Monthly Archives: September 2008

Proof the McCain Campaign Has No Idea What It’s Doing

It thinks that I am part of the “McCain Ohio Team.” I have no earthly idea what they’re thinking, man. But I guess hope springs eternal.

Into the spam bin it goes. And before any of you McCain fans complain, allow me to note that all the e-mail I get from the Obama campaign gets stuffed into the spam bin too. And if the Bob Barr campaign gets it in its collective head to send me e-mail, you can guess where it’s going, too.

Old Man’s War: The Title Sequence

This is kind of fun: A student did a mock-up title sequence for an Old Man’s War TV show for his class on motion graphics. I found it out there on teh Intaarnets, although apparently (according to the BBS thread in which I found it) someone came over here to link me to it today. It’s a small world.

For the record: At the moment, still no movie or TV deals. But you never know what the future might bring. And in the meantime, I suppose this counts as fan art. Go me!

Scalzi & Buckell Together Again, 10/2 in Columbus, OH

For those of you who live in or near Columbus, Ohio and would rather drag a rake across your eyeballs than suffer through the Vice-Presidential debates, allow me to offer you an alternate plan for your evening: Come see me and Toby Buckell do our nutty wacky science fiction author thing at The Ohio State University Bookstore (aka Barnes & Noble #218, 1958 North High Street) at 7pm, October 2nd! It will be more fun than watching Sarah Palin mangle sentence structure and/or stare at Joe Biden’s doll hair. This much I can just about guarantee.

So come on down — we’re looking forward to seeing you there.

Whatever X, Day XXX

And now we’ve come to the last day of the month-long retrospective of Whatever, celebrating its ten-year anniversary. And to celebrate, I’m airing the last entry in my “That Was The Millennium That Was” series from 1999, in which I wrote about the best and most interesting stuff of the previous 1,000 years. Unlike the rest of the “Whatever X” entries, this one is actually in Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, but what the heck. It fits. And it serves as a reminder that there’s still time to pick up a copy of the book, either from Subterranean (ordering from there will get you “Waiting for Athena,” the special exclusive chapbook) or from Amazon.

In any event, I hope you’ve enjoyed this month-long trip down memory lane. See you in September 2018, for Whatever XX.

DECEMBER 31, 1999: Best Armageddon of the Millennium

Thomas Muentzer’s Armageddon, in 1525. It wasn’t actually the end of the world, but really. When is it ever?

The history of the human species is the history of a people waiting for the other shoe to drop. The very first human who had the ability to think beyond the next five minutes probably got up one morning, looked around the cave and the savannah outside, smiled briefly and then thought, you know, this just can’t last. Humans are innately eschatological — looking for the signs and portents that signify that the end of the world is nigh. It beats Yahtzee.

While all humans everywhere seem to have some conception of a final end of our planet and our people, Western civilization has been particularly obsessed with the end time (our Eastern brethren look at the world in a less linear fashion, what with all reincarnation stuff, although even they believe in a eventual, final resting point of the human soul — Nirvana, which is literally the annihilation of desire. That’s right, when you finally reach complete understanding, you won’t want that Ford Expedition! Better stay on that Wheel of Suffering for a while, until you get it out of your system).

As a systematic collection of beliefs, the Western end-of-the world mania gets its start in Zoroastrianism, a religion out of Iran, whose prophet, Zoroaster, taught that the world was a battleground in at 9,000 year war between the forces of good and evil. At the end of it, a final savior, called the saoshyant, will come and lead the forces of good into triumph. God (or, more specifically, Ahura Mazda, the god of good) will then use him to redeem the world and resurrect the dead.

Sound familiar? It should; elements of  Zoroastrianism deeply inform Judiasm and its own messianic writing, as well as Christianity and Islam. Zoroastianism’s god of evil, Ahriman, is even the blueprint for Ol’ Scratch himself — that’d be Satan, you know.

More recently, the concept of end times and apocalyptic struggle has expanded beyond the usual boundaries of religion. Take, if you will, the political system of Marxism. Marxism is full of the hallmarks of the end times: Belief in a protracted struggle between the forces of good (the workers) and evil (those who would alienate the worker from his labor), a final apocalyptic battle (your worker’s revolution), and then, of course, the Worker’s Paradise, which is your basic post apocalyptic Millennium, minus of course Jesus (who, however, was well-known to prefer the company of the poor over the rich).

This apocalyptic struggle is even more explicit in Nazism, which had the apocalyptic battle (the eradication of Jews and other non-Aryans), its messiah (Hitler), and, most explicitly, the Third Reich, which of course was also referred to as the “Thousand Year Reich,” aping the millennium exactly (the title “Third Reich,” though a reference to German history, also fits comfortably into an apocalyptic world view — in the 12th Century, Joachim of Fiore, an Italian monk, interpreted the Book of Revelation and discovered three ages of the world, hinged on the triune nature of the Christian God. There’s the age of the father, which was pre-Jesus, and the age of the son, which was the current time, and an upcoming “Third Age,” to be ruled by the holy ghost, which would correspond to the Millennium).

Nowadays, of course, most people are repelled by the explicit Nazi/Judeo-Christian parallels, particularly as it implies that the Nazis are the forces of “good” in this  world view (the idea of Hitler as the Messiah is particularly odious). But in 1938, I’ll bet you a lot of Germans thought it was pretty keen.

Ironically, in this century, it’s science that has given us fuel for our apocalyptic fire. There’s the atomic bomb, most obviously. Nuclear annihilation, nuclear winter, Mad Max, Godzilla. But it’s just the fiery tip of the iceberg. AIDS is a favorite example for  the obnoxious Bible-thumper of the incurable plague the precedes the apocalypse (rest assured other plagues, from the Black plague onward, have also pulled this duty). The advance of  technology that allows global network and near- instantaneous access to vast reams information is also a piece of the end days puzzle.

Global warming, and its twin offspring El Nino and La Nina, contributes to those massive floods and hurricanes and fires we’ve been having recently. Hell, even meteors from space, the 1990’s favorite way to blow up the world, belongs in the pot: They didn’t call the movie “Armageddon” for nothing, even if they did manage to screw up the reference (“Armageddon” is a battle — and is in fact an actual geographic location — not the actual end of the world).

