Monthly Archives: November 2011

Nerding Out on The Thing and In Time

This week at FilmCritic.com, a look at two recent science fiction films, In Time and The Thing, and why their box office performances was not, shall we say, everything either film makers or science fiction fans could have hoped for. That’s right, I speculate wildly! As I am wont to do. I am full of such wonting. Seriously, I wont all over the place with the one. I’ll stop using the word “wont” now. Go over there, won’t you (“won’t”! not “wont”!) and if you feel moved, please leave a comment.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Fifteen: My In-Laws

No, I’m not trying to suck up to my in-laws. I’ve been in the family for sixteen years, dating back to the day this picture was taken. We’re waaaaay past the sucking-up stage, I have to say. I have the wife! And the child! They can’t be taken away now! Bwa ha ha hah ha ha ha! Actually, I don’t want to test that proposition, since it would involve shovels, a dark hole in the ground, and an entire clan of tight-lipped Ohioans. “Hey, didn’t Krissy have a husband at one point?” “She might have.” “What happened to him?” “Couldn’t say.” And that would be that.

But none of that is in the offing, so to speak. I’m noting that I’m thankful for my in-laws Mike and Dora because, quite simply, I genuinely like them and am appreciative of them in all sorts of ways great and small. A small way: When Athena was younger and Krissy and I wanted a date night, they were happy to babysit. It’s not a big deal, but date nights are, actually — it’s nice to be able to spend time with your spouse and just your spouse. Another small way: Dora is a fantastic hostess and if you escape her house having consumed less than 18,000 calories you may have gone to the wrong house. Yet another: Mike mows my lawn. Actually, that’s not small, since my lawn is five acres.

One not so small way: I keep them in mind when I’m writing my novels. Neither of them is generally a big science fiction reader — he likes history and she likes Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood — but both of them read my books, because, well, I’m their son-in-law. And I want them to be able to enjoy them. So when I write I ask myself if whatever science fictional concept I’m playing is being written in a way that my in-laws will follow. This is emphatically not the same as dumbing down the writing — these aren’t stupid people — but is a way to remind myself that not everyone knows the last 30 years of science fiction literature, and that it’s worth it to bring those folks into the story when it’s possible. I don’t write for Mike and Dora (or other non-sf readers) specifically, but I try to write for them too. I think that’s made a material and positive difference in my career.

One very big way: The ways in which I see the both of them in my wife. From Dora there’s her considerable wells of understanding and empathy, a desire to make people welcome and comfortable in her home, the warmth of her friendship and an extraordinary reservoir of stubbornness which makes her a force to be reckoned with. From Mike there’s her stillness and reserve, a thoughtfulness that most people lack, her no-nonsense straight-line thinking that makes her the person others turn to for help and advice, and the personal strength of character that makes her the rock her family — and I, certainly — have built their foundation upon. And also, I suspect, her physical strength, because, damn, that woman is strong.

It’s a pretty nifty thing to see the things ones admires in one’s spouse and be able to trace them back to the parents; it means it’s not just a lucky thing they’re there. I can see some of these same qualities developing in my daughter. I don’t wonder where they came from.

Plus, they’re just good people, and really, that can’t be appreciated enough.

So, Mike and Dora: Thanks for being you, thanks for being great parents to your daughter, thanks for being terrific grandparents to my daughter, and thanks for always making me feel welcome, going back to the very first time we ever met, at that July 4th party in 1993. I love you guys and am thankful you are part of my life. May I never cause you to reach for a shovel.

SFWA Seeking Jurors for the Norton YA Award

Each year the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) presents the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, celebrating the best writing in our genre, for our newest readers. Previous recipients of the award include Holly Black, J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett. The award is presented at the Nebula Awards ceremony, which in 2012 will be on May 19, at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Virginia.

In addition to the nominations for the award offered by SFWA members at large, SFWA also fields a Norton jury, which has the option of adding up to three additional works to the ballot, to ensure a wide selection of the best in YA science fiction and fantasy. We are seeking devoted YA readers to participate in this year’s Norton Jury.

Potential jurors should fulfill each of the three following criteria:

1. Be an Active or Lifetime Active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America;

2. Have a broad knowledge of the young adult science fiction and fantasy field, with a particular knowledge of books released in the 2011 calendar year;

3. Have an ebook reader or the ability to read electronic books through their computers, tablets, cell phones, etc.

Jurors will discuss works and choices through a mailing list. The jury will be empaneled from Late November through the Nebula nomination process, with its service completed shortly before the announcement of the Nebula nominations in February. Members of the jury with eligible books must agree to withdraw their work from consideration by the jury. Those books may still be nominated by the membership at large.

You will read many books!

If you are interested in participating in this year’s Norton jury, please send an e-mail to “jury@stonehut.org” by noon Eastern, Friday, November 18, 2011. We will be making jury selections quickly so be ready to jump right in.

Thank you for your interest!

John Scalzi
President, SFWA

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Fourteen: Hand Sanitizer

There was this one time I was on a book tour, and I shook hands with someone in San Diego, and the next thing I knew I was in Minneapolis. Which would be fine, except somewhere in there I was also in Phoenix. I gotta tell you, I have almost no memory of being there, due to one of the gnarliest cases of 24-hour stomach virus that I had ever encountered. I mean, I must have been in Phoenix, and I must have done an okay job when I was there because I didn’t hear of anyone complaining about me. But, yeah. Really, just a blur.

