Monthly Archives: May 2010

Just Arrived, 5/22/10

Some of what’s arrived here in the last week:

* Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: The World’s Gone Crazy (Bathroom Reader’s Press): People occasionally ask me if I still do writing for the Uncle John’s books, and the answer is yep, still do. Why? Because it’s fun, and because they’re good people to work with, and they pay their contributors well. My contribution to this particular Uncle John’s book is small — one or two articles, I can’t remember, honestly — but the whole book is enjoyable to read in short bits, which is of course the entire point.

* Unholy Ghosts, by Stacia Kane (Del Rey): The dead have risen! But this time they’re not zombies, they’re ghosts, and our protagonist is a ghost hunter with some real-life issues, like owing money to some very bad people, some of whom want her to do a job for them. OR ELSE. Yes indeed. This one’s out next Tuesday, and Stacia Kane will be offering up a Big Idea piece in the next couple of weeks.

* Year’s Best SF 15, edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (Eos): Hey, I just saw those two last weekend at the Nebula Weekend. This “best of” SF collection features stories by Stephen Baxter, Gene Wolfe, Robert Charles Wilson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Chris Roberson, Paul Cornell, Peter Watts, and Marissa K. Lingen. Out on Tuesday.

* Married With Zombies, by Jesse Petersen (Orbit): On the way two couples counseling David and Sarah can’t help but notice that the zombie apocalypse has arrived! The couple that slays zombies together, etc. Out in September.

* Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, by Nick Lane (Norton): Because evolution is clever, or at the very least the principles of natural selection over time give the appearance thereof, the popular science book offers examples of things evolution got right. Two examples: sex (which I agree with enthusiastically) and death (which I also grudgingly admit may be the case). Hardcover’s been out for a year; the trade paperback version, which was sent to me, is out June 14.

* Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton (Spectra): Newton’s debut novel begins a fantasy series that the PR material assures me is in the tradition of China Mieville and Richard K. Morgan. Aiming high, that is. It also involves an ice age and the walking dead! So it has that going for it as well. Will be out June 29.

* Shadow’s Son, by Jon Sprunk (Pyr): Another debut fantasy, this one featuring a freelance assassin who finds himself thrown into a world of intrigue when a job goes wrong. Although I have to say that if your day job is “freelance assassin,” the intrigue level of your life is probably already pretty well up there. Out June 22.

* The Office of Shadow, by Matthew Sturges (Pyr): Not related to the book immediately preceding it on this list, this one features the fantasy equivalent of the CIA or MI-5 doing what it takes to keep their empire from falling into chaos and war. Also out June 22.

* Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord (Small Beer Press): A modern-day fairy tale of a woman who inherits a magical object — and all the trouble that goes with it. The winner of Barbados’ Frank Collymore Literary Prize, and the author will be offering up a Big Idea piece on the novel when it debuts on June 22.

* Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja (Small Beer Press): This historical novel by Stoker Award-winner Koje features a love triangle and puppets, which already puts it into the “haven’t seen that before” category right out of the gate. This one will be out in October.

* Citizens, edited by John Ringo & Brian M. Thomsen (Baen): A military SF anthology, by authors who have served in the military, including Heinlein, Clarke, Haldeman and Pournelle. Out now.

* Stealing Fire, by Jo Graham (Orbit): A soldier in Alexander the Great’s army allies with Ptolemy after Alexander’s death and prepares to defend the lands Ptolemy has claimed for himself. Out Tuesday but Amazon and B&N both have it in stock, so… out now.

The Rand Paul Conundrum

Question in e-mail:

Any thoughts on Rand Paul?

Yeah: I suspect Rand Paul will have to decide whether he wants to be libertarian, or if he wants to be elected.

I think we’ve already gotten a bit of that answer already, with his hasty sprintback (or as I think he would prefer to have it seen, clarification) on the matter of the Civil Rights Act of ’64, which he wants us to know we should have totally voted for had he been in Congress at the time, rather than busily pooping himself as a baby. He’s still philosophically iffy about whether the law should really have applied to private business, etc. as a matter of free speech, but he wouldn’t have let that stop him, as regards theoretically voting for the bill. He’s also complaining about how the left (specifically, Rachel Maddow) are using this to sandbag him, although the complaints do have the tone of “how dare they examine the final analysis implications of my philosophical positions!” Yes, well. That will happen from time to time.

But, you know what: If these are Rand Paul’s positions, then he gets to live with them and as extra added fun he gets to live with his political opponents using them as if those positions were pinatas, and they were kids with bats, trying to get at the sweet, sweet electoral candy inside. Welcome to the big leagues, Rand; you have fun now. It also highlights the fundamental difficulties that libertarianism (in either the little “l” or big “L” variant) has in that place called reality, among which is that however theoretically attractive it would be to live in a libertarian world where everyone was cool with everyone else and the government was tiny and far away, in reality everyone isn’t cool with everyone else and (for example) there are still people who really would kind of prefer not to have those funny-colored people in their shop, or diner, or whatever, and on balance it wasn’t a horrible thing for the government to step in and say that’s not what we do.

