Monthly Archives: March 2009

Reader Request Week 2009 #4: Procreation

M asks:

If we procreate, we doom civilization through overpopulation and depletion of resources. If we don’t procreate, we doom civilization through exacerbating an aging population. What’s a potentially procreative person to do?

I don’t think it’s as bad as that, personally.

For one thing, personally speaking I don’t think an aging population is a civilization killer, if for no other reason than that in a relatively short period of time the problem of an aging population solves itself (think about it for a minute and you’ll figure out how). Nor do I think that in theory an intelligently-handled reduction in population (via natural attrition through old age, to be very clear about that) would be a horrible thing; the problem is I wouldn’t expect it to be particularly well-managed, and indeed in the places where the populations are aging and the birthrates are declining there seems to be bit of confusion on how to handle the issue.

On the other side of the coin, while personally I think seven billion people is more people than the planet actually needs to have on it, there’s no reason why we couldn’t manage ten billion or fourteen billion or even 25 billion — if again the population was managed in a way that we don’t abuse or overtax our planetary resources. This would mean drastically changing how people lived, driving down their overal energy and resource use, vastly improving their reuse and recycling processes, changing how they eat and generally getting them to keep from killing the shit out of each other. But again, the issue isn’t whether it’s theoretically possible but whether people would do what’s required to make it happen.

Or to put it another way: the issue isn’t how many people the planet has; the issue is how the people who are on it (however many there are at any given point) handle their resource management and way of living. And in point of fact we do a really crappy job of it overall. For one thing, resources are highly unevenly distributed (said the guy living in the country that consumes 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population); for another thing, the lifestyles, desires and goals of the people of the whole world are too heterogeneous to make coordinated and evenly distributed resource management possible — which is a nice way of saying that your average American likes his big house and all his toys and doesn’t want to ditch them all to live a lifestyle resembling that of, oh, your average Kyrgyzstani (additionally, one suspects the average Kyrgyzstani would like to live like the average American, given the choice, which complicates matters).

This is actually something I think about a fair amount. Truth to be told, I personally have far more crap than I need and most of the time even want (thanks to being a packrat), and I live on a house with more space than I or my family use, on land we don’t really do anything with. I suspect strongly we could downsize — in terms of what we have and use — by a rather substantial amount before we felt a real change in our overall quality of life, and we could downsize rather substantially more than that before it became actually uncomfortable. This is relevant to the question at hand because in either case of a declining or rising population, a downsizing in things is likely to be a long-term result. In any event: I think the population issue really is a stalking horse for resource issues; those are what I worry about in the long run.

Nevertheless. As regards procreating, my thought on the matter is that if you are procreatively inclined but are worried about a growing population, have one kid; if you’re worried about a declining population, have two. Here in the US, the “replacement rate” — that is, the number of births required to counteract the number of people the nation loses from death, is 2.1 kids per fertile woman, so having two is doing your part, and you can assume other people having more, combined with the US immigration rate, will keep our overall population from decline. In other countries your replacement mileage may vary, but one or two is a reasonable rule of thumb here.

I wouldn’t worry personally about whether having even the one will send the overall world population spiralling into some sort of Malthusian nightmare, as US/Western world births are an overall drop in the bucket in terms of worldwide population growth, i.e., when the worldwide famine hits, it won’t be your fault for having a kid (it might be your fault for driving an SUV, however, to go back to the resource issue). But if you are worried about that but still want to have kids, well, you know: It’s called adoption, and in general I think it’s a very cool thing, and encourage you to go that route. And if you don’t want any kids at all, then don’t have ‘em, of course. Kids are a good way to have a complete life, but you know what, there are other ways to a complete life that don’t include them, too.

But overall, unless you’re having a dozen or so children, and they’re having a dozen (and so on), however many children you’re having is not really going to make a difference in whether civilization collapses. What will make a difference is how you (and the rest of us) manage the resources we have. The irony is, if civilization collapses, chances are very good the birthrate will go up as well. It’s what would happen after that which would likely constitute the tragedy. So, you know. Let’s work on that resource thing.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else.)

