Monthly Archives: September 2010

Awwwww.

Whatever reader Ed Powell decided to name his new kitty after one of my characters, so naturally I felt I should show you a picture of said adorable creature. Meet Zoë:

Ed writes:

Her story is that, about two months ago, she was a kitten found behind the local Applebee’s which I frequent.  One of the managers took her home, took her to the vet and got her cleaned up.  The problem was, her existing cat didn’t like having a bouncy youngster around, and her husband named the kitten “Gone”.  So, she knew I was looking to adopt a new cat (having had to put my eldest cat down about a year ago now).  So, new kitten.  Had her for a bit over a month now.

She’s definitely a keeper, Zoë is. And of course, heaps of good karma go to Ed for helping out a kitten in need. Here’s to a long and adorable life. Her namesake would be proud.

Technical Note (Update: Mail From Last 24 Hours Gone, Please Resend)

Apparently my e-mail is acting funky today. I’m trying to fix it, but for now if you sent me e-mail in the last 24 hours I may not have gotten it.

Update: My e-mail box was basically totally locked up so I went ahead and reset it. Which means that if you sent me e-mail in the last day, it’s probably gone forever and unread. If it’s really important, go ahead and resend it. If it’s not really import, shed a tear for it and move on. I will too. It’s hard, I know.

How to Lose the House

Just for fun, I’m going to go off on the Democrats today.

Nate Silver over at Five Thirty Eight now estimates that there is a two in three chance that the House will go into Republican hands in the next session, and while my own (rather less statistically robust) estimation is that the odds are less favorable to the Republicans than that, neither is it particularly favorable to the Democrats. I think the House could go either way, and if the Dems do retain the House, it will be by a very thin majority, indeed.

I don’t particularly wish for the Republicans to take over the House, although if they do it’s not bad for me: John Boehner, presumptive House Majority Leader and the orangest man in American politics, happens to represent my district, and given the voter demographics here will do so until there’s nothing left of him but a small, russet melanoma. And I’m a well-to-do Caucasian man in any event, the demographic which the GOP is prepared to prop up indefinitely at the expense of all of the rest of you. Sorry about that. But if the GOP do take the House, it won’t be because Americans actually prefer the current Republican platform, which can be summed up as “let’s forget 2008 ever happened,” but because the Democrats have been so woefully incompetent on so many levels.

Not in passing the legislation they have, which they were in fact elected to do — and if you plan to say in the comments “but Americans didn’t want that legislation,” please jam it back into your insipidly partisan brain hole. Obama was pretty damn clear what his intentions were when he took office, and the American people were on board enough to give his party large majorities in the House and Senate. Where the Democrats have shown complete incompetence is in how they went about their legislative agenda (i.e., like unheardable brain-damaged stoats), and how they’ve allowed the GOP — and its crazy nephew from the attic, the Tea Party, as well as its bullhorn Fox News — to frame everything they’ve done as one step short of eviscerating live kittens and feeding noisily on their carcasses on live TV.

Really, this just completely appalls me: That a political party handed one of the largest legislative majorities in decades can do what it was sent to do by voters in such a manner that it seems both defensive and apologetic for doing so, and has allowed the party which was swept from power for being to political intelligence what late-era Hapsburgs were to genetic robustness to potentially crawl back into power, not on the strength of its political ideas but on its ability to exploit the Democrats’ weaknesses in organization and communication.

And some Democratic partisans will say, but, you don’t understand. The GOP and all its various offshoots and media abbetors, they’re just so mean. To which I say: Really? This is somehow a surprise? Of course they’re mean — they’ve got nothing else. The GOP has no actual and verifiable legislative plan, nor is it currently smart enough to come up with one. What you’re left with when you’ve got no brain is shaking your fist and yelling at the clouds for being socialist. The GOP can’t help themselves doing this any more than they can help themselves thinking that the best way to cure diphtheria is to give a fund manager a tax cut. For god’s sake, this has been the GOP strategy since at least 1994, when that bilious creature known as Newt Gingrich erupted out of the back benches with his strategy to turn the word “liberal” into the moral equivalent of “pederast.”

Given the paucity of intellect in the GOP, you can’t really blame it for running back to this strategy over and over, especially when it works. What you can do is blame the Democrats for continuing to fall for this shit, over and over and over again. The reason it works is because the Democrats can’t or won’t call stupid stupid; they keep trying the “let’s be reasonable” thing against people working hard so that the sentence “OBAMA IS A NIGERIAN ISLAMO-SOCIALIST WHO’S GOING TO MAKE YOU GAY MARRY AN ANCHOR BABY”  doesn’t strike 20% of Americans as evidence that something in the utterer’s brain has just exploded. You can also blame the Democrats for doing a piss-poor job of reminding voters that what they’re passing in Congress is what they were sent there to do. And you can also blame them for not doing the one thing the GOP actually does remarkably well, which is keep its caucus in line and on message and voting the same way on the things that actually matter.

And as it happens, I do blame the Democrats for this. In a sane world — in a world where the Democrats had enough political acumen that they couldn’t only get Congressional majorities when the GOP had screwed things up so badly that even the dimmest of voters could no longer ignore the damage — we wouldn’t be talking about the very real likelihood that the GOP, this GOP, arguably the least intellectually and legislatively impressive GOP in the history of that august party, might take back the House. That we are talking about is really is all down to the Democrats. If they lose the House, it won’t be because the GOP deserve to have won it. It’ll be because the Democrats simply weren’t smart enough to keep it.

That would make them, in fact, stupider than the modern GOP. The mind reels.

Changing the World, One Science Fiction Movie at a Time

Over at Filmcritic.com, I am asked: Can a science fiction movie really change the world? My answer — which as you may guess from the photo does involve Star Wars in some way — awaits you there. As always, if you have something you’d like to add to my ruminations, the comment thread there years for your input. Do not disappoint the comment thread!

Just Arrived, Hiatus Catching Up Edition

When I wasn’t writing on Whatever over the last few weeks, books were still coming in. Rather than try to briefly encapsulate each of these books, which would take, like, forever, what I’ll do here is post pictures of the books that came in and let you see what they were. In each case, the book is either newly released or will be released by then end of the year (mostly). Check your favorite book retailers for more details. Some of these will be featured in upcoming Big Ideas (and some were featured in recent ones, too).

If you can’t see the titles/author of the book, click on the picture and it’ll take you to a larger version of the picture.

I’ll start doing the “Just Arrived” feature in its usual format with the next installment.

The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

Anthologies are over the place (for which writers are grateful, because, hey –someplace to send those short stories), and just as every novel has a genesis, so too does every anthology have a small nugget of inspiration… followed by the slog of actually getting the damn thing out. Nick Mamatas, co-editor of the new Haunted Legends horror anthology, is here to give you an editor’s-eye view of the anthology-building process, from idea to completion, and what it really takes to put out these story collections so many of us love so well.

NICK MAMATAS:

For many a horror writer, there is no holiday season quite so wonderful as Halloween. The trees turn skeletal and the nights long, the lawns of the neighborhood are decorated with plastic and latex spectacles, candy gets somewhat more interesting, and for about six weeks bookstores even pay attention to the genre. For this horror writer, though, Halloween is just tedious. Horror movies aren’t scary, gross costumes and props make me roll my eyes (and often smell funny), and little on this planet is more annoying than someone who thinks he or she is “edgy” because Halloween is a favorite holiday. Yes, all sorts of six-year-old girls rocking pink princess outfits every October 31st are just as edgy. Also, part of my Halloween problem can be found in bookstores—as horror fiction is a hard sell, many stores instead stock volumes of regional “true” ghost stories and local legends for their seasonal displays.

There’s one or more such book for every two-stoplight town and stretch of river. Some of the stories are less regional than universal—every dogleg road has a phantom hitchhiker, there isn’t an old lake in America not filled with the tears of an Indian princess. The better titles offer a bit of local color and photography, though most pictures therein are accompanied by breathless captions that confuse lens flair or dust with the “orbs” that appear in haunted graveyards when believers show up to take snapshots. That’s the major issue with these books of “true” ghost stories; with the very occasional exception (e.g., the wonderful Joseph A. Citro) they’re almost always written by credulous weirdoes. Despite the low quality of this subgenre, the books keep on selling, at least for a month and a half every year.

