Monthly Archives: March 2011

Away For the Day; Suggest a Writer’s Blog

I’m traveling later in the day to see a friend, which means I have some non-blog related tasks to attend to first, which means I AM LEAVING YOU. For the rest of the day, not forever. UNLESS I DIE. Which I’m not planning to. JUST SAYING.

But as they say, when a door closes a window opens, the better to leap out of, and in that spirit I say to you: Hey, in the comment thread, why don’t you recommend to folks here another writer’s blog that you read on a regular basis? Because writers are interesting! And we smell of lilacs. It’s true.

Just tell us why you like the blog, and leave a link to it (just typing in the URL is fine, you don’t have to fiddle with html) so people can check it out. Try one link a comment, since three or more links per comment will likely just you send to the moderation queue, and I won’t be around to free comments on a regular basis. You may post more than comment in the thread.

You can also suggest interesting author Twitter feeds if you like, because that’s just like blogging, only shorter.

If you’re a writer you may suggest your own, but if you do, your blog better be AWESOME. Because that’s what readers here deserve.

All right, then. You kids have fun. See you tomorrow.

Tales for Canterbury

My excellent friend Karen Healey wrote me today with this:

I think that your Whatever readers might be interested in Tales for Canterbury. It’s an anthology of original and reprinted short stories in electronic and print form, the proceeds of which are all going to the NZ Red Cross (Christchurch) Earthquake Appeal.

The writers and editors are all donating their work, and while the brief was for stories of hope, survival and the future, rather than for any particular genre, there are some notable SFF names in there – like Juliet Marillier, Neil Gaiman, Gwyneth Jones, Jay Lake, Helen Lowe, Jeff VanderMeer, and Sean Williams.

The website for the anthology is here, and pre-orders can be made here.

There you are, folks.

ZOMG The Streams Are Crossing!

Holy crap, a long-time print author is going to try self-publishing electronically! This changes everything!!!

Holy crap, a hot young self-published author is going to try being published conventionally! This changes everything!!!

(sprays everybody down with a garden hose)

Let’s entertain the notion that we live in a time in which there are a number of ways for authors to work their careers, and that various people will try various thing that will allow them to focus on the various things they would prefer to focus. To the extent that they have the ability to choose their options, they will choose. The right way for any of this to fall out is the way in which authors find a path to publication that is the most congenial for them to do their work, because then the work is produced and readers get to read new work from their favorite authors.

Might an author long in print want to try self-publishing? Possibly. Good luck to him with that. Hope it works out for him. Might an author who electronically self-published want to try working with an established publisher? She might, and might find that a better experience for her. Good luck to her too. Might there be people who do little of both, depending on project and inclination? Indeed. Good luck to them, too. I think the really smart folks look at the entirety what’s possible for them and say “Let’s see how I can make this work.”

It’s an exciting time in publishing. It’s an even more interesting time in publishing if you don’t think about it like it’s Rollerball with Team Print and Team ePub, and where the crowd is mostly just rioting in the stands.

You All Wish You Could Have Such a Blurb From Me

Gaze, if you will, upon the blurb I provided Sam Sykes, featured on his latest book Black Halo, which is out today:

And yes, in fact, it is quite an endorsement when in fact I do not wish for the ravens to strip the flesh from your very bones. In case you were wondering. I do not give such an endorsement to everyone. And the ravens are pleased for that.

Sam Sykes, you may recall, was the fellow who did this. I have that placard next to one of my Hugos, incidentally.

Also, the actual book to which the blurb is attached? Fun. I mean, if you like such things.

The Big Idea: Lyda Morehouse

Nature is a strange and fascinating thing, and for the theologically and/or teleologically minded, it raises some interesting questions. It certainly did for Lyda Morehouse, who in writing up her latest novel Resurrection Code looked at some curious aspects of the animal world and wondered what God was thinking. Did she comes up with answers? Well, that’s what this Big Idea is here to tell you.

LYDA MOREHOUSE:

Did you know that, according to neatorama.com, when the dominant female clownfish dies, the toughest dude in school switches gender to take her place? Here are some more mind-twisters: female hyenas have balls as well as something called a “pseudo penis.” Certain male red-sided garter snakes pretend to be female in order to get a little action. That doesn’t even touch the sexual games our primate cousins the bonobos do for fun.

The natural world seems to be full of gender-bending queer sex[i].

As a writer who has written a number of science fiction/fantasy books where I presume to speak for God, I asked myself—does the sexual and gender flexibility of creation say anything about God’s intention with humanity?

I don’t know.

