Monthly Archives: March 2010

In Some Ways Admirable, In Some Ways Delusional

One of the moderately interesting things I’ve noticed about the rhetoric of those who have badgers in their pants about Obama and/or the Democrats in Congress and/or the new health care laws is how everything that happened or has happened during the passage of the health care bills into law has invariably meant doom for the Democrats, like so:

“Obama and the Democrats are trying to pass health care! That’ll cost them in November! No, wait! Now Scott Brown has been elected and health care reform is dead! That’ll cost them in November! No, wait! Now health care reform has passed and is the law of the land! Excellent! That will cost them in November!”

Now, on one hand I do admire the commitment to a single message, and wonder how far those who use it would be willing to exercise it (“The November election results are in and the Democrats didn’t lose a single seat in the House! Fantastic! That’s going to cost them for sure!”). On the other hand, if your response to everything is “that’s going to cost them in November,” at some point you should be willing to entertain the notion that other people may think your single note response to every political event bespeaks a certain lack of complexity in your thinking process.

Do the Democrats face the possibly of losses in the mid-term elections? Certainly they do, as typically does any majority party in mid-term elections; it’s a common enough occurrence that it’s notable when it doesn’t happen (for example, in 2002, or, for you Democrats out there, 1934). That being the case, it doesn’t take special prognostication skills to suggest the Democrats will likely lose seats come November. The question is whether, in the case of passing health care reform into law, it would cost them more than if they had failed to pass it (or if they had done nothing about health care at all).

My own personal expectation (as noted before) is that it’s far better for the Dem’s political fortunes to have passed it than not; people may argue the benefit of the health care reform now that it’s passed, but the fact is no one likes a loser (see: mid-terms, 1994). I’m willing to entertain arguments that the Democrats were better off not passing the bill, unlikely though I think that is, but the apparent enthusiasm for the “everything they do is equally and apocalyptically bad for them” argument is not one I find particularly compelling, or one that suggests to me that the person fronting it has much more than a mantra going for them.

Likewise at this point I find people hauling out the latest convenient-to-their argument poll about the popularity of health care reform and from that making predictions of the GOP retaking the Hill to be equally silly; it’s the end of March and the elections are in the beginning of November, and between now and then are seven full months. I certainly understand the desire of some folks to declare the results of the elections now, especially when they’ve called it for their side. But inasmuch as the demise of health care reform was also called, and that just two months ago, not seven, I’m sure most of you will understand when I say I’m personally going to wait a bit to call the 2010 elections. Seems the prudent thing to do.

In Exile

The re-finishing and recarpeting of the house continues apace, and it looks great, which is good, but it means that I’m generally on the move in the house while the carpet layers go from room to room. Which is bad.

Today for example, I am exiled to my daughter’s room, because they’re moving furniture out of the master bedroom into the next available room, which is my office, and because the dog is intensely curious about the carpet layers, and at least one of the carpet layers is terrified of the dog, and the dog gets neurotic if left alone behind a closed door, I need to be in a room with a door I can close while the carpet dudes do their work. Thus: Daughter’s room. Said daughter is out of the house until this afternoon, which helps.

On the other hand, the carpet in here in new, and I think I may be getting a contact high on the venting plastic gases. I may have to crack open a window. Also, Edward from Twilight is staring down at me moodily from above my daughter’s desk, which is unsettling. The interests of an eleven-year-old girl are really not my own, I have to say.

Anyway, exiled as I am in a pink-purple, carpet-fumed room with a large neurotic dog while people pound away at the floor just down the hall, I’m expecting not to get a whole lot done today. Time for a good book, of which, fortunately, I have several.

Final Nebula Vote Reminder

Hey, if you’re an active member of SFWA and you haven’t voted for the Nebula Awards, you have until 11:59:59 tonight, Pacific Time, to do it. So why not do it? Voting is fun. All the cool SFWA kids are doing it.

Seriously, SFWA members: this is your chance to have your voice heard on one of most prestigious science fiction awards out there. Don’t miss out.

Apropos to this, author Kate Milford is reading through the Nebula Nominees on her blog. So far she’s done short stories, novelettes and novellas.

The Big Idea: Dan Wells

Sociopaths are not easy people to love, almost by definition. Naturally, that makes them an interesting literary challenge for authors, a challenge author Dan Wells happily takes on in I Am Not a Serial Killer, which introduces us to a character who says he’s not a serial killer… but knows that he easily could be. How do you get into the head of someone like that and make him a character worth rooting for? Wells explains how he (heh) took a stab at it.

DAN WELLS:

I have always been fascinated by serial killers. What makes them tick, and why? How do they see the world differently from a normal person—and how do they see it the same? Most stories about serial killers focus on who and how they choose to kill, but even more intriguing to me is the time they spend being completely and utterly normal. John Wayne Gacy, Jr., killed approximately 33 people in the course of six years: that’s a lot of killing, yes, but the vast majority of those six years were peaceful and ordinary. He got up, he ate breakfast, he went to work; on weekends he threw block parties for his neighbors, often dressing up as a clown to entertain the children. How can the same person be that evil and that normal at the same time? How can the two sides of your personality be so completely different? To quote my own book: “It’s not weird to be fascinated by that, it’s weird not to be.”

Thinking about serial killers (as I often do), and specifically about their psychological development, I started creating the character of John Cleaver: a teenage sociopath, fascinated with death and obsessed with serial killers as a sort of pop culture mythology. He knows their names, their methods, and their stories down to the grittiest detail—he knows them so well, in fact, that he recognizes all of the warning signs in himself: he could become a killer at any moment, and he would be good at it. And that would have been an interesting story, but it’s not the story I wanted to write. In that story, John is the villain or, at best, the ‘protagonist.’ I wanted to go for broke and make him the hero, fighting bad guys and saving people and being as sympathetic as possible. I wanted to take this dangerous, screwed-up, terrifying character and make you love him. I Am Not a Serial Killer is the result.

How do you make someone love a sociopath? How do you get your readers to identify with someone who, by nature, can’t identify with them? I started with the broad concept of familiarity, and made John the first person narrator of his own story: everything we know, everything we experience, we experience through him. That helps the reader to see his side of the story, which helps a bit, but his side of the story is not especially endearing. I needed more. The next thing I added was pain—humans are inherently social creatures, always striving to help each other, so when we see someone in pain we have an automatic urge to make them feel better, to solve their problems. Inflicting pain on John Cleaver was pretty easy, too, because I was basing him on the standard serial killer template, and that’s FULL of pain: dysfunctional homes with absent fathers and abusive mothers, few or no friends at school, a complete inability to fit in with anyone, and on and on and on. People start to identify with John whether they want to or not, just because they feel sorry for him.

