Monthly Archives: January 2012

Portland! You Have a SFWA Reading TONIGHT! Seattle, TOMORROW!

I interrupt this blog to bring you an importance notice from Hugo-winning author David Levine, of vital importance to those of you in the Pacific Northwest! Take it away, David:

“As you may know, the Science Fiction Writers of America have been holding a quarterly reading series at the Kennedy School in Portland. They are also inaugurating a reading series in the Seattle area.  See http://www.sfwa.org/for-readers/sfwa-northwest-reading-series/ for more information.

“Ted Kosmatka, one of the scheduled readers for this week’s readings, has had to drop out due to a death in the family, and I’ve been asked to step in.  So if you’d like to hear me read from my upcoming story “The Last Days of the Kelly Gang” (a steampunk power-armor story set in the Australian Outback in 1880), along with John A. Pitts (Portland and Seattle), Ken Scholes (Portland), and possibly a special guest star (Seattle), you can come to the readings as follows:

PORTLAND:
Tuesday, January 31
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM
McMenamins Kennedy School, 5736 N.E. 33rd Ave. Portland, OR 97211
RSVP (optional) at http://is.gd/cmg5HR

SEATTLE:
Wednesday, February 1
7:00 PM – 8:30 PM
Wild Rover Restaurant and Pub, 111 Central Way, Kirkland, WA 98033
RSVP (optional) at http://is.gd/F30Pvi

“Both events are free and open to the public.  Beer, wine, and other typical bar fare will be available for purchase. Dancing is optional, but not discouraged.  Hope to see you there!”

And there you have it, Portlanders and Seattleites — your next two evenings, solved. Go and enjoy!

 

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Magic can do many things. It can raise fire. It can rain down dragons. It can make things move with the power of one man’s mind. But how does it stand up to bureaucracy? What if that bureaucracy is of a military bent? These are some of the things author Myke Cole has thought about. Some of the result of thinking is in his debut novel Shadow Ops: Control Point, which mixes magic with the modern military to produce unexpected results. Here’s Cole now to talk more about melding the world of spells with the reality of military regulations.

MYKE COLE:

You read a lot about war. You see it on film and TV constantly. I got cast as a “fighting extra” in the new Batman flick because of my military background. Once we wrapped up shooting, one of the casting agents told me, “We’ll most likely be calling you again. Military types are the most frequently used extras in the business.”

Military schlock is all over the media. You see the explosions, hear the agonized shouts. You hear heart pumping catch phrases:

“You do it for the guy standing next to you.”

“I’m a part of something bigger than myself.”

“Watch your six!”

And so forth.

You know what you don’t hear so much?

“Get in the manual.”

“I know it’s noon, sir. You still have to wear your reflective belt.”

“I don’t write the regs, son. The semi-colon is in the wrong place. You have to fill out the form again.”

Here’s the thing about the military (and not just the US military, but pretty much all militaries). It’s gigantic. You are trying to get hundreds of thousands of people, with all their quirks and neuroses and agendas to move in a united direction, with the price of failure usually pretty damned high. I have trouble getting five friends to agree on where to meet for drinks. So, I understand the contortions an organization that size must engage in to accomplish its goal.

Here’s what the military does to get all those fish swimming up the same stream: It writes rules, and then it sticks to them. Like all ginormous bureaucracies, it’s conservative, rigid and really slow to change. And like all major corporations (and it most certainly is one), it talks a lot about family and putting people first. And it means to, it really does. But you can’t accomplish a mission that big that way. People are complicated and troublesome. They zig when they should be zagging. So, instead, the military puts process first. When the soldier comes up against the regs, guess who wins?

And that’s the big idea behind Control Point.

I began what turned into a lifelong career in and around the military in the American military’s nerve center, the Pentagon. That labyrinth of paper, databases and regulation is so massive that the telecom workers get from point A to B by bicycle. And when you’re a nerd walking those halls (and we’re talking a nerd’s nerd here. Raised on Dungeons and Dragons, graduating to comic books and eventually the kind of compulsive reading that sees you spend your entire weekly allowance on mass market paperbacks off the Borders wire rack) what do you wonder?

Well, the first thing you wonder is where they’re hiding the aliens. Or which office door leads to the underground chamber where they’re training Storm Shadow from G.I. Joe. But after you’ve worked that stuff out, you start asking the cool what-if questions that are the genesis of all genre writing.

What if all the elves, rangers, wizards and goblins I loved from D&D were wandering these halls? You know that Ministry of Magic from Harry Potter? What would the COCOM (Combatant Command) equivalent be? How would the Senate appropriate funding for it? Would there be a special sub-committee? Okay, fine. Only a nerd living in DC would ask those last two questions, but you get the idea.

And, of course, I already know the answers. The military in spite of all its limitations, does some amazing things. You like satellite communications? The Internet? Space travel? Air travel? Military had a hand in all of that. Not to mention being one of the strongest forces for social mobility in America. I’ve been activated twice in the last three years. The first time was to clean up an oil spill. The second time I got to help respond to Hurricane Irene. The military is an incredible force for good.

But rigid. Process oriented. Risk and change averse. More importantly, it’s the arbiter of violent power, reserving that ability for the state. If something is to be hurt or killed, it’s the state’s job to make that happen through its military. That power isn’t supposed to accrue to individuals. When it does, you have an insurgency.

Go ahead, put magic in that mix. Give the power to fly, or call lightning, or raise the dead to your average Joe. How do you think the military would cotton to it? Add in the vested financial interests of all the “beltway bandits,” Eisenhower’s famed “Military-Industrial Complex,” the Haliburtons, the Northrop Grummans, the McDonnell Douglases. There are billions of dollars invested in the current system, and those who make the laws respond to that.