Yet, the first book of Genesis implies a dual-natured God, one who made man and woman in Their image[ii].

Those words from Genesis 1:26, quite frankly, have intrigued me since the first moment I heard about them, which was probably sometime in grade school. I suppose now is as good a time as ever to confess that I was not raised Christian. My family is Unitarian Universalist, some of whom are Christians, though we happened to be of the secular humanist variety. I did, however, by a strange fluke, attend a Catholic school from fourth to sixth grade. The town I grew up in, La Crosse, Wisconsin, is full of German and Irish immigrants. So almost everyone I knew, as well as all of my extended family, was/is staunchly Roman Catholic.

Thus I spent a lot of my formative years thinking about God. I also spent a lot of time wondering (and, frankly, worrying) what God thought of me, as an interloper.

One of the strangest moments of my stint at Cathedral School was getting report cards. The school was associated with the huge downtown cathedral, hence its name, and at the end of the school year it was required that we attend Mass in order to receive our final report card. Imagine my situation. I had to get in line with my fellow students, wave off the body of Christ, but ask for my report card from the head priest. I scurried back to the pew, mortified, and checked…. Yep, an “A” in religion.

What was I supposed to make of that?

An eleven-year-old me began to believe that maybe, just maybe, God was a bit more “liberal” than I was led to believe.

So what does that have to do with sexually divergent garter snakes which cross-dress for a hook-up?

Well, you might begin to see, the answer for me is: everything.

I’d written about God’s hidden liberalism before. I created a cyberpunk future world where angels took the Genesis 1:26 line so seriously that they referred to God as “He,” “She” and “Them” depending on what they were trying say. I even had an archangel who wore a dress in protest for the fact that God’s default template for all angels was male. All that was in the background before, however, due to the fact that that series had found a home with a big, New York publisher. I had a sense, though it was never an explicit order from my editor, that my ideas were already controversial enough.

Resurrection Code is coming out from small press, so I’ve let out all the stops. One of the main stories in the book is one archangel’s quest for the answer to God’s opinion on the transgender nature of the universe. Turns out the answer is in Heaven, as it is on earth, not as straight-forward as it might seem.

[i] There’s lots of science behind this. See the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_behavior_in_animals, or check out Bruce Bagemihl’s book BIOLOGICAL EXUBERANCE: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity: http://www.amazon.com/Biological-Exuberance-Homosexuality-Natural-Diversity/dp/0312192398

[ii] ‘Vayomer Elohim “Na’aseh adam b’tzalmenu kidmutenu’ — And God (plural) said “Let us make man (adam) in our image, and like us.” (Genesis 1:26) Transliterated and translated by Sean M. Murphy.

—-

Resurrection Code: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal.

Reminder Re: Hugos and Nebulas Voting

Two quick reminders for all y’all:

1. Regarding the Hugos, this is the last week you can nominate for this year’s awards, which will be presented at Renovation, this year’s Worldcon, in Reno. You can nominate for the Hugos if you were a member of last year’s Worldcon (AussieCon 4) or became a member of Renovation before the nomination eligibility cutoff.

Want suggestions for things to nominate?

Here’s a list of eligible works for this year, from authors, artists and editors.

Here are some recommendations for awards, from the readers of Whatever.

And a list of my own eligible work this year.

The 2011 Hugo nomination period is currently open until Saturday, March 26, 2011 23:59 PDT. Get on it!

2. Regarding the Nebulas, if you are SFWA Active or Lifetime Active member, you have until March 30, 2011, 11:59pm PDT to get in your vote for this year’s awards. If you’re mailing the paper ballot, you should probably do that today or tomorrow, but remember also that you can vote online.

In both cases, nominators and voters, don’t put if off voting online until the absolute last second, okay? Your Hugo and Nebula Web masters will thank you in advance for making their lives easier.

Happy nominating and voting!

 

Fuzzy Nation Starred Review in Publishers Weekly

The first media review of Fuzzy Nation is in from Publishers Weekly, and it’s got a star and everything. Click through that link for the whole review (PW deserves your eyeballs), but here’s what I’m pretty sure will be the eventual pull-quote (whole or in parts) for the later editions:

A perfectly executed plot clicks its way to a stunning courtroom showdown in a cathartic finish that will thrill Fuzzy fans old and new.

I’ll take that. Yes I will.

Hey, spring is turning out all right so far!

How is your day?

The Electronic Publishing Bingo Card

Because someone had to do it, and why not me.