Ultimately, however, the problem for humans, and particularly Christians, has not been that the end is coming, but that it hasn’t come soon enough. Christians have literally been expecting the end times since the very beginning of the religion. The earliest Christians fully expected the Kingdom of God before they died; indeed, much of the literature conceptualizing and explaining the second coming (including the Book of Revelation) is about trying to rationalize why Christians are still loitering on earth instead of kicking up their heels on a cloud somewhere.

Subsequent interpretations of apocalyptic literature through this last millennium have filled its days with presumably definite dates in which the world as we knew it would end, and the new world would begin. This despite the fact Jesus himself noted that “No man knoweth the day nor the hour of my coming.” But you know how people are. They get all excited and stuff.

First and foremost, of course, is the actual beginning of the second millennium, which (for all you math geeks out there), the people of the times took to be 1000 AD. Churches were packed with the cautious expectation that the Millennium, with the big “M,” might actually coincide with the millennium, with the small “m.” It did not. Later, the previously mentioned Joachim of Fiore, in formulating his three ages of God, pegged the age of the Holy Ghost to begin sometime in the early part of the 13th century, by which time, conveniently, Joachim would be dead and unable to answer for himself if there was a problem with the calculations, which of course there was.

Somewhat further up the timestream, the biggest End of the World event in the new world took place in 1844. Seems a New York  farmer named William Miller predicted, after careful analysis of the Book of Revelation, that the Second Coming was on the way in 1843. Through skillful promotion and the use of helpful pamphlets, hundreds of thousands bought in, but when the appointed hour arrived, Jesus was nowhere to be found. Miller checked his records and discovered — oops — he’d dropped a year in the translation of dates from BC to AD. He set the new date: October 21, 1844.

Miller’s adherents, the Adventists, sold their worldly possessions and decamped to Miller’s farm to await the Lord. Jesus, alas, missed his Second Chance at a Second Coming. This event, or lack thereof, becomes known as the “Great Disappointment,” which, all things considered, may be the only time something described that way can be said to be an understatement.

(Adventists are still waiting, by the way. The new thinking is that the 1844 date was the moment Jesus started his examination of all the names in the Book of Life. After that, he’ll come down and start his reign. The Adventists have this time chosen not to set a specific date — though it’s real soon now — and that’s probably wise. As for the fact that Jesus needs 156 years and counting to read a single book, all one can say is: That’s some book.)

Thousands lost their property and some probably lost their faith in the Great Disappointment, but nobody died. The same cannot be said for Thomas Muentzer’s Armageddon, which is why I, after all this preamble, now bequeath it the title of End of the World of the Millennium.

Thomas Muentzer was a priest who, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, read into the Bible (newly translated into German by Martin Luther, with whom Muentzer had had some acquaintance) that the Apocalypse was coming, and that the forces of good and evil would be arrayed along social and economic lines. The good folks would be the peasants, who are, of course, the salt of the earth, while the forces of evil were in the form of the princes and landowners of Germany.

As you might expect, this particular interpretation of the Bible was not especially popular with the princes (or with Martin Luther himself — who at one point called Muentzer “The Satan at Allstadt”), but the masses ate it up. And it just happened to fit the mood at the time in Germany, where peasant revolts were popping up all over the lands. Muentzer found himself leading one of those peasant revolts, and in 1525, was at forefront of a peasant army, 8,000 strong, facing the army of the princes at Frankenhausen.

This is the battle Muentzer has been waiting for — he’d been riling up the peasants by telling them that this battle will signal the End of the World, that God himself would intervene and thus, the Kingdom of God would be at hand. The princes, whose well-armed, well-trained forces reasonably expected to wipe the floor with the peasants, reportedly tried to find a non-confrontational end to the battle (they needed those peasants back in the fields, after all). But Muentzer riled up the troops some more, proclaiming that he himself would catch the princes’ cannonballs in his shirtsleeves. What’s more, as the battle was about to commence, a rainbow appeared in the sky above the battlefield. As it happened, Muentzer’s flag featured a rainbow on it. It had to be a sign. Muentzer’s peasants marched into battle, singing hymns. Christ was coming, and he was on their side.

It was a massacre. Five thousand peasants died screaming as the princes rained cannonshot down on their heads (the princes’ forces lost maybe a dozen people all told). Muentzer did not catch a single one of those cannonballs with his sleeves; in fact he fled the field of battle and was discovered some distance away, hiding under a bed. Muentzer was arrested, tortured, made to recant his various heresies, and on May 27, 1525, executed by the princes. In one sense Muentzer was right, it was the end of the world, although the world that was ending was his. It was, alas, a very personal apocalypse.

Somewhat ironically, several centuries later, Muentzer would be held up as a national hero by the communist government of East Germany, who saw parallels in his actions and the actions of the Glorious Worker’s Revolution. So I suppose when communism fell, that made Muentzer a two-time loser.

We’re still awaiting the end of the world. And let’s be clear on this: The end is coming, one way or another, for the planet Earth. In the absence of planet-squashing meteors, horrifying viral or bacterial plagues that wipe out all known life, the sudden and unexpected appearance of an alien race that claims Earth in an eminent domain land grab for a wormhole superhighway they’re building to Alpha Aquilae, or even, yes, the Second Coming, the sun is still going to use up all its hydrogen one day. In burning helium instead, it will swell up like a big red balloon, swallowing the inner planets as it expands. That’ll be about five billion years from now. Wear sunscreen.

In the meantime, I will suspect we’ll have plenty of time to think about how everything is going get flushed, one day, sooner or later. Or (and I know this is radical idea), just don’t. Stop worrying about the end of things. Sure, things end: Divine intervention, celestial expansion, network cancellation, or simply an inopportune slip that causes you to crack your head on the toilet will all conspire to bring about the cessation of the things you know and love.

The remedy, the only remedy you have, is to keep at it: Keep doing what matters, keep seeing the world around you, keep loving those who matter to you. Because when the end of the world comes, however it comes, what’s ultimately going to matter in your life is what you’ve made of it.

You’ve got some time left. A whole new millennium, in fact. Get to it.