That was on my mind in the beginning of 2007 when I received a letter from the Horror Writers Association, a group of which I was then a member. They were putting out a mass call for pitches for a new HWA-branded anthology. Years ago, the HWA had a number of anthologies edited by legendary figures such as Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, but with horror in the doldrums the group was ready for any bright ideas. Mine was simple enough: regional ghost stories/legends written by real writers instead of by the neighborhood kook. We’d call it Haunted Legends. It had a lot of commercial possibilities: major presses publish ghost story books, as do the larger independent and regional houses. If it wouldn’t sell as fiction, we could position the book as non-fiction. And it would fit with those front-of-store dumps that so annoyed me every year.

However, the HWA had a problem with the pitch: I wasn’t famous. (Apparently the group’s publication committee thought only famous people would have good ideas.) Could I find a co-editor? A famous co-editor amongst the members of the Horror Writers Association? Actually, given the number of famous editors in the HWA, this was very easy and I immediately wrote to the best, and indeed, the only sane choice—Ellen Datlow. She was pleased to sign up.

In the end, we didn’t publish Haunted Legends under the HWA aegis. After the HWA, its agent, and its book packager took their cuts, Ellen and I would have been working for the sort of money one more typically makes by stealing the tip jar from a flaming Starbucks.  The HWA has done very well with the other idea that had been developed from that initial call for pitches: the humorous horror anthology Blood Lite. Ellen took the concept to Tor and after the usual delays, we had a deal.

We wanted Haunted Legends to not only feature stories of the highest quality, but to offer stories of all sorts and from around the world. Ellen Datlow’s Rolodex was more than sufficient to guarantee the best stories by the best writers, but to make sure no scary rock was left unturned—and because of a little promise I made to myself when I first started submitting short stories for publication a decade ago—I opened Haunted Legends to unsolicited submissions. I also decided to solicit a few folks that may not be known to readers of horror or ghost stories; experimentalist Lily K. Hoang and the mainstreamish fantasist Carolyn Turgeon were two of the writers I was thrilled to tap.

Reading slush was an experience that revealed certain trends. At around the same time we opened for submissions, I announced that I was moving to California to take a job editing Haikasoru, VIZ Media’s imprint of Japanese SF and fantasy in translation. A few dozen submitters got the idea that Haunted Legends was a book of Japanese ghost stories. I received nine different stories about Hoichi the Earless alone. (We do have a story with a Japanese theme, Catherynne M. Valente’s “15 Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai”, but I didn’t need to read a million of ‘em on the way.)

We’d also expressed that we simply didn’t want recitations of local legends, but revisions of the same, a guideline many readers found sufficiently confusing that they just ignored it. And we got some email from cranks who insisted that “ghost stories” had to involve the spirits of deceased somehow bedeviling the living, and so what sort of morons were we to mention, oh, the Jersey Devil in our guidelines? The sort of morons editing our own book, thanks for asking.

In the end, after I shared about twenty-five stories with Ellen—some I liked, some just because the authors were known to us and I thought she should see them—we selected stories from Carrie Laben, John Mantooth, Steven Pirie, and Stephen Dedman for the book. With Dedman, a great writer of dozens of shorts with whom both Ellen and I had previously worked, we kind of slapped our foreheads and said, “Oh, we should have asked him in the first place!” but he was cool with gettin’ down in the slush, thankfully. Laben I’d published in Clarkesworld and was happy to see her work again in my mailbox. Mantooth was also familiar to me—I’d never bought one of his stories for the magazine, but his work always brightened my day and I’d tried to be encouraging in previous rejection letters. I was extremely pleased with “Shoebox Train Wreck.” Steven Pirie had managed to escape my radar entirely until I read his “The Spring Heel” (guess who that one’s about?) despite his publications in Black Static and other venues, so it was a great surprise to find. “This one’s full of whores!” I wrote to Ellen excitedly. “Oh boy!” she wrote back. A fifth story, Erzebet YellowBoy’s “Following Double-Face Woman”, came from Clarkesworld’s slush pile, which goes to show that sometimes editors reject stories based on “fit” rather than quality. YellowBoy’s story didn’t suit CW, but was perfect for Haunted Legends.

Then there were stories by the veteran writers—Ellen and I had little to do other than accept Ramsey Campbell’s “Chucky Comes to Liverpool.”  Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Folding Man” required no editing, just applause and a quick acceptance. We were also very happy to get stories by Gary A. Braunbeck, Kit Reed, Caitlin R. Kiernan and—dare I say those words loathed by anthology contributors everywhere?—many others.

One last treat: perceptive readers may have noticed the ongoing global economic crisis, so Tor will be releasing Haunted Legends simultaneously in hardcover (for collectors, libraries, and people who like to bludgeon others with books) and trade paperback (for the budget-conscious). And the book might even be on a table in the front of a bookstore or two. For me at least, Halloween just got a little happier.

—-

Haunted Legends: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Nick Mamatas’ LiveJournal. Follow him on Twitter.

Tales from Melbourne

Obligatory view from my hotel room.

From August 30 until the 8th of September, I was out of the country, either flying to, being in, or flying from the continent nation of Australia, because it was there that the World Science Fiction Convention was this year taking place, under the name AussieCon4. I had wanted to go because I was a Hugo Award nominee (for The God Engines, which did not win its category, alas) and because as President of SFWA, I thought it was incumbent on me to go and fly the flag for my organization. Aside from that I had always heard that upon arriving in Australia, you were greeted by locals who gave you a jar of Vegemite with one hand, and flung a venomous spider koala at your face with the other, and I wanted to see how much truth there was to that rumor. So off I went. And now, my report, with my main thoughts numbered for your convenience.

1. First, Australia — or more accurately Melbourne, the portion of that really vast country that I actually saw — is a lovely country filled with lovely people, and the only major problem with it that I can see is that damn, it really is tucked into the underside of the planet, isn’t it. Dayton to Melbourne, airport to airport, is a 25 hour+ trek, and while I understand this is not a patch on the travel time the first settlers (either aboriginal or European) had to expend getting to that continent, neither did they have to stuff themselves into an economy class seat next to a crazy old lady who spent her entire trip sneaking bites of a meat pie that smelled as if it were made of rotted platypus, which she had stored in a crocheted cloche hat. THIS IS TRUE AND HAPPENED, Y’ALL. And so while I sincerely hope to visit Australia again sometime, the next time I (or whoever flies me out) will be investing in a business class seat at least, with specific instructions not to be placed next to a Crazy Monotreme Hat Pie Lady.

Melbourne itself reminded me a great deal of San Francisco — it has that city’s slightly crazy, wintry-in-early September weather (although Melbourne to its defense does have the excuse of actually being in winter in early September), but also, in the city center at least, it also shares that other city’s walkability and slightly offbeat take on urban life. I felt very comfortable in Melbourne, which I suppose is not entirely surprising as it is often at or near the top of annual rankings for the most livable city in the world. But it’s one thing to be told a city is a pleasant experience, and another to actually have a pleasant experience in that city. I had the latter, and would be delighted to come to the city again one day.

If I had to mark down Australia for anything, I suppose it would be that day-to-day incidentals there are markedly more expensive; for example, the 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero I would pay $1.20 for here is $3.50 there, even when factoring in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar, and a candy bar that’s eighty five cents here is at least twice that there. I think if I were living in that country, I would do a lot of buying in bulk. But honestly, if the worst I can say about a country is that it’s not as cheap to live in as the US, which has 13 times the number of people in it, from my point of view the country is doing just fine.

Also, no, I did not have any Vegemite, nor was I attacked on the face or anywhere else by venomous spider koalas or any other creature. The country’s incipient yeastiness and/or deadliness is vastly overrated as far as I can tell.

Oh, wait, I did have one other complaint, which is that internet connectivity there is a bit of an appallingly expensive joke. When I figured out just how much it would actually cost me to get a decent amount of connectivity down there, I bit the bullet and bought a wifi modem hooked into the local 3G network, off of which I could work both my cell phone (which uses a different cell phone protocol than what is used in Australia, but which has wifi capability) and my computer and iPod Touch, the latter of which being what I used to call home via Skype.

Having the wifi modem made me a wandering Internet hotspot, and I invited people to hover near me and check their e-mail, which they often did. So if you were at AussieCon4 and you saw a bunch of people standing close to me, it wasn’t because I am awesome and people want to be with me; it was because I was jacked in to the IntarWeebs and they wanted to be too. No, no. Don’t try to tell me they actually do like me. I don’t need your pity.

My autograph line. Squee!