So, yeah. The military does amazing things, but it serves its mission first. What do you think happens when an individual, someone without power or money or influence, suddenly manifests an ability that threatens the state-based military’s monopoly on violence?

Well, they’ve got a reg for that.

Process over people. Just add magic and see what happens.

—-

Shadow Ops: Control Point: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Cole’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

Jonathan Franzen Shakes His Fist at the Clouds, Especially the Virtual Ones

Question, which seems apt considering the previous post today:

Any thoughts on Jonathan Franzen’s opinions about eBooks?

For those of you who have not seen them, they are here. For those disinclined to link, here’s a quote:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring… Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

On one hand I get what he’s saying, because I do love physical books. Today I got copies of the Spanish language version of Fuzzy Nation, and holding the physical printed object brings home the point that yes, someone bought the book, yes, someone printed it, and yes, people will read the thing (in another language, even!). A printed physical object ties  into my personal sense of accomplishment when it comes to books. It’s like, here it is. In the real world. Finally. I think the love of books as tactile objects is something that’s going to be around for a while, and not just because writers need to be assured there is a (presumably) permanent, unalterable record.

On the other hand I suspect Franzen overprivileges the permanence of the book as a physical object to a considerable degree, and if you want to know why I think that, try reading an original science fiction pulp paperback from the 70s or earlier. They were printed on crappy acidic paper that started turning yellow nearly the moment they got off the printing press, the glue on the spine crumbles, and the thing starts falling apart the second you look at it too hard. You can hold one of these books, but if you try to read it, you run a really good chance of destroying it in the process. Bibliophiles — the ones who love physical books at least — are aware that physical books are anything but permanent. There are lots of ways for them to go away.

Here’s another way of looking at it. I have a copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station on my shelf (it’s the gorgeous limited edition by Subterranean Press). I also have a digital copy of it on my Nook. Which is more permanent? One is a physical object, but that physical object could be lost or stolen, or destroyed if, say, my house burned down to the ground, taking my library with it. The digital object, on the other hand, is hard to lose because it can be in multiple places; I can read it on my computer, or my eReader, or my cell phone or my computer tablet; indeed, I can read it one one, set that down and fire it up on the other and have the book open to the very spot I stopped reading it before. If my house burns up, my digital copy of Perdido will still be there to comfort me. But if Barnes & Noble goes out of business — and it might — then I may be screwed, because there’s no guarantee the access to the book file will survive Barnes & Noble as a company (I have some useless DRMed audio files on my computer as testament of that).

There are other ways that both physical books and digital books can go away, but you get my point, I trust, which is that neither physical books nor digital books have any claim on permanence that can’t be immediately refuted in significant ways. The one unassailable advantage physical books have or digital books is that they don’t require an intermediary piece of hardware to access them — all you need is your eyeballs — and given the turnover in tech hardware, that’s not insignificant. But it doesn’t argue for permanence; it argues for a potentially longer window for information decay.

(Franzen’s also incorrect that physical copies somehow limit the alterations that can be made to texts after the fact; Compare early versions of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles with later versions and you’ll see what I mean. There’s an excellent chance people who have read the later versions are entirely unaware that the text has been significantly altered. Franzen’s also apparently charmingly naive about the number of copy errors that make it through the editorial process, despite everyone’s best efforts.)

Franzen’s dislike of eBooks appears essentially to be an appeal to the romanticism of physical books, which is nice and about which I can sympathize with him, although only up to a point. Ultimately, however, my more pragmatic side comes through, and it says “You want this book in [x] format? You’ll pay me money for it? Here you go.” Which is why my books are variously in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook (in various formats) and audio (also in various formats), depending on their place in the production cycle and the agreements I have in place with publishers.

Outside of the desire to see my local indie bookstore stay in business, because they are awesome folks and it’s a great shop, and in a larger sense for bookstores to survive because of what I see as the long terms social benefits of having booksellers as part of the matrix of commerce, I’m agnostic regarding format. The words — my words — are the same across all the formats, and it’s those words that matter; the container, less so. I’d note Franzen’s work is out there for electronic consumption, so it seems at the end of the day he is pragmatic about this at well, at least on a contractual level.

A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce and Impermanence

I’m going to touch on something that I’ve discussed briefly before but which I think is worth reheating into its own post. Here are the best selling books in the US from 1912, which is (for those of you for whom math is not a strong suit) 100 years ago.

1. The Harvester by Gene Stratton-Porter
2. The Street Called Straight by Basil King
3. Their Yesterdays by Harold Bell Wright
4. The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Davies
5. A Hoosier Chronicle by Meredith Nicholson
6. The Winning of Barbara Worth by Harold Bell Wright
7. The Just and the Unjust by Vaughan Kester
8. The Net by Rex Beach
9. Tante by Anne Douglas Sedgwick
10. Fran by J. Breckenridge Ellis

Questions: How many of these have you read? How many of the author names do you recognize? How influential have these books been to modern literature, or at the very least, the literature you choose to read? Do you think these authors believed that their works would, in some way, survive them? I think it’s fair to say that outside of a small group of academic specialists or enthusiasts, these books and their authors don’t have much currency.

This isn’t a slight on the authors or their works, mind you. If you look up some of these authors, they’re pretty interesting. Gene Stratton-Porter was an early conservationist and owned her own movie studio. Meredith Nicholson was a US diplomat to several countries in South America and central America. Howard Bell Wright was reportedly the first author to make more than a million dollars writing fiction, and this was back in 1912, when a million was worth more than $22 million today. I don’t doubt at least some of these books were well-regarded as art. And I would imagine, author egos being what they are, that at least a couple of them imagined that we would be talking about their works today, a hundred years later, as influences if nothing else.