But feeling sorry for someone and actually liking someone are two different things, and I wanted readers to really like John. The next step was to make him funny: when we laugh with someone, we feel a kinship with them. Think of the celebrities you’ve dreamed about meeting; you may have had romantic fantasies about the hot ones, or revenge fantasies about the hateful ones, but the ones you’d like to hang out with—the ones you think would make good friends—are guaranteed to be the funny ones. We like funny people. We like to be around them. John Cleaver’s life is a pretty horrible one, but he’s funny about it, and we like that. He may be kind of weird, but he’s an alright guy.

Only one thing left: I don’t just want you to like him, I want you to LOVE him. I want you to get all tied up with him emotionally, and feel what he feels, and cringe when he’s in danger, and root for him when things get really rough. That takes more than just a crappy life and a sense of humor—it takes connection. You have to see yourself in him, and really want him to win. Thankfully, the answer to this problem was already built into the story: he’s a good person. He doesn’t “feel” the difference between good and evil, but he knows it, objectively, and he’s built up a vast set of rules to keep himself from doing anything he shouldn’t. And then we reinforce this dedication to goodness by calling the whole thing into question, confronting him with an impossible choice: a real killer comes to town, and John’s the only one who can stop him…but only if he breaks his rules. The book is essentially a moral struggle: is it better to follow his rules and let the killer keep killing, or to destroy the monster and, in so doing, become a monster himself?

Don’t get me wrong: John’s still a very, very creepy guy. He thinks things, and does things, that most of us would never dare. But because we love him, we’re with him all the way, and my favorite comments are the guilty ones:

“I couldn’t believe I was rooting for him.”

“I didn’t want him to do what he did, but I didn’t want him to stop either.”

“His methods were so disturbing, but I really wanted him to win.”

I Am Not a Serial Killer was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you have just as much fun reading it.

—-

I Am Not a Serial Killer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See the book trailer. Meet the author on his book tour. Follow him on Twitter.

Just Arrived, 3/29/10

And here’s what publishers have sent me recently:

* Kraken, by China Mieville (Tor UK/Del Rey (US): This was sent along by China’s UK publisher, and bless them for it; I’ve been hankering after it for a while, since I’m a big sloppy fan of China’s writing. This book features mysteriously disappearing cephalopods, squid cults, crime bosses and, of course, very possibly the end of the world. Because if you’ve got squid cults, can the end of the world really be that far behind? No. Not at all. China’s having a good year; his previous book The City and The City was deservedly nominated for the Nebula, and the buzz on this one is pretty strong. Folks in the UK get this on May 7; here in the US, we have to wait until the end of June. Well. You have to wait until the end of June. Bwa ha ha hah ha!

* Farlander, by Col Buchanan (Tor UK): Also sent along by the Tor UK folks. In a fantasy world, an apprentice assassin and his master pit themselves against powerful forces, and naturally the fate of nations hang in the balance. Like they do. This debut novel is already out in the UK; it’s apparently been sold in the US but I don’t have a release date for it here.

* The Poison Throne, by Celine Kiernan (Orbit): A young woman returns to the court of an increasingly mad king and finds herself thrown into palace intrigue, which include a missing prince and a reluctant replacement heir. This first installment in a fantasy trilogy got a starred review in Publishers Weekly and is out now.

* Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce (Little, Brown): I don’t generally quote the press releases for books, but this is a snappy little synopsis: “What if instead of a basket of treats, Little Red Riding Hood carried an ax — and wasn’t afraid to use it?” Well, if nothing else, it does call into question what plans she had for her grandmother. This fable revision (featuring two ax-wielding little red riding hoods for the price of one) is out in June.

* Death Most Definite, by Trent Jamieson (Orbit): First book in a new series featuring a fellow named Steven de Selby. His job? Death’s assistant! Hey! Death wants a vente half-caf latte! Although this book isn’t about that, it about what happens when Death goes missing, and de Selby has to deal with the after-effects. Out in August.

Engaging in w00tstockery, June 7 in Minneapolis

Paul and Storm just announced it on their Twitter feed so I’ll note it here, too: I’m going to be a special guest at the w00tstock concert in Minneapolis, this June 7th. I’ll be joining headliners Paul & Storm, Wil Wheaton and Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, along with fellow special guests Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu, formerly of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and now of Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic fame. And what will I be doing for my performance? Oh! What I won’t be doing! Point is, there’ll be a whole lot of nerd going down, and I’m going to be part of it. This is currently the only time I expect I’ll be near Minneapolis this year, so if you want to see me, this is where I’ll be.

Now, here’s the thing: The w00tstock will be housed at the Guthrie Theater, and as of this very moment there are only about 100 tickets left. So if you want to go, you best be getting those tickets, my friends. They’re $25 each, which is not a lot of money for several hours worth of high-quality geekery. See you there.

This Week’s Geek

Artist and podcaster Len Peralta has started a project called “Geek a Week,” in which he interviews — and then makes a playing card of — a notable geek. Geeks profiled so far include Jonathan Coulton, Fred Seibert and Veronica Belmont. Who is this week’s geek? Why, I am. Go to the Geek a Week site to see my playing card, which is ridiculously awesome, down to the tattoo (and don’t forget to check out the back side), and while you’re there you can also check out the podcast interview with me.

Seriously, you want to see the playing card. It made me spit Coke Zero out of my mouth when I saw it. And you know how I love my Coke Zero.

And of course if you enjoy the Geek a Week stuff, bookmark it/put it in your RSS feed, because there are 48 more geeks to go.

Reader Request Week 2010 #8: Short Bits

And now to wrap up another Reader Request Week, short answers to a bunch of questions. Because I don’t always have to be wordy, you know.

Logan:

What kind of “perfect storm” of rights, permissions, or people would have to come together for you to consider making a movie out of one of your books? Are there specific actors you’d cast, or thought in your head “I bet she’d play a perfect Zoe”? Would you lean towards Hollywood big budget or perhaps a smaller reputable ‘Indie’ outfit of sorts? Tell us what you need to make a movie of one of your works happen!!!

There’s no perfect storm, and the equation is simple: Film makers with a track record I approve of plus an advance deal I find acceptable equals me allowing an option. I am pretty picky about the track record and advance deals, however. That said, this question seems to suggest that filmmakers are falling out of the sky in large numbers, begging to make a film of one of my works, and that I would be integrally involved in the film making, neither of which is true. Nor does it mean that if I allowed an option to my work, that a movie would be the ultimate outcome. Thousands of properties are optioned each year for film/tv; less than one percent, I would expect, get past the option stage.

Arrow Quivershaft:

Why do you think so many online subcultures, even ones that have nominally similar interests, like to rip each other down? And is there anything that can be done?

No, there’s nothing to be done about it, short of attempting to censor or at least moderate the entire Internet, and that’s a cure worse than the disease. As to why one group online goes after any other group online, well, you know. They do it because they can and because no one can stop them, and generally on the Internet no one’s going to seek you out and punch you in the teeth for being an asshole. People have been jerks on the Internet for about as long as the Internet’s been used by people; that’s not going to go away anytime soon. But if you want to try to do something about it, the simplest thing to do is, as they say, to be the change you seek, i.e., don’t be a jerk online yourself.