So, we’ll see. I think it’s possible some places in the US to be more or less libertarian and still get elected — Paul’s father does it with the 14th Congressional district in Texas, for example. But Paul’s running for senator of an entire state, not just for representative of part of it, and that makes a big difference. I suspect the Democrats are going to have fun with him as a tea party proxy; unlike Sarah Palin, who at the moment at least understands she’s better off in the entertainment wing of the GOP than the “attempting to get elected” wing, Paul is trying to get elected and so his positions have real world implications.

So I suspect that what we’ll end up seeing is Paul walking himself back from a few other libertarian positions over the course of the electoral season in order to make himself palatable to that fabled political middle. This is not a particularly courageous prediction on my part mind you — walking toward the middle is what most politicians do during the general election, and so Rand Paul will not be notable in his attempt to do so. But I’ll tell you what; it would be more interesting for everyone involved if he didn’t.

One Small Detail Regarding The Big Idea

In my wanderings out there on the great big electronic Web-like thingie we call, uh, the Web, yesterday I saw someone praising The Big Idea and saying that she could always rely on the book recommendations I make through it.

Naturally, I’m delighted she finds The Big Idea so useful — that’s the whole point, to introduce you the readers to works you might want to read — but I do want to add a small point of clarification, which is that when I select books for The Big Idea, what I’m mostly going by is release date, not by content or (importantly) by my own personal feelings about the book. If an author/publicist/editor asks if a particular date is available, and it is, and the book meets my inclusion criteria, I’m likely to offer them that slot. With a very few exceptions, that’s been my selection process.

What I think this reader is responding to is not my selection of books and authors to highlight, but how the authors themselves are writing about their books here. Which is I think one of the really excellent things about The Big Idea: it isn’t in fact about me, and what I like; it’s about the author telling you what makes his or her book worth your time to read. All I do is provide the space and an intro paragraph and then get out of the way.

So, if The Big Idea is doing a great job of helping you find books, I’ll take credit for the basic idea and offering up the space. You’re welcome. But the people who are doing the real heavy lifting here are the authors themselves. The credit for the success of the feature goes to them.

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

So, Paolo Bacigalupi is having kind of a good month. Just this last weekend, his novel The Windup Girl was awarded the Nebula Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award being one of the two highest awards in the science fiction and fantasy field (the other one is the Hugo, and The Windup Girl is nominated for that as well). And this month also marked the release of Bacigalupi’s first YA novel, Ship Breaker, which garnered a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“a stellar YA debut”), and is otherwise getting the sort of critical love that makes an author woozy (disclosure: I read an early version of the novel and gave it a blurb).

The reason for the acclaim for Ship Breaker is not only the writing but also the setting, which thanks to recent events in the Gulf of Mexico is more evocative and relevant than ever, and perhaps more than many of us would like to think about. Paolo explains below.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

Whenever I think about the environment (Be Green; Love Mother Earth; Blah Blah Blah), I like to think of a family going out to a nice restaurant. Mom and Dad place their orders–but for some reason, the kids don’t get anything. Instead, the kids wait and watch while their parents gobble down dinner.

Their parents eat the arugula salad, the rosemary-infused bread, the sun-dried tomato farfalle, the veal piccata, and generally have a pretty great time. Maybe Mom’s wearing pearls, because, you know, it’s a nice restaurant. Dad is definitely wearing a tie–he’s classy that way. Mom and Dad go through a couple bottles of wine, linger over the tiramisu, and then, when they’re stuffed to the gills, they shove their picked-over and scraped-over plates down the table to their children, with the last bits of pasta and the runny lines of sauce, and some chewed-up bits of meat, and say, “Here kids, eat up!”

So the kids get the scraps, while their parents get the meal.

And then, to top it all off, Mom and Dad get up from the table and walk out the door, leaving the kids to deal with the pissed-off waiter who just showed up saying that the credit card has been declined. So the kids end up washing dishes in the back for the next couple hundred years to pay off the bill.

That’s Environment 101. The first person at the table gets the cheap energy, the clean water, the clean air, the rain forests, the coral reefs, and the open space, and has all the fun. The last person gets stuck with the cleanup and the bill. The last person is always going to be a kid. It’s not personal. It’s just the way things work out.

So when I started working on my young adult novel Ship Breaker, I knew I wanted to write a novel for kids that would help them viscerally experience the sort of scraps that we adults are leaving on the table for them to chow down on. Oil has run out, global warming and massive hurricanes have ravaged the Gulf coast, and poverty means that if you’re not working as a ship breaker, you’re selling a kidney.