Why Yes, I Should Write About Politics

Over on his site, Paolo Bacigalupi asks the question “Should Fiction Writers Write About Politics?” in the wake a of reader comment after Paolo did, indeed, write about politics. While Paolo answers the question to his own satisfaction (I encourage you to read it), let me state my own, probably unsurprising, opinion here:

Why yes, fiction writers should write about politics, if they choose to. And so should doctors and plumbers and garbage collectors and lawyers and teachers and chefs and scientists and truck drivers and stay-at-home parents and the unemployed. In fact, every single adult who has reason enough to sit down and express an opinion through words should feel free to do just that. Having a citizenry that is engaged in the actual working of democracy matters to the democracy, and writing about politics is a fine way to provide evidence that one is actually thinking about these things.

The real question here is, “is it smart for fiction writers to potentially alienate readers by airing their politics?” My response to this, again to absolutely no surprise to anyone, is another question: “why should a fiction writer be obliged to be silent on the life of the state in which he or she lives?” Do readers really think it’s wise that writers, of all people, stay quiet on the matters that affect their lives and the lives of their families, friends and nation, because some person they don’t even know might feel slightly discomfited, and doesn’t have the wit to separate a work of fiction from the largely unrelated real world concerns of the writer?

As long as we’re asking whether fiction writers should write about politics, let’s ask: should fiction writers write about sports? Because if I say, oh, that the Georgia Bulldogs suck and I hope that Tennessee well and truly kicks their ass on October 11, I’m going to alienate an entire state’s worth of people, some of whom might now never get my loathing out of their heads every time they see my name on a book. Should fiction writers write about computers? Because if I express my opinion that Apple computers are merely status bait for anxious beta males, I invite a veritable rain of hate from those same beta males, some of whom will never forgive me for not kneeling at the altar of Steve. Should fiction writers write about sexuality? Because if I admit that during my second year of college I totally went gay for a semester and don’t regret a single moment of it, I’m going to alienate the people who believe that scarfing wang is not a thing boys should do. Should fiction writers write about religion? Because if I express my belief that those who believe in consubstantiation rather than transubstantiation are taking the express elevator to Hell, then, whoops, there goes a whole swath of protestants.

Now, as it happens, I don’t hold these opinions about consubstantiation, or the Georgia Bulldogs, or Apple computers, nor did I, in fact, spend any time in college in hot, sweaty m4m action. But it doesn’t matter; the fact of the matter is that any opinion I hold and publicly discuss has the potential to alienate someone, somewhere, perhaps to the detriment of future sales of my fiction. I mean, for Christ’s sake, out there in the world is a guy who holds me in spittle-flinging contempt because I think the word “alright” is the incorrect way to say “all right.” It seems doubtful he will ever buy any of my books. Should fiction writers write about the English language? After all, lots of people seem to think “alright” is a real word. Should we content ourselves merely to pity them in private?

Of course not, just as we should not be obliged to keep to ourselves opinions about sports, sexuality, technology, religion, food, toys, war, science, music and so on. The reader who believes a fiction author should keep his or her opinions to themselves is effectively (if generally unintentionally) saying “You exist only to amuse me. You are not allowed to do anything else.” To which the only rational response is: blow me. I’m not going to hesitate to add my voice to the national dialogue on any subject just because someone somewhere might not be happy with what I have to say. And more to the point, I think it is bad and dangerous thinking for people to suggest that fiction writers should have to live in a black box of opinion. The idea that writing fiction somehow obliges or even just encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is flatly odious.

Indeed: The idea that practicing any profession somehow obliges or even encourages a vow of silence on any subject, politics or otherwise, that might offend someone somewhere, is odious. Everyone should be encouraged to say what they wish to say about the important matters of the day. Everyone should feel that participation in the life of their community and their state and nation is a critical act. To do less invites ignorance and ultimately tyranny.

To go back to fiction writers and politics, there’s another reason I feel obliged to freely speak my mind: Because so many writers cannot. PEN has a handy list of writers currently imprisoned all over the world because they’ve written about the world they live in; it also has a list of writers who had been imprisoned and who, while now released, continue to face prosecution and danger should what they write offend the wrong people. Are there fiction writers on these lists? There sure are. These writers chose to speak about their world, despite the certain risk, and were punished for it by prison terms or worse — and I’m supposed to hold my tongue because someone might not buy my book? Give me a fucking break. I couldn’t do that. I wouldn’t dare.

And yes, it means that some people won’t buy my books. So what. I live in a place where it will never come to this, but if I had to make the choice between selling fiction and speaking my mind about politics, I would speak my mind and not once regret the choice. There are always other ways of making money; my conscience requires I participate in the political life of my country. If not selling another word of fiction were the cost of that participation, I’d be getting off cheap, particularly when you consider the alternatives.

Whatever X, Day XXIX

In which a fine tradition of big fat dorkery is revealed.

MAY 13, 2003: Proof I Am Like This in Real Life

We enter a recent IM conversation between Bill and John shortly after John notes that he’s thinking of taking Athena to Disneyland at some point in the reasonably near future:

[12:47] bill: Excellent idea. Children should go to Disneyworld-or-land. Although you should avoid the Small World ride.
[12:48] john: Yes. Nightmares.
[12:48] bill: Yes.
[12:49] john: Although, relatively speaking to the average size of the planets in the solar system, and those we’ve discovered elsewhere, it is a small world. I mean, it’s factually correct.
[12:50] bill: Hm, well, that depends on how you average it, doesn’t it? I mean, yes, if you just average the masses and divide by nine, sure.
[12:51] john: Well, averaging diameters as well.
[12:51] bill: But on the other hand, only four of the planets are larger. The other four are smaller.
[12:51] john: Well, earth is the median, sure. But that’s not the same thing.
[12:52] bill: I don’t know. I feel certain that anything the dolls sing must be incorrect. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
[12:53] john: I would grant that their process is wildly wrong — that is to say that their rationale for concluding it’s a small world is deeply flawed. However, the conclusion is verifiable.
[12:54] john: Indeed, none of the accumulated data within the song even remotely leads to the conclusion that it’s a small world after all. At best, it concludes that it’s a world of indeterminate emotional states, rooted in a communal impulse.
[12:54] bill: (phone)
[12:54] john: Likely excuse.