Claire:

On a serious/political angle, what do you think of Obama’s promise to shut down Guantanamo Bay and the subsequent actions/lack thereof?

I thought his promise to shut it down by this last January was both optimistic and unrealistic, and although I would have approved of its being shut down in that time frame, I’m not entirely surprised it was not. I think Obama realizes that in the grand scheme of things, most Americans aren’t all that deeply concerned about the well-being of alleged Middle Eastern terrorists as long as we’re not actively torturing them (i.e., making ourselves look bad), so if it moves slowly he’s not going to get a huge amount of stick from anyone but progressives. So he’s not spending a huge amount of his political capital on it at the moment. I think he’ll eventually close it down, and when he does it’ll be far too late for most progressives and far too early for most conservatives.

My Informed Opinion:

You and foreign languages. I quote you:

“I only read and speak English.”

I find this pretty depressing.

Well, as do I, to tell you the truth. I wish I had had a better facility for other languages when I was younger (or at the very least, paid better attention in class). At this point I suspect the best way for me to learn a different language would be to live in another country, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. That said, one thing that I’ve noticed over time is that some languages I can not exactly read but at least make out the gist of what’s being said, French and Spanish being the ones that pop to mind. I think that’s just decades of knowing Latin roots plus picking up a smidgen of those languages’ grammar simply through osmosis. It’d be neat if that were to continue.

Having said all that, one of the things that’s really interesting is that the continuing improvements in online translating tools means that for a limited value of “reading,” I can now read several — although it’s probably more accurate to say that I can tell which parts are likely to be adequately translated, which parts are complete nonsense, and overall get a good idea of what’s being said through context.

Eric J:

What kind of laptop do you have? Have you noticed a trend in other writers and their laptops?

I have a three year old Toshiba (on which I am writing this, since my office is not yet up and running) and an Acer netbook which I’ve had for about 18 months now. As regards other writers, I suspect they are statistically more likely than other people to own Mac laptops, but beyond that I don’t notice any particular trend. Speaking for myself, one major laptop consideration for me is keyboard arrangement and feel; one of the reasons I got the Acer netbook, for example, was that it didn’t fiddle with the right “shift” key like other netbook makers did. Anything that slows down my typing speed and makes me think about where my fingers are is bad.

gottacook:

What is your personal automotive history? Most loved and hated cars of your past? Why do you drive what you now drive? And, of course, auto or manual?

I’ve owned three cars: A Ford Escort, a Suzuki Sidekick and a Honda Odyssey, and the last two of these we still own and use. I’ve liked all my cars, because they’ve done what I’ve asked them to do, which is get me places with a minimum of fuss. I’ve never been a gearhead of any sort — my geek tendencies don’t express in that direction — so in a general sense my car choices have run toward the practical and not especially exciting. The furthest I go in that direction is kinda wanting a Mustang, although that’s more about what I thought was cool when I was younger than anything else. However, I do strongly believe that you can’t really say you know how to drive a car if you don’t know how to use a manual transmission. That’s not the same as saying I prefer a manual transmission. Just that one should know how to operate one.

Foible:

You’ve written very eloquently in the past about being poor and how it sucks. What I would like to read is an article about the good things about being poor. You don’t need to go all Pollyanna on us but surely there are some lessons you’re glad to have learned? Some things you wish your heirs could learn without having to really be poor?

I suppose that being poor can help you understand the place money holds in our society, and what amount you really need to survive, but I think it’s possible to learn those things without being poor; likewise, it’s possible to be poor and have those lessons go right over your head. Ultimately I don’t think there’s any real advantage to be had with genuine poverty in one’s history, or if there is, that the disadvantages one has because of poverty are extensive enough to wipe out most of the advantages. The one possible exception I would make for this is people who have actively chosen to be poor for personal, ethical or religious reasons, i.e., taking a vow of poverty. That’s a choice, and that’s fine. But I don’t suspect most people who are poor would choose to be so.

The Other Ian:

What won’t you eat? Why not?

I won’t eat brains. Tried them once (I think it was lamb brains) and the consistency was horrifying. I don’t need to go through that again. Plus they’re like injecting pure cholesterol into your bloodstream. So they’re horrible and bad for you. Once was enough. Aside from that I doubt I’ll go out of my way to eat animal gonads of any sort, and I’m okay with having an irrational aversion to placing animal balls in my mouth.

Daniel B.:

A while back, you were toying with the idea of ads on The Whatever. Never seems to have transpired…why?

Because I don’t want them and I don’t need them, basically. I was thinking about them at a time when I suspected I would need the additional money ads would bring — mostly because I thought I needed to get an assistant, which I eventually decided I didn’t need. I’ve said before that if I needed to put in ads I would, and wouldn’t feel bad about doing it. But I don’t need to now, and I don’t want them, so I’m not going to bother with them.

D_Tommy:

Could you tell us about your first kiss and the events surrounding it?

Yes, I could.

Reader Request Week 2010 #7: Writery Bits

In which I answer some of the writing-related questions:

MacBlaze:

Do authors (SF especially) ever use any of the massive over-functionality built into modern word processors? Or would they be just as happy with a typewriter that erased words and saved files?

Or, in other words, how much has the tool changed the trade?

Or, do they ever rtfm so they know how to use the damn things?

I wrote The Ghost Brigades on whatever the most basic notepad program that comes with the Mac is called and had no more problems writing it than I would have had on a more fully functional word processing program, so at least in my case I don’t really use most of the bells and whistles on modern word processing programs, and I suspect most other writers likewise use mostly the basic functions to get things done. I think the most useful tool I have for book writing, in fact, is the large monitor I have, which allows me to show two full pages of text at one time. I like that a whole lot. But in general I think the best thing computers do for writers is make it so much easier to edit the document while in process. Really, that’s such an amazing advancement over typing out physical hard copy that I’m still amazed that writing actually got done before computer word processing.

Don Fitch:

Plants. I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, & onion on a hamburger, or grass & a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.

Well, I don’t think there are going to be the exact trees, grasses, etc. we have on other worlds. But I do think that the ecological niches on our own world exist for a reason, so that if we posit an earth-like world, I think it’s very likely there will be things very much like trees, grasses, etc., filling up the appropriate ecological niches. So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.

Leah:

Some writers have stories that have been influenced by their kids. Other writers don’t — they deliberately keep their home life and their writing separate. How has your daughter influenced your writing? Or do you keep that part of your life apart? Why or why not?