As I was writing, I thought I was doing a pretty good job of providing a nice ecotastrophe setting. But that was before Deepwater Horizon blew itself up and started spewing oil into the Gulf. Now I’m wondering if I was too optimistic.

Cynicism aside, the most interesting thing about the oil rig disaster isn’t the ecological catastrophe–it’s that we were drilling there at all.

An oil company doesn’t just wake up one day and say “Gee, I think I’d like to drill for oil 5000 feet below the ocean’s surface! That sounds like fun!”  They do it because they’ve run out of easy oil. They’re throwing every bit of technological know-how into projects that are just at the edge of human ingenuity and technology to get out the energy and keep the party rolling. And they don’t stop drilling at 5000 feet, that’s where they start. Sometimes, they go as deep as 35,000 feet.

That’s amazing technology. It’s also called going after the scraps.

Our parents and grandparents got all the easy oil. We’re currently busy eating up the last bits, and we’re giving our kids…. well, not a whole lot. Because, after all, it wasn’t like we were going to use all that oil for anything other than a flight to Disney World or to manufacture anything more important than a new iPad.  It wasn’t like we were going to use that oil to build a wind turbine so our kids would have energy of their own, down the road, when they really need it. We were just going to waste it. Dumping it into the Gulf versus dumping it out our tailpipes? As far as our kids are concerned, it might be six of one, half a dozen of the other.

And that’s where Ship Breaker comes in. I wanted to write a story for young people set inside the consequences of our present. Life when the bill comes due, so to speak.   But beyond all that disaster stuff, I also wanted to write an adventure story, because, if you can’t tell by now, I’m sort of depressing to hang out with.  I even depress myself.  So I wanted Ship Breaker to be gripping and pulse-pounding, instead of relentlessly depressing. And I also wanted the kids in my story to have a chance at winning. I mostly won’t write an upbeat or hopeful story for adults, because we so clearly don’t deserve it, but for young people, who haven’t yet started screwing things up, I wanted to at least provide the possibility of something better.  A window into a better future, so to speak.

So Nailer works as a ship breaker on Bright Sands Beach, tearing apart oil tankers for scavenge quota, and fighting to survive in his brutal broken world.  But out on the waters of the Gulf, he can see beautiful high-tech clipper ships sailing past. They’ve got high-altitude parasails and hydrofoils, and they’re fast and they’re sleek, and they’re completely unlike the ships that he tears apart every day. They’re right there, in his sight, but just out of reach. And if he’s smart enough and lucky enough, he might find a way to get out to them.

—-

Ship Breaker: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Paolo Bacigalupi on Twitter.

Modern Marriage

There’s an interesting interview in Salon today of author Tara Parker-Pope, who has written a book on marriage, called For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, in which the author looks into the science of what makes marriage work over the long term. I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to it, but I found the interview interesting, particularly this part, in which Parker-Pope discusses the oft-quoted 50% divorce rate:

The 50 percent divorce rate is really a myth. The 20-year divorce rate for couples who got married in the 1980s is actually around 19 percent. Everyone thinks marriage is such a struggle and it’s shocking to hear that marriage is actually going strong today. It has to do with how you look at the statistic. If the variables were constant, then a simple equation might work to come up with the divorce rate. But a lot of things are changing. And it is true that there are groups of people who have a 50 percent divorce rate: college dropouts who marry under the age of 25, for example. Couples married in the 1970s have a 30-year divorce rate of about 47 percent. A person who got married in the 1970s had a completely different upbringing and experience in life from someone who got married in the 1990s. It’s been very clear that divorce rates peaked in the 1970s and has been going down ever since.

I found this comment really interesting because as a general matter, it conforms to my own anecdotal experience, which is that the large majority of my contemporaries who have gotten married seem to have stayed married; lots of Gen Xers are products of divorced parents but are not themselves divorced. It’s not 100%, obviously, nor do I think all divorces are bad things — I know folks for whom divorce was better than the alternative. But I do find generally speaking the people I know seem to have done better at staying married than the people in their parents’ generation.

But then as Parker-Pope notes, the people who got married in the 70s are different from the ones who got married in the 90s. My parents (who actually married in the 60s) were still in their teens when they got married, with high school educations, had two children in quick order, and were divorced in their early 20s. I and my wife got married in our mid 20s, which was actually earlier than most of my friends, who held off until their late 20s or early 30s, when I had a college education (and Krissy was getting hers), and we waited until four years in our marriage to have our daughter — a “lag time” between marriage and children which is also largely consistent with our friends. Statistically speaking, marriages like my parents’ (and others of their generation) are more likely to fail than marriages like ours (and others of our generation).