2. AussieCon4 itself was a quite enjoyable convention with some structural issues, not all of which were directly the fault of the convention. On the positive side of things, with one notable exception (which turned out all right in the end), all of my panels and programming went off without a hitch, and more than that there wasn’t a single panel on which I felt I was wasting my time, or the time of the audience. It’s a rare Worldcon that I feel that about, not because Worldcons are in some way evil but because I tend to do a lot of programming at Worldcons, and odds being what they are, if you do a lot of programming you’re going to end up with a bum panel or two (or in the case of LACon in 2006, where at one point I was about ready to assassinate several jackass panel audience members, at least three). So the fact I came out off all of my programming feeling happy really is cause for celebration. Well done, AussieCon4.  Likewise, the Australian and New Zealand fans I met were all quite lovely and made me feel appreciated for hauling myself up on their shore.

That said, it was pretty clear that a bunch of the behind the scenes stuff was not exactly going smoothly. One major problem was that at the last minute — and by this I mean literally the last minute, as in the very morning of the beginning of the convention — the feckless management of the convention’s “party hotel,” the Crown Plaza, decided that it wasn’t down with the concept of room parties and essentially ordered them closed. More particularly, it decreed that after 8pm, no more than three people could be in a “hospitality suite” at a time, and that after 11, no one was to be allowed on the hospitality floor who was not a guest of the hotel itself. When I was informed of this, my first comment was “Really? And will all guests be made to keep at least one foot on the floor at all times as well?”

This last-minute dick-headedness by the Crown Plaza management annoyed me in no small part because SFWA had its own hospitality suite on the party floor and we were planning a meet-and-greet of our own, and then suddenly our suite went from being in the heart of convention party central to being the only hospitality suite open on a floor that no longer had any parties (and so to which no one came), and to which our members couldn’t always get to — I know of at least one time where a SFWA member was turned away by the hotel when he attempted to get to the SFWA Suite. I don’t blame AussieCon4 for this state of affairs — they were screwed by the hotel management, surely — but these things do have an effect. However, it’s definitely to the credit of the AussieCon4 folks and Antipodean fandom that despite these various structure issues the convention was still so enjoyable on the “let’s hang out and go to panels and see people” level of things.

3. I noted earlier that my own Hugo nominated bit of work did not take home a rocket, but if one is willing to overlook that massive flaw (which I am, because Charlie Stross won my category, and I’m a big fat sloppy fan of his), I think this year’s Hugo Awards were pretty damn successful, especially in the novel category, in which there was a very sensible tie between China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I could regale you with theories about how this tie came about, but in point of fact, who cares? The major thing here was fandom said “these both deserve the award” and then acted to have it happen. It’s excellent when justice occurs.

I was offered sympathy by friends because I didn’t take home the Hugo this year, but I can honestly say I don’t feel bad about it. One, I’ve already got a couple of them, which really does help to lessen the anxiety one feels about it. Two, it was an excellent field in the novella category this year, and as a nominee you (or at least I) prefer to be competing against excellence, even if it means someone else gets the rocket. Third, I didn’t get a Hugo at AussieCon4, but I did walk out of it as Toastmaster of an upcoming Worldcon, and, hey. That works just fine for me, as far as honors go. In all, I’m good with how everything played out.

I do want to point out that one thing I very much admired about this Hugo ceremony is just how quickly it went through its paces; I wasn’t looking at a clock but I’m pretty sure from start to finish was under two hours. This was wonderful, and thanks go to Hugo emcee Garth Nix for keeping things moving along.

4. As with every Worldcon, there were too many fun individual moments and people to count them all out, but at risk of boring you all more than I already have, I will point out three special highlights:

One, participating in the “Just a Minute” game show panel, masterminded by Paul Cornell and featuring me, China Mieville, Cat Valente, Ellen Kushner, Jennifer Fallon and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, each of whom had to discourse for a full minute on a given topic without repetition, digression or hesitation, any of these which we could be dinged for by the other panel members. This panel was so much fun I nearly peed myself. Some pictures and video of the panel can be seen here, and the best thing about it was that I won. Because I’m petty about these things, you see.

Two, going out clubbing on the night before the Hugos with Alaya Dawn Johnson, her paramour Eddie Schneider, and young master Mieville. Because you know what? Nothing will calm your pre-Hugo jitters like dancing your brains out until 2am. It was the first night before a Hugo ceremony that I actually slept soundly. Should I ever be nominated again, I know my plan of action. And before any of you attempt to mock me for the dancing, I’ll remind you that I have formal dance training and rhythmic skills so wild and alluring that that this woman, upon seeing me dance, felt compelled to meet me and marry me. So bring it, meat. I will smoke you.

Three, announcing the winner of the Campbell Award with Jay Lake (both of us being previous winners of the award) and having the honor of passing the plaque and tiara to Seanan McGuire. Here’s her take on the getting the Campbell, and I have to say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer and more fun person (which is not to say the other candidates are not also nice and fun. They totally are. Just equally). I think everyone who has won the Campbell feels a special kinship with others of our little tribe, so it’s a pleasure to be part of the induction process of the latest member.

In all: Lovely convention, lovely people, lovely city, lovely continent. I’m glad I got to go, and I look forward to going back one day. In business class.

State of the Scalzi

Because I know you are all endlessly fascinated with the trivia of my personal physical and mental well-being, here’s all the latest on me that happened while I was away.

* Physically, on the positive side, I’m happy to say that weight loss thing I’ve been working on (detailed earlier here) is working; I’ve gone from about 185 pounds down to 172. I originally thought I had been starting at about 180, but I got a new digital scale which revealed my old analog scale was off by about five pounds. It was mildly depressing on a psychological level to discover I was five pounds more overweight than I thought I was, but on the other hand, it was also more motivation to pare off the pounds.

The weight loss adventure is in fact delightfully undramatic — I eat less (and better), I exercise more, I lose on average a pound a week, more or less — but I do suppose weight loss should be undramatic, all things considered. I figure I have about another ten pounds or so to go; hopefully I’ll get there before the month-long calorie-fest known as the holiday season. We shall see.

* On the negative side, physically speaking, I’d been noticing some soreness in my right hip that was above and beyond “flabby person who doesn’t exercise moves around and gets a pain” soreness. So I went and scheduled a physical, at which I learned that while generally speaking I am in inexplicably good physical condition for a slightly overweight dude who does almost no exercise, I also have a bit of osteoarthritis in my right hip.

And that’s when my youth ended and I knew I would die.

Well, no. It wasn’t as bad as all that. But on the other hand 41 is a little young for osteoarthritis, even the very minor case of it I am confronted with. It weirded me out for a couple of days, and also precipitated this conversation between me and my wife:

Me: So now my hip is always going to hurt just a little bit.

Wife: Poor baby.

Me: I’m a little depressed about this. I think I’ll have my mid-life crisis now.

Wife: You do that.

Me: So you don’t mind if I have an ill-advised fling with a 23-year-old.

Wife: Good luck with that.

It’s not true, in any event; my hip doesn’t always hurt a little bit. I have to kind of go out of my way to feel a twinge, a sort of rotation that is easily avoided most of the time (this did lead to me saying to my doctor “it hurts when I do this,” to which she replied “then don’t do that,” which just goes to show some jokes have a practical application). So far on a day-to-day basis it doesn’t present me with any major problems; hell, I went dancing for three hours non-stop when I was in Melbourne and the next day it was my muscles, not my hip, that were complaining. Be that as it may I will soon be scheduling an appointment with a physical therapist to find out what I need to do to care for and maintain the joint so it doesn’t get any worse any faster than it has to.

* Work-wise, as I noted before, my six-week break was quite productive, although it was largely productive on projects not related to book writing: I sent in notes to a whole batch of SG:U scripts, did my filmcritic.com column, worked with the SFWA board to pass some important stuff, collected stories and wrote my own for the Wheaton/Scalzi fanfic chapbook (about which I will have more details very soon), and did a big chunk of work on one of those secret projects that I can’t tell you about yet — which I still can’t tell you about yet, sorry, but when you do eventually find out what it is, oh man, you will totally think it’s cool. So I was busy.

* But, but, but… what about books? you ask, plaintively. Yes, well, don’t worry. When I wasn’t doing work I was thinking about what books I want to write and where they fit on my schedule. I am primarily a book writer; it’s what I’m best at and also what I enjoy doing the most. But I’m also — and gratefully — in a position where lots of interesting non-book-related projects are on my radar, and I want to be able to take advantage of those opportunities when they show up. So the real challenge for me these days is to build a schedule that allows me to write the books I want to write while still leaving me time to do these other things (and then, you know, sticking to that schedule, but let’s not get into that right this second).