For those of you unfamiliar with the “Bingo Card” concept, basically, if you see one or more of your favorite arguments for how ZOMG EPUBBING WILL CHANGE THE WORLD FOR EVAR on the bingo card, you can be assured that your argument is not, in fact, anywhere as good (or original) as you might think it is. You might wish to cultivate new ones, or at least learn why your favorite argument isn’t always super-mega-ultra-convincing to those of us who have to think about this stuff as it regards our professional lives.

For those who will inevitably be new to the site, and may spittle-fling because they are e-pub partisans, be aware the author of this bingo card is not hostile to electronic publishing, since among other things he was one of the early examples of successful electronic self-publishing, as well as an example of migrating self-published work into the conventionally published realm, and still self-publishes electronically when the mood strikes him. He does occasionally get tired of hearing the same e-publishing arguments, some a decade old now, presented as This Year’s Model. Dudes, sorry. Trade them in.

2011 Reader Request Week Recap

Just in case you missed any of these when they first showed up:

Reader Request Week 2011 #1: Children and Faith

Reader Request Week 2011 #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request Week 2011 #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request Week 2011 #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request Week 2011 #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request Week 2011 #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request Week 2011 #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request Week 2011 #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request Week 2011 #9: Writery Bits ’11

Thanks everyone who submitted requests! Remember, you don’t have to wait until the annual Reader Request Week to suggest a topic — you can e-mail me with a topic idea any time.

My Musings on Corporations Will Be Graded

Stephen Bainbridge, a Whatever reader and also the William D. Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA, where he teaches business associations, advanced corporation law and a seminar on corporate governance, takes a look at my recent discussion of corporations, and adds his own commentary. How does he think I did? You’ll need to click that link to find out. But if you found my thoughts on the subject interesting, you should find his commentary equally so.

Reader Request Week 2011 #9: Writery Bits ’11

In which I write up some stuff about writing, based on your requests:

Mike Young:

If something horrible were to happen to you, is there any writer you would feel comfortable having them finish you work? Or would you want all notes/manuscripts burned, their ashes scattered across the hills of Ohio?

I don’t have any unfinished or unpublished manuscripts lying around, actually, so anyone hoping to collaborate with me after my death will be sorely disappointed. If I die in the middle of writing a novel, then whoever is assigned to finish up the manuscript is going to have to make it all up from that point, since I don’t write down notes or make novel outlines. I have no idea who I’d pick to finish a manuscript. Assuming the book was being written for Tor, I’d let Patrick Nielsen Hayden make that call. I have confidence in his editorial choices.

Lodore:

I’d be interested to know what a professional SF writer makes of the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ science fiction. In academic circles, quite a lot is made of certain writers (Atwood, Dick, Butler etc.) and a great deal less of others–with the latter usually including those capable of making a living from the business. Does this annoy you? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

It doesn’t annoy me, no, although I’m not sure about the implication regarding “Lit SF” writers not being able to make a living in the business, since among your examples, Atwood has done decently for herself saleswise, and aside from any other commercial success, Butler received a Macarthur Genius Grant, which financially would have put her in pretty good stead. For my part, I don’t really expect my writing to light up the academic world, so I don’t know what the value would be of me harrumphing about how no one has me as the subject of their doctoral thesis, or is teaching me to grad students.

TodayWendy:

I just read Among Others by Jo Walton, and I’m part way through George RR Martin’s Dreamsongs, and the really cool thing about both of these is that the authors are talking about the books they read as kids, and I’m finding it fascinating. So, when did you first encounter SF&F, and what stuff did you read?

I’m pretty sure the first science fiction I encountered that I knew was science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky, which was followed in rapid success by other Heinlein juveniles, plus A Wrinkle in Time, The Martian Chronicles and Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones. That would have been fourth grade or so.

Keri:

For you, what is the hardest part of the book-writing process, and how do you overcome it?

Starting is the hardest part; if I’m not careful I can avoid starting writing for months. Once I get started it’s never all that difficult. I overcome it by realizing that I have to eat and pay my mortgage, and yes, I’m being entirely serious.

CrypticMirror:

If the phone went one day and it was your agent saying there was a new Star Trek tv show and they wanted to you come on board as a writer, would you? And also, if the phone went and this time it was the BBC wanting you to write a Doctor Who script, whould you want to do that either (and if you did would you use the Daleks)?

No on both counts. I don’t have an interest in going full-time on a TV writing staff, because I have other things I want to do. With Doctor Who, I don’t watch it enough to feel like I would do a creditable job with an episode. One of the things I really liked about the SG:U gig was that I could do it, be useful and still do my own things. That said, I had a standing invite to pitch an episode to them; if we had made it to a season three, I probably would have.

