Monthly Archives: October 2009

Signing My Life Away

Today: More signing of signature sheets. The plan is to get through at least a thousand. To get through all that scribbling I’ll put on some of my favorite movies, so that I can have them in the background but they won’t distract me too much. I tried doing signing during last night’s Stargate: Universe episode (which I hadn’t seen the final version of yet) but I ended up watching it instead of signing. Curse that interesting show! So today I’ll put on, like, Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I’ve only seen 14,000 times and sign away. There are worse ways to spend a Saturday.

Always Scribble Scribble Scribble, Eh, Mr. Scalzi?

So, Scalzi, you say, what’s in those boxes? Well, I will tell you. They are signature sheets for The God Engines and Judge Sn Goes Golfing, and each box is filled right up to the top with sheets. The cats are added for scale.

Over the next few days I will sign every single sheet in each of those boxes and then mail them off, so they can be made into (respectively) hardcover novellas and short story chapbooks that you can buy before the holidays are upon us. That’s a lot of signing, but damn it, you are worth it (provided, of course, you have purchased either or both of these things).

Be that as it may, it’s times like these that I remember the days of my youth, when I said to myself, rather arrogantly, I might add, “self, one day you will be an author, and you will have to sign your name a lot. You should start practicing now.” And I did: where other teenagers practiced their guitar, I practiced my signature, turning it into that weird swoopy thing I have now, which is distinctive and yet also oddly easy on the wrists, just right for hour upon hour of signature sheet signing. Yes, they laughed at me then, but I ask you: Who is laughing now? Why, it’s me! Bwa ha ha ha hah ha!

Er. Anyway.

So that’s what I’m doing with my free time, probably though Sunday. Hope you weren’t planning to include me in your weekend plans. Because it’s kind of filled up. No, no. Go on without me. I’ll just sit here. With my boxes. Alone. Except for the cats.

WordPress VIP One Year In

Not that anyone is keeping track of this but me, but for the last year (and five days) Whatever has been hosted by WordPress.com as part of its VIP program. And now, with one year of that service under my belt, here’s my verdict on it to date:

Love it.

Seriously. Since I switched over I’ve had almost no problems of note with Whatever: no site chugging due to high traffic, no database issues, no back-end build problems because my host provider times out processes after half a second, or any of that stuff. The site just works, which is what I want it to do (and what I suspect you guys want it to do, too). This allows me to do what I want to do, which is write, not fight the urge to murder someone because my site is down from some inexplicable reasons. As I’ve really never before had a year where I didn’t have to wrestle with the backend of my blog in some significant way (and usually losing), I appreciate this more than you might expect.

So, hat’s off to WordPress.com for taking such good care of me over the last year. I really (really really) appreciate it.

Yet Another Way 2009 Is Not a Good Year

Athena had a hair appointment yesterday that was going to be a long one, so we swung by the library to get her a book to read, whereupon we discovered that for the forseeable future, the library is closed on Wednesdays. It’s also now closed on Saturdays (and Sundays, but it was always was closed on Sunday) and opens on 11am instead of 9am on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Why? Because library funds were slashed 30% statewide, that’s why, and that was from an already lean budget for libraries. Something had to give. So what gave were Wednesdays, Saturdays and two hours in the morning three days out of four.

To be sure, libraries are not the only public service feeling the strain in Ohio (and in other states) this year. But libraries are close to my heart, for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Basically: This recession sucks.

I have more thoughts on this, but I’ll save them for some other time. Consider this just a minor bit of venting.

Blogging and Disclosing

I got a fair amount of e-mail over the last week or so asking me what I thought of the Federal Trade Commission’s new guidelines regarding bloggers and their disclosures of relationships with advertisers (This is a pdf link to the guidelines, which go into effect on December 1). In the grand tradition of not especially well-thought-out governmental decrees, it’s not particularly clear what the effect will genuinely be for bloggers who get sent things to write about by hopeful companies, including (in my particular case) book publishers. Ed Champion tried to get clarification from an FTC spokesperson on the matter last week, to no real effect, and at the moment things seem a little slippy, in terms of what happens if a blogger doesn’t give appropriate disclosure.