Free Falling

My sister called me this morning and asked me if I was okay. I told her I was fine and asked why she was asking. The answer was that she suspected I had quite a lot of money in the stock market, and as we all know, the stock market’s not exactly a happy vale of ponies these days, and as it turns out, especially today. I assured her that notwithstanding our 401(k)s and IRAs, we were not, and as far as those retirement accounts go, we were no worse off than anyone, and still had three decades to go on them anyway. So in the short run, at least, we were fine, and indeed probably better than many, since I’m getting a lot of foreign sales recently, and they’re denominated in Euros. She was relieved. As am I, come to think about it.

Which is not to say I’m sanguine about what comes next after this. Over at MSNBC, Howard Fineman suggests that we’re at the dawning of the Obama era (whether Obama wins or not, which is a neat trick, really), in which a new set of economics more in line with Obama’s will come into play. I’m not sure I buy Fineman’s police 100%, as Marge Gunderson might say, but I do think today’s bailout bill failure pretty much wraps it up for the Bush administration, in terms of its ability to influence the continuing political life of this country, and certainly does look like the death knell for a certain brand of economic theory that states that free markets are best until their own stupidity gets the principals of that market in trouble. This does not imply that we’re in an “Obama era,” since the bailout plan was largely scuttled by conservative Republicans who view the bailout not as the creeping sort of socialism but the sort that gallops, and is here for your daughter. No; at the moment we’re in a “WTF?” era, in which no one seems to know what comes next.

Which leads back to my sister’s question of whether or not we’re okay in this time of financial uncertainty. In the short run we are. First, I can’t be fired, since I work for myself. This certainly lowers my stress level. Second, thanks to the amusing nature of book accounting, especially “reserves against returns,” I know I have book royalties coming in for the next year, even if I don’t sell another book between now and whenever (which seems a silly proposition, but we’re looking at a worst case scenario). Third, thanks to the awesome financial stewardship of my wife, we’re one of those rare American households that has actually managed to save a fair amount of money — enough to help us scrape by for a fair amount of time even if everything well and truly goes to Hell.

Fourth, we don’t have significant amounts of consumer debt: Our cars are paid off, we don’t keep balances on our credit cards, and while our mortgages aren’t insignificant, they’re well budgeted. We’re also ready to pare down the frivolous expenses (read: the ridiculous sum we pay for satellite TV, etc) if necessary. Finally, and thank God, all of us are healthy, with no chronic health issues to sap us economically. So short of having barrels of rice and beans and lots of crossbow bolts down in the basement, we’re as well positioned as anyone can be in case of a worst case scenario.

Do I think it would come to that? I don’t, really. I suspect if things get bad, my family will find a way to get through it more or less successfully. I don’t suspect other people and families are as well-insulated as we are if things get as bad as they could get. And, truth to tell, we don’t even know how bad things really could get. I want Obama to be the next president, but I certainly don’t envy him (or John McCain, should he win) the economy he’ll have inherited. Whoever gets elected had better hope for two terms, because any pet projects they might have are likely to have to wait for a second term.

(I’m sure there are a few conservatives, anticipating an Obama administration, who would say this is a feature, not a bug; the only possible response to this is to say it would be nice if the conservatives could conjure a way to achieve the relatively minor objective of keeping a lid on a possible future Democratic administration’s initiatives without resorting the major disaster of imploding the global economy. If ever there was a canonical “killing a fly with a nuclear bomb” example, this would be it. I’m not laying this all at the feet of conservatives, mind you; there’s blame enough to pass around. But on the other hand one party was in the majority the majority of the last eight years, so blame, while shared, needs to be proportioned out correctly.)

I’m pretty sure this post sounds more pessimistic than I actually feel at the moment. On the other hand, at this very second the Dow is down 777 points. Maybe I’m not pessimistic enough. I do know we’re in for interesting times, both in the short and long run. In the short run, I know I’m fine. In the long run, well, we’ll see. I guess we’ll all see.

How are you set for total economic collapse? And do you think it’ll come to that? I’m interested in your thoughts.

The Big Idea: Kenneth Hite

Now that my travels have ended (yay!), it’s time to get back on the stick with the Big Idea features — we’ve got quite a few coming up in the next couple of months, and this week I’ll hit you with at least a double shot. To begin, I’m really excited to bring this next book to your attention, by Kenneth Hite. Ken and I go back a long ways — he was at the college newspaper when I was — and Ken’s always had a great combination of wit, knowledge and geekery. All of that comes to fruition with Tour de Lovecraft, an immensely readable trip through the works of everyone’s favorite dark fantasist, H.P. Lovecraft, which combines a deep love of the work with a clear-eyed view of quality of the same. If you’re a Lovecraft fan, you’ll find lots to enjoy, and to argue with.

Here Ken talks about Lovecraft, literary criticism and how a “medium-sized” idea from elsewhere inspired the Big Idea here. Hey, Big Ideas are all over the place.

KENNETH HITE

The Big Idea for the Tour de Lovecraft came from a Medium-Sized Idea for a different book entirely, the game Trail of Cthulhu, which I was writing for Pelgrane Press. I decided to re-read all of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories for that project, to get myself into the proper mood and to make sure I didn’t forget anything really creepy. But re-reading all of Lovecraft at age 42 wasn’t the same as reading it all for the first time at age 14. I found myself, almost against my will, performing the Dread Sin of literary criticism as I read.

For whatever reason, we’re all supposed to hate literary criticism: “We murder to dissect,” and the rest of that Romantic noise. It’s even worse here in the SFnal ghetto, hiding out from the grim searchlights of mainstream academia while simultaneously complaining that they don’t point the big beams at us enough. But literary criticism is what any reader does, whether they know it or not, and surely us sons and daughters of Heinlein should know that our job is to know what things we do and to do those things well. It’s not like literary criticism is foreign to our tribe. To name just a few: Thomas Disch, John Clute, Ursula K. LeGuin, David Hartwell, Alexei Panshin, Joanna Russ, and a guy named H.P. Lovecraft have done it with distinction and brilliance.