We shouldn’t get too self-congratulatory about this. One reason GenXers married later is that we spent a lot more time mucking about in our 20s; 25 was the new 18, as it were. Nor is any of this fundamentally generationally based, since statistically speaking the people who my age who married as our parents did (i.e., younger and less educated) experience more divorce, and I don’t doubt those in the 70s who married more like GenXers did (later, more educated) experienced less divorce as well. It’s not really about us as humans as it is about the circumstances of our lives, in which (ironically) our oft-divorced parents extended our adolescence along enough for a lot of us to actually grow up enough not to blow up a marriage.

But, you know. I’ll take that. I’m happy I’ve been married for a month short of fifteen years now — which is another way of saying I’m happy that I was mature enough when I did get married (and have gotten more so as I went along) not to screw it up — because I don’t doubt whose fault it would have been if the marriage had gone south. I’m glad many of my friends were in similar situations when they took the plunge as well, and that we’re all still at it. And I’m glad that many of those friends who for whatever reason found the first marriage didn’t take were still willing to try again. It’s good to be married, when you can.

The Final Frontier, in Film and in Real Life

FilmCritic.com has gotten its technical issues resolved, and this week’ science fiction film column is back at the correct day, which is a relief. This week, I use the occasion of last Friday’s shuttle launch to muse on how manned space flight has been portrayed in science fiction film — and where we go from here now that NASA’s manned flight program is at least temporarily coming to an end. As always, if you have thoughts of your own on the matter, leave comments there for the edification and delight of all.

Why “Punishing the Publisher” Usually Doesn’t

So, let’s say you’re a reader (which, because you are here, is a reasonable assumption to make). There is an author who has come to your attention and whose work you’re considering purchasing — but then something that the publisher of that work is doing regarding that particular book is annoying you. What is it the publisher is doing? Who cares? This particular detail is not important. What is important is that you’ve now decided you’re not going to buy that author’s work, in order to punish that publisher so that it will stop doing whatever thing  it’s doing that’s annoying you. That’ll show them.

To which I say onto you: Congratulations, what you’ve really just done is screw that author.

Yes, yes. I know. That’s not what you meant to do. But chances are that’s what you actually did. And here’s why:

Take your average book publisher. Your average book publisher, over the course of a year, publishes a number of books, ranging from a few select titles in the case of a small press to literally hundreds of books in the case of a major New York publisher. They put money into all of these books and so each book carries risk, but in a general sense the publisher’s risk is widely distributed, so that the failure of one or more books can be compensated by the success of other books in the same general time frame. A bestseller can make up for several books which perform modestly or not at all. What’s more, the publisher has other books in the wings — which is to say, more opportunities on a continuing basis to recoup costs and make a profit. For a publisher, there is always another book.

Now, take your average author. Your average author sells a book a year, more or less, and is dependent on the success of that book in order to sell the next. Which is to say the author’s risk is generally not widely distributed but is sunk into a single book, or a couple of books at most. If the book fails to sell to expectation, the publisher is going to cut its losses and dump the author. When the author approaches the next publisher, that publisher is going to look at the author’s previous sales, and if those sales are too low, that’s going to make a difference in whether the publisher is going to take a chance on that author, regardless of the quality of the work at hand. Because publishing is a business, and previous sales count.

So, let’s return to the “I’m punishing the publisher” scenario. By choosing not to buy a book that you’d otherwise buy to send a message to a publisher, you’ve managed to hurt the publisher almost not at all — it’s one lost sale among a large class of potential sales, spread across a number of titles, in any given sales month, quarter or year. The author, on the other hand, has a much smaller pool of possible sales, sunk into a single work, once a year.

Okay, now pretend you’re a book publisher, and you’re looking at an author’s sales, and they’re not what you wanted. Which of the following two thoughts are you more likely to have?

POSSIBLE THOUGHT ONE: “Wow, I guess readers were punishing me for whatever policy of mine they didn’t like. I should change my ways and definitely not hold it against this author.”

POSSIBLE THOUGHT TWO: “Wow, for some reason clearly not involving me or anything I’ve done, this author just isn’t connecting with readers at all.”

I’ll give you a hint: Publishers are not generally known to be full of introspection, or of forgiveness for lower-than-expected sales.

So, on one hand, the attempt on the part of the potential reader to send a message to the publisher via the refusal to buy a particular work has succeeded. On the other hand, the message the publisher has received is “this author can’t sell.” To be fair, this has more to do with the publisher than with the reader. But that doesn’t change the result for the author.

If you will, allow me to suggest to you another course of action in situations like these: Rather than “punishing the publisher” by not buying a particular book you would otherwise buy, support the author by purchasing the book. Why? Because the support you give an author allows that author to have a better bargaining position with the publisher the next time the two of them negotiate a contract, and you know what? Generally speaking, authors like being able to make potential readers happy, and thanks to that there thing called “the Internets,” authors are often aware of the wishes and desires of their readers and will try to make them happy whenever possible.