The Big Idea: Julia Angwin

Hey, folks, this Big Idea piece is a huge thrill for me to present to you because the author, Julia Angwin, is an friend of mine back to our college days, when she was an editor at the Chicago Maroon, the newspaper at which I was the editor-in-chief. We both went into newspapers, but unlike me, she stuck with it and is now the Senior Technoloy Editor of WSJ.com, the Wall Street Journal’s web site. Which is pretty damn cool, if you ask me. Also cool: her sharing in a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2003.

Being a technology reporter and writer put her in a good position over the last few years to watch the rise and transformation of MySpace, and now she’s put it all together in a book: Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America. It’s unsurprisingly (to me, anyway) been garnering great reviews (“You needn’t know a portal from a platform to follow this sprawling, rollicking Internet history” — The New York Times) and puts into context one of the most influential Web sites ever.

And now for your edification and amusement, Julia explains how the Big Idea for non-fiction differs from the big ideas for fiction — and how what she thought the Big Idea about MySpace was changed during the writing of her book. Take it away, Julia:

JULIA ANGWIN:

As a nonfiction writer, I don’t get to choose the ‘big idea’ in my work. All the ideas – large and small – arise naturally from the facts I uncover. My job is to take the facts, stare at them hard and extract the ideas from them.

When I began writing Stealing MySpace, I thought that the ‘big idea’ that would emerge would be about the remix generation – the kids who were using MySpace to reshape their digital worlds. After all, weren’t they changing the world with their behavior?

But, in fact, the big idea that arose from my reporting was altogether different. It was this: what does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

Early in my investigation, I discovered that the founders of MySpace were scammers. Before they started the social-networking site, they sent spam, distributed spyware, and peddled spy cameras you could hide in your shoe and e-books touting “how to grow taller” and “how to hypnotize people.” MySpace was just an idea they copied from a popular Web site at the time, Friendster.

MySpace’s parent company, Intermix, wasn’t much better. It made most of its money selling subscription wrinkle cream and diet pills online, had a spyware business of its own, and had a thriving animated greeting card business best known for its fart and poopy diaper jokes.

In the book, the venture capitalist who backed Intermix (and was initially reluctant to support MySpace) David Carlick says why he’s not worried about the unsavory parts of Intermix. “Marketing has always been on the scary edge of ethical.”

This was a vastly different story than the canonical tech startup tale. This oft-told narrative stars a Bill Gates genius-type founder dropping out of Harvard to work on his technological breakthrough in a garage somewhere.

This was the story that I absorbed into my pores as a kid growing up in Silicon Valley, and then as a reporter covering the industry.

Meeting this new type of success story I wondered: were the MySpace founders just lucky? Or was their hucksterism part of what it takes to succeed?

One solution presented itself to me: Web technology had finally become easy to use. No longer were Web companies going to be run by engineers; now they could be run by marketers, too.

But then, slowly, it dawned on me that the Silicon Valley tale I’d grown up on was a bit of a myth. Hadn’t these tech companies really been run by marketers all along? Bill Gates, although he was a brilliant programmer, was an even more brilliant marketer. Ditto for Steve Jobs, whose marketing prowess is such that he is considered a “reality distortion field.”

And thus I stumbled onto my big idea: The greatest entrepreneurs are hucksters who have simply crossed the line into brilliance.

—-

Stealing MySpace: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Stealing MySpace (pdf link). Visit Julia Angwin’s blog. Follow Julia Angwin on Twitter.

Reader Request Week 2009 #3: Space!

Liz asks:

If you could, would you go into Space?

The short answer: Sure, as long as someone else paid for it.