To read critical essays by any of those writers, whether or not you agree with their conclusions or even their taste, is to get better at reading. The fact that most literary criticism reads like Basque political manifestos is no more relevant to the art of literary criticism than the fact that most science fiction reads like adolescent stereo instructions is to the art of SF. To turn Ted Sturgeon (himself an occasional literary critic) on his head, ten percent of it is still probably worth your time. (While I’m name-checking, here, let me throw some love at the mainstream critic Northrop Frye, whose Anatomy of Criticism came out the same year as Songs For Swinging Lovers, and holds up just as well as Old Blue Eyes does. Frye also, for what it’s worth, seemed to “get” SF.) My goal with the Tour de Lovecraft, which I posted in raw form in my LiveJournal as I went along, was initially just to kill time and share some of the new found Lovecraft love I was feeling. But pretty soon I was trying to hit that ten percent, to breathe some life into Lovecraft by dissecting him.

Or rather, by dissecting his stories. Dissecting Lovecraft – his psychology, his biography, his philosophy, his politics – may have its value, but it doesn’t seem to get us any great distance down the road to the stories themselves. And besides, we’ve pretty much been doing that and only that since Sprague de Camp’s biography rose in 1976 and drove a generation of sensitive scholars mad. Maybe it’s time to let the Old Gentleman rest for a while and try to dissect Cthulhu – or at least “The Call of Cthulhu” — instead.

Tour de Lovecraft is available from the Atomic Overmind site in both softcover and pdf form. Visit Ken Hite’s LiveJournal here. Hite is also the Ennie Award-winning author of the Trail of Cthulhu role playing game, available through Pelgrane Press.

Whatever X, Day XXVIII

Today is a travel day, as I wing my way back to my family after more than a week apart from them; as you can imagine I’m looking forward to seeing them soon — and there won’t be much posted today. In lieu of me, and as an indication of how much I’m looking forward to seeing the family, today’s repeat from the archives is a guest spot, from Athena, from about fifteen months ago. It’s short and sweet.

MAY 23, 2007: And Now, Poetry Corner With Athena

athena070523.jpg

Imagination
By Athena Scalzi

In the night sky I see a bright light
It is right in my eyesight
It’s right in my mind.
The gods are so kind to let me see this sight.

I wish I could buy it but I know that I can’t
I can try to fly to get a closer look at it
But the thing is
I’m only flying away in my imagination.

ZT Review in the San Francisco Chronicle

Zoe’s Tale gets a positive nod in the San Francisco paper today:

Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War” novels owe a debt to Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers,” and “Zoe’s Tale” tips its hat to the much-loved Heinlein juveniles, such as “Podkayne of Mars.” Zoe is an appealingly articulate character, and her growth from bored space passenger to hard-edged diplomat stays within the bounds of believability… the novel can please both adult and young-adult readers who appreciate cleverly constructed and emotionally rich space adventures.

Excellent. These sorts of reviews make me happy. The review is the second of two (the first: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, also positively reviewed), so scroll down a bit to see it.

The Myth of the Knockout

I didn’t watch the debate last night, because it was the last night of the Viable Paradise writing workshop and I wanted to hang out and say goodbye to the students we’d been with for the last week. But I did catch the highlight reel and all the color commentary, in which it seems that most real people scored it for Obama while the pundits figured it was a draw, because neither Obama or McCain managed a “knockout punch” on the other.

Well, in this case the real people got it right. A debate isn’t a prizefight, and the last thing we need at the moment is the artifical drama of a “knockout” — what we need are two presidential contenders thoughtfully offering up their policies and challenging each other on the issues: steak, not sizzle, and substance rather than excitement. At this point in time, I suspect the average American has all the “excitement” he or she can handle watching the banks collapse; watching the two candidates actually talk about things at length and engage with each other (with or without eye contact on the part of McCain) was probably a refreshing change.

So pundits, please restrain yourselves from viewing the currently political process entirely through the metaphor of violent sports activity. The rest of the United States seems to be managing not to do it, and with good reason; you could too, if you wanted.

Whatever X, Day XXVII

Now, here’s a choice piece of Whatever archaeology, and of some relevance considering that I’ve just spent a week teaching at a writing workshop: the entry I wrote right after I finished Old Man’s War.

OCTOBER 29, 2001: Finished With the Novel

Well, I’m back. And moreover, during the break I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to finish the novel. It’s done, all eighteen chapters and 91,400 (or so) words. Is it any good? We’ll see. What happens next is that I send the novel to a select group of beta testers, who will read the book and offer suggestions on where I might do some tweaking. After tweaking, it’s off to find an agent (my current agent, fine human being though he may be, only traffics in non-fiction) who will then schlep the book to publishers. This could take years, which pretty much sucks. Kids, take it from me: It’s not the writing of a novel that breaks your heart, it’s the attempt to sell it. Don’t cry me a river, since now that I am done with the novel I can concentrate on the book that I did already sell; namely, the astronomy book. So while I’m waiting for the novel to sell, I’ll still see a new book of mine on the shelves. There are worse situations for a writer to be in.

This novel is actually the second one I’ve written, and took longer and was harder to write than the first. The first (Agent to the Stars, which by now I shouldn’t have to tell you is available for reading and download right here on the Scalzi.com site) I wrote in 1997 and cranked through in a little under four months, working on the weekends, while Krissy was at work. The motivation on that one was not to sell the book (which was good because, uh, I didn’t) but simply to see if I could write a novel-length story. This time around Krissy was around on the weekends, we have a child, and the plot of the book was more complex, all of which conspired against easy writing.

The result is that this one took nearly twice as long as the first one, even though it’s the same length (it’s actually just a little bit shorter than Agent, although both are well over the 60,000-word demarcation that denotes “novel-length”). Part of me is annoyed that this one took longer to write — I’m a busy man, you know — but I don’t see how I could have written it in any less time, even if I was doing no other writing. Much of my plot development process takes place on the fly; I usually start off knowing how the book will begin and end, and several of the major plot points inbetween, but how I connect those dots is accomplished during the writing process.