For myself, I don’t think this is a real problem, since as a personal philosophical matter and from my experience as a professional journalist, I think disclosing biases and business relationships is what you should be doing anyway. I don’t think it’s any particular secret that the vast majority of the new books I talk about here (or feature in The Big Idea) are sent to me for free by their publishers in the hope I will make mention of them one way or the other; I also don’t think it’s any particular secret that much to the despair of my wife’s sense of order, I hang on to most of the books.

The idea that I will be materially swayed by the receipt of a book to speak glowingly about it is a little silly — some days I get a dozen books, so I would be spending all my time swaying — but I have no problem disclosing how I came into possession of books or other objects I discuss/review/vent about, and allowing readers to calibrate their expectations accordingly. That’s just good sense and laudable transparency. I may put up a permanent disclosure page just to have it, but then, I don’t really see this as much of a problem.

I do suspect in a general sense there needs to be clarification from the FTC as to who these guidelines affect, however. My sense of it is that if the guidelines are a tool to go after spam sites and the sorts of folks who are hoping to port payola into the online world, and to keep advertisers from crossing an ethical line, there’s not going to be much of an issue. If the FTC goes after some schmoe who got a free book from a publisher and wrote about the book without disclosing how he got it, I suspect the shit will hit the fan, and quite rightly so. Hell, I’ll be there flinging poo into the blades. My strong suspicion is the guidelines are intended for the former scenarios rather than the latter one, but again, clarification won’t hurt.

In any event, I don’t see this guideline changing much of how I do things here. I already disclose, and would even without the FTC prompt.

Giving Bloggers New Stats to Be Neurotic About

Technorati has recently upgraded its digs, and with it seems to have revamped the way it does its ranking system for blogs. Gone (at the moment, at least) is the listing that shows the overall ranking for blogs, except for those in the Top 100; in its place, however, are all sorts of rankings in various categories. So, for example, Whatever, whose overall ranking has bounced around between 3000 and 300 during the last year, is currently listed as the #2 book-related blog in all the land, and in the Top 100 for entertainment sites (#41 at this moment, just below Gawker).

And for extra added fun, the rankings are refreshed daily, and Technorati thoughtfully puts in a sidebar for the blogs that have risen the most and fallen the most during the day — Whatever, for example, is a top faller in Entertainment today, having sunk nine spots since yesterday. Oh, you fickle intarweebs — why can’t you love me on a consistent daily basis?!?

As you can see, this is just the sort of stat geekery that can turn you into a neurotic bundle of jelly if you let it, and I’m pretty sure the sadists fine folks at Technorati knew that, which is why they did it. That said, if this sort of thing is important to you, these better-defined stats are actually useful, as you know how your blog fares relative to other, similar blogs. So, well done, Technorati. And, er, thanks for giving me even more blog stats to obsess fruitlessly over serenely consider.

Speaking of Star Trek

Treksters, your latest nerdgasm has just arrived:

Yes, the Internet’s own Wil Wheaton is collecting up his memories of his Trek days. To quote the blurbage:

From Encounter at Farpoint to Datalore, relive the first half of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s unintentionally hilarious first season through the eyes, ears and memories of cast member and fan Wil Wheaton (Wesley Crusher) as he shares his unique perspective in the episode guide you didn’t even know you were dying to read.

ENJOY snarky episode recaps!

EXPAND your Technobabble vocabulary!

AMUSE your friends with quotable dialog!

BOLDLY go behind the scenes!

Nifty. If’n you love you some Next Generation — and who among us other than Charlie Stross does not? — this is going to be some fun reading. Because that Wheaton fella, well, see. He’s kinda amusing, he is.