The longer answer, yes, but I resent the fact that a decade into the 21st century the only way I could get into space at this point is to spend $20 million or so to strap myself onto a rocket whose basic design has not changed in 50 years, and launch myself toward an “international space station” where for three days I’ll be confined to an area not much larger than a bus, with a toilet that may or may not function. I mean, hell. If that’s how I wanted to spend three days, I could take a Greyhound from Boston to San Diego. Yes, I’d be weightless and the view would be nice, but you could tie me to a ballon and put a picture of the Earth on a big screen HDTV, and that would be 90% of the experience right there. Here in 2009, I should be able to visit a real space station, one that rotates for artificial gravity and is large enough to house more than a couple of Russian cosmonauts sullenly babysitting whatever middle-aged American millionaire has paid to go into space this time. It sucks that I can’t.

This goes back to a question I see peppered in the request thread, which is: What the hell happened to going into space? What happened to it, bluntly, is that the cold war collapsed and thus we felt we no longer had to justify the expense of putting humans into space, especially when robots and spacecraft can do whatever we could do better and cheaper. In practice, I don’t have a problem with this, because a manned space program is expensive and one really does have to question the value of humans in space when pretty much everything they can do can be done better with machines. In theory, I suspect that there could be some value of having a significant human outpost in near space — or could have been, had we used the moon shots as a stepping stone for a further manned presence of space, rather than patriotic cock-swinging, to be zipped up once we showed those damn Soviets who was the boss of space. Our hearts just weren’t into staying in space; we proved we could get to the moon, after all. What more do you want? But we could have made it work — made it so that a human presence in near space, at the very least, would be something useful and enduring and complementary to our machine-based presence in space.

But we didn’t, and now for the near future our manned space presence will be confined to the decidedly unromantic ISS and a few entrepreneurs catering to the rich who want to tell their friends how they did that whole Yuri Gagarin thing. And while I wouldn’t spend the ridiculous amounts of money currently required to do that — this science fiction writer could think of better things to do with that money, starting with drawing down his mortgage — if someone wanted to front me the trip rather than using the money to, say, feed hungry orphans, I’d take it. It’d be fun to write about afterward. I just hope the toilet works when I get up there.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

Hats Off to Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson explains how the last book of the Wheel of Time series became a 800,000(or so)-word trilogy. And all I can think is: Man, I have a hard enough time getting to 100,000 words. That man is just plain nuts. But I expect Wheel of Time fans will appreciate the extra effort in the end. Here’s the actual Tor press release about it, by the way.

Also, before anyone kvetches here about the last book being split up just for the money, do yourself a favor (and keep yourself from looking like an ass) by reading what Brandon has to say about it. Seriously.

Reader Request Week 2009 #2: OMW and Zoe’s Tale (and Angst and Pain)

Pwstrain asks:

Compare and contrast the pain, angst, and horror of writing, agenting, selling OMW vs. Zoe. Differences in process / time / fear of failure?

Just in case anyone doesn’t know (which given the crowd seems highly unlikley), “OMW” here is Old Man’s War, my first published novel, and “Zoe” is Zoe’s Tale, my most recently published novel. I think this question, aside from asking about the specific books, is asking about how things have changed for me from the beginning of my pro career to where I am now, with an emphasis on the existentially dreadable aspects of it all.

To be blunt, however, there wasn’t much pain/angst/horror in any of it. Talking specifically about the books in question, writing OMW was a breeze, frankly, and I had a lot of fun doing it; when it came to selling it, I didn’t bother, opting instead to put it up on my Web site, where it was found by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who then made an offer on it. Total angst there: Close to none. I got a fiction agent after I sold OMW, and that was relatively painless as well, because agents are easier to get when you already have a contract in hand (that said, the first agent I went to passed on me, which I found puzzling, but not angst-inducing, since I still had my book contract. And I found another agent soon enough).

As for Zoe, well. It’s not really that difficult to sell a fourth installment of a highly-selling, well-regarded series, and it fact it went pretty much like this:

Me: “Want me to write a fourth OMW book?”
PNH: “Are you kidding?”