That’s when I joined the cult of the Hand Sanitizers.

Look: I do a lot of travel. And I do a lot of travel to events where I am in close contact with a whole bunch of people, like conventions and bookstore events and conferences and book fairs. And when I am there, I am touching books that other people have handled, pens other people have handled, and hands attached to people. Sometimes people want hugs and sometimes when they ask for pictures they put their hands on me — not in a weird grope-y way, mind you, but still, there’s some physical contact. Some of these people — not you, of course — have colds or something worse. Some of these people — definitely not you — have questionable hygiene.

And thus I would often find, having gone to a convention or other event, that I would come home with a low grade something, and occasionally a high grade something. In the case of the latter, I would be out of commission for at least a couple of days. In the case of the former, I would feel like crap for at least the same amount of time. Mind you, it’s not just me and my oh-so-delicate immune system. This sort of thing happens enough that there’s a name for it : “Con Crud.” No, it’s not that science fiction fans are dirty, germy people. Well, it is, actually. But they are no more dirty or germy than anyone else. When you get any large group of people together for several days, they’re going to swap viruses like business cards. And because I belong to the class of people at conventions/conferences/book fairs/etc who constitute the entertainment, I come into direct contact with more people than most other folks.

I don’t want to get sick every time I go to an event. At the same time, I don’t want to keep myself distant from the folks who have come out to see me; aside from my own gregarious nature it’s just not good business. So these days, after book signing or other event where I’m socializing and touching people and things (and vice versa), out comes the hand sanitizer, and there’s a thorough rubbing of my exposed surfaces. Yes, that sounds a little dirty, doesn’t it. But in fact it’s the opposite of dirty, which goes to my point.

I and some other of my friends in the same position in terms of the public are aware sometimes people get offended if they see the hand sanitizer come out. This is one reason why I try to wait until I’m done socializing. But beyond that, here’s the thing. If you see me or someone else pull out the Purell or Germ-X when we’re having contact with you, it’s not that we’re saying you’re dirty. We’re saying that all that personal contact we’re having adds up. You’re going to like us better a) if we’re not sick and b) not passing along a petri dish worth of germs that we’ve gotten from everyone else at the event. We’re doing it for you. And for us. Mostly for us. But for you too.

Does it work? Yes it does. I’ve been using hand sanitizer pretty religiously for a few years now and I’ve noticed my incidence of being laid out by illness after an event has gone way down since I have. It doesn’t always work; for example, I got sick when I was Germany despite hand sanitizer. But then I was at the Frankfurt Book Fair, in close proximity to hundreds of thousands of people. A dab of alcohol-based gel can only be expected to do so much. Otherwise, yes. The stuff usually works.

Which I’m thankful for. I don’t like to get sick when I see people. I don’t like to make other people sick when I see them. A little hand sanitizer goes a long way to avoiding both scenarios. Everybody walks away happy, or at least not virus-laden.

SFContario Appearance Schedule for This Weekend

Starting Thursday I will be in Toronto — one of North America’s very finest cities! — as the International Guest of Honor for SFContario 2, joining the estimable Karl Schroeder, Gardner Dozois and musical guests Toyboat, who are also guests of honor. If you are going, or were thinking of going but were wondering what things I would be doing whilst in Toronto, here is my official schedule of events.

Reading at the Merril Collection, Thursday, 7pm: I’ll likely read from Redshirts and then possibly a couple other things, and have a Q&A. I won’t be having a reading at the convention proper, so if you want to see one, from me specifically, this is when to do it. More details here.

Opening Ceremonies – Friday 7 PM, Ballroom BC

Criticism and Critique: Critics in the 21st Century – Saturday 11 AM, Gardenview: “Developments in social media and web 2.0 technology continue to blur the line between amateur and professional critics.  As North American colleges and universities produce record numbers of graduates, the media consuming public is transforming itself into something that feels it ought to be included in larger critical conversations.  Our panelists explore how professionals and amateurs work together to evaluate genre media.” (James Nicoll(M), John Scalzi, Matt Moore, Elizabeth Hirst)

Autographs – Saturday 1 PM, Autograph Area: Bring your books.

Creation Museum Slideshow – Saturday 2 PM, Ballroom BC: I’ll be doing the live show of my trip to the Creation Museum. Come watch blood shoot from my temples!

Author Guest of Honour interview – Saturday 3 PM, Ballroom BC: James Nicoll puts the screws to me, and I suspect we’ll also open it up to audience questions as well.

Writing in the Digital Age – Saturday 5 PM, Solarium: How does one survive as a writer in the age of the internet?  How does an internet persona fit together with the introverted lifestyle of an author?  What’s the best way to deal with the trolls and haters? (Stephanie Bedwell-Grime(M), Leah Bobet, Kent Pollard, Brett Savory, John Scalzi)

Kaffeeklatsch – Saturday 8 PM, Room 20: I assume like most kaffeklatches this will be first come, first served.

The Business of Writing – Sunday 2 PM, Solarium: For creative people, the business end of things is often the most difficult. Issues like getting published, finding an agent or editor, hunting out sources of funding, and dealing with copyright issues can be daunting. Come and learn how our panelists tackle these issues. (Marie Bilodeau(M), Leah Bobet, Robert J Sawyer, John Scalzi, Douglas Smith)

Closing Ceremonies – Sunday 3 PM, Ballroom BC

I expect I will also be at the Aurora Awards banquet and ceremony, although I’ll just be in the audience, not a participant.