We’re not. Now, I imagine there’s at least a couple people out there shaking their fists at me, wondering how I could not see Stratton-Porter (or whomever) as a towering figure in American literature. As noted above, I cede there is possibly academic or specialized interest. I’m talking about everyone else. I feel pretty confident of my basic knowledge of early 20th century literature, if nothing else than through my interest in HL Mencken, who was one of the preëminient literature critics of the day. If I’m coming up blank on these names and books, I feel reasonably confident in suggesting most readers these days — even the well-read ones — will do similarly.

If you’re a writer, this might depress you. If the best-selling books of 1912 are largely forgotten, what chance do your books have in 2012, especially if they don’t scale the heights of sales these books have? Surprise! Probably little. I mean, it’s certainly possible they will survive: Neither Theodore Dreiser nor Sherwood Anderson got near the year-end bestseller lists between 1910 and 1919, but they are still taught and discussed, and in their way influence literature today. But, yeah. Don’t count on it.

And that’s fine. Relieve yourself of the illusion that you’re writing for the ages. The ages will decide who is doing that on their own; you don’t get a vote. I understand the temptation is to try to write something that will speak to the generations, but, look, in 1912 they hadn’t even yet invented pre-sliced bread. If you aim for being relevant to the future, you’re probably going to fail because you literally cannot imagine it, even if you write science fiction.

Forget even sliced bread; you can’t imagine the values or interests or views on the world that people might have a century from now. Human nature as defined by biology doesn’t change much over decades or centuries but the culture sure does, and it’s a moving target in any event; there’s no end point in attitudes and opinions. If I tried to explain a woman’s place in 1912 United States to my daughter, she would explode with outrage. If a writer in 1912 tried to write specifically to my daughter (or anyone’s daughter) 100 years hence, the disconnect would be impressive. If I tried to write for a thirteen-year-old girl in 2112, the same thing would happen.

If you must aim for relevance, try for being relevant now; it’s a context you understand. We can still read (and do read) Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dickinson, and I think it’s worth noting Shakespeare was busy trying to pack in the groundlings today, Cervantes was writing in no small part to criticize a then-currently popular form of fiction, and Dickinson was barely even publishing at all, i.e., not really caring about future readers. In other words, they were focused on their now. It’s not a bad focus for anyone.

Will your work survive? Probably not, but so what? You won’t survive, either. 100 years from now you’re very likely to be dead. Even if your work survives, it won’t do you much good. In the meantime that still leaves lots of people today to potentially read your stuff, argue about it, be inspired by it (or react against it) and generally make a lot of noise about it. You might even make a living at it, which is a bonus. Focus on those people today, and on today’s times. Enjoy it all now. Enjoy it while it lasts. Then when it’s over, you can say you had fun at the time.

Writer, Professional, Good

Here are three questions I was recently asked about writing. I’m going to condense the questions, because when they were asked, they meandered across several paragraphs; they boil down to three sentences, which are:

When may you call yourself a writer? When may you call yourself a professional writer? When may you say you are a good writer?

These are three separate but related questions. Let’s start with the most fundamental.

When may you call yourself a writer?

I tend to be very small-c catholic on this question and say that if you write at all, you can consider yourself a writer. This annoys people who think that tweeting about your lunch or posting on Facebook that your cat horked up a hairball does not rise to the level of true writing, but, look, writing is an act of setting down in words the things about which you have a concern. If you are literate and you can manage to create meaning from the written word, you are, on a very basic level, a writer, even if what you’re writing is “I’ve gone to the store for milk. Be back soon.”

But for the sake of argument, let’s tighten this up a bit. Let’s say that just being able to write a meaningful sentence doesn’t make you a writer, any more than being able to lie with a straight face makes you an actor, or doodling in a boring meeting makes you an artist. So where does the line exist, over which one may say “I’m a writer”?

In this scenario, the line manifests with intent. Does the person sending out an e-mail about where everyone is meeting for after-work drinks intend to write? Other than in the most practical and mechanical sense, no. E-mailing everyone is simply the easiest way to get the information to the largest number of people involved, with the best chance those people will get the information. If it were easier and more practical to send a group voice mail, that would be what would happen.

A writer, on the other hand, chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.

This is still a bar too low for some people, but screw them, those guys are snobs. I say that if you want to write, and then you do write, then you are writer.

However, it doesn’t make you a good writer. I’ll give you an example, using a different creative field. I recently got a ukulele, and I enjoy playing it, and I actively make music with it. I am a musician. But I’m not a good musician, because right now my chording is merely adequate and my strumming is marginal. I’m no Jake Shimabukuro, nor am I likely ever to be. But that’s fine because I don’t play ukulele to be the best ukulele player ever; I play it because I enjoy it and it’s fun.

Likewise, people may call themselves “writers” even if they recognize they are not very good at it at the moment, or if they suspect they may never be, but just enjoy it anyway. The act of writing — of putting ideas into the medium of the written word — is sufficient. You write? You meant to do that? What you’ve written is intelligible to other humans? Congratulations, you’re a writer.

When may you call yourself a professional writer?

Are you writing with the intent to be paid? Are you being paid? Is writing consistently one of the ways in which you make your living over time? If the answers to each of these is “yes,” then you can probably get away with calling yourself a “professional writer.”

Note that writing, in general, is not a profession in the same manner as being a medical doctor is a profession. You don’t have to go to school to be a writer (I didn’t), you don’t need to have a degree or a certification in the subject to practice it (I don’t), you don’t have to be licensed to do it (at least not in the US) and there are few if any laws that govern its practice. Now, you can go to school for writing, get degrees in the field and even join associations or unions of writers, who may have their own definitions of what constitutes a professional level of achievement (see, as an example, the membership requirements for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am currently president). But those are choices, not requirements. If you write science fiction and fantasy, you should belong to SFWA (thus ends my plug). But if you don’t, it’s not as if the police will come to the door and arrest you for fraud.