I’ve noted before that some of the inspiration for Zoe in the Old Man’s War series of books comes from Athena (although only some, since in Zoe’s Tale, Zoe is sixteen and Athena is now only eleven). But by and large at this point she’s not a huge influence on my writing, other than the practical “Now I have to feed and house this small person” influence she wields. It’s not so much a conscious decision to have her affect the books as it is that the sort of books I write don’t generally have much space for an Athena-like eleven year old in them. As she gets older perhaps that will change; I’m not against the idea. But if it happens it’ll happen in a natural way, not by me deciding to drop an Athena analogue into my books.

Alternative Eric S:

Is blogging going the way of chlorophyl gum, channelers and flagpole sitting?

No, but I think the number of people who do “blogging” will probably shrink a bit over time. That because, as I’ve noted before, what most people want to do with their blogs is keep connected to friends and family, and things like Twitter and Facebook let them do that in a far more efficient and headache free manner. Fewer people over time will do what we recognize as stand-alone blogs, because the number of people who want to blog – i.e., write what are essentially little personal columns and/or single-subject sites — has always been relatively small and will continue to be. So they won’t go away, but for most people they’ve already been superseded.

Lisa the Librarian:

Your opinion on the effect of Twilight series on the YA novel industry – it seems to have spawned lots of knock-offs/similar titles.

The same thing happened with Harry Potter series.

So, any thoughts?

I don’t have any great personal affection for either the Twilight or Harry Potter books — they’re not written for me, you know? — but in a general sense I think anything that introduces kids to the idea that books are fun and a fine way to entertain themselves is a very good thing, so in that sense I have nothing but warm feeling for the books. In terms of knockoffs, it’s not terribly surprising but I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with it. As a reader when I find something I like, when I’m done with it I often look for something similar to that experience, and I certainly did that as a younger reader: My fondness for Heinlein is what introduced me to H. Beam Piper and John Varley, for example. That today’s kids are doing the same thing isn’t really a problem.

Paul in NJ:

Can you write about a topic – any topic – without using a commonly-used letter? Say, S or N? (H/T Walter R. Brooks)

Probably but it’s a thing that seems more like work and less like fun, so I likely wouldn’t.

Susan S:

Why do you think writers almost always have pets, and why, in particular, do more writers seem to have cats instead of dogs. (As an aside…even the ones who have dogs seem to often have cats as well.) I tend to think it has something to do with independence – authors are generally independent (occasionally gregarious, perhaps, but generally they’re at least as happy on their own as with others, in my experience anyway).

So: why cats for writers?

I think writers have pets because people have pets, and writers are (generally) people. I also don’t know that writers quantitatively have more cats than dogs; I think it may just be that writers with cats talk about their cats more than writers who have dogs talk about their dogs.

Personally speaking, I’m bit more of a cat person than I dog person, but I’ve had both all my life and at this point we have more cats than dogs simply as a function of stray cats finding us and/or neighbors foisting a kitten onto us because of a misunderstanding. Even my former cat Rex was someone else’s cat before he was mine; I inherited him. The only pet in the household that we went out of way to procure was Kodi. That has to mean something. What? No idea.

Reader Request Week 2010 #6: Depression

Womyn2me asks:

Have you ever been depressed or introspective in a way that was harmful to your relationships or way of life? What did you do to find your way out of it? Do you think people would be surprised or motivated by the depths that you have experienced and come out of?

I’ve been what I would consider profoundly depressed twice in my life. One of these times I’ve discussed here before, including the steps I (or more accurately, we) took to get out of that state, and rather than rehash that one I’ll just commend that link there to you; the piece is worth reading if you haven’t already.

The other time was when I was a teenager and I had had an overwhelming crush on a girl (like, for years) and all the drama of that came to a head in the summer between our senior year and the first year of college. I won’t go into detail about that particular event right now, but I will say looking back that it was probably the one time in my life where I believe that I truly would have benefited from psychological and/or pharmaceutical intervention. I wasn’t suicidal — never have been — nor was I violent, but I was pretty much everything else. Lacking outside therapeutic intervention, I just eventually got over it and moved on. It probably took longer than it should have.

Beyond those two times I don’t think there have been times where I have been depressed to such a great extent that it had a substantive effect on my life, although I also note that I am perhaps not the best judge of that, and maybe others would tell you differently. What I can say is that at no other time have I felt paralyzed by depression to such a degree that I was aware that there was something genuinely wrong with me, and that my state bordered on illness.

Beyond that, well. I certainly get into moods, and always have. The way that I tend to describe it to people is that I have a wide dynamic range to my emotional spectrum. In my particular line of work it can be useful; it has the potential to make you particularly empathetic, which writer should be. But the flip side is that the volume knob on your emotions is twisted all the way over, and this can be problematic. This was something I think was especially noticeable when I was younger, and had less emotional control of myself. If you speak to anyone who knew me as a kid or a teen, most of them can tell you stories of me being far more wound up about things than I should have been.

As an adult, I still have that emotional range but I’m also rather better at dealing with it, a thing which is part of that process we commonly call “being an adult.” Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that, because I’m aware I have that sort of emotional range, I also pay attention to when it starts skewing to an extreme, and work to deal with it before other people have to. I think I’m generally successful with this, although again I’m not necessarily the right person to ask.

Having said all the above, I’m aware that some folks out there will now be taking their pencils and plotting out where on the bipolar spectrum I lie (“He’s totally cyclothymic!”). It doesn’t help that I’m a writer, a class of human more showily prone to bipolar disorders than other professions. I’m not going to discourage your fun, or even deny that it’s possible that I could be on that spectrum somewhere because hey, it’s not impossible (although I suspect if I am, it’s something sub-threshold-y). But I’ll note that it is also possible to have a wide range of emotional states, and even occasional bouts of depression, without an underlying mood disorder. I know, I know. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Even so.

These days, I don’t have much cause to be depressed — my personal relationships are good, my home life is groovy, my career is chugging along, we’re all healthy and have money in the bank — so I’m generally not. The thing that is most likely to make me depressed these days is work, and the (lack of) progress therein. This is especially the case at the start of a new project, when I occasionally have to kick my own ass to get started on it and then kick my ass to keep at it. I get agitated getting myself back in gear. This is one very significant reason that last year I basically rebuilt my book writing process, so that instead of writing, say, 8,000 words in one gout and then spending a week not writing, thus making it more difficult to start up again later, I switched to writing some significant amount every work day. It made a difference in my mood, and as far as I can tell it didn’t hurt the writing any; The God Engines, for example, was written this way, and people seem to think that works pretty well.

Oddly enough, writing poorly doesn’t (generally) depress me. A couple of years ago I was writing the sequel to The Android’s Dream, and it wasn’t going very well — what I was writing just wasn’t working, for values of working meaning “Something I would want to read myself.” Eventually I realized I was going to have to scrap it and start again some other time, and that this was better than trying to keep polishing the turd I currently writing. This pissed me off — I had lost time and blew a deadline — but looking at it analytically rather than emotionally meant I didn’t get that “oh, shit, what do I now?” thing that writers sometimes get, followed by panic, followed by depression. Basically, remembering that writing is (also) a business, and looking at it dispassionately from that perspective, has been a really good regulator of my mood. I don’t suspect this is all that surprising.

