughts for people? Any advice give them?

Yes, I have some advice. Never, and I mean ever, leave your cookies unattended.

Sage advice.

Yes.

On the New York Times Sunday Book Review Piece

The New York Times Sunday Book Review piece on me and my books is now up, so I thought I’d make a few comments on it:

1. As to your first question of how do I feel about it: oh, come on. I just had a full page devoted to me in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. This is the part where I hop, jump and skip. And I think the piece itself was thoughtful and interesting to read; I’m particularly pleased Dave Itzkoff liked The Ghost Brigades more than Old Man’s War, because I think TGB is the better-written book, myself. So, yeah, I’m delighted with the piece; I’d be an idiot not to be.

2. I’m sad Itzkoff didn’t like The Android’s Dream at all, but, you know. If you write a book that starts off with a chapter-long fart joke, you go in knowing not everyone’s going to follow where you lead. I’m not going to fault Itzkoff for deciding that it’s not his thing. That said, I find it amusing that all the things about the book Itzkoff describes as bugs (the fart jokes, the digressions, the informal style, etc) are the things I would describe as features, because that’s the kind of book it is. I’ve openly called it my “popcorn movie” book — i.e., lots of actions and explosions and kiss kiss bang bang (as Pauline Kael would say). I suspect Itzkoff may have been expecting something else; he was expecting steak and got a chocolate eclair. And while that eclair might be tasty, if you’re wanting steak, you’re gonna be disappointed. The good news is he’s got more steak coming in 2007, in the form of The Last Colony.

As for Android, the book has its admirers (“His best book yet” — Entertainment Weekly) and Tor tells me it’s selling pretty damn well. And I’ll be writing a sequel. Mmmm… more eclair.

3. Am I taking a potshot at Robert Heinlein, as Itzkoff suggests I am in The Ghost Brigades, when I have the Special Forces note that unpacking the philosophical concepts in Starship Troopers takes a lot of effort? Not really. The fuller context has the soldiers also enjoying the Starship Troopers movie more than the book, even though they recognize it’s dumber. This is an inside pitch to science fiction fandom, whose general opinion of the movie is that it’s a travesty and betrayal of the book. Having people who are for all intents and purposes actual “starship troopers” enjoy the film more is a friendly fannish nose tweak. At conventions I’ve had fans come up to me, note that particular passage and say, “Dude, that’s cold,” which of course amuses me greatly. Yes. Yes, it is cold.

Fans seem to enjoy the “Ho, Ender” joke, too, which is hard nearby in the text. Indeed, the whole section in which the Special Forces look at all the “old” science fiction is basically a chunk of fan service, even as it serves the more serious purpose of letting the Special Forces understand where “people like them” fit into the cultural imagination of humanity, a point which has implications for the main character Jared Dirac later in the book. Just because you’re doing serious plot work doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.

So no, I’m not actually whacking on Heinlein. However, that part where I give the Special Forces a wish death on the Ewoks? That’s all me, baby.

4. Itzkoff appears to have the feeling that I’m straddling the fence politically in my work, walking down the middle to avoid offending one side or the other, and hopes that in The Last Colony that I will “articulate a firm position on the political issues that will inevitably define [his] historical moment, [and] take a stance that considerate readers might potentially disagree with.” Heh. My thought about this is that Itzkoff needs to read Nicholas Whyte’s delightfully excoriating take on Old Man’s War; clearly, considerate readers disagree with me already.

I understand where Itzkoff is coming from, but if I’m reading him correctly, I going to have to disagree with him about the need to change my rhetorical tactics. I think they’re working fine; I just don’t think they’re the usual tactics. To explain this I’m going to have to geek out here, so buckle in.

Ready? Here we go: To the extent that one decides to get into politics in one’s science fictional work — and the question of whether this is a good idea at all is a discussion so immense and knotty and exhausting that I’m not even going to bother with it at the moment — there are primarily two ways to go about it: You can build a monument or you can build a room (yes, these are metaphors. Work with me). If you build a monument, what you’re doing is putting your politics and polemics in the center of your reader’s attention and basically making him or her deal with them on your terms. The politics aren’t accessible and aren’t debatable; as a reader you deal with them or you don’t.