The good news here is that during my break, I got myself a pretty good idea of the books I want to write over the next few years. Assuming that everything goes to plan (which is a big assumption; see the next paragraph), I’ll have books lined up through about 2017. The first of these, of course, will be Fuzzy Nation, which comes out next May, and you already know about that one. The rest you’ll learn about when I finish each particular book; I don’t find much value talking about these things until they’re done. I will say that I like the idea of having a vague idea of what I’ll be working on into the future; it gives my brain time to roll the stories around so that when I sit down to type them out I have some basic contours and idea to work with.

Now, bear in mind that as I write this, a few years ago I was absolutely sure my next big project was going to be a two-book science fiction series told as oral history, and even signed contracts to that effect, only to have Max Brooks come out with World War Z, and corner the market on science fictional oral histories. Two years ago, I was pretty damn certain that I’d be in the middle of a five-book YA series right about now, but then things fell apart when it came time to negotiate payment, so now that YA series lives in one of my office drawers. One year ago, Fuzzy Nation wasn’t on any publishing schedule anywhere, and now it is. So when I say to you that I have book plans that stretch out through 2017, that doesn’t mean any of it will actually happen. It just means I have plans. However, plans are useful. You at least have some idea which direction you’re going.

And again, if all goes to plan I will still have time in my schedule to do other things, either my own projects or the ones that pop up and get offered to me from time to time. And that is useful too, because you never know what’s going to come of that — see Fuzzy Nation as an example there. Basically, it’s nice to be able to say “I plan to do this, but if something else comes along, we’ll see what happens then.”

Annnnnd that’s where everything about me is at the moment.

My Big News: I’m Toastmaster of Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon

Some of you may be aware of my big news out of AussieCon4 (at which I had a lovely time, and about which I will discourse in an upcoming post), but in case you’re not, here it is:

I was offered, and have gleefully accepted, the position of Toastmaster of Chicon 7, the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago. It was announced at AussieCon4 a week ago, when Chicago won the 2012 Worldcon bid. At that time I was given the honor of announcing the other Chicon 7 Guests of Honor, who are: Mike Resnick, Author Guest of Honor; Rowena Morrill, Artist Guest of Honor; Peggy Rae Sapienza, Fan Guest of Honor; Jane Frank, Agent Guest of Honor; and Story Musgrave, our very special Astronaut Guest of Honor. It’s a hell of a lineup.

Being asked to be a Worldcon Toastmaster is a very cool thing. I’m sitting here giggling like a madman just typing out these words. One, it’s mind-boggling to be asked to be a Worldcon guest of honor in any capacity. Two, that it’s unspeakably brilliant that I get to do so for a Worldcon in Chicago, in which I have roots as a graduate of the University of Chicago, and which is one of my favorite places in the world. I often say Chicago is the quintessential American city (New York and Los Angeles being more international cities at this point), and every time I go there it does feel in some way like I’m coming home. So basically, speaking as a science fiction geek, this is the best of all possible worlds.

And you may ask, well, what does a Worldcon Toastmaster do? Well, unlike the other GoH positions, which consist of being fed grapes and chocolates by adoring minions whilst fans and admirers toss rose petals in your path as you are carried in an ornate palanquin to your panels and other events, the Toastmaster actually has to work. I will be taking part in the opening and closing ceremonies and in that year’s Hugo Awards ceremony, and will be also doing all sorts of other tasks during the convention itself (as well as, I’m sure, my own load of programming and the like). And over the next two years I’ll also be promoting and boosting Chicon 7 to others, getting people excited about the convention, and taking part, in whatever capacity the convention committee deems appropriate, in various planning and organizing.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my role, and in any event, I do have other things on my plate, like, oh, being President of SFWA and writing books and such. All the real heavy lifting of the convention will thankfully be done by others. But Chicon 7 head Dave McCarty has (rather all too cheerfully) told me how he plans to work me like a dog over the next couple of years, and I went in to the Toastmaster position assuming that I would be devoting a fair amount of time and energy to the thing. So, yes, I’m all in on this. And let me just say: Oh, man, do I have plans.

And now, what I really want to say about this, and to be sure that I am as unambiguous about this as possible, allow me to put the following in all caps and bold on its own separate line. Ready? Here it is:

YOU ARE SO VERY COMING TO CHICON 7.

You. Yes, you. Oh yes, you so very are. I want to you go over to your calendar right now and block off Labor Day Weekend 2012. Just go and block it off. Because that weekend you’re going to be in Chicago. And no, I don’t want to hear your excuses. You’ve got two full years to prepare, people. More than enough time.

What? Family plans? Then bring the family. They will love Chicago. It is chock full of family stuff.

Kids going to back to school? Bah. Take them to the Art Institute and the Field Museum. If the school won’t give them credit for that sort of unparalleled educational experience, then you should change schools.

Going to be on the run from the law? Dude, this is Chicago.

Hoping to be abducted by aliens that weekend? Come on: science fiction and fantasy convention. Far better chance for abduction than a lonely, cow-filled rural road, I’d say.

Giving birth? Well, aside from your very exact planning skills in planning a birth two years from now, for which you are to be congratulated, I suppose, I personally promise to dedicate a book to any child whose mother goes into labor while physically attending Chicon 7 (Note that you don’t have to actually give birth at the convention, although that would be one hell of a panel, wouldn’t it).

Planning a trip somewhere else for Labor Day? Not in 2012, my friend. In 2012, the tribe descends on Chicago. Chicago, a town of awesomeness. Chicago, city of brats and broad shoulders. Chicago, the place where the atom was first split — under a squash court. Chicago. Baby, you so want to go. The tribe won’t be the tribe without you.

Look, I’m totally serious here. This is my Worldcon, folks, and the appalling orders of fun we’re going to have there are going to be the sort which years from now, people will look back on and kick themselves that they weren’t part of. They will resort to lying about it: “What? Chicon 7? Oh, I was so totally there. No, really. I was in the back, man. Where you couldn’t see me.” Don’t be that guy. Be that guy who was actually in the back, the one that the other poor bastard is pretending to be. The one who he spends his night weeping that he isn’t.

You don’t even have to wait to register: Go to the Chicon site now and click on the “Membership” box and you can get yourself set up just like that. And then you will feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with knowing that no matter what happens to you between now and Labor Day Weekend, 2012, when that weekend rolls around, you’re going to be awash in awesome. And having that sort of certainty in your life is so reassuring in these troubled times.

Okay, enough hammering you over the head (for now). Just know that I’m tremendously honored and excited and can’t wait for 2012. And that I hope you’ll be there to share in the fun.

I’m Back, Plus: 12 Years

Ghlaghghee considers the existential horror of returning to the celebrity grind.

Hey, folks. I’m back. Yes, yes, I know. I missed you too. Let’s not get too blubbery about it, here, shall we. We’ve got stuff to do.

Now, before I get back to my usual shtick of random blatheration, a few administrative and procedural notes. Bear with me for the next several hundred words, please.

First, I want to thank, individually and severally, the guest bloggers who have kept Whatever so interesting in the last six weeks: John Anderson, Mykal Burns, N.K. Jemisin and Mary Robinette Kowal. I thought they did a wonderful job, and it was a treat for me to be able to pop over to my own site from time to time and be able to relax and just read what was being posted there. This is only the second time I’ve had guest bloggers, the first being more than five years ago, and from my point of view it couldn’t have gone better. After the first couple of days I said to myself, wow, I really don’t have to worry about anything, and then proceeded to enjoy my break.

Underpinning all of it, however, was the work of the interim site manager, Kate Baker, who managed the back end, wielded the Mallet of Loving Correction when necessary, and who popped in to add her own thoughts from time to time. This break of mine very literally couldn’t have happened without her help and effort, so my large and humble thanks go to her for all her work. She’s fab, and I recommend her for all your site managerial needs.

This six-week break was very useful for me. One, I was able to focus on a lot of work and clear the decks, as it were, of a bunch of stuff. Two, I got to vacation with family and to travel. Three, I was able to relax and not think about having to think about something interesting to say on a daily basis (which, surprise, is often harder than it looks). And fourth and finally, I was able to recharge and work up some new enthusiasm for writing here. Which is important, because as I often note, it’s not like I get paid for what I do here. When it starts being work, that’s a problem. So in all, the hiatus did for me what I hoped it would. I do love it when a plan comes together.

I’m coming back to Whatever, coincidentally enough, on the 12th anniversary of my beginning of it; I started it on this date in 1998, and did so, as I expect most of you know by now, to keep sharp in the column-writing format, having written columns for newspapers and other places before than and hoping to again at some point.