See you there.

In the Rabbit Room

We’ve had a spate of sub-freezing nights recently (although today is positively balmy at 60+ degrees), so we decided that it was time for Cthulhu, Lord Snuggleston, to come inside for the winter. Fortunately, we happen to have a spare room in the basement that will serve His Eldritch Fluffiness’ needs. Here it is. You will see that he has the run of the room, and that we are bringing in other pets to acclimatize them to each other — although we do keep the bunny in the cage when we’re not down there, since I’m still not entirely convinced the cats are going to be as benign toward him as Daisy is. Be that as it may, having one’s own private room is definitely a step up from the carny cage from whence this rabbit was sprung. I hope he appreciates it, in his rabbitty way.

DeKloutifying

I got a Klout account a few months ago when it did that promotion of allowing its members to get an early view of the US version of Spotify, and that was reason enough to give it a spin. Well, I still have my Spotify account, but this morning I deleted my Klout account. Part of that was due to the various kvetches I’ve seen regarding Klout’s rather lackadaisical approach to privacy, noted by everyone from Charlie Stross to the New York Times, but really, at the end of the day (or the beginning of it, as I deleted the account this morning), I left Klout because I suspect the service is in fact a little bit socially evil.

Klout, for those of you unaware of its existence, purports to provide some general ranking of one’s influence on the Internet, across the various social media. The service apparently sucks in data from all the other social media services you belong to which it tracks, throws that into an algorithmic pot, and renders it down to a number between one and one hundred. Then you can look at your score relative to other people’s and see where you fit in the grand scheme of influence, at least according to Klout.

Wherein lies a problem: Who made Klout the arbiter of online influence, aside from Klout itself? I could rank your influence online, if you like: I’ll add your number of Twitter followers to your number of Facebook friends, subtract the number of MySpace friends, laugh and point if you’re still on Friendster, take the square root, round up to the nearest integer and add six. That’s your Scalzi Number (mine is 172). You’re welcome.

Is this number any less indicative of your actual online popularity than Klout’s score? As far as you know, no. I’m sure Klout has what it considers an excellent rationale for whatever stew of algorithms it uses to assign you a number, but neither you nor I know what it is, or (more importantly) why it’s valid as an accurate determiner of your online influence and popularity. As far as any of us know, one’s Klout number is determined by college interns, each feverishly rolling a pair of ten-sided dice, and then that number is allowed to oscillate within a random but bounded range every day to give the appearance that something’s going on.

However, even if we did know the process Klout uses to determine one’s influence, there comes the question of what purpose it serves. It serves Klout’s purposes, it seems, in that they have a nice little business quantifying its members’ desirability to companies who offer stuff to the members with the implicit agreement that they then talk about it on their social media sites. Good for Klout, and, in the interest of accuracy, I did get early access to Spotify out of them, and did write about it, so there you are.

But what purpose does it serve for Klout’s members? Aside from the occasional quid pro quo freebie, it seems that what Klout exists to do is create status anxiety — to saddle you with a popularity ranking, and then make you feel insecure about it and whether you’ll lose that ranking unless you engage in certain activities that aren’t necessarily in your interest, but are in Klout’s. In other words Klout exists to turn the entire Internet into a high school cafeteria, in which everyone is defined by the table at which they sit. And there you are, standing in the middle of the room with your lunch tray, looking for a seat, hoping to ingratiate yourself with the cool kids, trying desperately not to get funneled to the table in the corner where the kids with scoliosis braces and D&D manuals sit.

This is sad, and possibly evil. It’s especially sad and possibly evil because as far as I can see, Klout’s business model is to some greater or lesser extent predicated on exploiting that status anxiety. I clicked over to Klout’s “perks” section not long ago — “perks” being the freebie things the service wants you to market for them — and rather than being presented with a selection of perks available to me, I was presented a list of perks I wasn’t qualified for, because apparently I wasn’t smart and pretty and popular enough for them, although Klout seemed to suggest that maybe if I did my hair a little differently, or wore some nicer shoes (or dragged more people into their service, making myself more influential in the process) maybe one day I could get the cool perks. At which point I decided that Klout was actually being run by dicks, and getting let into Spotify a week early — or whatever — wasn’t worth being seen with dicks, or supporting that particular business model.

So now I’m out. It was interesting for a while, but ultimately I don’t care how influential Klout thinks I am, and I get enough perks in life without Klout’s queen bee corporate marketing style. And even if I didn’t, I’m more comfortable with who I am and my place in the world (online or otherwise) than Klout needs me to be in order for me to be a useful member for it.

All of which is to say: Bye, Klout. It’s not you, it’s me. Well, actually, it is you. I pretty sure I’m too good for you. But, hey: Thanks for the Spotify.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day 13: First-Person Shooter Games

Old Man’s War is my most famous novel to this point and one of the things that people like about it is that its structure and tone angles back to the “golden age” of science fiction — the review of the novel that Tor plasters on the paperback cover proclaims it reads like a Robert Heinlein original, which is about as “golden age” as you can get. The observation is true; the book reads like “golden age” writing because I like that style and I wanted more of it, and if no one else was going to do it the way I liked it I was going to have to do it myself. But there’s another, very significant and much more modern, influence on its storytelling as well: First person shooter video games.