Agenting it was likewise a breeze and in fact what we did was have it take the place of a book in a two-book series I had planned but abandoned for the reason that stinkin’ Max Brooks stole my idea (the oral history part, not the zombies part, and he didn’t actually steal it, he just came out with it first). So it was quickly and easily done. The writing of Zoe was more difficult than writing OMW for the reason that I needed to get down the voice of a teenage girl, and that gave me considerable trouble at first. But once I got that figured out, the writing was fairly simple. As these things go, it was not a horribly difficult process, or that much different from when I first started; ultimately it was a matter of ass in chair.

In neither case was there really a fear of failure, because it’s hard to say what constitutes failure at this point. It wouldn’t have been a failure not to have sold OMW, since I hadn’t planned to sell it at all; likewise the failure of Zoe would have been not getting the voice down, and if that had happened you’d’ve never known about it, especially since we didn’t publicize the book in any way until it was mostly completed. If I had failed, I simply would have written a different book. The closest I’ve come to failure in any of my books so far is pushing The High Castle off the schedule, because it wasn’t working as I had envisioned it. However, I don’t see that as a genuine failure; the failure would have been grinding it out despite my issues with it and releasing a substandard book. Pulling it back into the workshop and retooling it is a good thing, since it means when I release it I’ll be happy with it, which means (hopefully) you’ll be happy with it too. And in the meantime, I’m getting to do other cool stuff.

In a general sense of my career to date, it’s difficult for me to generate a whole lot of angst/pain/horror at my writing life or process, because in fact I am indisputably one of the luckiest sons of bitches in the history of science fiction literature. I am stupid lucky, people. Yes, yes, I’m also good at what I do. But you know what: I’m not that good, particularly relative to the success I’ve had to date. Very few people are. Understanding that I have been lucky does a number of things for me. One, it gives me a sense of perspective on everything, so I don’t labor under the illusion I am actually the second coming of Heinlein, or whatever. Two, it keeps the angst/pain/horror at bay because it’s insane to feel any of these things when confronted with the good fortune I have had. Three, it motivates me to pay my good fortune forward, because my luck has given me the ability to be useful. The last of these is the hardest, mind you, because I’m also naturally lazy. But I do work at it.

Getting back to angst/pain/horror of writing, one of the ways that I avoid this, at least in fiction, is that I know at the end of the day I have other writing skills that I can use to pay the bills, including doing various corporate consulting work. I did that when I was writing OMW and could easily do it again if I had to, or do other freelance work. This means that I don’t have to do something, fictionwise, that makes me unhappy; I have the luxury of being able to do stuff I like, or to put something on the back burner to cook a little while longer, or whatever it is I need to do. I know a fair number of fiction writers consider day jobs or non-fiction writing as an option of last resort and possibly an admission that they can’t hack it as fiction writers or whatever. I see it as an insurance policy that makes sure I never (intentionally) write crap. And that makes me happy.

So, in sum: Very little angst/pain/horror, either at the beginning of my fiction career or now. I don’t mind saying I hope it continues that way for a while.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

Reader Request Week 2009 #1: SF YA These Days

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Reader Request Week 2009, in which you suggest the topics, and I write about them. Yes, I am your dancing monkey for the entire week! Please do not throw peanuts at me, however. They hurt my little head. As with last year, this I’m going to try to answer more requests, in a shorter form. Since last year I didn’t manage the “shorter” part very well, don’t be surprised if I blather. Hey, that’s why you’re here.

Our first reader request this year comes from Keith, who says:

I have to preface my question with a story. Recently, I met and spent some time talking to a middle school librarian from Des Moines, IA. Naturally, conversation turned to what books we read when we were that age, as opposed to what ‘tweens are reading now.

I mentioned that I cut my teeth on the juveniles (now called Young Adult!) of Robert Heinlein, and asked if many kids still ask for those. I got a blank look in response. She didn’t know who I was talking about, and was sure that her library contained no books by said author. Asimov, Clarke, Pohl- same thing. She thought she might have heard of Asimov… I thought I might cry.