One thing I would like to note here is I am a very big believer in people, when they are depressed, finding help for it. Whether it’s an isolated incident or indicative of an continual underlying problem, there are ways to deal with it. Deal with it. I noted above there was at least one incident in my life where my depression was profound enough that I should have gotten help for it; if it weren’t for Krissy being a heatsink for me that other time, there would have been two. Let my own stupidity be a cautionary lesson.

The Big Idea: Kelly O’Connor McNees

Louisa May Alcott is the noted author of a beloved work in the American canon… and what else do we know about her? As it turns out, not as much as we might, despite the public and active life the author led in her time. So when Kelly O’Connor McNees chose to make Alcott the subject of the novel which would become The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, she knew that she’d have to go beyond the facts to get to the woman behind Little Women. Here’s how she did it.

KELLY O’CONNOR McNEES:

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott imagines a fictional affair between this beloved writer and a young man named Joseph Singer, who would later inspire the character of Laurie in Little Women. But that’s just the novel’s premise. That’s not the Big Idea.

Louisa May Alcott was a complex, passionate, and ambitious woman who is remembered for a single novel she wrote in 1868. Written for young readers, Little Women tells the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, whose father is away in the Civil War serving as a chaplain. As the story unfolds, the girls come of age under the wise and gentle eye of their mother Marmee. Each learns to overcome a weakness in her character, and, most famously, Alcott’s altar ego Jo finds a kindred spirit in the next-door neighbor, Teddy “Laurie” Laurence. He later asks Jo to marry him, but to most readers’ great surprise, she refuses.

A longtime admirer of Little Women, I began to read about Alcott’s life a few years ago and found myself completely engrossed by her. Very quickly I understood that I wanted to write a novel about her, but I had no idea how to do it.

The more research I did, the more apparent it became that Alcott’s voice was elusive. I realized that we take for granted the idea that we know this iconic woman—a woman who gave us a story that became an essential part of American girlhood. But it turns out we actually don’t really know her at all. I read several carefully researched biographies and found them captivating, but I couldn’t find Alcott’s voice there. Next, I turned to Alcott’s own letters and journals, and while her words offered a clearer picture, I knew it was incomplete. Alcott was famous in her own lifetime and, fearing the biographer’s eye, destroyed swaths of letters and journals.

It was through this struggle to truly see her that I came upon the Big Idea, which was really more of a question I tried to answer by writing this novel. How do we disentangle Louisa the person from Louisa May Alcott the historical icon? It’s easy to forget that she even was a real person. From 2010, we see her life story and all her accomplishments as inevitable, but I’m sure they didn’t feel inevitable to her. The 150 years of mythology between Alcott and us—the voices of academics who seek to put her in the broader context of American literary history and feminism, as well as Alcott’s own attempts to “edit” her legacy—is quite a lot for Louisa the person to carry on her shoulders. To render her in fiction, I knew I would have to try to strip all that away and get at who she was before she wrote the novel that would make her famous.

I began to imagine Louisa at twenty-two, when she was full of ambition and confidence but had received no confirmation from the world that her confidence was warranted. I pondered who she might have been then. I asked questions like, what kind of person, particularly a woman at this time, makes a conscious choice to believe in herself and try to achieve something without anyone telling her she can, or should?

She succeeded, so we say, “Of course—she knew she was destined for greatness.” But what if she had failed? Well, I wouldn’t be talking about her right now, but in some ways that is irrelevant. What interested me, as I tried to separate the woman from the icon, was not what she accomplished. It was her initial leap of faith, the decision to try to be the thing she wanted to be. That faith stemmed from something, a kind of determination, within Louisa herself. I felt if I could wrap my head around that, I had a place to begin.

Paradoxically, it seemed fiction was the only avenue through which I would be able to see her fully. And just what kind of story could I tell about this woman, a real woman holding equal parts doubt and hope, who is on the cusp but doesn’t know it yet? The answer, it seemed to me, was the commonest story of all: the euphoric and miserable experience of falling in love for the first time. For Louisa, as for many of us, this love would be a threat to life as she knew it. Whatever she did about it, whether she embraced or rejected this love, it would change her. My story, then, would be about how this love shaped her and her writing. It would be about the choices she was forced to make and how the echo of those choices might have appeared later on in Little Women.

On any given day we are, simply, the product of the choices we made on all the days that came before. Alcott’s accomplishments—writing a cherished novel, serving as a Civil War nurse and recording that experience in the fascinating Hospital Sketches, advocating for suffrage and abolition—were not ordained by history. They were not inevitable. To believe that is to deny the existence of the real woman, and the real woman is the essence of the story.

—-

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

See the book trailer. Visit the author blog. Follow the author on Twitter.

Why Obama Scares Me (In A Good, Non-Tea Baggery Sort of Way)

Obama, personally making, oh, just a few notes on a speech.

Hank Steuver, of the Washington Post, notes on his own blog:

A photo like this is thrilling, gratifying and also terribly frightening to anyone who delivers his or her own writing to an editor. (Or a group of editors.) I wonder how this picture makes other people feel. I see it and feel a swelling of pride — not in the president so much as in the hard work that goes into good writing.

But I also get a lurching feeling in my stomach. I have marked up my own drafts like this, and, when invited, I have done the same for other writers. (Though probably not to this extent.) I certainly have received manuscript pages back from George Hodgman that looked like this.

When it comes back to you in this condition, you have to take a deep breath and just deal with each mark, one by one.

My own rather less elegant thought when I saw that was, man, if I was Obama’s speechwriter, and he handed back a speech marked up like that, I’d be hoping I was wearing my brown corduroy. Because, damn, people.  That’s a lot of revision.

A larger version of the picture is here.

Reader Request Week 2010 #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited

One of the most popular topic requests this year involves me talking about where I live and how it affects me, in terms of writing, personal life and so on. This was actually a topic in the very first Reader Request Week that I did, but that was something like seven years ago, so it’s worth looking at again, I think.

For those of you coming in late, here’s a little background: Currently, I live in the village of Bradford, Ohio, population about 1,850 or so. I wasn’t born and raised here — I was born in California and lived my entire childhood in the Los Angeles area, excepting a few months in Albuquerque when I was an infant (and which I don’t remember), and a year in northern California when I was in kindergarten, when my aunt was caring for me and my sister while our mother was recovering from illness. Aside from those two very early sojourns, I was your typical suburban southern California brat.