Before I get there I have to explain a little bit about why I like first person shooter video games more than any other type of video game. The first reason: I use video games for recreation and when I do that, I don’t want to have to do a lot of thinking. I’m glad people like strategy games and role playing games and all the other sort of games that make you engage your brain to keep track of inventories or whether your Sims are happy with you as the mayor, or whether you need to go to war with the Hittites or whatever. Enjoy that.  What I want to do is be moving and kinetic and shoot lots of things and have things explode and have discrete missions that have a beginning, middle and end and don’t make me think all that hard because, dude, that’s what I do all the rest of the day. I’d rather headshoot a zombie than build a civilization.

The second reason: First person is far more immersive for me than the games in which the player is represented by an entity onscreen, whether it’s a person or a spacecraft of a ball of goo or whatever. When I play a video game, I don’t really want to play as Mario or Lara Croft or Desmond Miles or Niko Bellic or whomever. I want to play as me. Now, in first person games you’re still often supposed to be someone else, like Gordon Freeman or Master Chief or Chelle. But in point of fact you’re playing the game from the point of view of you — eye level with no object in the way of interfacing with and navigating through the game world. The characters can call me Gordon Freeman all they want; I know I’m me.

This makes a huge perceptual difference. Things are more exciting when they are happening to you and not some representation on the screen; the scares are scarier, the accomplishments more satisfying, the frustrations much more frustrating. I fully grant that some games and some game genres are better in something other than first person, but generally speaking, as noted, those games are less interesting to me because of it. I think of it this way. It’s the difference between remote control piloting an X-Wing, and being in the cockpit yourself. When it comes time to descend into the Death Star trench, where do you really want to be?

Back in the day, first person shooters were not necessarily known for their stories — early versions like Doom and Quake and Descent were all about the shooting, killing, occasionally finding keys and getting the hell out of the dungeon — but it’s a mistake to see them as being storyless, and it’s also a mistake to suggest there was not effective storytelling. The original Half-Life in 1997 was famously scripted by an accomplished novelist, Marc Laidlaw, who rolled out the story as the game progressed, for example. Other first person shooters of the era also tried their hand at telling a full, compelling tale as the player went along; two that stick out in my mind were Clive Barker’s Undying and Requiem: Avenging Angel, not to mention System Shock 2, which scared the living crap out of me at the time. These days it’s more unusual for a shooter not to have a story than to have one, and these stories are often as engaging as any you’ll find in a novel — not in the least because game studios are now frequently following Valve’s lead and hiring science fiction novelists to plot out their stories.

So when it came time for me to write Old Man’s War, what did first-person shooters teach me as a storyteller? First, to keep the story first person — I wanted readers to be looking through John Perry’s eyes the whole time and feel like what was happening to him was happening to them. I didn’t want them to be standing over his shoulder and having an opportunity to distance themselves from what he was going through. It’s not to say that third person storytelling can’t be effective — note The Ghost Brigades was third person, in part because I wanted the separation between the reader and Jared, the main character — but for their first time in my universe, I wanted my readers to be immersed in it exactly as much as John Perry was, to feel what he was feeling.

Second, to keep things moving, and to make each chapter its own “level” — that is, to have each chapter have its own achievable goal even as it led through to the overall story development and plot climax. Essential information and equipment is doled out when necessary, exposition kept to a minimum and always in the service of keeping the reader moving through the story, and any chance of letting people get sidetracked kept to a minimum, lest they wander off and get bored. This way — and as with good level design in a shooter — every chapter had its own little payoff, and at the end of each John Perry (and by extension, the reader looking through his eyes) “leveled up” in some way. Not every story has to be told this way — that would get boring, fast — but it sure worked for what I wanted Old Man’s War to do.

The more observant of you will note that the fundamentals of storytelling in FPS games are not actually that much different than what is often suggested for novels, and you would be correct about that. But I do think first-person shooter storytelling, when it’s working, boils these precepts down into a highly concentrated form that has more of a visceral impact. In regard to how it applies to Old Man’s War, it helped to bring a modern sense of narrative propulsion to the “golden age” format I was working in. Indeed, you could say that in this particular storytelling argument, the thesis was a Heinlein-like story, the antithesis was first-person shooter narrative dynamics, and the synthesis was Old Man’s War. Hegel would be proud, and I suspect excellent at headshots.

(I’ll note also that OMW gave me an opportunity to fix one thing that really bugs me about first person shooters, which is characters walking around with a ton of weapons and ammo and still able to, you know, move. From this kvetch came the MP-35, which thanks to advanced nanobot technology could give you all the benefits of a rifle, a shotgun, a grenade and rocket launcher, a flame thrower and a particle beam weapon, all in a single piece of armament! And yet FPS characters are still walking about with 43,000 weapons on them. Sigh.)

I’ve noted before that one of my goals before I leave this planet is to write a video game myself. Specifically, I want to write a first person shooter, because I think it would be cool, and because I think there are certain things I could bring into the storytelling, from the novel world, that aren’t there now (or more accurately, I suppose, which I have not seen yet). Dear game makers: You know where I am. Call me.

In the meantime, I’m thankful to first person shooters, not only for helping me write the novel that put me on the map, but also for giving me a way, at the end of the day, to shut off my brain, run around and shoot the crap out of everything I see.