“Professional” in this sense means that you are in the stream of commerce — which is to say, you offer your writing (or your talents as a writer) for sale, and your writing and/or talents are being used and compensated for by others. In my own opinion, for saying that you’re a professional writer, it helps to be able to show that you’ve been able to make money at writing over time. Getting paid for any writing is not a bad thing, mind you. If you get paid for it, whatever the circumstance, then good for you. But let me give you an example from my own experience. When I was in college, I took third place in a student writing competition for a short story, for which I received $250. I got paid for that writing. Did it make me a professional writer of fiction? Not really, since I didn’t then write another piece of fiction for sale for another decade.

I sold a science fiction short to Strange Horizons in 2001, but it too was something of a one-off, more of an experiment to see if I could sell a short story than an entrance into the field as a profession. I date my professional entry into the world of fiction with my sale of Old Man’s War to Tor in 2002, because among other things it was part of a two-book deal, i.e., I’d be getting paid for my fiction work over time. Even then, it wasn’t until Old Man’s War was published in 2005 that I felt comfortable saying I was a professional fiction writer. Now, that’s just me (and note that since I could call myself a pro writer for other reasons, having patience on that part was not difficult for me). Some folks really really really want to call themselves a pro writer the first time they get a check. I’m not going to go out of my way to crap on them for it if they do.

It’s important to note that “professional” is not the same thing as “good,” although in my opinion it does correlate pretty well with “competent”; it’s hard to make money from writing if you can’t actually write. But it’s entirely possible to be a professional, published writer and be only competent. This is because, as I noted long ago, publishing is about what is competent rather than what is “good;” “good” is a value judgement, where “competent” is a standard that’s as objective as we can get when we talk about language. Even in the realm of self-publishing, financially successful writing has to be competent at least.

Which brings us to the third question:

When may you call yourself a good writer?

When you are in control of your instrument. In the case of fiction in particular, this means having the ability to make your reader have the emotional response you intended for them to have, when you set down to write. To put it another way, when a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you.

(When a great writer tells you a story, you feel your life change because of it. But let’s not worry about that one now.)

Caveat: there is no bright line between “competent” and “good.” Some writers can be good in some aspects of writing and merely competent in others. Other writers are competent today and good tomorrow, and vice versa. Good writers can have bad days; competent writers can have really good days, and then later be unable to repeat the performance at will. Writers often can’t tell when what they’re writing is good or just competent (or worse). This is one reason why so many of us are completely neurotic.

And here’s something that really sucks — being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean that any particular thing you’ve written will get published, because being published is contingent on several things, some of which are not about the writing. I’ve noted here before that when I guest-edited Subterranean Magazine, I had to reject about half the stories I really wanted to buy because I only had so much space and money. I had to pick and choose. The stories I rejected were good, and it killed me to have to let them go.

For all of that, a good writer is good at writing more often than not; the baseline skill is established and it’s at a high level. How a writer becomes good is pretty much like how anyone becomes good at anything: Practice, practice, practice. Talent plays into it but I think talent is overrated and overprivileged, and there are lots of writers with raw talent who never pan out because they expect that raw talent should be all they have to bring to the game. Surprise! It’s not. Lots of good writers are good simply because they’ve learned their craft and they’ve honed their skill.

I am a good writer, but I was a published writer before I was a good writer. The dividing line for me happened in 1997, after I spent a year as an editor for a humor magazine that ran on AOL. Before then I was a competent writer who assumed he was good because he was arrogant; after I had been an editor and spent time dealing with other people’s writing I was able to see the flaws and problems in mine, and it made a difference. I think being a published writer before one is a good writer is not unusual. Lots of competent writers learn to be good writers on the job. It’s part of that whole “practice, practice, practice” thing.

My advice to anyone who wants to be a good writer is simple: Stop thinking about being a good writer and start thinking about being a better writer. Work on the things you know you want to improve on. Stop thinking that you’re going to cross some line and then suddenly you’ll be a good writer. It doesn’t work that way, and even good writers still have things to work on (trust me on this).

You’ll know when you’re a good writer when your craft is good enough that you don’t worry about whether you can do what you want to do with your writing, and instead you wonder about how you’re going to do it. You probably won’t notice the first time this happens. When you do notice it, it probably won’t be a big deal. You’ll be more focused on the writing.

Cory Booker Gets It Right

The Newark mayor the subject of same-sex marriage, specifically in New Jersey, but generally applicable everywhere.

When courts decide for same-sex marriage, those who oppose it say it should be the choice of legislatures. When legislatures decide for it, those who oppose it say it should be the choice of the voters. I have no doubt whatsoever that if the voters decided for it, those who oppose it would be in the courts trying to stop it. The folks who oppose same-sex marriage don’t really want anyone to say it’s okay. They just want it not to exist.

Today’s Interesting Commercial Discovery

I went to go make myself a cheese quesadillia today because cheese+tortilla+1 minute in the microwave = GAAAAHCHEEZYGOODNESS, and I noticed that we have two bags of tortillas in the refrigerator, but one is labeled “Original Wraps,” and the other is “Large Flour Tortillas.” The tortillas inside both are exactly the same — same size, same calorie count, etc — but I also happen to notice that the “wraps” package is a six count package, while the “flour tortilla” package is an eight count package.

So then I went upstairs to my computer (taking my cheese quesadilla with me, because research is hungry work), to check to see what the pricing was on both packages. On Netgrocer.com the 6-count package of Mission Wraps is $3.85, while the 8-count package of Mission Large Flour Tortillas is $3.59. The individual product — the flat, thin object made of flour — is exactly the same, but apparently if you call it a wrap, you can charge more, and offer fewer per package — than you can if you call it a tortilla.