Prior to living in Bradford, I’d lived only in suburban or urban areas: Los Angeles growing up, Chicago during college, Fresno in my early 20s (which contrary to its assumed rusticity had a population of 350,000 while I was there and is over a half million now) and suburban DC during my mid-late 20s and early 30s. We moved to Bradford because Krissy’s family lived in this part of Ohio, and after our daughter was born Krissy wanted to be closer to family. I fought against it for a couple of years because, honestly, why would I want to live in Ohio? But Krissy was insistent so I came up with a clever plan: I told her I would move if we could get at least five acres of land. My thinking there was I could never afford that much land. The flaw in my thinking was that I was going off of land prices in southern California and northern Virginia, not rural Ohio. Krissy promptly found a new house on exactly five acres of land for a price we could easily afford. Off we went to Ohio.

That was in 2001; I’ve now lived here in Bradford and in Ohio for more than nine years, which is the longest amount of time I’ve ever lived in a single place in my entire life. This creates some interesting personal dissonances; for example, I have no problem with calling Ohio “my state,” but I don’t ever call myself an Ohioan, because I’m really not. My wife is — she was actually born here and all her family is here — and so is Athena, because despite being born in Virginia, all her conscious life has been in Ohio. But my brain is still on “cultural Californian” even after all these years. It’s not that I don’t like living in Ohio, or that I feel I’m in some sort of exile — I really don’t, for reasons I’ll explain in a bit. But I just don’t have what I guess I would call Ohio muscle memory. I’m not passionately engaged with the Reds or Indians or Bengals or Browns, I don’t seize up with spittle-ly indignation at the word “Michigan,” and it still weirds me out that the nearest spot of historical import is a small patch of grass where the Treaty of Greenville was signed, rather than the San Gabriel Mission. I am at best a naturalized Ohioan.

And it’s pretty clear that I am a bit of an odd duck here in Bradford. The town’s folks are largely blue collar and/or farm folks, overwhelmingly white, most with a high school education and the majority solid, church-going conservatives (Miami and Darke Counties, which split Bradford between them, both went 68% for McCain in 2008, and 68% for Bush in 2004; Minority Leader John Boehner is our Congressional representative). Excepting the “overwhelmingly white” portion of that, I’m none of those things. If I walk over to Harris Creek Cemetery (which, yes, is the one featured at the beginning of Old Man’s War), I can see 100-year-old tombstones with last names carved into them that match the last names of some of Athena’s classmates, which makes our family interlopers, even after a decade. Bradford really is quintessential small-town America, except that in its case it also has a freaky science fiction dude living in it.

I enjoy the dichotomy of that, to tell you the truth. It’s fun to be a science fiction writer in a town where Amish buggies plod down the road, to be well-known on the Internet and have agricultural fields immediately east, west and south of me, and to work on a television show from a place as culturally different from “the entertainment industry” as it’s possible to get in the US (even if the particular show I work on is actually produced in Canada). The idea that so much future is coming out of little Bradford, Ohio just tickles me. And on the flip side, if I think about the fact that my Twitter list population is a multiple of the population of my home town, and that the daily readership of Whatever is close to the population of the entire county I live in, I’m reminded that I actually do live in the future.

I don’t think it means that rural living is for everyone. I’ve noted before that one of the reasons it works for me is that I am married and largely settled; if I were just starting out and/or single I’d be wanting to live near more people to have things to do and people to see on a regular basis. That said, living out here is not nearly as isolating as people often imagine it to be. For one thing, as I’ve noted before, I live in the middle of nowhere in a densely populated state, which means that I can be somewhere (in this case, Dayton) in less than an hour, and in a reasonably large city (Columbus, Cincinnati or Indianapolis) in less than two. It’s not like the middle of nowhere in a state like Montana or Nebraska (or Alaska, as it will be brought up), in which the middle of nowhere really is nowhere. For another thing, these days I travel a really ridiculous amount; in the first half of this year — a year which I am intentionally trying to reduce travel, mind you — I’ve taken three trips out of town already and have another ten scheduled before the end of June. No, I don’t know how that happened either. Clearly I fail at not traveling. But the point is, it’s not like I’m not getting around and seeing people.

People do ask me when or if we’re planning to move away from Bradford and from Ohio; in the short term (being defined as “the next ten or twelve years”) I very much doubt it. One, dude, we just sunk a stupid amount of money into new floors, carpets and cabinetry. We’re going to get some use out of them, you know? Two, it’s obvious that living in rural America is not a hindrance to my career in any way at all, so there’s no practical reason to move anywhere else. Three, and a point not touched on here yet but well worth considering: It’s cheap to live here, and not just in terms of home and land values, although those are the most obvious examples of that. But watching a coastal friend of mine’s eyes pop at a $4.25 matinee ticket at the local movie theater when he came to visit was amusing. Four, our daughter likes it here, and I suspect will through her teenage years, because small towns are really cool when you’re young. So there’s no reason to uproot her from the place she’s known all her life.

Five, you know what? I like it here. At no point prior to my moving to Ohio would I ever have pictured myself living in Ohio, but that’s life for you, isn’t it; full of surprises like that. Now that I’m here I like where I am. I like my house and my stupidly large yard; I like my neighbors, who watch our cats while we’re gone and clear our driveway when we’re snowed in; I like walking out my front door, looking up and seeing the Milky Way splayed out across the sky; I like going away, seeing people and places around the country and planet, and then coming back to this little town where people have roots going back a century; I like putting Bradford in my books to suggest that a couple hundred years from now, it’ll be here still.

So we’ll likely be here for a while, and for my part I’m going to have fun writing more of the future from this little town with cornfields and Amish buggies. It’s not a bad place for the future to come from.

Column Moves; Living in Science Fiction Film Universes

Big change with my AMC column this week: It’s moved to a new site, FilmCritic.com (owned by AMC), where it will stay for the foreseeable future. And for the moment the comments to the column are off, although that might be a temporary thing (they’re still in the “shaking down” portion of the move). Otherwise, it’s the same column as ever, focused on science fiction film. And this week, I’m looking at science fiction film universes and whether it would be cool to live in them; would having your own land speeder make up for living in a despotic empire? My thoughts await you.

Normally I tell you leave comments over at the AMC site, but since the comments don’t appear to be activated there, I’m keeping the comments open here on this thread. Knock yourself out, kids.

Reader Request Week 2010 #4: Quitting Writing

Dave H asks:

What would it take to convince you to quit writing?

Not that I want you to quit, but I’m curious what you’d find compelling enough to make you want to change careers (in a “greener pastures” way, not an “offer you can’t refuse” way).

Well, in the sense of writing as a career, I suppose what would convince me to quit writing would be the fact that I couldn’t make a living at it any more, at which point in order to pay my bills I had to do something else. Short of that sort personal economic meltdown I don’t see much that would tempt me away from it, since I like to write, don’t really like most other sorts of work, and I make enough money from writing that I’m not particularly tempted to try something else just to make money. I could see myself doing other sorts of things from time to time, for fun, for curiosity or because there was a stonkin’ big honorarium involved, but as long as it possible for me to make a decent living as a writer, it’s going to be hard to pry me away from it as my primary occupation.