But to do that, they need leverage. At the end of the day, the leverage that works best is an impressive sales record. Ask any author. Or, for that matter, any publisher.

For Those of You Who Missed the Live Show

Here’s a Web video of the Nebula Awards, starting with David Levine’s excellent keynote address about going to Mars. If you go to 43:18 in the video, you’ll see Toastmaster Alan Steele introduce me and then me give away the Best Novel Nebula to Paolo Bacigalupi. But the whole thing is fun.

Also for your edification, the MidAmericaCon Fan Photo Archive of the Nebula Weekend, with pictures taken by Keith Stokes. Below is a fine photo:

That’s me, Krissy and China Miéville, for those of you needing a program for the players. I am definitely the least gorgeous person in the picture. But I’m married to the most gorgeous (sorry, China), so I’m okay with that.

The Big Idea: Greg Van Eekhout

There are not a lot of books I am inclined to like just on title alone, but I have to tell you, Kid vs. Squid is one of them. Because, come on! Kids! Squids! You can’t lose. Fortunately, however, there’s more going on here than a truly excellent title, and author Greg Van Eekhout has come by to explain how an extended fit of author pique ended of generating a story of kids, squids, and Atlantis.

GREG VAN EEKHOUT:

I was feeling really out of sorts one day. I don’t remember why. Lumps in my Malt-O-Meal, insufficient sock elasticity, who knows? Probably the world had once again failed to recognize my special snowflake status. In any case, I got angry about it (whatever it was) and I decided I was going to show them. Who “them” was and what, precisely, I was planning to show, I had no idea. But I would show them by writing something. In fact, I would write a whole bunch of things, one thing a day, for as long as my anger lasted. I asked friends and readers on my blog to send me words to use as story prompts, and they sent seventeen of them, and so I wrote seventeen little stories on consecutive days. (And if you want you can check out the full output of my FROTHING RAGE here.)

The word for Day 7 was flotsam, which is a fine, fine word, and I started my morning writing session with my customary very large Americano, a lemon scone, and a big dollop of anticipation for the fun I’d have crafting a little story around this word.

So. Flotsam. Junk floating on the sea. What would be an interesting thing to find floating on the sea? People? Okay, go with that. And where are they going to land? Um. Um. Sip coffee, chew scone … a beachside boardwalk? Okay, go with that. From there, the notion formed very quickly that these people land on the beach at the beginning of every summer and they work the cotton candy stands and T-shirt shops and midway games and carnival rides and tattoo parlors. And then, after Labor Day, the sea calls them back and they trudge across the beach and walk into the water and their lungs fill with brine and, once again, they drown.

Post to blog, finish scone, go to Day Job, and possibly be a fraction less angry with the world.

Most of the stories I wrote for these exercises were quickly forgotten, several were sold to the very fine science fiction podcast Escape Pod, but “Flotsam” kept scratching at me. Many an idle moment was interrupted by my brain going, “Dude, wait, who are these weird flotsam people? Where do they come from? How’d they get to be flotsam people? Not cool to leave your own brain hanging like this, dude.”

I found these questions sufficiently scratchy that I decided to answer them in a book. Even a short novel requires a commitment to months or years of work, so you really do want to make sure the scratchiness driving you to write a novel reaches all the way down to your bones. This one was hitting marrow.

Obviously, this had to be a book about Atlantis. Just as obviously, this also had to be a book about the weird town where the Atlanteans washed ashore every summer. I grew up near Venice, California, which was plenty weird but not quite in the ways I wanted it to be, and this book would be my chance to create a town with just the right kind of weird. This had to be a town with human-jellyfish hybrids, and haunted arcades, and lost and forgotten dark rides beneath the wreckage of old amusement parks.

And I wanted it to be a middle-grade novel (middle grade being a publishing category aimed at readers between the ages of eight and twelve), because I wanted this to be a summer vacation book, a book with weird magic and absurd situations, a book about having the best friends you’ll ever have, a book mixing humor and adventure, and a book about beginning to become the person you will be for the rest of your life. I wanted to write the book I needed when I was eight or ten or twelve but couldn’t find.

Also, one day when I was on the beach in San Diego I spotted this kelp man stomping across the sand. And I wanted to write the kind of book where guys like this make sense.

In the end, I don’t know if I ever showed anything to that amorphous “them” who’d made me so angry, but I do know that I’ve never had a more joyously fun time writing than I did with Kid vs. Squid. If readers experience even a fraction of that fun reading it, then I will be a very satisfied writer boy.