If you build a room, what you’re doing is inviting people in — with all their baggage, political or otherwise — and inviting them to unpack and stay awhile. And they unpack, putting all their stuff on the shelves and tables and walls and floors, all of which (to stretch the metaphor to its absolute breaking point) are your underlying political and social views. As a writer, you make the points you want to make, and because you’ve let your readers bring something into the book as well, I think you’ve got a better chance of them being receptive to your points.

I think monument-making is fine, if you’ve got a taste for it. Lord knows there are a lot of monument builders in science fiction, and have been since the early days of the genre. I think I’m a room-builder. I want people to come into the rooms I make and figure out how they best fit into them and can make them their own. I’m happy to let them bring in their own world view; everyone likes a room better once they’ve put in their own homey touches. But, you know. I’m still the architect.

Working this way suits me because to the extent I want to make political points, they don’t really track to the current iteration of “right” and “left,” and even if they did, the way I’ve designed my universe, today’s right-left politics have as much relevance to it as, say, the minutiae of the political gamesmanship surrounding the Prime Ministership of William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, have to do with life in the contemporary USA. Now, the political points I want to make in this universe will happily fit into this real-world historical moment, I think (I suspect this will particularly be the case with The Last Colony). But they’ll do so in ways appropriate to the universe I’ve built up. Likewise I’ll be happy to let the readers discover these points as they come across them in the text. This sort of room-building strategy is arguably not as immediately impressive as building a monument; on the other hand a monument is not necessarily a comfortable place in which to live. I want my readers to live in my universes for a good long while.

Geeking out done now. And to get back to the NYT Sunday Book Review piece: Fun stuff, discussed in one of literature’s big venues. You bet I’m happy.

Last Chance

This is the final boarding call for those of you who want to get your name in the limited edition version of “The Sagan Diary,” as members of the doomed Company D; after today no more name requests can be taken. So get those orders in.

I’m looking at the pdf of the page layout of “The Sagan Diary” right now, as it happens. It looks really nice. No matter what version of the book you get, I think you’re going to be happy with it.

Oh Noes! I Caught Teh Izlam!

First, a quote from Virgil Goode, US Representative, in his press conference yesterday, in which he defended sounding the alarm against the prospect of more Muslims coming to the US and — brace yourself — possibly being elected to Congress:

“I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped.”

And what sort of values and beliefs can we expect from those Muslim hordes? Here’s a fine example of their “values”:

Local Muslim leaders lit candles yesterday at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to commemorate Jewish suffering under the Nazis, in a ceremony held just days after Iran had a conference denying the genocide.

American Muslims “believe we have to learn the lessons of history and commit ourselves: Never again,” said Imam Mohamed Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, standing before the eternal flame flickering from a black marble base that holds dirt from Nazi concentration camps… If anyone wants to make Holocaust denial an Islamic cause, he said, “we want to say to them: You cannot use our name.”

Yes, I can see why we don’t need those kinds of values here in the United States. I may stay up all night in terror that we might see those sort of values take root here in my homeland in my lifetime. And I understand why Virgil Goode would be opposed to them, as the sort of values and beliefs these awful Muslims are exhibiting would surely spell the end of his political career if they caught on. I trust that Virgil Goode will work ceaselessly to assure that they will not. Because that’s just the sort of character he is, and the sort of character he has.

One of the Great Moral Quandaries of Our Time

koditoilet1221.jpg

Let’s say that you are struck with the need to relieve your bladder, as so many people are this time of year. You go to the bathroom, only to find the dog first in the active process of drinking from the toilet bowl, and then looking up at you as if to say “do you mind? I’m drinking here.”

So: Do you use the toilet?

My answer: No, because a) we have more than the one bathroom, and b) pissing into the toilet the dog’s been drinking out of, right after she’s done having a swig, just kinda seems too desperately alpha male to me, you know? Maybe that’s me.

Your thoughts? Clearly, this is an important question.

Are Short Stories Necessary?

Justine Larbalestier is thinking about short stories and whether they are a necessary part of every writers’ writing diet:

Given that I can’t write a decent short story to save my life and have sold three novels I don’t think short stories are not necessary to build a career as a novelist. Short stories and novels are very different kinds of wrting. Being good at one does not mean you’ll be good at the other. There are the folks who are genius short story writers whose novels are well, um, not anywhere near as good as their stories. Like I said, they’re different forms.