The Big Idea: Cherie Priest

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m a big ol’ fan of Cherie Priest’s work — I blurbed one of her previous novels, you know — but even factoring in my enjoyment of her work, I have to say that Boneshaker, Priest’s latest, very simply rocks: It’s not only the steampunk adventure you’ve been waiting for, it’s the steampunk adventure you can give to friends of yours who wonder what the hell’s up with all those Victorian overcoats and goggles. This one’s got dirigibles, it’s got alternate history, it’s got zombies, and it’s got a mother bear of a protagonist in Briar Wilkes. I could go on, but it would just be more squee.

And besides, Priest is here to talk about the book herself, and specifically how to make steampunk not only attractive and interesting, but logical for the world and setting in which she places it. How much does it take? Well. I’ll let her explain.

CHERIE PRIEST:

I’m a big nonfiction nerd because, well, let’s face it—nothing I make up could possibly be any weirder than some of the stuff that’s already happened in real life. I think that’s one reason I’ve been drawn to the steampunk vibe for so long: It very often draws from historic characters and events, merrily warping actual people and stuff to better fit somebody’s narrative (or costuming) needs.

But I’m also a context geek and a setting dork, and when I came around to trying my own hand at steampunk, I talked and wrote myself in circles trying to find a good reason for advanced Victorian technology to be rumbling around in my alternate-history universe. Merely waving a magic wand and saying, “Because I said so, ta-da!” didn’t quite cut it; I wanted a better grounding and excuse for the tech I was determined to employ.

If I intended to throw a monkey wrench into history, I wanted it to be a good, worthy, marginally credible monkey wrench.

So I was talking with a friend of mine about the two things that drive technology most efficiently—that would be, (1). pornography, and (2). warfare. Tossing aside option #1 as a bit improbable for a pulp adventure’s genesis (though I’m still considering it, mind you), I turned to option #2 and began brainstorming. To help my brainstorming along, this same friend (Andrea Jones, can I get a what-what?) sent me a wonderful quote from a wonderful tome written in 1862:

In this age of invention the science of arms has made great progress. In fact, the most remarkable inventions have been made since the prolonged wars of Europe in the early part of the century, and the short Italian campaign of France in 1859 served to illustrate how great a power the engines of destruction can exert.*

Perfect. Yes. And I was off.

Though most of the steampunk I’d seen was grounded in a gaslamp London setting, I wanted to do an American piece; and gosh darn it, if only America’d had some big, monstrous, catastrophic war going on in the nineteenth century … OH WAIT A MINUTE. We totally had one of those. It only lasted four years (give or take), but a quick poke through a library’s archives or even a good internet search turns up a whole mess of patents for war devices that were never made. If only the inventors hadn’t run out of war …

So that’s where I started. To create the steampunk universe that scaffolds Boneshaker, I dragged out America’s Civil War another fifteen years.

Not as easy as it sounds, of course. As a mostly-life-long southerner, I’d heard all the hypotheticals that could have let led to a Confederate victory; but I didn’t want a Confederate victory. I wanted a hideous, protracted, drawn-out struggle that would leave the west unincorporated, lawless, and still largely populated by Native Americans. Really, was that asking so much?

I started small. More extensive English involvement. Better transportation infrastructure. Cinched off the immigration (and seemingly unending soldier supply) to New York City.

And then I thought … Texas. Oh, what the heck—let’s keep it a republic. And let’s give it Spindletop (where oil was first discovered in that territory in 1901) a good fifty years earlier. Furthermore, let’s make Texas a technological superpower, since it would have had such wonderful incentive to develop machines to make use of the black gold. While we’re at it, yeah. Let’s give ‘em diesel power. After all, the patent for the first diesel engine went into play several years before Texas had oil. In real life. Which is not what we’re talking about here. Just imagine what a powerful ally Texas would’ve been to the south. Unless, of course, they were having their historic issues firming up the lines between the republic and Mexico. Hmm…

So you can see how I got off the rails there a bit. After all, I was setting out to write a story set in Seattle, Washington, where frankly not a whole lot was going on before the late nineteenth century. BUT I COULD FIX THAT. All I did was jack up the Klondike gold rush by forty years, which would’ve swelled the population tenfold by the 1860s.

