Daily Archives: December 10, 2007

They’ll Call it “Scalzidelphia” For a Day

For those of you living in or near the city of Philadelphia, some appearance news:

I’m the guest speaker at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society this next Friday, December 14 at 9pm at The Routunda. Click on that link for more information and directions. Currently, this is my only scheduled public appearance on the eastern seaboard between now and who knows when (I don’t), so come on down or miss me possibly forever. Also, this will be a fine time for you to make the acquaintance of PSFS, which is an excellent group of people who put together an excellent convention (Philcon) and are otherwise excellent, and would probably be happy to have your excellent self learn more about their group and maybe even participate. So there you have it.

A Month of Writers, Day Eight: Patrick Rothfuss

As a reader I made my acquaintance with Patrick Rothfuss after he left a signed copy of his book The Name of the Wind for me at Uncle Hugo’s book store in Minneapolis, where I had a stop on my book tour. I have to admit that while first looking at the book I felt it had three strikes against it: First, it was another one of those damn thick fantasy books (derisive emphasis on “thick,” not “fantasy”); second, it was labeled as the first of a trilogy, which meant I was going to have plotus interruptus; third, in the first few pages it had characters eating a hearty stew, which in fantasy is one of your red flags that here there be cliches, arrr. I almost put the book down after the stew, but then I thought, heck, the guy did sign the book to me. I’ll read just a couple pages more.

So I did and I discovered that the hearty stew was the last cliche that Rothfuss would dish up; everything else in the book, while bowing in the direction of fantasy conventions, was excellent and fresh and just a hell of a lot of fun to read. And so it was The Name of the Wind became hands down my favorite fantasy novel of 2007, nor am I alone in this estimation, since his reviews have been glowing (“The fantasy world has a new star” gushed Publishers Weekly, which also gave his book a star), and the book has also been selling pretty much hand over first. It’s well worth getting past the stew for, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see it slipping onto the Hugo ballot next year.

Patrick seems to be taking his success well, and with a bit of bemusement, as the following bittersweet entry in the Month of Writers cavalcade will show.

PATRICK ROTHFUSS: An evening in the life….

I don’t drink, as a rule. Alcohol just doesn’t do much for me. I also don’t drive much. I’ve lived the majority of my life in a smallish town where you can get anywhere important by walking less than a mile. For about twelve of my fifteen years living here, I’ve never even owned a car.

This, combined with a tendency toward losing things, mean that I rarely carry a photo ID on my person.

These are the things you need to understand if you’re going to appreciate this story.

I was in the grocery store buying food because I had company coming over. A few of the students I have come to know well in the last couple years are graduating soon. One of the best of these is leaving this Sunday. She and one other particularly bright and shining student have been good friends to me this last year. We go to each other’s houses for dinner, watch movies, and talk honest talk into the late hours of night. We are comfortable and loving and non-judgmental with each other. They are graduating and moving on with their lives, and I am staying here and moving on with mine.

This, I think, will be what makes me leave my job as a teacher eventually. Not the low pay, or the high workload, or lack of professional respect because I don’t have enough letters behind my name. Those things are familiar and bearable, like the smell of the papermill when the wind blows from the south. But good friends are rare to me, and I have no knack for letting go of people I care about. I can’t imagine what will happen to me if this happens every couple years for the next decade.

But there will be plenty of time for me to be melancholy when they are gone. So now I’m simply glad of their company when I can get it, and I’m trying to catch as much quality time with them as I can before they leave.

Hence the grocery store. This is a purely recreational shopping run. My house is already stocked with everything I need to survive: ramen and pasta and microwave burritos. I have simple tastes, but I want to be a good host. So I buy cherries and apples and cheese and bread. I buy pistachios and chocolate and soy ice cream for the friend who has a lactose intolerance.

Then I think to buy some wine. My friends enjoy wine and I enjoy being a good host. I also occasionally like to try a glass of wine, like a child playing dress-up. It’s fun for me because when I drink wine I get to pretend that I’m an adult.

So I go to the liquor section and browse around. My knowledge of wine could very easily be written entire onto the palm of my hand, so my choices are based on educated guessery and how cool the bottle looks. I pick out a swirly bottle and something with Asti on the label, because I’m pretty sure that means sweet. I like sweet.

When I get into the checkout line, I realize I don’t have my ID on me. This usually ends up being an issue whenever I get it into my head to buy liquor. Sure, I look like I’m of age, but looks don’t count for much. Once, when I was 26, I had an undercover policeman pull me out of a liquor store and ask to see my license. When I showed it to him, he raised a surprised eyebrow and shrugged, vaguely apologetic. “You weren’t acting like you were old enough to be in there,” he said. I took it as a complement.