As a result, there were several points where I had to stop and say to myself, How the hell am I going to get myself out of the corner I just wrote myself into.  Then I’d have to go off and think about it for a while. As a result, the strict “write every weekend” rule I had for Agent got tossed out the window for this book while I wrestled with knots in the plot. I managed to untangle most of them (and those I didn’t I simply hacked off, Alexander-like), so at least it was time well spent. I suppose I could simply try to plot out the entire book ahead of time, but I don’t see why I would want to do that. It might save time, but part of my enjoyment of the process of writing is in seeing what comes out; there were several points in the writing of the book where I came up with something that I had no idea I would think of — and it worked perfectly, both in illuminating the moment and in carrying along the plot. It’s fun for me to read something I just wrote and wonder how I came up with it. It’s the writer’s equivalent of working without a net. You trust that you have the skill to make it to the other side. Sometimes you don’t (I have at least one unfinished novel because I fell off that particular tightrope), but often you do.

Also, this way you end up surprising yourself a bit. I really like my new novel (it’s tentatively titled Old Man’s War, in case you were wondering), but it’s not the novel I had written in my head. The novel I had written in my head, the one before I started writing, was a mordantly funny commentary on man’s warlike nature, along the lines of a Catch-22 for science fiction; the novel I’ve written has some blackly amusing moments, but it sure ain’t Catch-22. It’s more sentimental and meditative, although hopefully not in a painfully squishy way, and contents itself with tighter focus than War in General. This isn’t to say the novel I originally had in my head is better than the one that came out — We have to ask ourselves if the world really needs a Science Fiction Catch-22, or at the very least, the version of it I would write. I think it’s more to the point that the book that finally came out of my brain is the one I actually had the interest and skill to write.

Now that I’m done with the novel, I’m shelving fiction writing at least through next June — the astronomy book awaits, and it’s going to take a huge amount of work (I have to design the constellation charts, among other things). But, of course, I do have an idea for the next novel rolling around in my skull. Having written two science fiction novels in a row, I think I want to try something else now; I’m pretty sure the next one is taking in place in the “real” world. If it’s eventually the one I’m thinking about right now, it should be very interesting (for me, if no one else). We’ll have to see. I have to think about it some more.

Metatropolis Cover: Ooooh, Shiny!

As something to leave you with as we head out of the week and into the weekend: The cover art for the audiobook anthology featuring Elizabeth Bear, Toby Buckell, Jay Lake, Karl Schroeder and me. I’ll have more details about it in future days, but for now: Oooooh, pretty.

Whatever X, Day XXVI

What was I like when I was a kid? Here are some snippets.

MARCH 7, 2006: 10 Childhood Nuggets

For the second entry in Reader Request Week 2006, Gabe, seconded by Claire, asks about my childhood. Rather than trying to bang out a coherent structure to this one, let me do a grab bag factoid nugget approach and see if it works.

* The very first memory I know I had was of being in a swimming pool when I was two. My mother tells me that when I was two I knew how to swim, but I lost that ability somewhere along the way and had to relearn it again when I was five. My second memory was of lying in bed in an apartment and watching a ghost go by the window. I suspect it was Halloween rather than it being a real ghost.

* As I think I’ve noted before here, I have no memory of not being able to read. I started reading when I was two. I was reading adult-level books by the time I was in first grade; I remember reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull and not quite getting what the fuss was about (I also read the parody, Jonathan Livingston Chicken, in which a chicken eventually joins the Israeli Air Force).

* I believe I also mentioned that when I was five and my sister Heather was six, our mother had a back operation and we were sent to live with our aunt Sharon for a year. It was a fun time; my aunt and her then-husband kept cattle and I remember carrying out a huge milk bottle for a calf who had lost its mom one way or another; the farm also abutted a Christmas tree farm in the back. One of my more vivid memories of that year was going with my uncle to slaughter a pig. He and another man had the pig in the back of a truck and they shot it, and I remember the thing falling to the bed of the truck and squealing while it bled out. I don’t remember thinking one way or another about it, although today I’m not entirely sure that’s how you’re supposed to kill a pig.

* I was a very precocious kid and like many precocious kids, could be more than a little annoying about it. There were some adults who would leave a room when I came in because they found me irritating. Looking back I couldn’t blame them although at the time I was puzzled.

* As many readers here discovered by way of the “Being Poor” entry, I was poor when I was a kid. However, it wasn’t constant poverty; we (like many people who are poor) alternated between periods of doing okay and then not. Mostly (but not always) this co-incided with when my mother was a single parent and when she was not. There were brief times when technically we were homeless — I say technically because at no time did we ever sleep in a car or a shelter, we just stayed at a friend’s place for a week (or three) — but by and large whatever our situation my mom kept us fed and with a roof over my head. It’s again one of those things where you don’t realize how much work that is for a single parent to do something like that until you become an adult yourself.

* My sister and I are eighteen months apart, which is close enough in age (particularly considering my being a precocious little twit as a kid) that we were basically in a constant state of warfare, except when we weren’t. Whether we were at war or not changed from minute to minute. It didn’t help that Heather was something of a troublemaker and I wasn’t, so I received apparently favorable treatment and she didn’t (this is a gross oversimplification of the situation, but it works for what I’ll tell you, the general public). This was a bone of contention between us until our adult years. We get along swimmingly now; carrying over your childhood issues into adulthood is generally silly.

* I could be inexplicably emotional. When Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, for example, I just about lost my mind and cried up a storm. Not exactly sure why, since I had no interest in boxing nor was a huge fan of Ali (or Spinks, for that matter). No one else could figure it out either. But weird things would set me off. At some point the emotional tripwire thing settled down, which I suspect is a good thing.

* Major childhood injuries: Seven stitches in the foot, from stepping on a piece of glass; five stitches above my eye, where my sister (accidentally) whacked me in the head with a golf club; three stitches in my head from when a rock dropped on me during a camping trip; and a broken leg, from being hit by a car. My sister also fed me Dran-O when I was a toddler, but in her defense, she was three or four at the time and didn’t know any better (at least, I hope).

* When I was 12 I learned that I had an older brother who my mother gave up for adoption when she was 16; shortly thereafter he located us. In one of those weird twists his mother and my mother were in the same club and had recently been discussing their troubles with their kids, his mom with him and my mom with my sister (I was the good kid, remember). They both remarked how similar their troubles were.

* This “good kid” thing is not to suggest I wasn’t (and couldn’t get in) trouble from time to time, and indeed like a lot of kids I went through my minor thievery phase when I was about 12. That stopped when, after stuffing a Whatchamacallit candy bar down my underwear and then sneaking out of the local Ralph’s, a huge baldheaded man walking toward the Ralph’s came up to me and told me that God watches everything I do. Yeah, I got the message.