And after all that map-drawing, history-tweaking, and time-reworking, that’s what I came back to—Seattle, all but destroyed by a mining accident (of sorts) in 1863, walled up, and filled with zombies stewing in a poisonous gas. Meanwhile, the war back east has prevented any federal help from the United States, and war technology has filtered all the way to the west coast. Combat dirigibles either stolen or bought from the military now move guns, drugs, and less contraband supplies back and forth over the Rockies. Weird weapons are de rigueur, and military deserters sneak into the western population, hoping to disappear.

For the folks who survived the destruction of Seattle, help never comes.

Out of this—this messy, elaborate, amateur restructuring of history—came what is essentially a very small story. Boneshaker takes place over seventy-two hours, and centers on only two people: a mother and her son. Because at the end of the day, the most interesting thing about the Clockwork Century (my catch-all term for the world-setting) is the people who occupy it.

And all this set-up aside, that is the big idea.

* From (and I am not making this up, this is the book’s full title): History of the Great Rebellion. From its commencement to its close, giving an account of its origin, The Secession of the Southern States, and the Formation of the Confederate Government, the concentration of the Military and Financial resources of the federal government, the development of its vast power, the raising, organizing, and equipping of the contending armies and navies; lucid, vivid, and accurate descriptions of battles and bombardments, sieges and surrender of forts, captured batteries, etc., etc.; the immense financial resources and comprehensive measures of the government, the enthusiasm and patriotic contributions of the people, together with sketches of the lives of all the eminent statesmen and military and naval commanders, with a full and complete index. From Official Sources. By Thomas P. Kettell. Naturally, we used this as the introductory quote to Boneshaker. The copy editor nearly had a fit.

—-

Boneshaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read the prologue to Boneshaker. Visit The Clockwork Century, Priest’s site for all things steampunkish. Follow Priest on Twitter.

A Boy’s Own Genre, or Not

Another thing for people to please stop sending to me: a recent and fairly random blog post in a purported online magazine, the premise of which essentially boils down to: “Science Fiction is by boys and for boys and now girls are ruining it for anyone with testicles, except the gays, who are just like girls anyway (and whose testicles frighten me).” I’m not going to link to it, as abject misogynist stupidity should not be rewarded with links. You can track it down on your own if you like.

Nevertheless, two general points to make here.

1. Verily I say unto thee that science fiction is founded on girl cooties, so anyone dumb enough to whine about those awful women ruining SF for boys really does need to STFU and take his ignorant ass back to his snug little wank hole;

2. What? An insecure male nerd threatened by the idea that women exist for reasons other than the dispensing of sandwiches and topical applications of boobilies, mewling on the Internet about how girls are icky? That’s unpossible!

At this late date, when one of these quailing wonders appears, stuttering petulantly that women are unfit to touch the genre he’s already claimed with his smudgy, sticky fingerprints, the thing to do is not to solemnly intone about how far science fiction has yet to go. Science fiction does have a distance to go, but these fellows aren’t interested in taking the journey, and I don’t want to have to rideshare with them anyway. So the thing to do is to point and laugh.

Well, actually, the thing to do is trap such creatures in a dork snare (cunningly baited with Cool Ranch Doritos, Diet Ultra Violet Mountain Dew and a dual monitor rig open to Drunken Stepfather on one screen and Duke Nukem 3D on the other), and then cart them to a special preserve somewhere in Idaho for such as their kind. We’ll tell them it’s a “freehold” — they’ll like that — and that they will be with others of a like mind, and there they will live as men, free from the horrible feminizing effects of women and their gonad shriveling girl rays. And then we’ll tag them with GPS and if they ever try to leave the freehold, we’ll have them hunted down by roller derby teams with spears. That’s really the optimal solution.