Dan:

Why are novels always (or close enough to make the exception prove the rule) divided into chapters? For the convenience of the reader? The writer? Because it has “always been done that way”? Because it provides a convenient way to shift the focus or advance the timeline without having to say “Meanwhile…” or “The next day…”? John, do you tend to write chapters of the same length across all your novels?

I think chapters are useful for both the reader and the writer. For the reader, it breaks up a very long text document into manageable chunks, making it easier to fit into life; for the writer, it helps impose structure on the novel and also give the writer a chance to make the reader excited on regular intervals (for example, by ending chapters on cliffhangers). My chapters tend to be a more or less consistent length through each book, although the length of chapters varies from book to book. They do tend to group fall out in either 2k – 4k word groups, or 4k – 6k word groups.

Erin L:

I would be interested in your views on Science Fiction and sexism. One of the reasons I particularly enjoy your work is that women are portrayed as real, capable humans – even main characters. Older SciFi so often has a particularly misogynist bent in women’s roles and with phrases like “rape that” being used as slang.

What are your thoughts about the progression of equality of the sexes in SciFi, and will the genre – and in particular MilSF – become a thought leader in equality, or always face an uphill battle because the dominant author and readership will remain gender-skewed towards maleness?

I should probably break this out into its own entry, and my do so later, but for now I’ll say a) thank you, b) the reason women are portrayed as real, capable humans in my fiction is because I know they are real, capable humans, and it would be stupid for me to portray them otherwise, and c) I certainly hope science fiction continues to get better at how it portrays women in a general sense. I don’t think the genre skewing male needs to impede this; after all, most of my books probably skew male in readership but my at least attempting real, capable female characters doesn’t seem to have hurt them any.

Steve Bainbridge:

If you were to write an alternate history novel, I’m confident you wouldn’t choose one of the cliched points of departure (South winning Civil War, Nazis winning WWII). So what obscure historical point of departure would you select and why?

You know, I’m not sure I would specify the actual point of departure; I’d just write a contemporary novel in which the world was manifestly different than it is and build out the consequences of that as the story developed. I would know where the point of departure was, of course, I just wouldn’t go out of my way to make it clear and obvious to the reader. I think it might be more fun that way.

Carrie:

Since you have a pre-teen child, what are your thoughts on Athena reading books above her level of understanding. Are there books you can’t wait to share with her that you waiting until she is older? Generally, is it every okay to keep a child from reading a book that is above a level of comprehension?

Athena can read any book she wants to read, as far as I’m concerned, and I’m happy to discuss with her anything she doesn’t know about or understand in the book. When it comes to reading, I don’t think there’s any problem with a kid’s reach exceeding her grasp, because your brain doesn’t grow if you don’t stretch it. I don’t suppose it’s entirely surprising I feel this way.

Duffy:

Which do you think is more important for writers; talent or skill? (Assuming you’d be heavily weighted towards one or the other)

I think they exist in an inverse relationship in that the more you have of one, the less you need of the other, but I’d also note that you can’t only have one and not the other; you do need both. Be also aware that it’s possible both to have a lot of talent and skill, and conversely no talent and no skill. Sucks to be the latter.

Amber K:

Would it make you feel uncomfortable if a reader (who you don’t know) came up to you to say hello while you were out & about? Say, at the grocery store or in a coffee shop…provided that the reader is not interrupting what is obviously a family outing.

No. If they were polite and could take a hint about when it was time to go, then I would be delighted to talk to them briefly, or sign something/take a picture. This has happened to me more than once and it’s been generally a positive thing. But then I am at a level of fame (low) where it doesn’t happen to me often, and maybe that makes a difference. If I couldn’t go anywhere without being bothered, I think it would eventually get to me. I don’t expect ever to get to that level of notability, however. Which obviously suits me fine.

Reader Request Week 2011 #8: Short Bits ’11

And now, some shorter answers to questions asked this week. These are ones not related to writing. The writing ones are coming later. So:

AmyLikesToDraw:

I’m really interested in hearing how other freelancers – writers, fellow illustrators/designers, musicians – survive the whole Taxes thing. It might seen like a boring topic, but you’re obviously doing something right, and it’d probably be awesome to hear what cleverness, misery and shenanigans Tax Season and it’s, ahem, “fun” has brought you.