Please note here that my methodology here is highly anecdotal — I have checked but one online retailer and but one brand of wrap/tortilla. That said, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to discover that in a general sense “wraps” come in packages with fewer units in them, and that on a per unit basis they are significantly more expensive than when the same objects are called “tortillas.”

Why “wraps” might be more expensive than “tortillas” despite in fact being the same damn thing is an exercise I leave to the reader. I’d personally like to believe it’s something other than a food manufacturer and/or retailer catering to the latent insecurities of white people when presented with an ethnic food object as exotic as a tortilla. Whatever the reason, as a consumer tip, may I suggest that the next time you plan to make a wrap of some sort, that you head for the tortillas. You might save yourself a little cash.

Single Serving Scalzi

Hey there — Subterranean Press has released another on of my short stories for the Kindle and Nook: “Tale of the Wicked,” which originally showed up in the New Space Opera 2 anthology, back in 2009. It’s got spaceships and aliens and battles and computers and explosions, not necessarily in that order, and it’s a pretty good story if I do say so myself. Here’s the link to the Kindle edition, and to the Nook edition. In the UK? There’s a Kindle edition for you too. Everywhere else in the world? Working on it.

While I’m pointing that out, this is also a fine time to note that SubPress also released a different short story of mine a few weeks back, which I completely forgot to mention because I was busy training were-badgers to do my dark bidding. Nevertheless I’m telling you now that “An Election,” my 2010 of a human guy running for a city council post in a district dominated by alien races, is also now available in Kindle and Nook formats. it does not feature spacecraft and explosions, but it does feature aliens — quite a few of them — plus local politics and lots of humor. So I think you’ll dig it if you haven’t read it already. It’s also available on Amazon UK.

Both stories go for 99 cents in the US and 77, what? Pence? in the UK. Enjoy.

I Am Running For SFWA President (Again) (Again)

It’s come round that time when the Election Committee of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America makes its call for candidates to serve on our board. I have decided to step forward once more (last, last very last time I swear) as a candidate for President, a position to which I was first elected in 2010. I had originally intended to step down at the end of this term, but on reflection decided there were still some things I wanted to accomplish in the role, and it made sense to try them over the course of an additional year. Whether I get that year will be up to SFWA members, of course; they may be tired of me and my management style. In which case I hope they elect someone else, rather than, say, stabbing me Caesar-style at the Nebula Awards. Please, SFWA members: No stabbing. That’s pointy and hurts.

If you are a SFWA member, you may read my candidacy letter and platform in the SFWA Elections Forum. For everyone else, to summarize, my platform this year focuses on threading the needle of creator rights in the electronic age, taking advantage of SFWA’s imminent incorporation in California to fundraise, particularly for our medical and legal funds, and to use new ideas to promote the literature of science fiction and fantasy. And since last year’s VOLCANO-POWERED LASER was completed and deployed (bwa ha ha ha ha HAH ha), I will this year work on bulking up on SFWA’s corps of HYPER-INTELLIGENT WERE-BADGERS, who will come in the night against all those who would try to mess with our members’ livelihoods. That’s right, were-badgers. You think you’re ready to fight a were-badger. But really, you are not. You’re just not.

Let me also take a moment to note to the SFWA members among you that you may wish to consider to run for office as well, even for the position of President. There are five positions up for election: President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer and Western Regional Director. SFWA does good work for its members and for writers, but that work is dependent on the service of volunteers, including board members. It’s entirely possible to serve on SFWA’s board and maintain an active career — I’ve written two books while serving on the board (and am working on one now) and will have released three by June 30. Serving on the board is work, but it’s not all-consuming. Think about what SFWA does for you, and then ask if it’s time for you to do for SFWA. Here’s the call for candidates, in SFWA’s forums. Give it some thought, please.

Old Man’s War Goes to Italy

Hey, today’s a big day for me in the land of (some of) my ancestors! It’s the day that the Italian version of Old Man’s War hits bookstores. It’s been retitled Morire Per Vivere, which if Google Translate is to be trusted translates out to something like “Dying to Live.” Well, that’s not entirely unrelated to the events in the book, so, cool. I’d been hoping for a while that I would get a Italian book deal because with a name like Scalzi, I don’t know. I just felt like it would be nice to be in that market. And now I am. Thank you, Gargoyle Books.

For those of you wondering how I read in Italian, Gargoyle has posted the first chapter of OMW/MPV on its site here; it’s the pdf link down there at the bottom. I took one quarter of Italian in college and did miserably at it, so someone will have to tell me if it’s a good translation. I’m going to assume it is.

In short: tell all your friends in the old country to go and buy it right this very second. Grazie.

Athena Experiences Complete Moral Outrage at the Merest Suggestion of Insincerity

Seems that some people believe that the “Athena Vs. the LP” video was staged. Athena, naturally, responds:

There, I think that should settle the question.

More seriously: Come on, people. Athena: Not stupid, and as anyone who spends any time here knows, used to dad pulling out the camera and recording her, perchance to post here on the site. It’s not like I hid the camera in the greenery. So when I start filming her and telling her I want to show her something, it’s possible that she’s aware I’m looking for a reaction, and she might be in the mood to oblige me. In which case two things are simultaneously possible: One, that she actually is holding an LP for the first time and responding to it; two, that she might be doing a little bit of improv. The fact that people seem to be outraged that she’s not acting exactly like an Amazonian tribesman encountering his first iPod seems a bit silly.

People elsewhere also seem somewhat shocked and surprised that I might disable comments over at YouTube, which suggests that people elsewhere might be a little dim. I understand that there are people who believe they have a god-given right to be abusive cretins to a 13-year-old girl, but I’m not one of them, especially when the 13-year-old girl in question is my kid, and I have the ability to turn off the comments. Surprise! I do believe Rebecca Black still has her comments on; they can go bother her if they like.