But since we can’t do that, then pointing and laughing will suffice. So, yes: let’s all point and laugh at these funny little terrified stupid men, and then ignore them. Because that’s what they rate.

Teching the Tech

Charlie Stross does a little venting over a comment of former Star Trek: The Next Generation writer (and later Battlestar Galactica producer) Ron Moore, in which Moore reveals that the writers on ST:TNG didn’t bother to actually insert any science into their fiction:

He described how the writers would just insert “tech” into the scripts whenever they needed to resolve a story or plot line, then they’d have consultants fill in the appropriate words (aka technobabble) later.

“It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories,” Moore said. “It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we’d just write ‘tech’ in the script. You know, Picard would say ‘Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.’ I’m serious. If you look at those scripts, you’ll see that…

“It’s a rhythm and it’s a structure, and the words are meaningless. It’s not about anything except just sort of going through this dance of how they tech their way out of it.”

Charlie’s vent is worth the price of admission, so I won’t summarize it here and will instead encourage you to click through and read it on your own. My own thoughts on this are:

1. I think it was already pretty obvious that ST:TNG was “teching the tech” quite a bit, since the solution to almost any major problem was to discover a new type of particle that, if it were reversed through the deflector, just might get the Enterprise out of that time loop/gravitational funnel/the event horizon of the writer’s lack of technical imagination. In other words, it was clear the science was pretty inorganic relative to the rest of what went on in the show.

2. At this point in my life (and, really, for the last quarter century at least), I simply make the assumption that film and television science fiction is going to hump the bunk on the “plausible extrapolation” aspect of their science, and factor that in before I start watching. This allows me to both not want to murder the writers when the bad science shows up, and to be pleasantly surprised when it’s not bad. But, yes, when you admit that Star Trek has as much to do with plausibly extrapolated science as The A-Team has to do with a realistic look at the lives of military veterans, life gets easier. This is particularly the case with the new Star Trek film, which is a “teching the tech” exercise if there ever was one.

Meta to this is the discussion of why we have to accept that film/tv SF is riding the shortbus — there’s no actual reason it has to be that way — but let’s not get into that right at the moment.

3. All of that said, and to move into my own personal experience in televised science fiction, one of the things I can say about Stargate: Universe is that its writers aren’t “teching the tech” — when the scripts get to me as the consultant, the parts with the science are already written in and part of the plot. I tweak those parts to make them more plausible when necessary; what I don’t do is just spew some jargon into the script because the writer couldn’t be arsed to do it him or herself.

I’m not going to say every bit of science or tech in SG:U is brilliant I’ve mentioned before that the goal is to get the audience through the episode, not to rigorously test scientific hypotheses — or that we’re going to get it right in every case. What I am going to say is that when we do get it wrong, we fail honestly, and not because we just teched the tech. It’s not that difficult to make an effort in that direction.

SG:U Hulu Linkage Now Permanent

Look over there in the sidebar, right under the Big Idea. There’s your permanent link to the last five episodes of Stargate: Universe, courtesy of Hulu. Mind you, at the moment it’s just to the last two episodes, because only two episodes have aired. But when there are more than five, it’ll be to the last five episodes. Or something, man. Don’t ask me, I don’t run Hulu. The point is, if you missed an episode on TV, you can catch up by linking through. Because I’m all about helping you watch the show that pays me money.

Now, if you’re reading this via RSS, you won’t actually see the thing I’m talking about. Heck, you might not even have a sidebar. So, um, here, have a Hulu link. Seeing as you’re being difficult and all.

Reminder: Sci-Fi Writing Assignment Contest Through Wednesday

Just in case you have an itch to write something short and silly and some free time to do it in:

A reminder to y’all that I’m running a writing contest over on my AMC column, in which you can choose from ten “assignments,” based on SF movies, to write up in the comment thread. The one I like best gets a prize of the complete original series of The Prisoner. All entries need to be in by noon (eastern) on Wednesday, but heck, that’s still two days from this very moment. So get to it!