—-

Kid Vs. Squid: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Greg Van Eekhout’s LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

Some Notes on Being Elected President of SFWA

So, as most of you are aware of by now, I was elected to be the incoming president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), and will ascend to the organization’s board of directors on July 1, along with new officers Vice President Mary Robinette Kowal (who moves over from her current role as the organization’s Secretary), Secretary Bob Howe, South/Central regional director Lee Martindale and Overseas regional director Sean Williams. Continuing on the board are Treasurer Amy Sterling Casil (who was re-elected to the post), Eastern regional director Bud Sparhawk and Western regional director Jim Fiscus.

In one sense it’s no surprise I was elected, as I was running unopposed for the position, and therefore was elected with the very large majority of votes. I was made aware that Baron Vladimir Harkonnen also garnered at least one vote, so make of that what you will. In another sense, of course, it’s deeply surprising, especially to me, who up until just a few years ago was not at all involved with the workings of the organization and was happy to be a rank-and-file member. I am not generally instilled with a deep desire to run anything other than my own career, so the path of getting to the point where I’ll soon be handed the keys to the spaceship, as it were, was not a path I would have naturally expected myself to be on.

A couple of things happened to get me to that point. The first was that through various events, I became aware that, in fact, the health and well-being of SFWA was important to me, in no small part because I think that at its best, the organization is and can be important and useful to science fiction and fantasy writers. If I really do want SFWA to be at its best, I should be willing to back up that desire with action. In the last couple of years I did my part to back up that belief when past president (now current VP) Michael Capobianco and current president Russell Davis asked me to serve SFWA in various capacities.

Through their work, and the work of the current board of directors, SFWA is implementing changes which I think will lead to the long-term health of the organization — and thus, by extension, will benefit its members. Some of the work will need to be completed in the term of the next administration, and I believed that it was important for someone who was philosophically aligned with those goals be in the office of President. As I was, I decided this was one of those “put up or shut up” moments.

Be that as it may, I know myself well enough to know that I would not be a good or effective president if I ran in isolation. I am not good at everything; as far as organizations are concerned I have some specific useful skills, but there are other skills the organization requires which I do not have, or which I can perform poorly at best. I wanted and frankly needed other people with complementary and reinforcing skills in order to be effective, and for whom my skills would be a benefit to as well.

And so the second thing that happened was that I was extraordinarily fortunate to run with a slate of potential candidates whom I believe formed a complete set of talents and skills necessary to run our organization. First among these is Mary Robinette Kowal, who will be SFWA’s Vice President, and with whom I held a number of long discussions prior to deciding to run. Mary and I are good friends, but this is not necessarily a plus when it comes to working together — indeed, I try to avoid working with genuinely close friends because I often find the work dynamic puts strains on the friendship. But in Mary’s case, I knew she had done invaluable work with the current board and with other creative organizations like SFWA, and had long admired her ability with process, her grace with working with others, and her overall knowledge, skill and intelligence. To say that I was eager to work with her even though she is a close friend is my testament to my belief in her skills. I would not have run for office if she had not run with me.

Likewise the other members of our slate who were elected. Secretary Bob Howe comes in with invaluable experience in public relations and a sharp understanding of organizations; Amy Sterling Casil brings her experience as treasurer and a knowledge of SFWA as deep as any on the board. Sean Williams is smart as they come and brings an understanding of the needs of building a writing career. Each of these is a great addition to the board — as is Lee Martindale, who did not run on our slate but whose commitment to SFWA’s membership is amply demonstrated by her previously serving as our organization’s ombudsman, and whose compassion and intelligence is a big plus for the board.

All of which is to say that as President, I’m going to get a lot of help from a lot of really smart and capable people (whose number also includes continuing board members Bud Sparhawk and Jim Fiscus). I’m glad I have it and I’m going to make sure I return the favor to them as well, so we all work to make SFWA everything it can be for our members.

If you’re wondering about what my plans are as president, the best thing to do is read my candidacy announcement from January. My plans haven’t changed since then. Most of these plans involve internal issues, which are really important to the organization but dead boring for the rest of you. I’m fine with this; I would be extraordinarily happy for SFWA not to have any major public drama during my administration, and to stick to what we know best and what we’re supposed to do: be an organization that benefits science fiction and fantasy writers.

Which tangentially brings me to my next point. As most of you know, I’m a pretty public person and also a very opinionated one, and a lot of what I opine on are subjects which relate to science fiction and to publishing and other media in which science fiction happens — all of which is in the bailiwick of SFWA. Or, to put it another way, I’m a big fat loudmouth who is used to saying whatever he likes. Because of that there’s some possibility of me causing a major public drama for SFWA simply by doing what I do around here.