I do think if you had told me in 1998 that I’d still be doing this thing, I’d be a bit surprised (although not as surprised as I would be if you told me I’d be living in rural Ohio with a lawn the size of a New York City block, which is something which still freaks me out if I give it any sort of thought at all). A dozen years is a long time to do any one thing, and it’s especially a long time for me to write any one thing without being paid for it, mercenary as I am on that subject. But there really is more to life than just getting paid, and at this point, of course, I’ve reaped more than enough benefits from writing here that looking at Whatever as unrewarded effort would be flatly stupid and wrong. It’s been good for me psychically and career-wise, and that is its own reward. And anyway if I really wanted to be paid for what I do here, at this point I could easily put up ads. I haven’t, which I suppose says something.

Moving into year 13 and returning from a long break, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether I have any big changes planned for the site moving forward, and the answer is: no, not really. Content-wise Whatever has remained pretty constant over the years: It’s about whatever I want to write about, and I see no reason to change that. The Big Idea has settled into its own groove and while there are still plans to spin it off onto its own site one day, at this point I’ve got the process of it down well enough that I can run it here more or less indefinitely.

I am getting a little bored with the physical look of Whatever, which has looked more or less the same for three years now, and will probably fiddle with that in the near future in order to make navigating through it a bit easier. So that’s something you can look forward to. But it’s also something I have to think about a little more before I do it, in part because WordPress’ VIP set-up requires some extra hoop-jumping to make new designs work, and also because, well. I do screw up technical things, don’t I.

So the short form is that for now, I’ll just keep on doing what I’ve been doing, because it seems to work for me — and has for twelve years running now.

In any event. Hello again, again. It’s good to be back.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Goodbye

The sun has gone to bed and so must I.

I’ll try to make this as short and as sweet as I can as I return the keys to John.

Thank you. To all of you for making me feel at home for the short time I was here. It was an honor to meet and interact with some of the best and brightest the interweebs has to offer.

Thank you to Mykal, Mary, Nora and John (and Brandon) for wonderful guest posts during my stay.It was truly amazing to be surrounded by such esteemed company.

Lastly, a thank you to John for entrusting me with such a huge and humbling responsibility. I had an absolute blast.

Goodnight.

This Concludes Our Broadcast Day

Somewhat sad news for me, Whatever readers, but don’t worry. It ends on a happy note for you.

I’ve had a terrific time guest blogging here for the last six weeks, but as Chaucer said, there is an end to everything, good things as well.

I’d like to thank John for allowing the other guest bloggers and me the opportunity to take over the Whatever airwaves for a bit. It’s been a treat.

I’d like to thank John Anderson, N.K. Jemisin and Mary Robinette Kowal, as well. It has been an honor to be considered among such esteemed company. I hope we’re all able to meet in the real world, sometime soon.

I’d like to send huge thanks to Kate Baker for running the show around here in John’s absence. She kept this train on the rails, and did a great job wielding the Mallet of Loving Correction. Such a great job that I hardly noticed that mallet swinging at all.

Finally, the biggest thanks of all goes to you, Whatever readers. You’ve been kind hosts. It’s worth noting that in the last six weeks I’ve only posted one photo of a cat, yet you kept reading and commenting. I think it has been the commenting that has been my favorite part. It is true that Whatever readers are some of the best around (I’m not just sucking up here,) and I’ve really appreciated everything that you’ve brought to the conversation. Thoughtful responses, witty, maybe a little snark; I’ve even appreciated the opposing views, as they’re always delivered with respectful courtesy. So thank you, friends. It has been a pleasure to spend this time with you.

Here comes the good news. While this is my last post, John will be back tomorrow, and my guess is that after a six week break he’s got a lot to talk about.

Thank you all again. This has been a great time. I’m sure I’ll see you all in the comments section from time to time. Maybe I’ll see you on the Twitters, too. Occasionally I post something amusing (@mykalburns.) Should we happen to meet in the real world, I’ll look forward to that as well, but I ask that you please just come up and introduce yourselves; watching through binoculars from your car across the street is a little creepy.

My Life In Women’s Roller Derby

When John introduced the guest bloggers here several weeks ago, he mentioned that, among other things, I am a roller derby referee. It has also been said that I have more fun than anyone I know; probably more than anyone you know, too. By far, the most fun that I have is in roller derby.

I hear you thinking, “Roller derby? Like in the movie ‘Whip It?'” Yes, somewhat similar to that.

Photo of Mickispeedia by Stalkerazzi f/8

So often when I talk about roller derby (and I talk about it often,) I get questions like, “What’s roller derby?” And, “That’s a real sport?” And, “Awesome! I’ve always wanted to see that.” (That last one isn’t a question, but it comes up a lot. More on how you can see it live a little bit later.)

In answer to one of the most common questions, yes, roller derby is a real sport. Its origins date back about 125 years, but the most recent iteration began in 2003. Something I hate to even mention because people have a tendency to latch on to this idea (please don’t) is that in the 70s & 80s, roller derby was somewhat similar to WWE wrestling in that it was largely scripted, with predetermined outcomes and a lot of fake fighting. No more. Modern roller derby is a fast paced, aggressive, full-contact sport. There is nothing fake about it. Also, no fighting; there’s a rule against that.

Tough Cookies vs. The Swarm by Stalkerazzi f/8

If you were unaware of roller derby, I’m honestly a little surprised. What started out as a mostly underground sport is growing at an incredible rate. There are currently approximately 20,000 women skating in about 500 leagues worldwide. Wherever you are, there is probably a roller derby league near you. Just Google your area and “roller derby.” Then go watch and support your local league. You will not find a more exciting sport.

I know Whatever readers like books, so let me recommend a couple on the subject. First, if you’re a regular reader here, you’ve already met my friend Pamela Ribon (aka May Q. Holla.) She wrote a terrific novel called “Going Around In Circles,” which our mutual friend John featured in The Big Idea in April. Another great book which serves as a primer on all things derby from the history of the sport to a quiz to determine if you’re a derby girl is “Down And Derby: The Insider’s Guide To Roller Derby,” by my friends Jennifer “Kasey Bomber” Barbee and Alex “Axles Of Evil” Cohen.

The league that I referee is the L.A. Derby Dolls. While most leagues play on a flat track, the Derby Dolls have a banked track (the outer edges of the track are at an incline,) which makes the game faster and (if you ask me) more exciting.

The Derby Dolls have their own practice/bout facility, The Doll Factory. It is a 65,000 square foot former ice cream cone factory that has been fitted with a banked track, bleachers and stands for fans, video screens and score boards, and a giant disco ball-like mirrored roller skate.

The Doll Factory by Stalkerazzi f/8

Every few weeks a couple thousand screaming fans pack the house to see the most exciting sport around. They come to see incredible athletes who literally put their blood, sweat and tears into being the best at their sport that they can be. It doesn’t hurt that those athletes are attractive women skating really fast (25 mph+) and knocking each other down.

Being so close to Hollywood, the L.A. Derby Dolls are very lucky to have the best (all volunteer) audio/video production crew available. RaD (Research and Development) produce, among other things, our live boutcast on game nights, as well as amazing promotional videos. I promise you will not be disappointed if you click through to see examples of their work here and especially here.

While the skaters are certainly the stars of the game, I am most proud of my own team, The Enforcers. Quiet professionals, we are the referees who enforce the rules to ensure the safety and integrity of the game. Roller derby is a game and we’re having fun, but it’s a game that we are all very serious about. Like the skaters, we are at practice every week (sometimes several times a week) building skills, training on the rules, and constantly working to make sure we officiate every bout and scrimmage to the best of our abilities. It’s that level of commitment that make The Enforcers one of the most respected ref crews in the country. Worth noting: my team is undefeated; the refs always win.

Enforcers post-bout team photo by Stalkerazzi f/8

I’ve only really touched on the surface of what an incredible sport this is. I can tell you how exciting it is to watch, to be in the middle of that screaming crowd of fans, but you can’t really know until you see it for yourself. But, see it once, and you’ll be hooked; I was.


Photo by Shutter Thug

Find your local roller derby league and go see a bout. If you’re anywhere near Los Angeles (or coming for a visit,) come out to see the L.A. Derby Dolls. If you’re not in L.A., check the schedule (previous link) and watch the bouts live (and free) on the internet. Find me at the bout and say hello. Just ask for Third Degree Burns! and I’ll see you there.

(BTW, all of these photos are clickably gigantifiable, and look better large. Stalkerazzi and Shutter Thug are great photographers. Clicking will take you to their Flickr streams, where you can see lots of other fantastic roller derby photos.)