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: New Edition, Jan ’10

I’ve been sitting on this bit of news for a while now, but now is as good a time as any to announce it: Tor Books will be releasing a trade paperback edition of my Hugo-winning essay collection Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, this upcoming January. This is good news because the original hardcover release was limited to 1,000 copies, and is sold out, although some of the $250 lettered edition are still available. So this new version will be both cheaper (go trade paperback format!) and more plentiful, and a perfect way to spend those book store gift certificates you will have accrued during the holiday season.

(In point of fact the book’s release date is January 5, which means there’s a reasonably good chance you’ll see it on bookstore shelves in December, just as Old Man’s War leaked into stores well before its official January 1st release date back in 2005. So keep a look out.)

Pictured above, incidentally, is a proposed cover for the new edition of Hate Mail, which I love (the actual cover may be different, but hopefully not by much). The original devil cover has its charms, to be sure, but it’s an object example of a cover that’s intended for a limited audience (i.e., people who know me already). The above cover is I think really smart for people who may not be familiar with my essayist side, as among other things the quote in the artwork pretty much tells you what you’re getting into on the inside of the book. Well done, Tor art folks.

If you’re of a mind to pre-order this Tor Books version, here’s the Amazon page for it, although of course if you want to pre-order it from your local bookstore, I’m sure they would appreciate the commerce.

Let me also note how really thrilled I am Tor picked this up to bring it to a wider audience. Tor is primarily a fiction publisher, as most of you know, and while Hate Mail has some obvious genre appeal (what with the Hugo win and all), it’s still a vote of confidence in the book and its appeal to a wider market. I do appreciate that vote of confidence; it’s one reason I’m glad I’m published by Tor.

And Now Have All My Travels Ended

Viable Paradise XIII is now but a memory, but it’s a good memory: The students were smart and engaged and pretty much all of them will be capable of professional-level work in short order, if in fact they’re not there already. I won’t go too much into detail about the week, since what happens on the island and stays on the island, but I will provide you with the quote of the week, which frankly is even more amusing without context: “Please do not explode into bees whilst you cup my balls.” Yes, you really had to be there for that, and no, it’s not quite as dirty a statement as you might think.

This was my second year teaching at VP and I enjoyed it a little more than the first, not for any external reason (the people in both years were excellent) but because last year was the first year I had ever been an instructor, and I had no idea if I was any good at it. This year I was aware of my particular set of pedagogic strengths and weaknesses and was able to relax a bit more into it. I do think a week is a good amount of time for me to be an instructor, and particularly a week in front of a group of adults self-selected to be interested in what I have to teach. Each time I do this my respect for people who teach full time, and in front of kids who may not be there of their own free will, goes up another notch. This stuff is work, even in the relatively small and easy dose I take it.

Travels yesterday, I’m happy to say, we’re exceedingly pleasant. My journey featured three legs, all tightly packed together and thus full of opportunities to be delayed and miss getting home. But twice I was able to take an earlier flight (from Martha’s Vineyard to Boston and then from Boston to DC) and in all cases flights left and arrived pretty much exactly when they were supposed to. All my travel should run so smoothly.

The really great news, for me, at least, is that all my really major travel is done for the year. I have a number of small trips over the next few weeks, but they’re day trips, and as far as I know the next time I have to be somewhere other than here is next April in Toronto. That hasn’t happened to me, in, like, years, and I hardly know what I will do with myself in the interim. Maybe write another novel? Hey, now, there’s an idea.

This is also a good time to remind folks that for 2010, my public appearance schedule is pretty minimal: I’m in Toronto in April and in Phoenix in May, and that’s pretty much it (Melbourne in September is still being decided). I may pop in to other conventions during the year, but if I do it’ll be as a civilian rather than as a guest or part of programming, which means I mostly intend to hang in the bar with friends. But in general I think 2010 will be a fine year to focus on work, and that’s what I intend to do, without having to worry where in the world I have to be next.

Anyway. Home! It’s a nice place to be.