On the other hand, I wrote hundreds of (broken, crappy) short stories before I wrote my first novel. Every one of those stories taught me something about writing. So as I began that first novel I’d already had a lot of practice writing dialogue, describing magical anvils, blowing monsters up. All of which came in very handy when I started writing the fictional form that I’m much better at.

My own opinion about short stories is that I’ve found them useful and fun, but that they’ve been entirely optional in terms of my writing career. Not counting juvenalia, I wrote a complete novel before I ever tried to write a short story, and even now my entire short story output can be counted off on two hands — one hand, if you only count in-genre work. Seriously: “Alien Animal Encounters,” “New Directives for Employee – Manxtse Relations,” “Questions for a Soldier,” “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story” and now “The Sagan Diary.” That’s it (technically, “Sagan” is a novelette. even so). And, again, all of this was written after I started writing novels. It wasn’t part of the ramping up process of writing novel-length work.

As I briefly discussed in The Money Entry earlier this year, there’s a fairly simple and straightforward reason why I’ve tended to write so little short fiction, which is that genre fiction payscales are generally substantially less than what I get paid for writing other stuff. I can get paid seven cents a word writing short fiction, for example, or I can get paid a dollar a word writing about corn flakes for a business magazine (which, in fact, I’m doing in the next couple of weeks) or even more doing business consulting. Given that writing is my day job, I have a fiduciary duty to my family and mortgage to prioritize my time. It’s not that short story markets are underpaying, incidentally; I think they’re generally paying what they can. But genre fiction has never been a brilliantly-paying market overall, either taken in isolation or compared to other writing venues.

What this means is that I have a tendency to write short fiction under one of two conditions: one, the story’s already been bought, and now all I have to do is write it; two, I’m doing it for fun, and I don’t particularly care whether I sell it or not. The first case is generally unlikely, since there are (quite properly) more people willing to go through the standard submission process than editors who are willing to chase me down for a story, particularly when I have so little track record in short fiction. There have been a couple — it’s not a coincidence all my short fiction to this point has been published by Subterranean Press — but in those cases they’re editors who have worked with me before. There’s a history there.

In the second case, such a story is more likely to show up here on the Whatever, than in a magazine, because I find submitting a hassle. At Worldcon this year, an editor of one of the major SF/F magazines let me know he was looking forward to seeing a short story from me, and I admitted to him I was unlikely to submit something to him because the magazine didn’t accept electronic submissions, and I neither had a printer nor knew where my wife kept the stamps. He looked at me a little like I had brain damage, which to be fair to him was a not unreasonable response. But when you’re coming from the point of view that short stories are to be written primarily for fun, one’s priorities shift. I did promise him that if I got a printer (and, I guess, find the stamps), I would submit something to him. But he really shouldn’t be holding his breath.

Let me take pains to note that my point of view regarding short stories is rather deeply irregular as regards the SF/F community, and reflects in part the fact that as a writer, I came into SF/F from the outside rather than growing up in it, and in part reflects that generally I’m a bit of a freak. I also want to make pains to note that one can indeed achieve notoriety and success in SF/F through short stories: Watch how every SF/F writer gets all hushed and respectful speaking Ted Chiang’s name, for example, or see how Jay Lake has ably leveraged his short story fame into a career as a novelist. Short stories can make a difference for one’s writing and one’s standing as a writer. But whether they are necessary for one’s development as a writer really depends on the writer. I got along fine without them; your mileage may vary.

Now, having said all of that, I do plan to write more short fiction in 2007; I want to get better at it than I am now. Some of it may show up here; some of it may show up other places. No matter where it goes, hopefully it’ll be worth reading.

On Carl Sagan

csagan1220.jpgWhen I was eleven, I thought Carl Sagan was the coolest guy in the world. And that was because he was speaking right at me. At the age of 11, in 1980, I was a kid utterly convinced that he was going to grow up to be an astronomer — I loved the stars, I loved the science, I loved the toys — and here on my TV came Sagan, suave in his red turtleneck and buff jacket, surrounded by special effects and Vangelis music and telling everyone (but especially me) about how the cosmos is everything that ever was, everything that is, and everything that ever will be.