Anyway, now the world has Athena’s official rebuttal to the critics. I’m sure they will be thrilled.

2012 Oscar Noms: Not Great For SF/F

Over at FilmCritic.com, I look at this year’s Academy Award nominations and what they mean for science fiction and fantasy (short answer: not much). But when you have a mediocre year in SF/F films, you shouldn’t expect much in the way of Oscar love. Check it out, and leave any thoughts you have on the topic there.

And for a slightly different take, here’s Tor.com explaining why it was a fantastic year for science fiction and fantasy at the Oscars. This is because they claim Hugo and Midnight in Paris as science fiction/fantasy films, and I don’t. I explain why in my column.

The Oscar Prediction Post, 2012

As I do every year when the Academy Award nominations come out, I put on my film critic hat and try to guess which nominees are eventually going to walk away with Oscar gold. This year’s nomination slates are frankly wacky, so I can say without hesitation that I wouldn’t put a huge amount of stock in my guesses at the moment — but that’s fine since I usually do a follow-up right before the award ceremony in which I factor in everything that’s changed in the race. So, having hedged myself sufficiently, here are my guesses, right now.

BEST PICTURE
“The Artist” Thomas Langmann, Producer
“The Descendants” Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” Scott Rudin, Producer
“The Help” Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
“Hugo” Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
“Midnight in Paris” Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
“Moneyball” Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
“The Tree of Life” Nominees to be determined
“War Horse” Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

After two years in which the Best Picture field had ten slots, the Academy instituted a new rule that allows for up to ten nominees, but all nominees must have at least 5% of the nomination vote (or something like that). This year apparently only nine films got more than 5% of the nomination vote. This still allows for a wide range of nominees, and this year’s Best Picture slate is commercially and artistically diverse. But who cares about that? We want to guess who will win.

First step: Toss out every nominee whose director is not nominated this year, since it is very rare for a film to win Best Picture without its director also being nominated (the last time it happened was 1988, with Driving Miss Daisy). So long Extremely Loud, The Help, Moneyball and War Horse.

After that I suspect Midnight in Paris is next off. Usually I’d say it’s because it’s a comedy and comedies don’t win Oscars (the last straight up comedy to win was Allen’s own Annie Hall, 35 years ago), but this year is different on that score. I don’t think it will win because even though this is considered Allen’s best picture since Hannah and Her Sisters, it’s arguable that it is as good as Allen’s films were in his heyday, and anyway, everyone knows he won’t come to the ceremony anyway. Next off from there is The Tree of Life; I think nominating Terrance Malick films is the closest thing the Academy members have to being hipsters, and that’s not enough to take home the statue.

After that things get wonky for me. Hugo has been having a hell of a run, and you can argue that even with awards for The Departed that the Academy still owes Martin Scorsese some Oscars; if Departed caught them up for Raging Bull, Hugo would catch them up for Goodfellas. But at the end of the day this is a family film, and that presents a problem. Not because a family film can’t be brilliant — please, don’t paint me with that brush — but because the last full-on family film to win the Best Picture Oscar (if you don’t count Slumdog Millionaire, and I don’t, because it wasn’t marketed that way) is Oliver! back in 1968. I think the Academy sees family films like it generally sees comedies: nice to nominate occasionally but not something you’d usually let win. The Scorsese name counts for something, but ultimately it’s not going to be enough.

So it comes down to The Artist and The Descendants, and why this is an unusual year: Both of them are comedies, with varying amounts of drama in them, and that’s kind of mindblowing (the Golden Globes put The Descendants in its Drama category, which suggests that those folks were more interested in their awars ratings than anything else). The question is which of these the Academy will choose. On one hand The Descendants has George Clooney at the top of his game, and Alexander Payne has been plugging away for years with films that are best described as “comfortably auteurish,” of which this film may be the very best example. So giving the award to this film would be something of a career award. On the other hand The Artist is genuinely novel (a silent, black and white film in 2011), is not just a stunt, which is something just short of a miracle, has a hell of a lot of momentum coming out of the Golden Globes and — this is not trivial — is distributed by The Weinstein Company, which means that Harvey Weinstein will be doing his thing of corralling Oscar votes. Given that Weinstein managed to jam Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan and The King’s Speech over The Social Network (as just two examples), if one of his films is a contender, you can’t count him out.

If I’m going to pick now, I’d go for The Descendants. But I have no confidence in that pick, and think Harvey Weinstein is perfectly capable of cutting enough balls to push The Artist over the top. Let’s check back just before the awards and see how I feel.

Will Win: The Descendants
Should Win: The Artist

BEST DIRECTOR
Michel Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
Woody Allen, “Midnight in Paris”
Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”

Allen out first; it’s not his year (and he’s got three Oscars anyway). Malick out next; I see him getting one of those Lifetime Achievement Oscars in the not-too-distant future. Of the three remaining it’s a toss up for me, since I think Scorsese has a tremendous amount of good will in the Academy, Payne is at the top of his form and Hazanavicius pulled off a silent, black and white film in the 21st century. Flipping a three-sided coin, I’m going to give it to Payne since I am nominally guessing The Descendants will win Best Picture, but again: No confidence and watch out for Hazanavicius getting a Weinstein boost.

Will Win: Payne
Should Win: Hazanavicius

LEAD ACTRESS
Glenn Close, “Albert Nobbs”
Viola Davis, “The Help”
Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo “
Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
Michelle Williams, “My Week With Marilyn”

Rooney Mara is having a good year but it’s not going to extend all the way to winning an Oscar, especially with this lineup. After that, who knows? Normally I discount any Streep nomination because she’s seemingly nominated regardless, but this year she’s playing Margaret Thatcher and the extra historical personage tang might mean something (one disadvantage: Streep’s performance is generally seen as the best thing about the film). Michelle Williams is also playing a beloved icon — in this case Marilyn Monroe — but I wonder if she’s stuck doing time in what I used to call the Kate Winslet cage, i.e., everyone assuming she will win an Oscar at some point, but maybe just not yet. Close’s film has been little-seen but this would be a fine time to give her a career award. Any of the three could take it but in the what I think is most likely is that Viola Davis will, not just for her performance in The Help (which is by all indications worthy) but because, like Sandra Bullock’s win for The Blind Side, it will be the recognition that particular Best Picture-nominated film will get for all of its efforts.