Speaking of which, I’m off now. Those zombies aren’t going to shoot themselves, you know.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Twelve: Being Heard

I have the expectation that when I want to say something, people will listen.

I have that expectation because for the large majority of my life that is what’s happened. When I was a child, I could expect to be listened to by teachers and by others because I was clever and good with words. When I was in high school and college I was That Guy Who Wrote Things, who was encouraged by educators to get my words out there and given spaces where others would read my words and react to them.

When I left college, my first job was as a critic and a commentator — literally someone who is paid to tell people what he thinks. I’ve been paid to be a critic or commentator almost without interruption for twenty years. I started a blog just before they became a thing and have benefited from 13 years of growing an audience and being linked to by others. On any given day, tens of thousands of people drop by to see what I’m blathering about now, and occasionally (like the last couple of days) rather more people visit than that.

Just short of seven years ago now I became a successful novelist and a (very) minor celebrity; one of the side effects of this peculiar status is that now there are people who are interested in what I have to say because I’m me.

At this point in my life, me speaking and being heard are expected enough that when I don’t speak, people wonder why. If I take a day off from the blog without telling people I’m doing so, I get concerned e-mails asking me if everything’s okay. Speaking and having what I’ve said being heard is my default state. It pretty much always has been.

Certainly some of this is by design, and effort on my part — I’ve used my skills to raise my voice because I like being heard. But then again, come on, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t want to be able to have the option, when they choose to speak, of having those around them pay attention and take them seriously? There are also other things at play here, the things I get for free.

Like what? Well, like luck, which I have very recently essayed in terms of how it’s affected my life and career. Riding the wave of the blog revolution back in the day, and having my fiction career take off in the manner it has certainly expanded my ability to say what I want to say and get it out into the world. Being in the right place at the right time does wonders.

And, why, yes, as it happens, so does being a well-off straight white male. Yes! I know! Still! Amazing. Many in the Straight White Male community like to roll their eyes and get affronted whenever it’s suggested that being these things continues to confer an unearned benefit, but, well. I think the rest of us know better. Speaking as a well-off straight white male, what it means is that when I speak, and people run through their checklist of Default Reasons to Ignore Me, they can’t cross off any of the usual boxes. That’s helpful.

(But, but, but — there are women and minorities and gays and maybe even poor people who get heard too, you know! Indeed there are. Generally speaking, I don’t have to work as hard for it as they do, and I don’t get nearly the amount of crap they get for doing it. Life’s not fair, and sometimes the “not fair” aspect bends in one’s favor. This is how it works for me.)

Being heard is usually beneficial, but it does have a flipside: When one shows one’s ass, that ass is seen from a long way off. This seems fair to me, although speaking from experience it’s no fun when it happens. What one hopes to learn from such events is that being heard comes, if not with responsibilities, then at least with consequences. If you’re lucky, what you take away from the experience of showing your ass is an understanding that what you say matters in one way or another. Therefore it’s worth making the effort to say it right and to try to know a bit on what you’re talking about, or be upfront about what you don’t know.

If you’re not lucky, what you take away from events like that is that some people just can’t take a joke and should really lighten up. Here’s a pro tip: When you say “It’s just a joke, lighten up,” it’s understood by the rest of the world as you saying “I’m almost certainly being an asshole right now.”

I like being heard when I have something to say, even when what I have to say is “look, this is my cat.” I recognize that this ability I have is partially earned though my own effort, but was also partially given to me by things and events I don’t control. I acknowledge the fact of what’s unearned and work on the things I do control, and I give thought to what I say because at the end of the day, what I say is how most people know me. I’m thankful to be heard. I try to be worth listening to.

The Omelas Connection

At least a few people have pointed me in the direction of this SFGate column by Michelle Richmond, which uses “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a metaphor for what happened at Penn State. Ms. Richmond’s article was posted after mine and thus folks are wondering if that constitutes her taking my idea and if they should be outraged on my behalf.

Folks, thanks, but no. When asked about it in her comment thread she says she didn’t see my piece before she wrote hers, and there’s no reason I can think of to doubt her; you know, not everyone in the world reads me. Also, “Omelas” is a classic science fiction story, and it would be genuinely surprising if I was the only one to have thought of that particular story in connection to the Penn State events. It’s entirely reasonable to think two separate writers would write two separate, unconnected articles with it as a theme.

In other words: it’s a coincidence. These things do happen sometimes.

In Which I Select a Current GOP Presidential Candidate to Vote For

As most of you are no doubt aware, in 2012, I am about as likely to vote for a GOP candidate for president as I am likely to vomit a Volkwagen Beetle straight out of my esophagus. But if I had to vote for a GOP candidate for President, which current GOP candidate would I vote for? Well, I’ll tell you, in a list, from least likely to most likely.

9. Michelle Bachmann: Look, it’s not just the eyes. This woman is completely off the beam, blathers idiocies at an appallingly frequent rate and apparently knows about as much about anything outside the closed-loop of Tea Party talking points as the squirrels in my yard, busily gathering nuts for the winter, who I fear would bum-rush Bachmann if she came to my house and carry her away, Veruca Salt-style. Attractive, though, which does nothing to quell my longstanding concern that GOP voters think about potential female presidential candidates the way drunk fraternity brothers think about conquests, i.e., who cares if she’s zoned-out as long as she’s hot (see: Sarah Palin). In the end it’s the complete apparent didactic ignorance she spouts that puts her on the bottom of my list.