So, John, my question for you is, WTF?

Do middle school kids not read science fiction any more? Does (this) science fiction have an expiration date? Is it because they’re in a middle school in Des Moines (no offense intended to Midwesterners in general…)? Am I hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today, and should just start yelling at them to get off my lawn?

The answer: Yes, Keith, you are in fact hopelessly out of touch with the youth of today. Here’s your cane; remember to shake it vigorously (or at least as vigorously as you can manage) as those Youth of Today™ scramble off your Kentucky Bluegrass. And be thankful, because think about it: Do you really want to have the same tastes as a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds? Wouldn’t that be weird? Wouldn’t that be, well, creepy? Like, restraining order creepy? You know it would be. So be proud of your old man crankiness.

But more to the point, one has to ask why one should be so surprised that the Youth of Today™ have not necessarily read the juveniles of Heinlein, or Asimov (the “Lucky Starr” series, writing as Paul French) or whomever. Dude, those books are all more than 50 years old. You might as well be shocked, shocked that the YoT™ aren’t listening to the Flamingos or the Drifters or the Isley Brothers, each of whom had one of the top ten songs of 1959, or are torrenting videos of Darby O’Gill and the Little People or The Hound of the Baskervilles, to name but two of the top ten movies of that same year.

But, you say, The Star Beast is excellent in ways that Darby O’Gill is not. And maybe you’re correct about that, but it doesn’t really matter, for reasons both social and practical. On the social front, if you spend any amount of time with kids (it helps to have one in the house, as I do, if you don’t want that wacky restraining order action going on), you know that they have a strange allergic reaction to anything that’s not explicitly created for them, and specifically a reaction to anything you, as an adult/parent, might like. This reaction starts as soon as they’re able to be judged by other kids on their aesthetic choices and continues until they realize (usually around 30) that a whole other generation of kids think they are now completely out of touch, so they can relax and just enjoy what they like. When my then ten-year-old niece commented a few years ago that No Doubt sounded like something her mother might like, I realized that no amount of pushing and prodding would ever get her to listen to Gwen Stefani and pals thrash about, even if sonically it was right in line with what she was listening to otherwise. I have no doubt (no pun intended) that it works the same way if an adult drops Star Beast on a kid these days.

On the practical front, the future of 50 years ago is not the future of today, both for social and technological reasons, and kids today know it. Hell, when I read The Star Beast as a kid in the early 80s, it already felt a bit quaint, and that was more than a quarter century ago. Writers are writing for their day and age, and their day and age passes. That Heinlein’s juvies kept selling for so many years is a testament to his readability (and to the relative dearth of passible new SF for younger readers for a number of years as well), but sooner or later readability alone isn’t going to compensate for a world that doesn’t feel right anymore to contemporary readers, and science fiction doesn’t have the ability that some other books have in being a snapshot of their current time. It’s supposed to be the future. The only way you get to the future of Star Beast or Red Planet or Citizen of the Galaxy is by going backwards first.

But just because kids aren’t reading what we read when we were kids doesn’t mean they’re not reading science fiction. My daughter is currently sucking down Margaret Peterson Haddix’s “Shadow Children” sequence of books like there’s no tomorrow, the latest of which was written only three years back. One might roll one’s eyes at James Patterson’s “Maximum Ride” series of YA SF novels, but they are seriously popular; each of them hit #1 on the NYT Young Adult bestseller list. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games has been making quite a stir recently, and of course let’s not forget Scott Westerfeld, whose Uglies series is legitimately a watermark in modern YA science fiction. Finally, let’s not forget that on the Hugo ballot this year there’s also Little Brother, which has done very well both in sales and in critical acclaim. These are the YA SF books I can reel off of the top of my head; there are quite a few more I can’t.