So there I am in the grocery line with booze and no ID. I’ve been in this situation before. As I’ve mentioned, I rarely carry one. I never think of it until I get into the checkout line carrying a bottle.

I have a number of strategies for dealing with this. Normally I just play it cool, hoping that if I act like I buy booze all the time, they’ll just let me through and not ask any questions.

This is my first line of defense, and it works about half the time.

When people ask to see my ID, it’s usually all over. At that point my strategy varies depending on what mood I’m in. If the booze was an impulse buy, I usually just put it back. If I’m feeling particularly cussed, I’ll argue. This doesn’t work, but I do usually achieve a vague moral victory wherein I get the teller to say something along the lines of, “I’m only following orders.”

Once, when somebody asked to see my ID I just raised an eyebrow and gave the teller a look. It was a look that said, “Come on. Just look at me. Witness my full and manly beard. I’m not some punk kid buying a bottle of strawberry Boone’s Farm. I’m an adult.” She gave me a sheepish, apologetic grin, and scanned my bottle of Baileys.

I smiled and said, “Thanks.” But inside I was jumping up and down thinking, “Ha! I fooled you! I really am a punk kid! And I have a bottle of strawberry Boone’s Farm at home in my fridge!”

So, again, I’m in the grocery line, running through my options and trying to pick my best strategy. I get to the front of the line, and I’m getting ready to try the raised eyebrow thing again, when the teller looks at me and says, “So when is book two coming out?” She scans my bottles without asking for any sort of ID.

I try to play it cool and say something suave about my revisions. But the truth is, I’m thrown by this. I’m not used to it. In the last month I’ve had people come up to me in at the DMV, at Best Buy, at the video rental place, and at the local ice cream shop (twice).

I know it’s just a local phenomenon. Stevens Point is pretty small, and there have been a handful of “Local Boy Does Good” articles in the papers with unflattering but rather accurate pictures of me. Once you know what I look like, I’m easy to recognize. Generally speaking I look like a Russian dictator, or a Harry Potter character. Or a homeless guy. Or a Muppet.

That’s all. I just wanted to share my surreal moment with you all. As with all my stories, I’ve wandered, but we do have an ending. This is the good place to stop if you want a happy one. There, at the store, things end with me feeling famous and cool, though somewhat flustered and uncomfortable. Possibly the first time in my life I’ve ever had anything resembling a fame-related perk.

If you keep following the story later into the night, the ending is bittersweet. A nice evening. Talk. Food. Wine. But it’s the last evening, and the three of us know it.

Keep going and it the story ends dark. All stories do if you follow them long enough. One friend leaves sooner, the other later. We promise to stay in touch, but we don’t, because that is the way of things. We’ll try e-mail, but it won’t be the same. Distance doesn’t allow for intimacy. You can’t chat over e-mail. Not really. You can’t drink wine. Or hug. Or pretend to be grown-ups. Or pretend to be kids. They won’t call when they’re bored, and we won’t get together to watch movies and give each other backrubs. They won’t come over and ask for advice and bitch about the transient, incompetent men in their lives. I won’t be able to lay on the couch with my head in someone’s lap and cry because I miss my mom.

Early on it will be hard, and the absent ache of them will be constant, impossible to ignore as a missing tooth. It will get easier, because that is the way of things. Moving on is what people do. We’re designed for it. We’ll forget the feel of it, the closeness of dimly lit conversations, the smell of each other. In time we’ll only remember each other in a vague, colorless way. Then even that will fade, and we won’t realize that anything is missing from our lives at all.

Goodnight all,

pat

(The original post, with comments, is here)

The Zombie Robert Heinlein Rises From the Grave Yet Again to Annoy the Politically Correct

Oh, look, another newspaper writer is digging a deep hole to shove Robert Heinlein’s reputation into, mostly by intimating that no one takes Heinlein seriously anymore anyway, trotting out a bookseller to intone about Heinlein being a fascist, and even hauling up the New York Times assessment of moi last year to wonder if being sized-up for the “New Heinlein” mantle is actually a compliment.

Uh-huh. Well, since I am, after all, the author who is the subject at hand for the NYT piece, I think I’m allowed to pipe up here and ask a question. Which is: If being compared to Heinlein is such a liability, then why am I selling so many goddamn books? Because you know what? I am. Ask my publisher, he’ll tell you the same thing.