I fell for Carl with the sort of blissful rapture that I strongly suspect is only available to pre-pubescent geeks, a sort of nerd crush that, to be clear, had no sexual component, but had that same sort of swoony intensity. This was the guy I wanted to be, when I was age eleven. Sagan sits as a member of my triumvirate of cultural heroes, the other two being John Lennon and H.L. Mencken. It’s a odd trio of personal heroes, I admit, but then I’m still a little odd. But even among John and Henry, Carl came in first. Maybe it was the turtlenecks.

I’m a quarter century older than the eleven-year-old boy whose mother held a weekly viewing of Cosmos over his head as a bargaining chip for good behavior, and I’m still a great admirer of Carl Sagan, primarily because he did something I see as immensely important: he popularized science and with patience and good humor brought into people’s homes. He did it through Cosmos, most obviously, but he also did it every time he popped up on The Tonight Show and talked with celebrity fluidity about what was going on in the universe. He was the people’s scientist. This is not to say that you’d look at Sagan and see him down at the NASCAR race; it is to say that he could easily use a NASCAR race to explain, say, relativistic speeds and what it means for traveling through the universe.

This is important stuff. Getting science in front of people in a way they can understand — without speaking down to them — is the way to get people to support science, and to understand that science is neither beyond their comprehension nor hostile to their beliefs. There need to be scientists and popularizers of good science who are of good will, who have patience and humor, and who are willing to sit with those who are skeptical or unknowing of science and show how science is already speaking their language. Sagan knew how to do this; he was uncommonly good at it.

I find that inspirational. As it happens, I am not a scientist — the flesh was willing, but the math skills were, alas, weak — but I write about science with some frequency; I’ve even fulfilled a life goal of writing an astronomy book, The Rough Guide to the Universe, of which I am about to compile a second edition. In my writing and presentation of science, I look to Sagan for guidance. Nearly all of what happens in the universe can be explained in the way that nearly any person can understand; all it requires is the desire to explain it and the right language. Sagan had the desire and language. I like to think I do too, in part because I learned my lessons from him.

I am aware of the need to avoid hagiography. I have an idealized version of Carl Sagan in my head, one that is notably absent any number of flaws that the real Carl Sagan had to have had simply because he was human. My connection to Sagan comes from some limited number of hours of television and a finite number of books, and in both cases the man was edited for my consumption. This is one of the reasons why, unlike the 11-year-old version of me, I don’t want to be Carl Sagan, and I’m not even entirely sure I want to be much like him as a person, if only because, at the end of it, I don’t know him as a person.

What I do know is that I like his ideas. I like his love of science. I like his faith in humanity. I like how he saw us reaching for things greater than ourselves, because it was in our nature and because it was a fulfillment of our nature. I like how he shared his enthusiasm for the entire universe with everyone, and believed that everyone could share in that enthusiasm. These are things that, in giving them to everyone, he also gave to me, first as an 11-year-old and then continuing on. I’ve accepted them with thanks and made them part of who I am. If I use them well, I may be fortunate enough to share them with you, as they were shared with me.

(written as part of the Carl Sagan blog-o-thon)

Unveiling My New Signature Quote

After a run of five good years, the current quote in my e-mail signature file (“You are a man too lazy to fail” — Kristine Blauser Scalzi) is being honorably retired, to make way for the new signature quote, uttered last night, to me, by my daughter, Athena:

“Your insolent mind will never rule this world!”

Simple, strong, classic. And it makes a statement! Honestly, what more could you want out of a signature quote.

Two Upcoming Events of Interest

Here’s a couple of things you might want to think about over the next couple of days:

1. Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the passing of Carl Sagan, who aside from being a personal hero of mine and the namesake of one of my favorite characters, was probably the single greatest popularizer of science (particularly of astronomy) in the last quarter of the 20th century. To note the anniversary, a number of bloggers and other online writers are declaring a Carl Sagan blog-a-thon, in which they will discuss Sagan, his life, his work, and his impact on science and the popular apprehension of the same.

Naturally, I will be participating. And you can, too. Joel Schlossberg has the details, and Nick Sagan, Carl’s son, has additional comments. If you have any thoughts on or appreciation for Carl Sagan, tomorrow’s the day to air it.

2. A little birdie tells me that the New York Times Sunday Book Review will be having a full-page article on me and my work (specifically Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades and The Android’s Dream) this upcoming Sunday. So that’s something you might want to be on the lookout for. Because, honestly, it’s not like there’s anything else going on this weekend. The end of December? It’s totally devoid of notable events!