Postmodernism in Fantasy: An Essay by Brandon Sanderson

Today is my last day as site manager here at the Whatever.  As I prepare to hand the blog back to John, I thought I’d give you a surprise for making me feel so welcome. At first, I was going to tape bacon to my kids, but I figured someone would call CPS on me. Instead I’m happy to present Brandon Sanderson as a last-minute guest blogger! He has written a terrific and engaging essay concerning postmodernism in fantasy. Which is super fantastic as I’m taking multiple literature courses this fall. Thanks, Mr. Sanderson!

Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris,  the Mistborn trilogy, the Alcatraz series of novels and Warbreaker. He was personally chosen to complete the Wheel of Time series originally penned by Robert Jordan, with the latest installment due in November. If his packed panels and readings at Dragon*Con were any indication, he is an author well on his way to rock star status. If you haven’t jumped in and bought some of these books, you are truly missing out on wonderful reads. So without further ado, I’ll let him talk about his new novel, The Way of Kings.

You’re welcome.

POSTMODERNISM IN FANTASY

The Way of Kings is out. I’ve been thinking a lot about the novel, what it has meant to me over the years, and why I decided to write it as I did. I’ve had a lot of trouble deciding how to pitch this novel to people. It’s a trouble I’ve never had before. I’m going to explain why this one doesn’t work as easily. But I’m going to start with a story.

There’s a particular music video I saw quite often when working the graveyard shift at the local hotel. I worked that job primarily because it allowed me to write at work (I wrote some eight or so novels while sitting at that front desk, including both Elantris and the original draft of The Way of Kings). However, part of my job there was the do the night audit of the cash drawer and occupancy, that sort of thing. As I worked, VH1/MTV would often become my radio for an hour or so, playing on the little television hidden behind the front desk.

The video was by Jewel, and was for the song “Intuition.” We’ll pretend, for the sake of defending my masculinity, that I paid special attention for the literary nature of the video, and not because I have a fondness for Jewel’s music. And there was something very curious about this video. In it, Jewel transitions back and forth between washed-out “normal world” shots of her walking on a street or interacting with people, and color-saturated “music video”-style shots of her engaging in product promotion while wearing revealing clothing.

The tone of the video is a little heavy-handed in its message. Among other things, it is meant to parody rock star/music video culture. It shows Jewel in oversexualized situations, having sold herself out in an over-the-top way. It points a critical finger at sexual exploitation of the female form in advertising, and juxtaposes Jewel in a normal, everyday walk with a surreal, Hollywood version of herself promoting various products.

Now, what is absolutely fascinating to me about this video is how perfectly it launches into an discussion of the literary concept of deconstructionism. You see, Jewel is able to come off looking self-aware—even down-to-earth—in this video, because of the focus she puts on how ridiculous and silly modern advertising is. The entire video is a condemnation of selling out, and a condemnation of using sexual exploitation in advertising.

And yet, while making this condemnation, Jewel gets to reap the benefits of the very things she is denouncing. In the video, her “Hollywood self” wears a tight corset, gets soaked in water, and prances in a shimmering, low-cut gown while wind blows her hair in an alluring fashion. She points a critical finger at these things through hyperbole, and therefore gains the moral high ground—but the video depends on these very images to be successful. They’re going to draw every eye in the room, gaining her publicity in the same way the video implies is problematic.

Deconstructionism is a cornerstone of postmodern literary criticism. Now, as I’m always careful to note, I’m not an expert in these concepts. A great deal of what I present here is an oversimplification, both of Jewel’s video and of postmodernism itself. But for the purposes of this essay, we don’t have time for pages of literary theory. The title itself is already pretentious enough. So, I’ll present to you the best explanation of deconstructionism I was given when working on my master’s degree: “It’s when you point out that a story is relyin’ on the same thing it’s denyin’.”

That will work for now.

THIS APPLIES TO FANTASY

Before postmodern literature can start appearing in a genre (and therefore, before deconstructionists can start pointing out the irony inherent in that postmodern literature) you need to have a body of work with dominant themes and concepts. You need an audience familiar enough with those themes to recognize when they are being molded, changed, and built upon.

Fantasy (and the epic in particular) hit a postmodern stage with remarkable speed. Tolkien was so remarkably dominant, so genre-changing, that reactions to him began immediately. And, since so much of the audience was familiar with his tropes (to the point that they quickly became expected parts of the genre), it was easy to build upon his work and change it. You could also argue that the Campbellian monomyth (awareness of which was injected into the veins of pop culture by George Lucas) was so strong in sf/f that we were well prepared for our postmodern era to hit. Indeed, by the late ’70s, the first major postmodern Tolkienesque fantasy epic had already begun. (In the form of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.)

During my early years writing, I mixed a lot with other aspiring fantasy novelists. A great number of us had grown up reading the Tolkien- reaction books. Brooks, Eddings, Williams, Jordan. You might call us of the rising generation Tolkien’s grandchildren. (Some of you may have heard me call him, affectionately, “Grandpa Tolkien” when I talk about him, which is an affectation I think I got from a David Eddings interview I once read.) A lot of my generation of writers, then, were ready for the next stage of fantasy epics. The “new wave,” so to speak.

During those years, I read and heard a lot of talk about “taking the next step” in fantasy. Or, “making the genre our own.” It seems that everyone I talked to had their own spin on how they were going to revolutionize the genre with their brilliant twist on the fantasy epic. Unfortunately, a lot of us were a little unambitious in our twists. (“My elves are short, rather than tall!” or “I’m going to make orcs a noble warrior culture, not just a group of evil, thoughtless monsters!”) Our hearts were good; our methods were problematic. I remember growing dissatisfied with this (specifically with my own writing, which was going through some of the same not-so-original originality problems), though I couldn’t ever define quite why.

I think I have a better read on it now. It has to do with a particular explanation one writer gave when talking about his story. It went something like this: “Well, it starts out like every other ‘farmboy saves the world’ fantasy novel. You know, the plucky sidekick rogue, the gang of unlikely woodsmen who go on a quest to find the magic sword. But it’s not going to end like that. I’m going to twist it about, make it my own! At the three-quarter mark, the book becomes something else entirely, and I’ll play off all those expectations! The reader will realize it’s not just another Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s something new and original.”

There’s a problem in there. Can you spot it?

Here’s the way I see it. That book is going to disappoint almost everyone. The crowd who is searching for something more innovative will pick up the book, read the beginning, and grow bored because of how familiar the book seems. They’ll never get to the part where you’re new and original because of how strongly the book is relying upon the thing it is (supposedly) denying. And yet, the people who pick up your book and like it for its resonant, classical feel have a strong probability of growing upset with the novel when it breaks so solidly out of its mold at the end. In a way, that breaks the promise of the first three-quarters of the book.

In short, you’re either going to bore people with the bulk of the book or you’re going to make them hate your ending.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. I could be completely wrong about it; I frequently am. After all, I’ve often said that good writing defies expectations. (Or, more accurately, breaks your expectations while fulfilling them in ways you didn’t know you wanted. You have to replace what they thought they wanted with something so much more awesome that they are surprised and thrilled at the same time.) But I think that the above scenario exposes one of the big problems with postmodern literature. Just as Jewel’s music video is likely to turn off—because of the sexual imagery—people who might have agreed with its message, the above story seems likely to turn away the very people who would have appreciated it most.

Continue reading Postmodernism in Fantasy: An Essay by Brandon Sanderson

True Confessions of a Reading Addict, or, Geographically Inspired Reading, Anyone?

There were so many ideas for posts that I had at the beginning of this six-week guest-blogging run, but alas, the ratio of time-to-blog versus topics-to-blog was lopsided in the extreme.  Even so, it’s truly been an honor and a pleasure to stand on Scalzi’s Soapbox a couple of times a week over the past six weeks, and I’m especially grateful for everyone who took the time to comment on my humble offerings.  Cheers for putting up with me; this guest-blogging stint has been big fun from my perspective and has, I hope, served as an at least mildly entertaining diversion for you during Scalzi’s absence.

Scalzi is due back anytime now, so this is going to be my final post.  While I was thinking about what the topic of my farewell post should be, I wanted to come up with something as inclusive as possible, and I think I’ve come up with a topic that should prove to have the broadest appeal of my Whatever ramblings to date.

Why do I think that?  Well, because the topic at hand is reading.  As a self-diagnosed reading addict, I feel pretty confident that, of the common traits I share with everyone reading these words, all of us being readers (and very likely voracious readers) probably ranks pretty high on the list.  I don’t know about you, but for most of my life, I’ve often weighed (either consciously or otherwise) my leisure time options in terms of, “I could do X or I could read a book.”  More often than not, reading a book wins.  Simply put, reading is my drug of choice and I believe I qualify medically as an addict (and yes, I’m more than halfway serious when I say that).