I’ve never really had a problem with taxes, to be honest about it. Partly that’s because since I’ve been generally financially successful as a freelancer, so I was never caught up short, and partly that’s because of my own tendency to immediately sock away half of whatever I make for taxes and other unavoidable expenses in my life, thereby sequestering it away from harm. The way I handle taxes at this point is to immediately sign over every single penny I receive to my wife, who tracks it during the year and then hands all the information over to accountant, who does all the heavy lifting on preparing the taxes, because that’s her job and she’s good at it. She also provides us estimates for the next year’s quarterlies, so we’re not caught short when we have to file them. In a general sense, for those freelancers without the numbers gene, I recommend a fiscally responsible spouse (or equivalent) and/or an accountant; they make my tax life a lot easier to deal with.

Pengwenn:

Is there a word or phrase that, for some reason or another, you always type wrong; either in word choice (there vs. their) or typo?

“Souls,” which my fingers automatically and almost without exception type as “sould.” I do it enough that I’ve trained Microsoft Word to autocorrect it for me. Also, it’s surprising in retrospect how often I use the word “souls.”

Dave H:

Is there anything that you believe Man Was Not Meant To Know? Or, if you think that knowledge in itself isn’t harmful, is there anything you believe humanity should not experiment with, or try to create?

I don’t think there’s anything humans were not meant to know; I suspect there may be things that humans don’t have the capacity to know, in the same manner that it’s beyond the capacity of my cats to know calculus. The human mind is a lovely thing, but it’s not limitless; at some (I think still distant) point we’ll reach the horizon of our ability to understand. At which point, of course, the machines will say “we’ve got this,” and off they’ll go. As for the second part of your question, there are already things humans have the capacity to create but shouldn’t (messy, imprecise biological weapons top my list), so, yes.

Susan Nehama:

Which Apocalypse scenario would you prefer to be extinguished by: invading aliens, nuclear war, zombies, pandemic, any particular mytholical one, meteors….you get my drift.

Why, the sex apocalypse, of course, in which we are all orgasmed into oblivion by the sexy sex partners of our deepest desires! Barring that, probably I’d go with an earth squashing asteroid, since it would be relatively quick, and I would have company. And you want company at the end of the world.

A.M. Donovan:

Tattoos. How has the cultural perception of tattoos changed over the generations, and how the symbolism is more personal than cultural. Also, how the placement is indicative of the psychological and spiritual meaning.

I think the perception has clearly changed, in that very few people really care if you have a tattoo, which was certainly not the case twenty years ago. I’m not personally a huge fan of tattoos — I don’t have any and don’t plan to get any — but I can appreciate good ink when I see it. My major complaint with tattoos at this point has little to do with the tattoos themselves and more to do with the suspicion that a very large number of people get tats without realizing that barring thousands of dollars of painful laser surgery, they’ve got the thing for life. If you’re going to embed an image permanently onto your skin, make sure it’s actually meaningful to you. Also, in the US at least, I still think neck and face tattoos are generally a sign you don’t expect to hold regular white-collar employment at any point in your life.

Monica:

Inspired by your Lenten* Coke Zero experiment, are there other practices typically connected with religions (meditation, for example) which you yourself either find useful or are curious about/interested in outside of a religious context?

Not particularly, no. I believe in charity, which is a cornerstone of at least one major religion and a pillar of another, but my reasons for that are not associated with their religious significance. I’ve known people who have taken mescaline and rationalized it as a religious practice, but it was complete bullshit in their cases; they just wanted to trip.

Nik Gregory:

I would like to know how you think your existence would change if Zombie-ism was real… only in pigs. How many Zombie Pigs do you think would be hunting you down with their bellies and backs flayed open? Would you be damned because of your move to rurality?

I have no fear of the zombie pigpocalypse, because the pig is so tasty, by the time we’re done picking parts off them to eat, there’s nothing left over to reanimate. Except the squeal. The ghostly, haunting squeals. But, eh. That’s what headphones are for.

Vinny:

Any thoughts or ideas on why so many authors and other creative types seem to have issues with mental illness and/or substance abuse?

Well, creative types have issues with mental illness and/or substance abuse because humans in general do; you notice it in creative types more because their lives are public facing. I suspect there is some correlation between mental illness and creativity, and also correlation between such illness and substance abuse, if only because some undiagnosed mentally ill people self-medicate. But not every or even most creative people are chronically mentally ill (or vice versa); not every creative person with a substance abuse problem is self-medicating undiagnosed mentally ill person. I think the biggest problem for creative people with mental illness is the fact that there’s still a social stigma attached to mental illness, and that keeps some of them from acknowledging they have an illness and/or seeking help for it. That’s something I hope changes over time.

Jose:

If a man jumped from 1910 to 2010 (how doesn’t really matter, could have stepped into a rip in the time space continuum, frozen in a glacier, rip van winkled it, whatever), besides technology, what would he consider the best and worst things about the world?