Joseph Barbera

Joseph Barbera, one half of the Hanna-Barbera animation team, passed away yesterday, and that pretty much puts the cap on the golden age of theatrical animation, the one that birthed Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Hanna and Barbera’s own Tom & Jerry. Of course, Barbera is also of the TV animation generation: after theatrical animation started collapsing, he and Bill Hanna retreated into TV and pioneered the idea of “limited animation,” in which animators made do with six frames a second instead of twenty-four, and hoped the kids wouldn’t notice, hopped up as they were on sugar-coated cereals at 7am in the morning.

I’m not a huge fan of the concept of limited animation, and even less a fan of most of Hanna-Barbera’s output from the late 60s until they were bought by Turner Broadcasting (who mined H/B for Cartoon Network and Boomerang), because most of it, to put it charitably, was crap that really did rely on the lack of discrimination that six-year-olds bring to their television viewing. But to be fair to H/B, at some of that had to do with the market and what broadcasters wanted. I can’t imagine they wanted to make crap, and if you look at their history with Tom & Jerry series of theatrical shorts (which won 7 Academy Awards between 1940 and 1957), and even the early Huckleberry Hounds and Yogi Bears (some of which were written by Michael Maltese and other refugees from the collapsing theatrical animation business), it’s clear they could make some great stuff when they were given their leave. It’s that stuff I’ll be remembering Barbera for.

I had the opportunity to interview Joe Barbera once, back when I worked for the Fresno Bee; he was doing some sort of exhibit in Carmel, and I drove out (a lovely drive, on which I was treated to the most amazing rainbow I ever saw) to see him, and got about an hour’s worth of time from him. It was one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, because, after all, here was a guy who were there for almost of all the history of animation — and wasn’t just there but was one of its icons — and was both candid and entertaining about all of it. Not only was he delightful to speak to, but he wouldn’t let me leave the table until he sketched a Jerry Mouse for me. Naturally, I was jazzed about that; I also think it was indicative of the enthusiasm he still had for his work and his characters, even after all that time. Would that we all feel the same way about our own work, in time. He’ll be missed.

Housekeeping Notes

A couple of notes relating to the Whatever, books and what have you:

1. First, for those of you who are still thinking having your name inserted into the limited edition of “The Sagan Diary,” as members of the doomed (but valiant!) Company D, Subterranean is planning to send the book to the printer very soon now, and we have to close the text, so we know what we have for printing. What this means is that you have until Friday to get your name in the book. The limited and trade editions of “The Sagan Diary” will still be available after that date, but since they’ll have been printed up, we’ll not be able to add in any more names. So, you know. If you want you name in, now’s the time.

Remember you can also choose to have someone else’s name put in if you’re planning to give “The Sagan Diary” as a gift — just drop a note to the Subterranean folks with your order.

2. I’ve noted before that I’ve been receiving an increase in spam comments, so I went into the innards of Moveable Type and really jacked up the spam rankings of IPs and domains that are known to have spam shooting out of them. Hopefully this will keep more of the spam comments from landing on the site, and stuck in moderation and junk queues where they belong. Be that as it may, I’m not entirely what the effects will be for actual posters. So far I don’t see any real comments being shunted into moderation or junk queues, but it’s early yet. I’ll be monitoring both moderation and junk queues during the day to see how it’s affecting genuine posters, if at all. If you want to post some comments to aid me in this quest, by all means go right ahead.

3. I may be fiddling with the design of the Whatever in the next couple of days, because I’m going through one of my periodic “I’m kinda bored with the look of my site” phases. So if it looks occasionally weird over the next few days you’ll know why. Just trying to give you all a warning, is all.

4. A couple of people have asked me if I’m planning to repost my Christmas story “Sarah’s Sister”; the answer is no, because it’s already got a permanent location here. No reposting required. For those of you who are new since last Christmas, “Sarah’s Sister” is a Christmas-themed story I wrote a couple of years ago, and it’s fairly atypical of my writing, in that it’s not written for snark. Indeed, it was written with the specific intent of making my mother-in-law cry like a little girl. And I’m pretty sure she did. So there you have it. Also, fair warning: You may get weepy. I do, and I wrote it.