Will Win: Davis
Should Win: Davis

LEAD ACTOR
Demián Bichir, “A Better Life”
George Clooney, “The Descendants”
Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
Gary Oldman, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy “
Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Ever heard of Bichir before? Neither have I. His nomination is fantastic, because it means the folks in the actor’s branch really are searching high and low for the best performances, no matter where they are and who performs them. I wish Bichir well and all future success. He has no chance. On the other side of the spectrum, it’s somewhat appalling to consider that this is Oldman’s first Oscar nomination — seriously, Academy voters, what the hell? — and aside from what is by all accounts a rock solid performance in Tinker, I would be inclined to give the man the Oscar as a career award. But this year may not be the year for that. Pitt I think has a good chance simply for being Pitt (i.e., a movie star who also is serious about the acting), but in the end I think it will come down to Clooney and Dujardin. Dujardin has the flashier performance (you try acting without talking for a whole film) but Clooney’s willingness to play a schlub despite looking like, you know, George Clooney, is probably going to count for something. I’m going to call it for Dujardin on the grounds that it’s unpossible that Clooney won’t be back here again (hell, he’s got a screenwriting nomination this year), but I also note that’s probably me projecting.

Will Win: Dujardin
Should Win: Oldman

SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Bérénice Bejo in “The Artist”
Jessica Chastain in “The Help”
Melissa McCarthy in “Bridesmaids”
Janet McTeer in “Albert Nobbs”
Octavia Spencer in “The Help”

Spencer out first; Nobbs is little seen and the spotlight there, I think, is on Close. Bejo out next, although like Ginger Rogers with Astaire, she’s doing everything Jean Dujardin is doing, backwards and in heels. I think there’s a fine chance that Spencer and Chastain will cancel each other out although of the two I could see Chastain pulling through, in part because of solid performances this year as well in Tree of Life and The Debt. But you know what? I think the Academy is going to want to give it to McCarthy, both for her performance and as recognition for Bridesmaids in general. And I would applaud such an award, personally.

Will Win: McCarthy
Should Win: McCarthy

SUPPORTING ACTOR
Kenneth Branagh in “My Week with Marilyn”
Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”
Nick Nolte in “Warrior”
Christopher Plummer in “Beginners”
Max von Sydow in “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

Wow, I have absolutely no idea about this category at all, except to suggest it’s probably not going to be Jonah Hill. Otherwise it’s Pick Your Favorite Woefully Overlooked Actor day. If we were going purely by most nominations, you’d have to give it to Branagh, since he’s been nominated four times before, twice as many as the next nearest (Nolte, who was nominated twice before). But then Plummer and von Sydow are both pretty damn old, and, sorry, that’s a factor in this category. On the other hand Nolte possibly has the oldest vital organs of any of them. Honestly, who can say. I do know that if Hill does win it, he’s going to get pummeled by senior citizens. I’m going to go with von Sydow for no other reason than that the power of Christ compels me, although personally I have a soft spot for Branagh (who is playing Laurence Olivier here to boot) so he’s probably who I would vote for myself.

Will Win: von Sydow
Should Win: Branagh

Other categories: I have a hunch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy might get a nod in Adapted Screenplay, while I wouldn’t be surprised the The Artist gets it in Original Screenplay, especially if it’s seen as a compensation Oscar for Michel Hazanavicius. I would likewise not be surprised if The Artist gets cinematography. I’d like to note that Cars 2 isn’t an Animated Feature Film nominee this year, which I think is correct; it’s the worst Pixar film by a considerable margin (which means, mind you, that it’s no worse than the average Dreamworks Animation feature). I’m going to guess Rango gets it this year because I suspect director Gore Verbinski is well-liked.

Your thoughts?

Redshirts, In ARC Form

I mentioned in my con report that I had received an ARC of Redshirts, my upcoming novel; for those of you who are for some reason skeptical about that (why? why?) here it is on my desk. And before you ask, no, it has not been licked. That was a one-time thing, people.

I think most of you know that ARC is an acronym for Advance Reader Copy, which is the version of the book publishers give to reviewers and booksellers so they can do their respective evaluations. It’s the text of the book, prior to a final sweep for text errors and possibly a few edits. The ARCs of The Ghost Brigades, for example, was missing a sentence or two from the final page.

In addition to the text of the novel, the ARC also often lets booksellers and other interested parties (including the author him or herself) know what the promotion and marketing plans for the book are. As an example, here’s the plan for Redshirts:

I knew most of this, although a couple of things were a surprise to me. Hey! I’m gonna do Redshirt podcasts! Well, okay. It could be fun. Also, consider this the announcement that yes, I will be doing a book tour this year, almost certainly in June, which is when the book is out. No, I don’t know which cities, and if you tell me “you should come to [insert city here]!” I’ll do what I usually do, which is to say, that would be fantastic but it’s not up to me, since I go where they tell me. I’ll also note that these noted marketing plans aren’t everything; between now and the release date I may have a few surprises for you.

That’s all very nice, you say, but what I really want is an ARC. Well, if you’re a reviewer you can request one from Tor; they’re putting together a list. My own set of ARCs is at this point entirely claimed, except for one. Which I will probably give away here… after I devise some nefarious contest that pits all of you against each other in a bloody fray BWA HA HA HAH HA HAH HA.