Which is to say: Don’t panic. The kids are reading science fiction just fine, even if they’re not reading what you did, back in the day. And here’s the good news: If they get hooked on science fiction, eventually they probably will read the Heinlein juvies. Probably in college, as part of a survey course, to be sure. But, hey. That’s something. This is your cue, incidentally, to start shaking your cane again.

(You can still get in requests for Reader Request Week! Put them in the comment thread at this link. Please note: I have all the writing questions I want to deal with already. Ask me something else!)

Today’s Unsexy Reminder Post

There’s still time to get in your questions for this year’s Reader Request Week (it starts tomorrow), and if you are a Hugo nominee this year, to send along your stuff for the Hugo Voter’s Packet (which if all goes well will start going out Thursday).

Quick Review: Monsters Vs. Aliens

It was fun, but I can’t help but feeling the screenwriters left a lot on the table rather than putting it up on the screen; it had a lot of opportunities to be a whole lot sharper than it was. It’s also pretty obvious the screenwriters (of whom there were apparently many) are 80s babies, since one does not put a Harold Faltermeyer joke into this particular movie for the kids. Athena, I should note, was wise enough in the ways of basic screenwriting that she understood there was a joke going on when the Harold F thing got trotted out, she just didn’t know what it was, or why it should be funny. Nevertheless she enjoyed MvA quite a bit, me less so, but well enough. Pixar still doesn’t have to worry on the storytelling front, however.

Various and Sundry, 3/27/09

A few things rattling about in my head:

* Over at Making Light, Jim Macdonald is going into great detail about traumatic brain injury, which is the media’s favorite injury of the last several weeks due to Natasha Richardson’s death of it. For those of you who don’t know, Jim’s an EMT, so he knows a bit here and there about the matter. Worth the read, and just the thing to make you a little bit paranoid the next time you crack your skull.

* The always ego-gratifying Science Fiction Awards Watch blog informs me that I have been nominated for a Galaxy Award, which is a science fiction award given in China. The particular nomination is for Most Popular Foreign Author, and I am nominated along with several other fine folks, including Neil Gaiman, Nancy Kress, Garth Nix and Ursula Le Guin among others. Nifty.

* Note to Ed Henry of CNN: When the President of the United States pwns your ass live and in front of 40 million people, it will do you no good to try to rewrite history to make it look like you somehow got the better of the man. We know you have an ego and all, but, really. Let it go. Next time ask a question that doesn’t invite the most powerful man in the world to hand you your glutes on a platter.

* Looked at the Republican Road to Recovery thingie (that’s a pdf link) and I do have to say I’m a little confused — or actually that I’m not. The thing doesn’t read a like a policy document, which is what it should be, it reads like a campaign document, i.e., slight and aspirational and fact-free. And that’s fine, I guess, but when slight and aspirational is what you have, you shouldn’t be waving it around and saying that it’s an actual budget, as John Boehner did yesterday at the press conference for the thing. Because when you say, “here’s our budget,” then you’ll have reporters asking “if it’s a budget, where are your numbers?” and then you have to say something lame, like “Uh… we’ll have those for you next week.” Which makes you look like an dope, and means that the entire news cycle is about you releasing a “budget” with no actual numbers in it. Which of course the White House has a field day with.

This muddle of the GOP’s wasn’t surprising in one way, because the GOP of recent years has shown it’s better at campagining than actually developing intelligible policy, and so naturally it makes sense for them to splotz out a document that reeks of a campaign. It is a little surprising because the GOP used to be better at this sort of thing. Boehner, bless his unnaturally-tanned heart, didn’t just walk into a reporter’s trap regarding a budget without numbers, he set up the trap himself and made sure everyone was there to watch him stomp into it. Yes, folks, he’s my representative. Hey, don’t blame me. In any event, I’m sure that somewhere out there Karl Rove is privately crumpling paper in frustration. His permanent Republican majority, reduced to a show in which the GOP leadership hits itself with pies.