8. Rick Santorum: A querulous bigot, with whom I am dismayed to discover I share a birthday. Somewhat more apparently intelligent than Bachmann, but what does that say. If he and Bachmann were the last presidential candidates on Earth, I would vote to return the US to Britain. Fortunately the man has even less chance of being president than Bachmann — indeed, has even less chance of being president than all but one person on this list, I think — and his apparent confusion as to why he’s not doing better than he’s doing says something about his disconnect from reality.

7. Gary Johnson: Who? I mean, seriously: who? I know he’s still running, since his Web site says he is, and he even was at some of the debates, but, dude: You’re wasting your time. If all the other GOP candidates were hit by lightning at one of the debates you weren’t invited to, you still wouldn’t be the GOP presidential candidate; they’d drag Chris Christie kicking and screaming to the Republican National Convention long before they’d even acknowledge you were there. Yes, it sucks; you were by all indications a pretty decent governor. But you had your moment with the “shovel-ready” quip. Maybe you’ll make a good Secretary of the Interior or something.

6. Ron Paul: He’s certainly a man who sticks to his principles, which is admirable enough when you are one representative out of 435. But I doubt his principles scale, which is to say that if he had the same executive style as his legislative style, he’d veto everything that didn’t meet his “it’s not in the Constitution!” shtick, which would be just about everything, and thus would run the country into the ground in about six months flat. And I suppose that would be perfectly fine for a lot of the people who would vote for Ron Paul as president. But it wouldn’t be fine for me. I think he’s best where he is.

5. Herman Cain: He’s this cycle’s “straight talking no-nonsense CEO from BusinessLand” entry, and in that role he’s been facile enough that he appears to have convinced a large number of people that his 9-9-9 tax scheme will somehow benefit them rather than doing what it actually does, which is to give the rich an immense tax break while raising the taxes on a substantial number of working Joes and Janes, so good for him, I guess. On the other hand he’s clearly and woefully uninformed on anything that Herman Cain has decided Herman Cain doesn’t want to know about, and you know what? All those sexual harassment settlements don’t exactly inspire confidence, and that’s just about the most polite way I can put that. Andrew Sullivan is of the opinion Cain’s not in this to win this, and that he’s in it to sell his books and raise his speaking fees. I suspect he may be right.

4. Rick Perry: Aaaaaaaauuugh! Republican Governor of Texas! Run away! Run away! And he’s even more what Dubya is than Dubya was: That big smiley good ol’ boy thing, with an engine in the brainpan that doesn’t exactly run on premium fuel, as evidenced by that absolutely ridiculous “optional tax overhaul” plan he and his brain trust farted out a few weeks ago. Perry started strong in the field but faded once he opened his mouth, which actually makes me think better of potential GOP voters. Ironically, while lots of commentators pinpointed his brain freeze in the most recent debate as the end of his campaign, I had some sympathy for him when it happened, since I’ll be introducing people I’ve known for 30 years to other people and blank on their names. It happens. What he shouldn’t have said was that “oops” at the end. That’s what killed him.

3. Newt Gingrich: I’m just as amazed as anyone that Gingrich lands this high on my list, and it has more to do with this current GOP field being populated by the confounding crew that it is than anything else. Gingrich is a classic politinerd, which is to say he wonks out like no one’s business but then when he has to deal with actual live humans he’s like a giraffe talking to a fungo; it just doesn’t work. His compassion-blindness is what makes him great at the politics of character assassination, but it also means that politicians who understand people can box him into a corner and poke at him until he explodes. Hell, that was one of Bill Clinton’s favorite things to do. In a general election, Obama would rope-a-dope him all the merry day long. On the other hand, he does know how Washington works and it’s possible if handled properly (i.e., like a fragile ball of thin glass with EXPLODE on the inside) he might be able to govern. I’d actually love to meet and chat with Gingrich; I think as long as he and I never talked politics everything would be fine. But I think having him as president would be a very bad idea, only a slightly better idea than everyone else on the list below him.

2. Mitt Romney: Come now, Republicans: Do any of you really think Romney won’t be your eventual candidate? Really? Really? I think we all know this is how it’s going to go. Yes, Romney is the bland high school treasurer type, the one who carefully crafts his extracurriculars for maximum effect on his college applications, and who spends his time thinking about what to say that will make him popular with the other kids rather than, you know, being interesting in his own right. But at the end of the day you’ve got to beat Obama in a presidential election, which means you have to find some way to appeal to the independent voters — and not only that but the independent voters your Tea Party adventures of 2010 have scared the crap out of. And that’s Romney, the Safety Prom Date, the one you pick for the dance because you know he’ll show up in a limo, give you a nice dinner, dance with you and then not complain while you mostly hang out with your friends, and then on the way home will refrain from doing anything other than a couple overly polite kisses without tongue and a two-second breast-cupping, mostly for form’s sake. No, he’s not gay. He wants you to know he respects you. Just try not to think of football captain Rick Perry too much as he’s doing it, okay? Mmmmm… Rick Perry.