So, to help minimize this potentiality:

  1. I’ll not be discussing active SFWA business here, particularly as it relates to issues currently under discussion by the board. I do imagine I’ll occasionally make SFWA-related announcements here (for example, to remind folks to do Nebula nominations, etc), but that’s not the same thing.
  2. I do believe in SFWA being open as possible about its work and its policy. It’s good for SFWA and it’s good for the public. But there are going to be things that a) will benefit no one in discussing too early and/or b) will need to be kept confidential for legal or other genuinely compelling reasons. “Open” does not mean “foolish.” Sometimes there will simply be things involving SFWA I can’t discuss publicly, and won’t.
  3. When I do have specific, SFWA-related business to discuss publicly in my role as President of SFWA, I am likely to post it on the SFWA blog rather than here. I may link to it from here, but I think it will be useful to make the distinction between me talking as SFWA President, and me talking as me, John Scalzi, freelance troublemaker.
  4. Conversely, when I am writing here on a subject related to science fiction, publishing or anything else that touches on SFWA’s mission — and even (or perhaps especially) when it’s on a subject not related to SFWA’s mission — I am writing as a private individual, not as the President of SFWA. My opinions here should not be taken to be the official view of the organization, nor a reflection of that organization’s policies.
  5. Furthermore, to avoid confusion, my own personal opinions I have, here or in person, may or may not ultimately align with official SFWA policy on any or all topics relating to writing, publishing, science fiction and so on. This is because “SFWA” and “John Scalzi” are not synonymous entities — one is me, and the other is an organization of science fiction writers from all around the world. The first of these does not run the second by fiat; additionally I will be serving SFWA and its members, not the other way around.
  6. Alternately, and to be more blunt about it, it’s one thing for me to blather on a blog; it’s another thing to craft policy for a writer’s organization, with the goal of that policy being to help the largest number of those writers build, maintain and grow their careers. Certainly as SFWA president my opinions will have an influence on policy, but there’s more than one voice on the board, and these voices belong to smart people invested in SFWA succeeding in its mission. These voices will not always agree with mine, because it’s entirely possible that, from the point of view of the benefit of SFWA members, I’ll be wrong. I know! Hard to believe. And yet it happens, from time to time.

To be clear I do expect to continue writing here on publishing, writing, science fiction, as well as other subjects which touch on SFWA’s mission, and I suspect I’ll continue to be me when I write about them. But you will understand when I tell you that from now until the end of my tenure how I write about them will be run through the filter of how what I write reflects on SFWA, and I’ll calibrate accordingly. If you can’t understand that, you’ll just have to accept it, because that’s how it’s going to work.

Some of you have expressed concern as to how my becoming president of SFWA will have an impact on my output as a writer. It’s entirely possible that it will, since being on the board of SFWA is a lot of work. However, in the short term you, the consumer of fine Scalzi product, will be unlikely to see much change. First, I’ll continue to write here, and expect to continue writing my column for FilmCritic.com. Second, the next novel, Fuzzy Nation, is already written and scheduled for next May. Third, my work on Stargate: Universe will continue through mid-2011 at the very least. Fourth, there are other things in process which should keep you all happy between now and July 1, 2011, when my tenure as president comes to an end. Fifth, hey, I don’t become president for six weeks yet. Could squeeze some stuff in there, you know?

Beyond that, for the last several months I’ve been retooling my personal work schedule to make sure I always have some time for creative writing, if only to keep myself from going completely insane. I’m optimistic it will work, although of course I’ll have to be in the thick of things to find out. But at the very least I’ve done what I can to make sure that I’ll continue to be a working writer even as a president of an organization of writers.

So, there you have it. Questions?

SciFi Birthday Wishes

Due to some technical issues my Filmcritic.com column came out a little late, but hey, better late than never, correct? So here it is: Some things I would wish for my birthday, as regards science fiction film. It was tied into last Monday being my birthday, you see.  These would be for my next birthday. And yes, one of them would involve both Godzilla and Cloverfield. I don’t ask for much! Honestly! Anyway, follow the (belated) link above and as always, feel free to comment there.

Quick Nebula Recap

This will be quick because it’s 3:30am and man, I’m tired:

Norton Award: Didn’t win, Cat Valente did, which makes me really happy because Cat’s a friend of mine, and she’s awesome;

Nebula for Novella: Also didn’t win, Kage Baker did, which is a fantastic tribute to an author taken too soon;

SFWA Presidency: I did win this one, so starting July 1, I’ll be running the joint. Insert evil laugh here, I’m too tuckered to do it myself.

Being elected SFWA president gave me the coolest moment of the evening, which being the guy who announced the Best Novel Nebula recipient, who was Paolo Bacigalupi, for The Windup Girl. It was awesome to help make someone that happy.

More later, but first: Sleep and then a long day of travel. Most likely catch you Monday.

Busy Busy Busy

I’ve already had several meetings today and will have more, and then I have to get dressed up and go to the Nebulas. So: Busy! Will see you all tomorrow. But in the meantime, please to enjoy this picture I shot yesterday, of a thing that happened at about 2:20pm:

Pretty, pretty.