Let me share a moment of bracing honesty with you and say that while I think I’m a swell writer, and that’s certainly helped to sell my books, what’s helped even more is the fact that the trade paperback and mass market paperbacks of Old Man’s War have a big fat blurb from Publishers Weekly on the cover saying that the novel actually reads “like an original work from [Heinlein].” In terms of cold, on-the-spot bookstore sales, it’s probably sent more copies up to the cash registers than anything else. From there, I’m on my own remit to make sales number two, three and so on. But that first “boost from Bob” makes a difference. Tell me that being compared favorably to Heinlein is somehow uncomplimentary, and I’ll just look at you like you’re stupid. Because unlike most people, I actually have sales numbers in hand for this conversation. Unlike most people, I know what the actual cash value of this comparison is.

So to answer the question: Yes, it’s a compliment. It’s a nice big fat career-making compliment. Thanks for asking.

That disposed of, the question is how on earth can Heinlein possibly still be useful or popular when everyone knows he’s fascist, sexist relic of a primitive age. One answer is that he’s not (or, at least, isn’t in enough of his books to work with), but the problem with that answer is that even if it’s true, it’s not actually a fun answer. So for chuckles and grins, let’s assume for the sake of argument that, indeed, Robert Heinlein is a facist, sexist relic of a primitive age. How, then, does he persist?

First answer: most book buyers don’t give a crap. This is an entirely reasonable answer, since, in fact, quite a few authors persist in having popular books even when the author, their books, or both, are widely deemed politically or socially shaky in one way or another by the literary taste-making class, whomever they may be. Please see Ayn Rand, Tom Clancy, Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton and roughly 75% of the author lineup of Baen Books as evidence of this.

Thing is, most people really do read to be entertained, not to be politically ennobled in one way or another, and indeed can either forgive or ignore politics they don’t agree with as long as the story gets its job done. I know I can; I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy works perfectly well as long as you’re an Ayn Rand character; otherwise it’s complete crap. Doesn’t keep me from enjoying Atlas Shrugged for its potboilerrific qualities.

Beyond this point, science fiction has a long and proud tradition of irascible loners with contrary politics, and there are more of them than you think. I doubt there’s a single Ron Paul supporter in the land who doesn’t have a well-thumbed copy of either Farnham’s Freehold or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or both. Being politically incorrect is not actually a liability in science fiction.

Another answer, related to the first, is that people who are appalled at Heinlein’s politics spend so much of their time in a righteous tizzy about them that they completely miss what he does right, and what ultimately what keeps his books on the shelf: the man can tell a story. Heinlein can do it all: He can plot. He creates instantly appealing characters. He writes dialogue that sounds like actual people speak it. He has a canny sense of what it takes to entertain people and more to the point, he finds entertaining his audience in itself a worthy goal. Dive into a Heinlein book and you may disagree with it, but you won’t be bored with it. Which annoys the people who hate his politics to no end — he’s a fascist and he’s a good read! How dare he be enjoyable!

The author of the LA Times piece offers up Heinlein’s low stock is low in the literary and academic science fiction circles as one of the explanations of why his influence is waning, which is a fairly backward way of doing things out here in the real world. Science fiction is and always has been a consumer genre; its roots are in engineering and pulp magazines, not in academia. This is why sales matter in science fiction; more directly than nearly any other genre, the people who eventually write science fiction are the people who grow up reading science fiction. People start writing literary fiction as they tumble through writing programs at Sarah Lawrence or Bennington or Iowa because that’s what they’re expected to write and they want to impress their professors and fellow students; people start writing science fiction, on the other hand, roughly ten seconds after they set down The Star Beast or Ender’s Game or Snow Crash because they get done with the book and think, holy crap, I want to do that. Academia generally wants you to show you can write; science fiction generally wants you to tell a story. It’s the storytellers who get picked up by the next generation of science fiction writers, and whose work is used as the blueprint for their own works.

(As an aside, the writer’s pointing up Philip K. Dick’s pre-eminence in movies over Heinlein misses a few points as well, not the least of which is, to put it bluntly, no one cares when a filmmaker radically modifies Dick’s work to make it fit into a movie, whereas people care very much when filmmakers fiddle with Heinlein’s text. If a filmmaker tried to overhaul wholesale a Heinlein novel the way that Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples did with Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? he’d be burned in effigy; just ask all the Heinlein fans who still spit on the ground when the name Paul Verhoeven crops up.)

Heinlein’s flat-out readability is why, two decades after his death and now more than half a century after the publication of some of his most famous works, the man is still in print when the vast majority of his contemporaries are not, why he’s still actively influencing the genre, why being favorably compared to him is still a significant coup, and why people are still tearing their hair out that he’s still out there, despite his antediluvian sexual and political stances. If they really want him gone, the solution is simple: Put something out there that’s as readable as what he offers, and which offers a different political and social viewpoint.

Just be warned: Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have articles continually trying to bury Heinlein. He’d already be gone.