Peter Dubuque

Spare a moment in your day, if you would, for my friend Peter Dubuque, who passed on quite suddenly earlier this week. Peter and I met more than a dozen years ago when we were both part of the alt.society.gen-x newsgroup on USENET, which was my first real community online, and through which I gained friends I still have today. Peter was a year younger than I am, so his passing is unexpected, and a reminder that one’s time is what it is, and so to make the most of it. Peter certainly did that; the world was a better place for having him in it, and a lesser place now that he is gone. I wish him peace, comfort for his husband Steve, and a place in memory for all those who knew him.

The Recession and Science Fiction Movies

I know you’ve been staying up nights, clutching the sheets in terror, wondering helplessly if this recession thing we’ve got going on is going to mean horrible things for the continuous drip-feed of science fiction films that Hollywood provides to you. Well, relax, because how the recession will affect sf/f films is this week’s topic over at my AMC column. And as we all I know, I have the answers. To everything. Yes, sometimes I make up the answers. I didn’t say I have the right answer to everything, you know. But on this particular question I feel pretty confident. As always, you can give your own answers on the topic, over there in the AMC comment thread.

Reader Request Week 2009: Get Your Requests In!

Yes, it’s time once again for Reader Request Week, in which I take a week off from thinking up topics to write about here at Whatever and let you folks do all the heavy lifting. Yes! You do it for once! See how hard it is! Ha!

Want to play along? Sure you do. Here’s how it works: Think of a subject/topic you would like me to write about, and put it into the comment thread below. What kind of subject or topic, you ask? Why, whatever you want to know about. No subject is taboo to suggest, no topic too serious or silly. Really, just reel it off. The worst that will happen is that I simply won’t pick it to answer (you can also send a request in e-mail, which people do sometimes). My only suggestions are:

a) That you don’t simply splotz into a list the first eight things that come to your mind — pick quality over quantity;

b) While I’m not opposed to requests about writing, remember I get asked those a lot, so you’ll have to put in a lot of thought to ask me a writing question I haven’t already been asked and have answered. Consider it a challenge.

Once people start putting in requests, I’ll look through the list and pick the subjects that interest me the most, and starting next Monday I’ll start answering them. It’s usually fun for everyone.

To keep from getting repeats, here’s an index for the last five years of Reader Request Weeks. If you see a topic here, assume it’s been asked and answered (although interesting variations of these might be considered):

From 2004:

Reader Request #1: Boys and Girls
Reader Request #2: The Meaning of Life
Reader Request #3: Can Writing Be Taught?
Reader Request #4: Fatherhood and Pie
Reader Request #5: Objective Newspeople
Reader Request Week 2004 Wrapup

From 2005:

Reader Request #1: Creative Commons and FanFic
Reader Request #2: Peak Oil
Reader Request #3: Beatles, Batman and They
Reader Request #4: Pot!
Reader Request #5: Odds and Ends

From 2006:

Reader Request #1: SF Novels and Films
Reader Request #2: 10 Childhood Nuggets
Reader Request #3: Writers and Technology
Reader Request #4: The Nintendo Revolution
Reader Request #5: A Political Judiciary
Reader Request #6: Paranoid Parents
Reader Request #7: Writing About Writing

From 2007:

Reader Request #1: Justifying My Life
Reader Request #2: Coffee, or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #3: BaconCat Fame
Reader Request #4: The Inevitable Blackness That Will Engulf Us All
Reader Request #5: Out of Poverty
Reader Request #6: Short Bits
Reader Request #7: Short Bits II: Electric Boogaloo

From 2008:

Reader Request #1: Homeschooling
Reader Request #2: Technological Gifts
Reader Request #3: Sex and Video Games
Reader Request #4: Where I Am Now
Reader Request #5: Professional Jealousy
Reader Request #6: Author Relations
Reader Request #7: Fame or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #8: Politics and the Olympics
Reader Request #9: Polygamy
Reader Request #10: Meeting Authors (and Me)
Reader Request #11 Athena and Whatever
Reader Request #12: Soldiers and Support
Reader Request #13: Diminishing Returns
Reader Request #14: Quick Hits, Volume I
Reader Request #15: Quick Hits, Volume II

There they are.