In the sense of writing to write, I suspect it will take death, senility or a stroke that leaves me illiterate to convince me to quit writing. I would do this even if I didn’t get paid (he said, writing on the site he’s been writing on for eleven years without being paid for it), because this is fun for me, or at least it is most of the time. I could see taking time off from writing — a month, or two, or six, whatever — if I didn’t feel like doing it, but outside few days of exhaustion or outside forces keeping me from a keyboard, I haven’t yet felt like doing it. Seriously now, I can’t actually think of a week since I was a teenager where I didn’t write something. I might try it now just to see what it’s like. But I don’t imagine I would like it much. If I don’t write for a day or two I get irritable; a whole week without writing might prompt my wife to kill me. And she would be right to do it.

Fact is, I like being a writer, even more than I like making money as a writer, and as all you know, I like making money as a writer a lot. But ultimately, it’s really not about the money. It’s about the writing. I’m not going to be quitting that.

Reader Request Week 2010 #3: How I Think

DeCadmus asks:

John, I’m consistently impressed with how you break topical issues of the day down into their constituent parts; how you reason and make your points (and take apart others’) in your comments. I see some of the same at play in your novels; your storytelling and character building.

I’d like to know how you think. Were you taught something particularly useful about reasoning in school? What tools do you leverage to build your citadel of considered opinion and wily discourse?

Schooling in fact does have something to do with it. In a formal sense, I’ve noted before that my degree from The University of Chicago is in Philosophy, and specifically it’s a degree in Philosophy with Allied Fields, with those allied field being linguistics and philosophy of language. What this means is that I spent a reasonably large amount of time in school (to the extent that I actually attended classes, which is another issue entirely) looking at the how and why of language. If you were to ask me my favorite philosophical treatise — that is the one I found most interesting in terms of waking up neurons in my brain and making them go “hmmm” — then I would point you in the direction of How to Do Things With Words, by J.L. Austin. My own brand of thinking is not precisely a direct line from Austin’s writings, but one very important takeaway I got from Austin, and a thing which crystallized that which to that point I had suspected but had not much thought about concretely, is that words themselves are action; they do not simply describe the world but in a very real sense make the world. Therefore it makes sense to pay attention to the worlds people are attempting to create in their words.

Less formally, both my high school and my college were argumentative places, and I mean that Socratically; in both places if you lobbed out an opinion during class (or, shit, just laying about in the dorm), you could expect to have to defend that argument. There’s an old joke that at the University of Chicago, when someone says “good morning,” the appropriate response is “how do you know?” Now, there are ways of doing this wrong; for a while my once and future college girlfriend was dating one of those college conservatives who liked to posit morally appalling things just to get a rise out of people, and would retreat to “I’m just playing devil’s advocate” after he pissed people off. I’m pretty sure he ended up being punched in the head, not for being a college conservative (of which Chicago had, oh, just a few), but because he was an asshole. But in a larger sense, if you spend years having your statements challenged by teachers, professors and your peers, over time you learn to argue, and you learn how to challenge and take apart poor arguments.

The gist of this is that by both education and by environment and independent of any particular native facility for words, I was sensitized to the power and value of language, reason, rhetoric and logic, and not only regarding how I used each myself, but how they were used on me, and especially when they were being used poorly.

Apart from all this, but something that could be used integrally with it, is the fact that both as a younger person and as an adult, I spent and do spend a lot of time observing people. This fact is not immediately obvious if your only interaction with me is here on Whatever, where rhetorically I am generally in “let me tell you what I think” mode, but as I’m fond of reminding people, my presentation here on Whatever is performance; it’s me, but it’s not all of me, just the parts best suited for what I want to do here. Out in the real world, I don’t spend all my time pontificating. I spend a fair amount of it watching people.

Without getting too much into the drama of it, part of this was due to early circumstance: When you’re a small, sensitive kid from a poor and often unstable home environment, you spend a lot of your time looking at who could be trouble and who could be an ally. But, you know, part of it is just me. I find people fascinating. I want to know who they are and why they are the way they are. That means you pay attention to them: how they act, how they react, how they interact, and how they do all of that in relation to you, including the words they use with you and on you.

Finally, added to all of this is the simple fact my brain is wired for communication, and writing is my best expression of this fact. I learned early on what writing does for me (both internally and externally) and what it allows me to do for and to others, and this, you can be assured, was an interesting thing for me to discover. Now, when I was younger, I was smug and thought the sheer force of my personal awesomeness would make everything I wrote brilliant and that everyone would love every bit of it, and this is why I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life apologizing to friends from high school and college for foisting my writing on them at every opportunity. Age has taught me about humility and the desirability of editors, but perhaps more charitably it’s pointed out to me that paying attention to the rhetorical craft and particulars of my own writing is important if I want to engage and move people.

Having just vomited all that out on you, let me point out that it’s not like I wake up each morning and think “today I shall marshal all that I have learned of rhetoric and discourse in the service of justice” and then leap to the keyboard, fresh to the day’s fight. I’m nowhere that worked up about my writing. Like anything, if you do it long enough, you end up just doing it without having to think too much about it. At this point, a lot of it is muscle memory. I mean, I do think about my writing, the mechanics and effects thereof, quite a lot. But that’s a craftsman considering his tools (or what tools he needs to get and work with to get better), which is usually independent of actually getting in there and doing the work. When it comes time for the typing, what I’ve learned about how to communicate, argue and reason climbs into the back seat, and the actual act of writing gets into the driver’s seat. How I think gives way to what I write.

The Big Idea: Tom Fowler

Here at The Big Idea, we’re used to hearing from the authors of books, but in the case of graphic novels, there are two creators: the writer and the artist (and here we tip our hats also to inkers and colorers and letterers…). So in the case of Mysterius, the graphic novel from Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler, we thought it’d be fun to get the perspective of the “silent” half of the creative team: The artist. So here’s Fowler to tell you about the artistic side of equation, and what he brings to the magical, mystical world of Mysterius.

TOM FOWLER:

On December 6, 2007, at 6:02:19 PM EST, I received a very nice email from Mark Paniccia at Marvel Comics letting me know that he was very sorry but the job he’d wanted me to do with Jeff Parker had fallen through. At 6:03:35 PM EST, I got an email from Ben Abernathy at Wildstorm Productions wondering what I had cooking schedule-wise and whether I’d like to do a book with Jeff Parker. The next day Jeff introduced me to Mysterius. If I were a dirty hippy and believed in such nonsense I’d have thought that, through whatever cosmic jiggery pokery, the universe wanted the book to happen. I pride myself on slightly better personal hygiene than that so I chalked it up to being very lucky.

Mysterius was originally Jeff’s tribute to, among other things, 1920’s stage magic, Doctor Who, and Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels (the first of which I was reading at the time. More jiggery pokery). I saw his Who and Gently and raised him some Hammer Horror, Wes Anderson, and EC Comics. Over that christmas, in a flurry of emails, the universe of Mysterius started to come into shape. A universe that includes angry hell-bound relatives, zombie hippies, hookers, covens, tattooed antiquarians, catty magicians, satanic children’s verse, and giant, feral fraggles that eat “Burning Man”.