Anyway. If he gets elected, I suspect he’ll actually be somewhat moderate, for values of moderate that translate to “relative to the modern GOP,” which means “far to the right of anywhere Ronald Reagan ever was,” but whatever. I mean, he was governor of Massachusetts, for God’s sake. He knows something about meeting in the middle. For someone like me, he’s workable. But no, I’m not excited about him either.

1. Jon Huntsman: Smart fellow with an eclectic past (played in a rock band and was a missionary to Taiwan!) who went on to be an extraordinarily popular two-term governor of Utah, who played to traditional Republican strengths like cutting taxes while at the same time promoting a Federal increase of the minimum wage and signed on to the Western Climate Initiative. Worked for administrations both Republican and Democratic, and when he was Obama’s ambassador of China, got his name blocked on search engines for walking around in street protests, just to, as he said “see what’s going on.” Has this to say: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Supports civil unions for same-sex couples, which puts him on the same ground as Obama. And so on.

In other words, Huntsman seems to be what I would actually like to see in a GOP candidate — and, indeed in a Democratic candidate as well: A fellow who has particular core values and works toward them but doesn’t appear to be a doctrinaire whack-job subscribing to a scorched-earth policy when it comes to working with people of other political views. Huntsman has politics I’m not on board for, such as his stands on abortion, but this is the field I have to work with, and in this field, if I had to vote for someone, this is the guy who gets my vote — and if he became president, he would be someone I would have at least some optimism about.

So where is he in the polls? Pulling down somewhere between 4.5 and six percent, well behind Romney and Cain, the current front runners, and indeed trailing Bachmann, Gingrich and Ron Paul. At least he’s ahead of Johnson and Santorum. My support for him tells me I would probably make a terrible modern Republican. But then again, this is something I already knew.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Ten: Sleep

I’m not going to lie to you: I loooooooove sleep.

In fact, I may love it too much at this point. There’s a quote I use a lot these days, which when I heard it was attributed to Johnny Depp, but may have come from somewhere else, on the subject of sleep. It says that you know you’re getting old when you talk about sleep like you used to talk about sex. As in, “Oh my GOD, I had SUCH FANTASTIC SLEEP last night. It was AMAZING. And it WENT ON FOR HOURS. And then, when I was done, I DID IT AGAIN.” Yes, that’s me. And I don’t care who knows it.

But it’s not just a getting older thing with me. I’ll note that I was always an aficionado of sleep. As anyone who knows me and they will tell you I’ve always been a world class sleeper. Cats are my models — if a cat sleeps twenty hours a day, it considers that a day well spent. It’s a philosophy that I find hard to argue with. For most of my 20s and 30s I had a motto: “AM is what happens to other people.” It was a fine motto.

And unfortunately not one I subscribe to anymore. One reason is entirely practical: Someone has to take the daughter to school, and sometimes that person has to be me. The school, for some unfathomable reason, looks askance at me dropping her off at 1pm. I’m pretty sure Athena wouldn’t mind starting school at 1pm. They haven’t given us a vote on that. Fine.

The other reason is more existential: As I get older, my sleeping habits are changing. When I was younger, sleeping until noon and having my prime creative time from midnight to 4am worked perfectly for me — and when Athena was a baby, was actually an excellent thing because it meant I could take the night shift feedings and let my wife, who had a normal working schedule, get something close to a full night’s rest. But as my mid and late 30s rolled around, so did my sleeping schedule, and so did my prime creative time. These days when I’m writing a novel, the hours of 8am until noon are the ones that work for me, because I’ve had a full night of sleep and my brain is not yet crammed with e-mails and tweets and blog posts and phone calls and what have you. Now AM happens to me, damn it, and there doesn’t seem much I can do about it. I suppose I could try writing a novel on the night shift again. I wouldn’t guarantee the results.

This also means that these days I’m often in bed at 10pm and am progressively less likely to be awake when 11pm rolls around, much less midnight. In my mind these are “old people hours,” but then again, in a world filled with DVRs and on-demand streaming, what, exactly, do I have to stay up for? Jon Stewart is just as funny at 7:30 am as he is at 11pm — maybe even more so because I’m not sitting there with my brain on the “duuuuuuuh” setting, blinking slowly and trying to process the humor. I could stay up, in a misguided attempt to be one of the cool kids who makes it to midnight, but remember, I actually like sleeping. I’m not planning to run from it.

And what do I like about sleeping? I like how it feels, for one; I think some people are completely insensate when they are asleep, but that’s not how I am. I’m generally warm and comfortable and happy, and who doesn’t like being warm and comfortable and happy? (I know, I know: Emo kids. Their problem, man.) For another thing, I like dreaming; I’m one of those lucid dreamers you occasionally hear about, so I’m generally pretty engaged in what’s going on in my dreams. It’s also why I’ve never had a nightmare; when things start getting too weird, I say “that’s enough of that,” and then they’re done. I also do that with really boring dreams. It’s a good skill to have.

A third reason is that I find when I have a problem, whether related to writing or something else, I find that if I sleep on it, my subconscious does a lot of the heavy lifting of solving the problem. So when I wake up and bring it around again, as often as not the problem is solved or is at least sufficiently deknotted that I can get the rest of it with my conscious brain. This is really an incredibly useful thing and I honestly think one of the secrets to my success, because less time consciously problem-solving issues with writing means more time actually writing. I recommend it to everyone. Try saying “Brain, while I sleep I want you to think about [x]” before you drift off. Maybe it sounds stupid as you’re saying it, but you know what? Works for me. Maybe it’ll work for you.