Now, then: Topics, please! Put them in the comment thread, and beginning Monday, we’ll get this ball rolling.

Hugo Nominees: Why Yes, You Can Get In On the Hugo Voter Packet Action

First, a status update on the state of the 2009 Hugo eBook Voter packet: I’m still in the process of getting permissions from various publishers to get as many of the Best Novel (and Best Related Book) nominees into the Hugo eBook packet as possible. At this point I hope to have the package ready by sometime next week, so that’s good.

Second: I’m getting pinged by folks who are in other Hugo categories, asking me if they can get a copy of their short story/graphic novel/fanzine into the packet, too, to nestle in there with the Best Novels.

My answer: Hell, yeah. The whole point of the packet is to help potential Hugo voters read and see as much of the Hugo nominated work as possible, so if you want in on this action, I want you in on it too.

I’ve already pinged the Best Novel and Best Related Book folks, so for everyone else, here’s what to do, by category:

Short fiction nominees: E-mail me (john@scalzi.com) a copy of your short story. RTF or (if you have illustrations) PDF files are probably the best way to go.

Fan writer nominees: Put three examples of your fan writing from the last year into a single RTF/PDF document and send that along.

Fanzine and Semiprozines: One copy of your ‘zine: PDF or HTML is probably the way to go here.

Fan/Pro artists: Three samples of your work, in JPG form. I would say try to keep the samples reasonably small as files (i.e., less than 200KB in size). A PDF file of three pieces of work should also be fine if you prefer. You might also want to put in a small bio note.

Graphic novel: A PDF version of your nominated work. Note that as these files may be large, if I get enough graphic novel participants I may send out a separate packet for them.

Campbell Nominees: If you have a novel, send along an RTF or PDF version (or other easily accessible format). If you have short stories, send two or three in a single RTF/PDF document.

It seems to me that aside from METAtropolis (which I’m working on getting something for the packet), the folks in the Dramatic Presentation categories probably won’t want in on this; and I’m not sure how I can represent the editor nominees without them having to clear their participation with the writers they edit, but if the respective nominees want to get something into the packet, I’m certainly happy to have them involved too, and they should just e-mail me and we’ll figure something out.

Deadline: Oh, let’s say, next Tuesday by 5pm Eastern. That way I can have the whole packet ready by this time next week. And of course the sooner you can get stuff to me, the better.

Feel free to share this information with interested parties, and if any of the nominees have any questions, they should go ahead and e-mail me; I’ll be happy to answer.

Spanish TLC; Strange Horizons Review of ZT

Another Minotauro edition of one of my books, another pretty damn kick-ass cover. This one is for the Spanish edition of The Last Colony, although I note they went ahead and called it “The Lost Colony,” which formalizes in Spanish a common flub of the title in English. I don’t mind.

I’ll note that when I was at the Tools of Change conference in New York in February, a Minotauro rep came up and introduced himself, and the first thing out of my mouth was “Dude, I love the covers you guys put on my books.” And I do. I think he was a little surprised by my squee nonetheless. Note to self: Don’t weird out your foreign publishers.

Closer to home, this seems to be the week for publications to be catching up on their reviews of Zoe’s Tale, because there’s another one today, this time from the good graces of Strange Horizons. It features lots of cites and is generally positive:

[W]hat emerges most successfully from this novel is the experience of a teenager coming into her own as she faces extraordinary circumstances and is called upon, basically, to save the world, which is probably both a common fantasy and a common worst nightmare of teenagers everywhere… all of this is really fun to read about, because John Scalzi is at heart an entertainer, and he is at his best when he maps out big plots and sends his characters careening through them.

Indeed: “Hey, you! Here’s a paper clip and some string! Go save the world!” See, that’s fun.