I would imagine one the best things about it, assuming he landed in the US, would be how rich it was relative to the world of a century earlier, “rich” here being understood as “relative to amounts of stuff we have and the size of the houses we put that stuff in”. I would imagine the worst thing about it would be that it’s loud and fast.

Chryss:

Obviously there are a lot of pluses to raising Athena in your corner of Ohio. What are some of the minuses? I would imagine a lack of diversity is one minus. What do you do to address that?

We take her to see her cousins, whose ancestry ranges from Northern Europe, down through Africa and then over to the Americas. It’s nice to have that sort of diversity built into the family. Beyond that I can’t think of too many obvious minuses. We’re in rural America, but as I’ve noted before, Ohio is fairly densely populated, so “rural” here means “30 minutes from a large city.” I’m trying to think of a downside here and I’m really drawing a blank. Sorry. Or actually, not sorry at all, because it’s nice to be able to say that.

Steven desJardins:

They say you killed a man in Reno just to watch him die, but I don’t believe that for a second. What was the real reason?

He told me I posted too many cat pictures on my blog.

Reader Request Week #7: Unruly Fans

Kenneth B asks:

Have your experiences with SF Fandom been mostly positive? Negative? Some mix of the two?

The question was prompted by my recent re-reading of Harlan Ellison’s essay “Xenogenesis,” wherein he describes some of the indignities he and other SF writers have suffered at the hands of fans. (The worst anecdote: a fan throwing a cup of vomit in Alan Dean Foster’s face). Just today I was reading some of Robert Heinlein’s letters and came across this passage in a letter to his agent in re being invited to be a guest of honor at a 1959 convention:

“…while it is an honor of sorts and good publicity, science fiction fans in crowd lots can be pretty poisonous. I was guest of honor once before and, on that occasion, there were present a small group who specialized in whittling people down to size. There were so rude that I did not enjoy it.”

I’ve never been to an SF convention, and, given the horror stories I’ve heard writers tell about cons, I’m pretty ambivalent about ever going to one. Just wondering what your experience has been.

My personal experiences with fandom has been pretty positive, I have to say. I’ve been going to conventions since 2003 (when I attended Torcon 3) and in recent years I’ve averaged about six a year, with half of those being when I’m in a guest of honor slot or equivalent. In those eight years I have yet to have any fan (or any pro, for that matter) do anything untoward to me. No one’s thrown a cup of vomit on me, stiffed me on a dinner, or verbally abused me in any significant fashion.

Indeed, quite the opposite: People have brought me fan art, and gifts (many but thankfully not all relating to bacon) and it does seem wherever I go there are spontaneously appearing bottles of Coke Zero, the memory of which I, in my current state of Lenten* deprivation, particularly cherish at the moment. And I have had many excellent conversations with fans, with or without vast amounts of snark involved. Fans at conventions seem glad to see me in a general sense, for which I am appreciative. There have been some who have been unintentionally clueless, but I’ve met unintentionally clueless people outside of fandom as well, so that’s pretty much a wash.

Also, I don’t know. I know a lot of people in fandom whose primary relationship to me is not that they are a “fan” but that they’re friends, because they’re smart and interesting people who share a significant subset of the things I enjoy, and so why wouldn’t I like them as people? The fan/pro construct in science fiction is one I don’t actually have much time for, to be blunt about it. I’ve met too many people I really like to subscribe to anything approaching an “us and them” mentality when it comes to fandom.

This is not to say “oh, everybody loves me,” or that I haven’t occasionally shown my ass in a fan uproar. Some people don’t like me; I have indeed shown my ass. But the people who don’t like me don’t seem to lurk about at the conventions I attend, waiting for me to show a moment of weakness before they spring into action, cup of vile liquid in hand. I leave to others to speculate why that may be so; I’m just glad they don’t.

Nor do I worry that such an action is coming. Eight years and a few dozen convention attendances is enough to know that the vast majority of fans are not the sort to be unmitigated assholes. They’re at a convention to have fun; if you’re a writer at a convention, most of them want you to have fun, too. I’ve not read the Ellison essay referenced and therefore don’t want to gainsay his experience or likewise minimize the fact the people have done dickish things to authors. Some people really are pricks. But in my experience, at least, this is not anything close to standard practice. Maybe times have changed.

In any event, if the reason you’re not attending a convention is that you’re worried about roving bands of People Being Appalling, I’d say not to worry about it too much. Go and have a good time. It’s what I do.

 

Reader Request Week 2011 #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Arrow Quivershaft asks:

How can we justify treating multinational corporations as people, despite the fact that most of them act like clinical sociopaths in general action?