I could get into lots of examples (reading while walking the dog for a mile every morning is the one that most people find especially noteworthy; a neighbor once remarked with evident good humor, “You know, it would be more impressive if the dog was reading”), but I’m going to focus on just one of my reading habits today.  For years now, one of my favorite reading habits has been what I’ve come to think of as geographically inspired reading, and based on that designation, it’s exactly what I expect you’d guess it is.  Whenever possible, when I travel, I try to select a book (or books) set in the city/state/country that I’m visiting, and bring it/them with me to read during the trip.  I’m not talking about guidebooks, mind you, I’m talking about novels or non-fiction works of history or journalism (ideally, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, but I tend towards novels more often than not when traveling).  So far this year, I’ve read geographically inspired books in New Orleans (Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke), London (He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott,  Making History by Stephen Fry, and as a pre-trip mood-setter, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine) and, most recently, on my Oregon vacation.

Contrary to my custom with geographically inspired reading, the Oregon trip didn’t start with a geographically inspired book because, well, because it was the week that Mockingjay came out, and I wasn’t going to wait any longer than necessary to dive into that sucker (say what you will about “juvenile fiction” if you must, naysayers, but The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins represents some of the best SF I’ve read in years); luckily, I was able to polish that one off pretty quickly, reading most of it on the flight from D.C.  The geographically inspired reading kicked in next, however, as I moved on to Greg Rucka’s Portland-set mystery, A Fistful of Rain.  The Rucka was the only book set in Oregon that I had on my “unread” bookcase when I packed for the trip, but I was tipped off by the friend with whom I was staying in Portland that James Lee Burke’s daughter, Alafair Burke, had set her first few mysteries in Portland.  Armed with that intel, the next day on my (first) trip to Powell’s, I picked up Judgment Calls, the first book in Burke’s Samantha Kincaid series.   Both books were gripping mysteries, which was a treat in itself, but the main point of geographically inspired reading is the setting, so to a large extent it was Portland that was the real star of those two books for me.

Which is the long way of saying that if you haven’t indulged in the practice of geographically inspired reading, I highly recommend that you do so, especially when traveling.  If you haven’t indulged in the activity already, you’ll just have to take it from me that it’s quite the reader’s thrill to read about places you may have just seen/visited (Powell’s was mentioned in both of the abovementioned mysteries, for example), and you’ll likely learn some things about the city/state/country you’re in that you’d have been unlikely to learn from any guidebook.  As well, based on something you may read in the pages of a geographically inspired book, you might even be inspired to alter your plans to fit in a trip to a site that hadn’t previously been on your radar.  I’ve done so, most recently last summer in Barcelona while reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Angel’s Game, and it was a singular thrill.  And geeky though such a thrill may be, I’m happy to take my thrills wherever I find ‘em, thank you very much.

So, to my fellow reading addicts out there … how many of you engage in geographically inspired reading?  Any other “true reading confessions ” you’d care to share with the group?  C’mon, I went first, so don’t be shy…

I Remember

I remember laughing in my blue Saturn at NPR as they discussed Bushisms. I remember carrying my infant daughter up the stairs to our house. I remember sitting on my couch, opening the bag of donuts. I remember turning on my TV to the Today Show.

At first it was awe. At first it was confusion. At first it was an accident.

Matt Lauer interviewed a woman who described the first tower. The first plane. The first fire.

Then the second hit. Live on TV. Live in front of the world.

Confusion turned to fear, anxiety and determination.

I left the uneaten donuts, the live TV, scooped up my daughter and raced back to the school to get my son. Never noticing how blue and beautiful the sky was that day.

The sky is beautiful and blue today and I remember.

To all those who were lost 9 years ago, to those who have served us and protected, to those who raced in when lower Manhattan was covered in ash, I remember you.

How could I ever forget?

To those who’ve preached tolerance amidst fear and misinformation, to those who’ve started to rebuild, to those who’ve carried on despite their losses, I thank you.

How could I not?

It is more than a moment of silence. It is a lifetime of memory and slowly healing wounds. It is a day for every American, every citizen of the world, every human to reflect on an event that will never be forgotten.

How could we?

A Conversation with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions

Top Shelf Productions logo

Even if you’ve unfamiliar with the books published by Top Shelf Productions, odds are very strong that you’re familiar with big-budget Hollywood movies based on some of their books.  Mind you, I don’t think that anybody in their right mind would argue that those movies are the equal of their source material, but it’s worth noting for the uninitiated that both the Johnny Depp-starring From Hell and the Bruce Willis-starring The Surrogates were originally published as comics by Top Shelf.  And the fact that the former of those works was produced by a pair of comics veterans (and certified geniuses, if I may be so bold), and the latter was produced by a pair of relative newcomers is a pretty good representation of the breadth of the aptly named Top Shelf Productions’ high quality offerings.

Brett Warnock of Top Shelf ProductionsNote: Regular readers may recall that I mentioned in my last post that I had dinner with my friend Brett Warnock, co-publisher of Top Shelf (along with his business partner Chris Staros, who is also a friend) while vacationing in Oregon last week, so I make no claims as to objectivity with regard to Top Shelf  but, for what it’s worth, I was already an admirer of Top Shelf (and Chris Staros’ The StarHouse, which you’ll see referenced below) before I ever had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friends with Brett and Chris.

But enough with the prelude, right?  Let’s get to the interview…

Since SPX is taking place this weekend in Bethesda North, MD, and since Top Shelf has a long and happy history with that most excellent celebration / showcase of indie comics, SPX seems like a natural starting place.  It occurs to me that in addition to an unbroken streak of …what is it now, a streak of a dozen or more annual SPX appearances as an exhibitor?…  that it was at one of the famous post-SPX Sunday pig roasts of yore at then-Executive Director Chris Oarr’s house that you and Chris Staros first talked about joining forces and expanding the Top Shelf brand, wasn’t it?

Well, yeah, we’ve been at every SPX (either me and/or Chris) since 1996.  And that year (1996), me and David Lasky were the only two people from the West Coast to attend.  Chris Oarr worked me hard, but he knew he had a good thing going, and he also seemed to sense that I was heading somewhere myself.

And yes, it was that same year, while I was staying at Chris Oarr’s house (up all night stuffing bags and menial labor), that Staros approached me about partnering up.  Since at the time I was essentially out of money, it took me all of ten seconds to respond with a resounding YES!

(That’s also when I met you, Ian Sattler, and Greg Bennett.  I remember chatting it up with Greg at the pig roast, while we all beat up on a piñata.  Shannon Wheeler was there, as was Jeff Smith.)

Ha!  I’d forgotten the piñata!  Good times.  I understand that you won’t be in attendance personally this year, but Top Shelf will be well represented by Chris, along with Leigh Walton.  What’s on the docket for this year’s show?  Which artists will be appearing in the Top Shelf booth this weekend?

Since I won’t be there, I’m going to crib from Leigh Walton’s blog on our SPX 2010 slate:

BB Wolf and the 3 LPs cover“This year Team Top Shelf has a healthy blend of creators, both Top Shelf veterans and those who are new to the family this year, but all have been in comics for years!  Writer and retailer Johnnie “JD” Arnold is coming out to sign his debut graphic novel with art by Rich Koslowski, BB Wolf and the 3 LPs, as well as the awesome new soundtrack album of blues-rock songs written by the BB Wolf himself!  SPX vet (and award-winning minicomic auteur) Will Dinski joins us to sign his cool, clean, and creepy Top Shelf debut Fingerprints! And Eisner-Award-winner Nate Powell joins the party as well, guaranteeing some karaoke stardom as well as signed copies of his masterpiece Swallow Me Whole.  Rounding out the team are Chris Staros and Leigh Walton, ready to see old friends and make new ones.

All this PLUS Eddie Campbell’s nomination for the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist! Will he win? We’ll find out Saturday night.”

Moving on from SPX (while at the same time looking forward to it … that’s the Small Press Expo, taking place this Saturday and Sunday, September 11-12 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, kids, and as always, all proceeds benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund!), let’s look back at another important annual event for Top Shelf: Comic-Con International in San Diego.  I trust that, as always, it was all-hands-on-deck for the Top Shelf gang at The Big Show.  How was this year’s show for you?  What were the big Top Shelf premieres and announcements at the show?  Any fond (or not-so-fond, for that matter) memories of Comic-Con 2010 you’d care to share?