That’s enough childhood nuggetry for one post.

Hate Mail in the Mail

Subterranean Press has announced that Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998 – 2008 is now shipping to everyone who pre-ordered the book and is also now otherwise generally available. To which I say: Yay! That makes me happy. If you’ve been putting off ordering this book until it was actually physically available, then I guess today’s your lucky day, Lucky McLuckerson, you. You can order it direct from Subterranean (in which case you also get a limited edition chapbook called “Waiting for Athena”), or from Amazon. Ignore the “Shops in 3 to 5 Weeks” note currently appended to the Amazon page; it takes their system a little while to catch up to the reality on the ground.

I’m really excited about this book. It’s very cool to see a whole decade’s worth of work put into book form. Thanks, Bill Schafer and everyone at Subterranean, for making this book happen.

Whatever X, Day XXV

Since this actually came up as a subject of discussion at Viable Paradise, I thought I would air this particular entry again:

MARCH 7, 2006: Reader Request Week 2006: SF Novels and Films

All right, let’s take a second go at beginning the Reader Request Week here at the Whatever, as the first attempt yesterday went all explody on me. The question today (and yesterday, before the crash) was from Alex Holden, who asked:

Why are movie adaptations of SF novels generally so awful? Would you want to see movies from your novels? If yes, how would you prevent Hollywood from ruining them?

These questions — no offense Alex — start from what I think are erroneous premises, which are that movie adaptations of SF novels are generally awful, either considered as a class or relative to the performance of novels in other genres, and that novel authors not only can prevent Hollywood from ruining their works, but indeed are competent in the task of keeping Hollywood from ruining their novels. So let’s look at each of these.

First, are movie adaptations of SF novels (and other SF lit, including short stories) generally awful? Not necessarily. Here are some pretty good adaptations, in no particular order: Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, The Thing From Another World, Frankenstein, Solaris, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Boys from Brazil and (yes) Jurassic Park. And this is without lumping in fantasy (which has rather quite a lot of excellent adaptations from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings) or comic book/graphic novel-derived movies (Men in Black, Superman, X-Men). To be sure, there are some spectacularly bad SF lit adaptations — Dune and Battlefield Earth spring immediately to mind — but taken as a class, SF lit turned into movies has a wide spectrum of success, from wildly successful to abysmal.

Relative to other lit genres, SF lit is no worse off either, as Hollywood’s record with other genres is equally scattershot. For every Battlefield Earth there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities; for every Blade Runner there’s a Godfather. If I had to pick a lit genre that has suffered the most in the hands of filmmakers, I would probably have to go with crime fiction, which is deeply abused by Hollywood and has been for decades. I mean, my God. Look what they did to Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease. SF is not doing so bad compared to that.

A better question here might be: Why can’t Hollywood consistently adapt novels into good movies? And there are a number of reasons for this.

1. Some novels suck. See: Battlefield Earth. If you’ve got garbage going in, you’re likely to get garbage going out.

2. Conversely (and perversely), some novels are too good. A couple of years ago I advanced the theory that great literature doesn’t make for great movies, because the written version is already the highest form of that particular story; there’s no film version of War and Peace that replaces the book, for example. Same with 1984 or The Great Gatsby. The best book-to-film adaptations are the ones where the book is, well, eh — and thus the movie is able to become the better and more definitive version: The Godfather is the quintessential version of this; Jaws is another excellent example.

Related to this:

3. Some literature suffers from “step-down,” which is what happens when a brilliant author is adapted for the screen by a less-than-brilliant screenwriter; if the screenwriter doesn’t actually get the book, naturally there are going to be problems. Now, the converse is also true: Some mediocre authors have their work improved by screenwriters who write better than they do. The screen version of The Bridges of Madison County is rather better than the book version because Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the script, is a substantially better writer than Robert James Waller, who wrote the book.

4. Some lit, regardless of quality, is unfilmable as written. Film is a primarily visual medium; novels are a primarily intellectual medium. People like to talk about seeing a novel unfold in their heads like a private movie, but a written work also allows access to thoughts, emotions, internal states and narrative omniscience (or narrative direction, at the very least) that film generally doesn’t. This is not to suggest film is the lesser medium, as film can do things literature generally doesn’t, too. It does mean that some literature is so much in thrall to its medium that it’s difficult to make the jump. But that doesn’t means some filmmakers aren’t willing to try. And thus you get a not-great version of a great book.

This is why, incidentally, wildly reinventing a lit work for film is not always a bad thing. Blade Runner is I suspect a far better picture than a straight adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? could ever be. Given how enthusiastic Philip K. Dick was about Blade Runner, one suspects he may have thought so, too.

5. Novel writing is essentially a one-input proposition: The writer writes, and then an editor suggests changes if needed. In movies, the producers, directors, stars and studios all have input… and the poor schmuck writer has to listen to and accommodate them all (check out William Goldman’s classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade for confirmation on this). Given this it’s often a miracle a movie based on a book has anything to do with the book at all. Filmmaking, at least on the major studio level, is all about “collaboration” — which is to say a lot of the time everyone has to whip out their dick and piss in the stew until it has a flavor they claim to like. The problem is, outside of Hollywood, not everyone likes piss-flavored stew.

6. Sometimes the filmmakers don’t actually care about the work on which their film is based. They may simply need a property that works for a particular star; they may need something easily adapted into a low-dialogue, high-action film that sells to international markets; they might have bought a property to keep someone else from buying it; they might buy it because the genre the novel is in is hot today and they want to get a hand in before it cools down; they might buy it because some country has created a tax shelter involving films, and the filmmakers need a property — any property — to jam into production in order to launder their investors’ money (this is, incidentally, how the horrible, horrible director Uwe Boll made so many virulently bad movies based on video games over the last few years). There are lots of reasons to make a movie that actually have nothing to do with its story.

Now, on to the other thing, which is authors keeping filmmakers from ruining their work. There is only one sure-fire way to do this: Don’t sell your work. If no film is ever made of your work, then they can’t screw it up. Now, they can’t make a great film out of it either (or even one that’s just, you know, okay), and that is indeed a bit of a downside. But if your goal is to avoid having a bad film made of your work, that’s how you have to do it.