Well, the FCC v. AT&T ruling suggests that in fact there’s a very long way to go before we do in fact treat them as people, so I’m not in agreement with the assertion that we do. That corporate “personhood” exists is non-controversial, but their “personhood” is not of a manner that tracks precisely with being a real, human person. This being the case I don’t think it’s accurate or useful to describe their behavior with reference to the behavior of real live individual humans.

In particular, I disagree with the notion that most of them act like clinical sociopaths. Rather, I think the majority corporations act logically and rationally and in a manner consistent with the general reason for their existence. And the reason most corporations exist — and most large multinational corporations in particular — is simple: To maximize shareholder value. There is also a general need to do so on a regular schedule; the one that is most familiar is a quarterly one, consistent with the SEC requirement that publicly-held corporations must file 10-Q forms. There may be other goals or aspirations a publicly-held corporation might have, but when it comes down to it, those are the two that count.

If you acknowledge that in the final analysis the purpose of a corporation is to maximize value to the shareholders, and make sure that each quarterly report shows such value maximization as its trend line, then their actions make perfect, reasonable sense — and might even if you employed them on a human scale. Why do corporations avoid paying corporate taxes whenever possible? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and don’t you take every possible tax deduction you can? Why do corporations lay off workers in the US and hire them in cheaper countries? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and might not you switch from a more expensive name brand to a store brand to save a little money? Why do corporations lobby governments for tax breaks and credits — and bail-outs, when it comes to that? Because that maximizes shareholder value — and don’t you vote your self-interest and ask the government for help when you’re in trouble? And so on.

But, you may say, there’s a difference between when I buy a store brand, and when a corporation lays off thousands of workers. Well, yes. Corporations aren’t people. As I was saying earlier. But just as your buying a store brand is not evidence of sociopathic behavior, neither is a corporation laying off thousands and hiring cheaper labor elsewhere. You’re both staying consistent to ground level economic imperatives, but your ground level economic imperatives are different, because you are fundamentally different entities.

But! You say! Like Soylent Green, corporations are made of people! If they are made of people, should they not then at least keep the interests of people at heart? Well, you tell me: When you pay a CEO $80 million (or whatever) and tell him his single job is to maximize shareholder value, where do his interests lie? People, bless our black little hearts, are selfish and self-justifying primates, and we can excuse — nay, justify — nay, celebrate! — a lot of behavior in ourselves if the compensation is high enough. If a CEO needs to cut $80 million from his company to increase shareholder value, he’s going to figure it’ll be more useful to slice off a thousand workers than to fire himself. He may not even be wrong, since the next CEO they hire will cost just as much, whereas the work those 1,000 workers did can be dumped on their colleagues who were happy to have survived the axe.

Here’s the deal: In order to change corporate behavior, you have to change the underlying goals of the corporation. If for example the reason for the existence of the corporation was not to maximize shareholder value but instead to offer steady, well-compensated employment to its workers here in the US, would that have a significant impact on how the corporation acted? It might, although from the outside it might be difficult to see (it would still likely try to avoid taxes, lobby governments, etc). But in a general sense, if you change why the corporation exists, it’s possible you’ll see a change in what it defines as logical and rational behavior.

Short of that you have to make sure that corporations are subject to laws and limits on their behavior — and of course they’ll fight that every step of the way because it impedes their goal of maximizing shareholder value. But the magic of corporations, if you want to call it that, is that regardless of the economic or social milieu you put them in, they will do what they do — maximize shareholder value! — as well as they can possibly do it. US corporations did fine in eras where their taxes were higher than they are now, so the various hand-wringing about the onus those taxes place on corporations doesn’t particularly move me, I have to say.

I don’t think you have to change the fundamental nature of corporations, personally, even if I think they’re stupid to think in quarterly terms rather than focus on longer-term strategy. What I do think you need to do is let their single-minded focus on maximizing shareholder value work for the overall benefit of the country. How you do this is of course a matter of some debate, and where I am fairly sure I fall out with conservatives on strategy, since among other things I wouldn’t be at all opposed to hiking (or closing loopholes in) both corporate and capital gains taxes in a manner that protected the rather meager middle-class investment in both. I understand these days that a belief in the value of a progressive taxation schedule makes me a dirty communist fit only to be set on fire, but you know what, you go ahead and bring that gasoline. Speaking of sociopaths.