Sorry, I really need to stop typing when my id takes over. Point is: Yes, I’ll do a giveaway here at some point. Be vigilant.

Confusion Convention Recap

My Confusion convention weekend started a bit inauspiciously; when Krissy and I arrived at the hotel the con was at, we noticed that I had managed to leave my suitcase behind, meaning that as far as clothing was concerned, I had what I was wearing and that was all. This precipitated a moment of panic before I realized I was a relatively well-off individual who lived in an advanced, first-world country, and could easily procure new attire at one of the numerous retailers who dotted the local landscape. Problem solved.

Other than that minor hiccup, Confusion was fantastic. I think many of you know that I consider Confusion my “home” convention — i.e., the convention I go to just for fun and to see friends rather than to flog myself and my product — so it’s usually a chance to relax and hang out and enjoy myself. This year was no exception to that; while I did programming (the first time in a couple of years, actually), what the convention was mostly about was catching up with people I like and getting to meet some new people as well.

This year was especially good for the latter, since Confusion was rather ridiculously top-heavy with writers this year. Above and beyond the usual local crowd (in which I include myself, as well as Anne Harris, Sarah Zettel, Tobias Buckell and Jim C. Hines among others) there was also Patrick Rothfuss (as the Guest of Honor), Brent Weeks, Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Jay Lake, Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Howard Andrew Jones, Brad Beaulieu, Saladin Ahmed (who is actually local now, so: ONE OF US ONE OF US ONE OF US), Cat Rambo, Kristine Smith, Michelle Sagara and debut novelist Myke Cole and a bunch of others I’m forgetting and not naming because eventually lists become boring. The point is: Dude, many cool writers, many of whom I got to meet in the flesh for the first time.

I have already discussed the Legendary Licked Book of Epic Confusion, but other highlights of the weekend included bringing scrunchies and a lacy hot pink thong to a D&D game featuring many of the writers name-checked above, attending the release party for Saladin’s excellent and almost absurdly well-reviewed debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon (which will have a Big Idea feature soon, incidentally), where among other things we discussed unlubricated emus and thrilled to Joe Abercrombie’s fabulous and almost too-accurate Admiral Ackbar imitation, and my joint reading with Toby Buckell, at which he unleashed the first chapter of Arctic Rising, his new (and very good) near future thriller.

I myself showed off the ARC of Redshirts (which Tor very graciously sent over to me at the hotel, so I could in fact show them off) and tried not to go all Gollum and scream “NO! MY PRECIOUS!!” whenever anyone asked to see it. On the other hand, the most common thing people did when I did hand them the ARC was to pretend to run, so you tell me who was being paranoid here. I think at least a couple of them would have run, had not Krissy, my vengeful, raven-tressed Amazon of a wife, been on hand to tackle and punish them. And punish them she would have. My wife is awesome.

Basically, it was a fantastic time all around and you wish you could have been there, unless you were there, in which case, you are glad you were. I’m looking forward to doing it all over again next year. Although next year I really do intend to remember my suitcase.

 

Various and Sundry, 1/23/12

While I was away at a science fiction convention, the world stubbornly went on without me. Here’s what I think of some of what happened.

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikinews

 

* South Carolina GOP Primary: Loved it. Dear Republicans: I think your current reignited fling with Newt Gingrich is fantastic. Definitely make him your nominee. He’s the only candidate still in the race who can win over independents! He’ll totally destroy Obama in the debates! He’s cuddly! I can see no possible way the “Newt as nominee” plan could ever go wrong. Please do it. Please please please please please please please.

Even better: Newt/Santorum 2012! Just think about it.

* Joe Paterno, Dead: I don’t find it too surprising. A man who spent his life doing one thing, and who had it taken away from him in the most dramatic and dispiriting way possible, is not a man who is going to be in a position to put up a huge fight against a life-threatening illness. Mind you, that last sentence appears to excuse Paterno from agency (or lack thereof) in having his life’s work taken from him, and I don’t want to do that. Paterno’s failures regarding the sexual predator in his circle are his to own, now and forever. I know it pisses off a lot of Penn State alumni and/or football fans that it will always be part of his legacy. I imagine in his last days it made Paterno sad as well.

* Giants/Patriots in the Super Bowl: On Super Bowl Sunday, I’m going to the alternate universe where the Ravens and 49ers are playing. That’s a game worth watching commercials around!

* SOPA shelved: Good, because it was a terrible bill. Maybe next time if Congress wants to craft a bill to deal with copyright violations on the Internet, it might actually ask the people who work on the Internet how to do it without potentially breaking the whole damn thing. I’d like to think it’s achievable.

That said, anyone who thinks that SOPA being shelved means that everyone’s suddenly giving up on dealing with copyright violations online are deluding themselves; one of the largely unmentioned aspects of the SOPA/PIPA protests is how just about every major player in the protest acknowledged that IP rights are a legitimate issue and have to be dealt with. It would be nice to think this is the inflection point at which everyone grows up a little and tries to build a framework that helps rightsholders control their IP and makes it easy for other people to legitimately own, share and enjoy create work from artists they like. Hey, shut up. I can dream.

* Megaupload shuttered: Inasmuch as I myself repeatedly found unauthorized copies of my work being made available via Megaupload, necessitating frequent missives to lawyers to have them do their DMCA dance, I’m a) willing to believe that the company was not working all that hard to comply with laws relating to copyrighted work, b) not going to cry huge, salty tears over its at least temporary demise. At least one other file-sharing site has changed how it does business in the wake of the Megaupload shuttering, and I suspect we might be at a point where file-sharing sites in general have a deep, introspective moment about how they do their business. I’m fine with that, although I wish it hadn’t taken the Feds seizing the domain name of a company and charging its principals with racketeering in order to do it.

There, now I think I’m all caught up.