My point here is that not only do I like sleep for its recreational and restorative purposes, but I’m also thankful that it seems to be working for me, too. I hope it continues to. Because, you know. I’m going to be sleeping anyway. And when I’m done sleeping, I’M TOTALLY GOING TO DO IT AGAIN.

 

Omelas State University

These things should be simple:

1. When, as an adult, you come come across another adult raping a small child, you should a) do everything in your power to rescue that child from the rapist, b) call the police the moment it is practicable.

2. If your adult son calls you to tell you that he just saw another adult raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, and then asks you what he should do, you should a) tell him to get off the phone with you and call the police immediately, b) call the police yourself and make a report, c) at the appropriate time in the future ask your adult son why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

3. If your underling comes to you to report that he saw another man, also your underling, raping a small child, but then left that small child with the rapist, you should a) call the police immediately, b) alert your own superiors, c) immediately suspend the alleged rapist underling from his job responsibilities pending a full investigation, d) at the appropriate time in the future ask that first underling why the fuck he did not try to save that kid.

4. When, as the officials of an organization, you are approached by an underling who tells you that one of his people saw another of his people raping a small child at the organization, in organization property, you should a) call the police immediately, b) immediately suspend the alleged rapist from his job responsibilities if the immediate supervisor has not already done so, c) when called to a grand jury to testify on the matter, avoid perjuring yourself. At no time should you decide that the best way to handle the situation is to simply tell the alleged rapist not to bring small children onto organization property anymore.

You know, there’s a part of me who looks at the actions of each of non-raping grown men in the “Pennsylvania State University small-child-allegedly-being-raped-by-a-grown-man-who-is-part-of-the-football-hierarchy” scandal and can understand why those men could rationalize a) not immediately acting in the interests of a small child being raped, b) not immediately going to the police, c) doing only the minimum legal requirements in the situation, d) acting to keep from exposing their organization to a scandal. But here’s the thing: that part of me? The part that understands these actions? That part of me is a fucking coward. And so by their actions — and by their inactions — were these men.

At least one sports columnist has made the point that Joe Paterno, the 40+ year coach of Penn State, who was fired last night (along with the university’s president) by the university’s board of trustees, should be remembered for all the good things he has stood for, and for his generosity and principles, even as this scandal, which brought his downfall, is now inevitably part of his legacy as well. And, well. I suspect that in time, even this horrible event will fade, and Paterno’s legacy, to football and to Penn State, will rise above the tarnishment, especially because it can and will be argued that Paterno did all that was legally required of him, expressed regret and horror, and was not the man who was, after all, performing the acts.

Here’s what I think about that, right now. I’m a science fiction writer, and one of the great stories of science fiction is “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which was written by Ursula K. Le Guin. The story posits a fantastic utopian city, where everything is beautiful, with one catch: In order for all this comfort and beauty to exist, one child must be kept in filth and misery. Every citizen of Omelas, when they come of age, is told about that one blameless child being put through hell. And they have a choice: Accept that is the price for their perfect lives in Omelas, or walk away from that paradise, into uncertainty and possibly chaos.

At Pennsylvania State University, a grown man found a blameless child being put through hell. Other grown men learned of it. Each of them had to make their choice, and decide, fundamentally, whether the continuation of their utopia — or at very least the illusion of their utopia — was worth the pain and suffering of that one child. Through their actions, and their inactions, we know the choice they made.

The Thanksgiving Advent Calendar, Day Nine: Foreign Language Editions

Today’s Thanksgiving Advent Calendar entry will be short, on account of me being a bit punchy from being up since four am for the purposes of traveling, but showing you all the artwork for the upcoming Spanish language edition of Fuzzy Nation reminded me that, in fact, foreign language editions of my books are things I am thankful about. One, and most practically, it’s literally free money — that is, I’m getting paid for work I’ve already done and already been paid what I’d been expecting for that labor. So when someone else comes along and says “Hey, You know that thing? That you wrote? And already got paid for? Can I give you some more money for it?” it’s hard to do anything but smile and nod happily. Why, yes, I’m always happy to have more money, especially when it requires no additional effort on my part.

Less practically, it means that in places in the world I’ve never been and in languages I don’t speak, people are reading my words — or at the very least, a reasonably translated facsimile thereof. And that’s a little bit mindblowing. It’s like having an alternate version of yourself — one that speaks Japanese, or Hebrew, or Turkish or whatever — out there in the world. By this metric, there are currently 15 alternate versions of me. The facial hair stylings required to tell them all apart has to be amazing.

And I’m thankful for these alternate versions of myself — or more accurately, of my words — who are finding their way to people who might not otherwise read my stories. I’m thankful for the publishers and translators who have made my words available in all these different languages. I’m even more thankful to these people reading different languages who decide to try the local version of my books. And as we all know, thankfulness is the true universal language!

V for Vendetta, O for Occupy

In this week’s FilmCritic.com column, I have a bit of a meditation on how the film V for Vendetta (and, yes, the graphic novel from which it was derived) has had an influence on the “Occupy” movement that is going on today, why Guy Fawkes and the “V” story are imperfect metaphors for the real world protest, and how much that imperfectness matters (or doesn’t). Check it out and as always, if you have comments, leave them there.