The Big Idea: M.J. Locke

M.J. Locke is riding a wave with Up Against It, including a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Compulsively readable and packed with challenging ideas… this smart, satisfying hard SF adventure celebrates human resilience”) and the sort of fellow author praise most authors would kill for (see the George RR Martin blurb right there on the cover). But before Locke could ride that wave, there was everything that needed to get there. In this Big Idea, Locke lays out the journey required to get up against it, and the unexpected detours — and unexpected characters — that added to the eventual ride.

M.J. LOCKE:

The story started with this image that popped into my head one day of a space-suited woman out among the asteroids, swinging through micro-gee, high-tech vines. She is biologically modified: her hips, knees, and feet have ape-like joints. She is exhausted and filthy, headed home for a brief rest before she faces the worst.

I got this sense of contained desperation off of her. She’s a woman with plenty of authority and professional experience, who knows how to handle a crisis. But she and her people are all in very deep shit, and it’s going to take a miracle to get them all out alive. So she cranes her head to look back at Earth, and hears the voice of God.

This character, Jane, doesn’t believe in the supernatural; she is a diehard atheist. And the voice she hears isn’t there to help, but to put impossible demands on her in the midst of a crisis.

So, the story started with those three elements: high-tech, low-gee space-apes; an atheist prophet; and a disaster (caused, it turns out, by Martian mobsters).

I wanted to throw in lots of gravitational and nanotechnological business. I wanted it to be hard SF (a challenge when you have God popping up uninvited in your protagonist’s head): a bit of big physics in the tradition of Robert Charles Wilson and Jack McDevitt, post-human biology in the tradition of Nancy Kress and Chris Moriarty, and techno-social media hijinks à la Cory Doctorow. I love stories with giant machines and space stations and offworlders. I wanted to create a world that felt lived in: a multi-cultural world, a microcosm straining to contain all these different cultures, races, and belief systems. One that was on the brink of potentially catastrophic change. What would it really feel like to live in a habitat city buried inside an asteroid? What if Vernor Vinge was right and the Singularity was right around the corner?

Ultimately, the story grew beyond Jane. I tried hard to keep the viewpoint confined to her, but Geoff showed up one day and insisted on helping to save the city, and I had to go back to the beginning and figure out how he had gotten sucked into events. And Up Against It ended up being just as much his story as hers.

Geoff is the young guy who becomes the hero despite himself. He’s just graduated from high school and has a reputation as a bit of a troublemaker. No one thinks much of him–not his parents or teachers, not even Geoff himself–but he keeps saving the day despite himself, at the same time Jane is discovering that despite her many connections and her position of great authority and intellect, there are stark and painful limits to her powers.

Geoff has spent a lot of his childhood carving out this little niche for himself, hacking matter, doing stunts on his rocketbike. But he hasn’t been able to envision a place for himself in the adult world. Then the disaster hits. His big brother isn’t there to step into the hero role this time, and Geoff finds out he has the chops. But he still has a hard time breaking out of the box everyone has him in, of the self-involved, rather useless drifter he’s been cast as since childhood.

I liked how his hero arc rises against Jane’s fall from grace. And I liked how, as with Jane, his trajectory isn’t quite what it seems at first.

A third viewpoint character also showed up early on: BitManSinger, an artificial AI, is spawned by the disaster early in the book and wreaks havoc in the stroiders’ life support systems while they are trying to save themselves and fight off the Martian mob’s attacks.

Some might call BitManSinger one of the story’s antagonists, but I definitely thought of it as a protagonist, too. Like everybody else, BitManSinger is struggling to survive and figure out what the world is about and where it fits in. Only its very existence is anathema to the humans, and vice versa.

BitManSinger is a feral sapient (as distinguished from the not-quite-sapient artificial constructs the humans use every day). In fact, the book was originally titled Feral Sapiens, because I saw the story as very much about how everybody, one way or another, was a feral sapient–operating on their own agenda, often at cross purposes to everyone else. Desperate, outraged, needy, gloriously happy, crushingly sad–and somehow they still had to cope, to survive, to figure out who their allies were and who were their enemies, and how to outwit them.

There are a couple of other important characters as well. Jane’s husband Xuan is a professor at the university and a pacifist whose religious and ethical values are put to the test by the conflict. There’s also Sean, an older military guy who recently emigrated from Earth, who works for Jane. He’d thought he was done with fighting and seeing the young people around him get killed off.

And there are several non-viewpoint characters who feature prominently, including some post-human characters called the Viridians. Geoff falls for one of them, Vivian, a troubadour-hacker from the moon, who is much more than she seems. And there are the mobsters, Glease and Mills, who have great fun killing people and wreaking other havoc…

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Up Against It: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Read M.J. Locke’s blog. Follow Locke on Twitter.