The show seemed to start off slowly.  All of Hollywood’s events and panels are starting to suck people off the floor.  But lo and behold, by the end of the day on Sunday, we’d done alright.

We had several debuts, and a fleet of our authors were on hand pimping their wares.  New books included:

- BB WAX: A Collection of Alternative Manga coverolf and the 3 LPs, written by Johnnie Arnold and drawn by Rich Koslowski (both present)

- Fingerprints, by Will Dinski (not present)

- The Playwright, written by Daren White and drawn by Eddie Campbell (not present)

- Johnny Boo volume 4 and Dragon Puncher, by James Kochalka (present)

- AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga, edited by Sean Michael Wilson (present)

Other authors working the table included: Jeffrey Brown, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Nate Powell, Kevin Cannon, and Andy Runton.

Continue reading A Conversation with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions

The Big Idea: Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri Tepper is one of my favorite science fiction authors of the last double decade, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she’s perfectly willing to ask the inconvenient questions in her books, and in answering those questions, give you a story whose narrative you don’t always expect. I first encountered her with the planetary epic Grass (which along with its quasi-sequel Raising the Stones rank in my personal Top Ten of science fiction novels) and since then have kept coming back for more. So it’s with no small pleasure that I host her here today, to discuss her latest book The Waters Rising, and the ideas within. It’s clear she’s not yet done with the inconvenient (but necessary) questions.

SHERI S. TEPPER:

The big idea of The Waters Rising is the same idea The Author has been agitating about ever since she worked for CARE and then for PPWP (Planned Parenthood-World Population, which it was at the time) as a young woman.

It’s a simple idea: “Hey, people, the world is drowning . . . in people.”

Beating a dead horse: Nobody’s listening.

OH-kay. Can’t talk about that. Several religions say we can’t have too many people. Male egos (some female, too) says can’t have too many. “Lookee me, how prolific I am, world’s biggest mommy, eight at a whack, just like a mommy jack rabbit.” Instinct says can’t have too many. This was a very good instinct back when every cave held a saber-toothed tiger or a cave bear or something more deadly. Back when infections had no medications, wounds had no sutures, breaks had no casts. Back when three or four out of five humans died before they grew up. Back when creatures ate people more than the other way around. Not such a good idea now.

Talking to the wind: Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. Leaders make pronouncements: We have to feed generations yet unborn! We have to provide for generations yet unborn! We (who?) have to do this and have to do that for generations yet unborn! Leaders are paid to say these things by the housing industry (build, build, build), the oil industry (drill, drill, drill), the all-everything-all-the-time industry (more, more, more), all for the generations yet unborn –

Just try to drown out that noise! Nobody’s listening!

OH-kay. So, generations yet unborn will inherit a barren. A warren. A world devoid of trees. A world devoid of animals. Protein grown in factories. Plastic made in factories. People living like termites in termite hills. A world in which the ocean is poisoned, in which there are no fish. ALL RIGHT! Talk about oceans. Not a flood of people, because nobody’s listening, but a flood of water. Talk about people being the prey instead of the predator. Talk about a Big Kill. About what life was like after a Big Kill. Talk about threats to the human race . . . a natural killer, the flood. An unnatural killer . . . one left over from the time before. Plus a few villains because human nature hasn’t really changed.

And a character from a time before. At the end of A Plague of Angels, Abasio, the male lead, was left alone and grieving with only his horse for company. That, too, was a world made barren by a time before. The Author had not intended him to be alone. She had thought he deserved to have his partner, but Charlie Brown (of Locus), who was visiting at the time, read the manuscript, and Charlie said she had to die. The Author did not like this at all, but what can one do when confronted with superior knowledge and firepower? The Author has felt guilty about this ever since.

So, bringing Abasio and his horse back will be a kind of expiation. They fit very nicely into that sort of world, and we let the waters rise and see what happens, with only one very definite end in mind: this time we will not kill off his beloved. The “we” referred to is the Author and the characters, because once they are on the screen—they appear, as on a TV or movie screen, in a setting and the Author’s immediate task is only to record where they are and what they are doing—they do things that they want to, even when the Author has not foreseen any such thing! They get involved with other characters; they develop their own points of view, they see fit to argue and scream and refuse to do certain things (usually something agents or editors think they should do) and eventually have a decisive voice in the matter. In the Author’s head, this character was born and reared in a certain fashion, and when this character must suddenly do something entirely different than his birth and upbringing would lead one to expect (which birth and upbringing exist, mind you, only in the Author’s head and sometimes tenuously at best), the Author feels obliged to rebirth them. Rebirthing is not done at the keyboard, obviously. It is done while sulking. In bed. Reading something else. (People unfamiliar with the Author may or may not know she is a longtime sufferer with arthritis, now having more titanium than bone in her body, so sulking in bed is not as irresponsible as it might appear in a younger and more elastic person who might choose instead to get drunk or have a fit of depression. The Author in general eschews depression as a waste of time, since she doesn’t have much more of it left.)

But of course, each rebirth is only the beginning of other problems, because the characters have to decide where the water is coming from. How high it will get. What will happen to people when it gets there. The answers are always surprising! “My heavens,” says the Author to herself, “how did that happen?” One cannot argue. It did happen. It’s right there, in black and white.  Several characters are in agreement that it did happen, and it seems fairly logical. Author in her role as inventor. But, the solution to each problem changes everything else. This summons the Author in her role as mediator. So, that, at the end, when everything is tied together fairly sensibly, the story goes forward and back, millennia, perhaps, in both directions involving unforeseen octopi and sea bottom castles and how wolves may learn to talk.

The last role is agent and editor, of course. Trying to make it all flow sensibly and of a piece. In this, thank God, we are helped by our real agents and real editors at publishing houses who are not occupied by the entire cast of characters and who are instead people of infinite tact, wisdom, and ability.

—-

The Waters Rising: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sheri S. Tepper’s biography page.

Heroes

About a year and a half ago I was researching a story about Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church (most famous for being the Christians hateful bigots that carry signs that read “God hates fags.”) Digging a little deeper into the story, I discovered that Phelps & Co. believe their God has a lot of hate to spread around, so they also protest military funerals with signs like “God loves dead Marines” and “God loves IEDs.” I could think of nothing more hurtful than a family seeing signs like those as they buried their son or daughter.

As I described what I’d learned to an acquaintance, she suggested I look into a group called the Patriot Guard Riders. She knows I ride a motorcycle, and thought this might be a group for me. To be honest, I was a little worried about what I might find when I clicked on that link. Recent history has seen the word “patriot” hijacked by those who would use it to exclude, even vilify fellow Americans. They call themselves patriots, and imply that if you do not agree with them then you could not possibly be patriotic yourself; in fact, you may even be un-American. Luckily, that is not at all what I found.

Photo by "Doc" Peterson, used with kind permission.The Patriot Guard are a group of (primarily) motorcycle riders dedicated to honoring fallen heroes. Many are veterans, though that’s not required. In fact, you don’t even have to ride a motorcycle. They don’t care what your political views are. All that is required is respect.

In the event of protesters at a funeral, the Patriot Guard will park their motorcycles between those with signs and the ceremony, and raise their flags so as to screen off the protesters from the view of the mourners. I am happy to say this has not yet been necessary on any of the dozen or so missions that I have been on with the PGR.

A more typical PGR mission starts with an aircraft arrival and a flag line to salute the service person as they are returned home. A military honor guard transfers the flag-draped casket from the Lear jet to a waiting hearse. The riders then escort the hearse, family and honor guard to the cemetery. Another flag line at the grave site, and the fallen hero is given military honors as he or she is laid to rest.

My most recent PGR mission was on Tuesday, for a 20-year-old soldier who was killed last week in Afghanistan. The boy’s father thanked us for coming to honor his son, and said, “If you had known [my son]…well, this would’ve been his favorite part. He’d have been right here riding with you.” I cannot imagine the pain he felt in burying his son. 20 years old.

The term “hero” means different things to different people. In the fantasy realm, a hero might be the brave knight who slays the dragon and vanquishes enemies of the crown. Some think of athletes, musicians or other celebrities as their heroes. For me, a hero is one who knows there is danger, yet willingly puts themselves in harm’s way for the protection of others.

Regardless of your political views or your opinion on whether America’s wars are right or wrong, those who would go to fight so that you don’t have to deserve our respect. I long for the day that old men don’t start wars that young men and women then have to go fight. Until then, I will do my small part to honor and thank these heroes.

Ride captain Craig “Gunny” Donor, GySGT USMC (ret.,) summed it up for me, better than I ever could. He said, “There are a thousand things I’d rather do. None are more important.”