When Jeff and I stated to developed the book it became apparent fairly quickly that, just as Doctor Who inhabits British space and Steve Zissou an ocean of animated fish, a cast as grandiose and colourful as ours needed to be grounded in a world that reflected those characters and made the unbelievable things that took place within it feel authentic.

It would start with a very simple email description of “maybe he should look a bit like Geoffrey Rush.” A quick Google image search would reveal Mr. Rush at several red carpet events wearing $5000 suits yet still managing to look as though he’d been backed through a hedge and pickled in formaldehyde. This would inform a certain haggard swagger that became an essential part of the character: Mysterius’ single-minded belief that he’s the sexiest thing in any room. Would not that gag be shown off by filling those rooms with significantly sexier things (or witches)? And what about his home? The bubble that Mysterius keeps around him at all times. It should show an anachronistic opulence that reflects his discomfort with the changing of the world over time. His “Mysterium” an endless archive of past glories that envelops him wherever he goes.

It continued in that manner as the story progressed. Our world needed to get bigger, encompass more. In those first couple of months we burned through ghosts, monsters, maps of hell, the histories and fates of past Delfis, unwanted house guests, terrible experiments performed on leprechauns, living estates, dimensional travel, transparent stand-ins, and a 200 year old troll named Kevin who hung with Keith Moon and toured with the Stooges. However much of it made it into the first book seems less important than the fact it was all there in our heads to draw from. Strange beings and places fleshed out, and all pieces of a larger whole to push around and illustrate the universe we created. The Mysterius universe itself needed to become a character.

Mostly I did that with big noses.

I think I’ve probably made a mess of this. (Keep in mind I’m the artist.) Ultimately what I love about this job is the construction. All art is just problem solving. You’re given a task, a set of tools, and a list of limitations. Your style is the sum of that equation. Your art, your book, your song, whatever is the product. Building a universe or a world out of nothing, manipulating it, making it work, making it run is the most satisfying puzzle you’ll ever wrestle with. Over the year that we brought the book into existence I think we built something that works, that feels immersive,“real” (at least in relation to its inhabitants). I’d like to think that in Mysterius‘ world there are two hippies sitting in the desert marveling at the unseen forces of cosmic jiggery pokery that shaped their lives and brought them to that spot.

Only in that world they’d be at “Blazing Man” and therefore get eaten by fraggles.

Big, angry fraggles.

Please buy the book.

—-

Mysterius: Amazon|Barnes & Noble| Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow Tom Fowler and Jeff Parker on Twitter.

Reader Request Week 2010 #2: Rewriting the Constitution

Fletcher asks:

From the posts where you veer into politics, I know you’re a big fan of the US Constitution. So;

Early next year a previously unknown addendum to the Constitution is discovered, and the legal repercussions mean that the entire document must be rewritten, or the US of A will become a département of France. You, John Scalzi, have been selected as the person upon whom sole responsibility shall lie to recreate the guiding document of the nation.

Given this opportunity, how would you rewrite the Constitution?

Heh.

Well, you know. While I understand the set-up here is fanciful, it still presents issues. First, purely on practical grounds, I would like to see France try to take possession, administrative or physical, of these here United States. I think that attempt would be messy. Second, and not necessarily to the credit of the United States, I think we’re all well aware of the country’s history of not actually paying much attention to treaties or agreements it doesn’t feel comport with its best interests. So I don’t think we have to worry much about the folks in Washington feeling obliged to hand the keys over to Sarkozy.

Third, I’m not entirely convinced that even if France could somehow take receivership, that it would want to. Why would it want ten trillion dollars in debt and a country filled with yahoos so reflexively anti-French that its Congress briefly renamed “French Fries” in its cafeterias even though the “french” in that phrase in only tangentially related to the country? I think what would happen is that the French would say “You know what? You keep that. We want you to have that,” and then go off to smoke a Gauloise and sleep with one of their seven mistresses, which as we all know they are required by law to have. Everyone would walk away thinking they got the better of the deal.

That taken care of, my response to being the person solely responsible for rewriting the Constitution would be to refuse. Not because I don’t think I could do it — I’m handy with those there words — but because having a single person dictate the contents of the Constitution of the United States is kind of missing the point of the Constitution of the United States, isn’t it? It’s not just what the Constitution says that is important; how and why it was created matter too. It was created severally and through compromise to ensure US citizens the greatest amount of participation in and involvement with, their government. Philosophically I am opposed to any single person being responsible for its content, even if that person is me.

But let’s say that whatever nebulous Powers That Be which can somehow force a revision of the Constitution of the United States say “Do it, or we give the job to Glenn Beck,” with the additional admonition that there has to be some genuine revision, not just rephrasing Jim Madison’s verbiage in a kicky modern style. All right, off the top of my head, here’s some of the things I would change.

1. I’d make the presidential term of office six years, and allow presidents to serve only one term. I’d get rid of the electoral college and have the winner of the popular vote become the President.

2. I’d decouple the House of Representatives from the states and mandate one Congressional representative for every 100,000 people, with their districts drawn as compactly as mathematically possible. Yes, this means 3,000 US Representatives. Deal with it. The Senate I would keep the same to ensure states have adequate representation in the federal government.

3. For the Supreme Court I would dictate single terms of 25 years, long enough for the serving Justices do their jobs insulated from day-to-day politics, while still ensuring turnover and a judiciary at least nominally aware of the world outside its chambers.

I’d be hard pressed to improve on the Bill of Rights, so I wouldn’t try to. As for the rest of the Amendments, at least a couple of them would be superseded by the changes I noted above, so I’d probably declutter the document a bit where appropriate but otherwise let the Amendments stand. If I were required to add in an Amendment or two, these would be the two I’d probably drop in:

a) Only non-corporate citizens of the United States are allowed to donate money or in kind services to federal election campaigns, and only to their own Representative candidates, Senatorial candidates or Presidential candidates, a sum of no more than $50 (adjusted for inflation, pegged to the 2010 dollar), excepting personal volunteer service on behalf of a candidate.

b) Voting for Federal elected positions (President, Senator, US Representative) shall be done with the instant run-off ballot.

I think those would sufficiently differentiate the Scalzi version of the Constitution from what came before, without (I hope) unduly cutting away individual rights which previously existed for US citizens. There’s always the temptation to fiddle more, but again, fundamentally, the Constitution should not be the purview of a single person, even if that person is me. Thus a final Amendment:

c) If the changes instituted by John Scalzi are not approved by two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, and two-thirds of the State legislatures, then the Constitution shall revert back to what it was prior to him fiddling with it.

Which, frankly, would solve my philosophical problems with being told to change the Constitution in the first place.