Why? Because typically speaking, once you sell the film rights to the work, that’s the end of your involvement. Oh, the filmmakers might let you come to the set sometime, and then the studio might fly you and your spouse out for the premiere, and you’ll walk down the red carpet to the vast indifference of fans and paparazzi alike. But, really, once you cash that check, you’ve been handed your hat and shuffled off to the door. Thanks for your story, we love it, see you later.

Nor are filmmakers entirely wrong to do so. The number of novel authors who have any sort of experience or competence in filmmaking is, well, low. Filmmakers take to novelists dictating the terms of the treatment of their books pretty much like authors would take to the lumberjack who chopped down the tree used to make the paper that the rough draft will be printed on coming over and suggesting that what the book really needs is a scene where a lumberjack has sex with Jessica Alba. See, you’ve been paid. You’re done. And now the filmmakers are going off to make their movie. Fact: When people think of who made Jaws, 99 times out 100, they think Steven Spielberg, not Peter Benchley.

Yes, some authors get to dictate certain things before movies get made of their books. And when you sell as many books as JK Rowling or John Grisham or Michael Crichton, maybe they’ll let you do that, too. Until then, alas, they’re pretty much going to ignore you once your agent seals the deal. Because they can; it’s in the contract.

Now, one way around this is to get involved in the production in some way, generally as the screenwriter (or at the very least, the screenwriter who takes the first stab at the script). But this doesn’t mean that one then saves one’s writing from grevious harm. For one thing, writing scripts and writing novels are two different writing skills, a fact which is indeed underappreciated. Someone who writes novels is no more necessarily competent to write a screenplay than a guy who makes a really great steak on a grill is competent to bake a delightfully light puff pastry. Maybe he can, but the one skill does not automatically suggest the other. To be sure, lots of writers can do both novel and scripts — Larry McMurtry, who took home an Oscar on Sunday (for adapting someone else’s work, no less) is a fine example here, as is the previously mentioned William Goldman — but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption.

Even when an author is involved it does not necessarily follow he or she is the best steward of the work in film. John Varley, a writer whose work I enjoy immensely, was actively involved with Millennium, based on one of his stories. The movie is pretty bad. HG Wells wrote the screenplay for Things to Come, and it’s indeed a significant film in the SF Canon, but it’s not a patch on other adaptations of his work. Moving outside the SF genre just a little bit, Stephen King’s work is a film genre unto itself, and while there are many highs (Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me), one has to admit that one of the lows would be Maximum Overdrive, which King adapted for the screen and directed himself (I suspect that King — who seems a good judge of his own stuff — might agree to this assessment, although I further suspect he had a lot of fun doing it anyway).

On to me. Would I want Hollywood to make films of my books? Sure I would. That would be one less mortgage I would have to worry about. Would I expect that the books would make it to the screen as they are written? No. I say that with confidence because I know that if I were adapting my books as films, there are moderate-to-significant changes I would make, so I can’t imagine that actual filmmakers wouldn’t want some as well. Would I want to be actively involved in the production? I haven’t the slightest idea. If they actually want my ideas toward adapting the books I would be happy to give them (and to take an associate producer credit!), but if they just want to give me a big fat check and send me on my way, I suppose I wouldn’t complain all that much.

Which is not to say I’m interested in being indiscriminate about who I sell my movie rights to. Being a film critic for 15 years gives me some knowledge of who makes good films and who doesn’t (and having just written a book on SF film, even more so). Let’s just say that the only serious demand I would make to a producer who wants to buy the rights to my books would be to attach a rider on the contract that specifies that if Paul WS Anderson is picked to write and/or direct, I get an additional and instant $2 million payout; if it’s Uwe Boll, $10 million. Given what would inevitably happen to the story in their hands, I think that’s reasonable compensation.

John McCain, Candidate for President of WTFistan

Honestly, I no longer know what to make of John McCain anymore. A man who has readily admitted he doesn’t know much about the economy makes a big show of bringing his presidential campaign to a grinding halt to rush to Washington to fix it, which seems a bit like a NASA auto pool mechanic declaring to all and sundry that he’s going to stop making oil changes to rush to Florida to consult on the Shuttle. And, by the way, he also suggests we cancel (or, “delay”) the presidential debate on Friday, and maybe the VP debate next week. You know, just to be sure we’re all focused on the economy, instead of, frivolous things, such as the fact that John McCain apparently hasn’t had a useful thought about the national economy since he married a heiress, and that Sarah Palin can’t be trusted to extemporize about damn near anything without appearing like she’s stuffing her conservative-yet-stylish pumps far enough down her throat to alarm her epiglottis. Really, no. Just no.

I don’t mind that McCain is suddenly very actively concerned about the fundamentals of our economy; it’s a nice change from the previous week. But I wish that this sudden, overwhelming concern wasn’t such a transparent attempt to continue to McCain presidential strategy of attempting to win the White House without being required to articulate coherently to the public or the press why he’s presidential material. McCain has missed more Senate votes this year than any senator not recovering from a massive stroke, so an active presence in the Senate is not something he’s put much of a premium on since beginning his campaign. He isn’t rushing to Washington to help, he’s running away from everything else. He is the Sir Robin of 2008 presidential election. Soon they will have to eat the flacks. And there will be much rejoicing.

As many other people have noted, a president will need to be able to do more than one thing at a time, and a president should at least be able to look as if he’s thinking about what might give him a political advantage for the next five minutes, after which yet another course correction will be needed, and soon. This stuff doesn’t make him look decisive and focused; it makes him look desperate and opportunistic, as in thank God, I have an excuse to bail out on my commitments, and waving a hasty “see ya” and leaving it to his spin boys to explain why his absence is a manifestation of his virtue. It’s not. His commitment at the moment is making the argument that he should be president. He’s failing that commitment, and the argument, and, incidentally, the nation he wants to lead.

Dum Dum Dum… DUM DUM!

Is it Thursday already? It is! And that means another AMC science fiction movie column. This week I’m talking about musical scores of science fiction films — offering up some suggestions for what I think are significant scores in science fiction film, and asking for your thoughts on which SF movies had scores that helped make the film what it is today. You know you want to offer up your opinion, so go on over and leave a message in the comment threads.