And how are you?

The Big Idea: Alaya Johnson

Vampires occupy a special place in modern literature, and are often used allegorically by authors to cast a light on current social issues and inequities. But does this allegory run the risk of minimizing the same social issues its uses as a jumping off point? In today’s Big Idea, author Alaya Johnson ponders this question, and how she dealt with it in her Jazz Age vampire novel, Moonshine.

ALAYA JOHNSON:

Writers from Bram Stoker to L.A. Banks have used vampires and other paranormal creatures to evoke entirely human societal issues of racism and classism and general inequality. But when I had the idea for Moonshine, I was most excited by the way I could use the 1920s (and the rump-end of the Progressive movement) as a dynamic period in which to integrate issues of oppression with supernatural creatures. In my world, these are mostly vampires, the most hated and discriminated-against group, but also include djinni, faery, golems and other creatures from the traditions of the many immigrant groups living in New York City during its Jazz Age.

I also liked the idea of using the 1920s to highlight the vast disparities between the rich and the poor–to pull back the curtain a little from the image of glamorous frivolity that most of us have of the “roaring” twenties, and show that things were bad for plenty of people long before the crash and the Great Depression.

I will say upfront that Moonshine has a fairly light tone and a not-inconsiderable focus on romance, so if that’s not so much your thing, caveat emptor. But I tackled those issues of rendering people “Other” as seriously as I could. The first thing I decided was that even though I was going to be exploring the oft-used trope of “vampires as an oppressed minority” (Charlaine Harris, anyone?) I wasn’t going to have them replace the various immigrant and minority groups who were actually oppressed in the twenties. The act of replacing real oppressed groups with fantastical, over-idealized (or over-demonized) ones is problematic for a lot of readers. Mostly, I think, because it implies that real racism (and sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.) aren’t big enough problems to deal with on their own merits.

I tend to divide most paranormal stories (particularly vampires stories) into two broad camps: Society Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are real and known to society) versus Secret Vampire (a.k.a. Supernatural creatures are secret and only known to a Select Few). So, the television shows Buffy and Supernatural are examples of the latter, while True Blood (the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries) and the Anita Blake series are examples of the former. While the racism metaphor can be evoked in Secret Vampire stories, it’s far more prevalent in Society Vampire stories. In True Blood vampires have “come out of the casket” and appear on CNN arguing for equal rights. This can be funny and illuminating if handled well, but I think it walks a fine line, because too much focus on the fantasy oppression at the expense of actual, lived-by-humans oppression can have effect of making oppression itself seem like a fantasy scenario and not deadly reality.

Which brings me back to Moonshine. I wanted to find a way to integrate the experiences of historically oppressed groups with my fantasy history of supernatural oppressed groups. But I also felt like I was writing in dialogue with the truly massive body of paranormal fiction that has been published in the past decade. I don’t claim to be an expert on modern vampire fiction, but most of the hero(ine)s have attitudes towards paranormal creatures that are outright bigoted and jingoistic.

The history of immigrant discrimination (particularly in the twenties) felt particularly apt to me, because it seemed to me that the attitudes towards vampires in these works follow similar faulty logic: “Some vampires are evil and kill people, therefore I have a divine/moral/foreordained right to judge–and kill–them preemptively.” To me, the moment that Buffy showed that a vampire could redeem himself without a soul (Spike), they had effectively given the game away for the morality of Buffy’s actions. And yet the show refused to acknowledge what it had done.**

Arguments against full protections for immigrant groups often go the same way. Indeed, no need to reach back into the Jazz Age when we have the horrifying example of Arizona in 2010. Immigrants commit more crimes, defenders say. If you’re Lou Dobbs, you apparently think that they’re also literally unclean (carriers of infectious diseases). Because of these spurious claims to higher rates of some undesirable traits, defenders of draconian anti-immigrant measures justify the blanket targeting of all immigrants, legal or otherwise.

The inherent injustice of this is apparent to a good many people without the fantasy context, but at least as far as I could tell, it was missing in the literature. So I wrote Moonshine in many ways as a response to the Anita Blakes and Buffy Summerses of the paranormal fantasy world– to show (hopefully) that it’s possible to use the metaphor without minimizing the real experiences of oppressed groups and also to take the issue of that fantastical oppression seriously.

As my main character would say: Vampires are people, too!

**As an aside, I think that was why Whedon completely screwed up the end of the sixth season–unwilling to follow-through through on the fascinating, if dark, logical arc of the story (and the worldbuilding), he had to twist both Spike and Buffy to fit the old categories of “good with a soul” and “bad without a soul” into which he had long since written far too much ambiguity.

—-

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

Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit Alaya Johnson’s blog.

The Greatest Poll of All

Something to keep you occupied whist I am off the Internets today:

Just in case you need help:

Don’t say I don’t love you, man.