My ALA adventures are at an end and I am soon headed home. This is all you get from me for today. But I hope your Sunday was as enjoyable as mine. Tell me in the comments, if you like.
In which case: Whoo-hoo!
(I wrote this up so that when the award was announced, if Redshirts won I would be able to press a button and have it post, because I am otherwise occupied at the American Library Association conference this weekend. If it doesn’t win, of course, then none of you will ever see this, and I will delete it at some point. I recognize this explanation is a little meta. But then, so is Redshirts.)
The other finalists for the award were Iain M. Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata; Lois McMaster Boujold’s Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance; James S.A. Corey’s Caliban’s War and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. This is a very fine field of finalists, any of whom would of course have been an excellent winner. I was thrilled to share a slate with all of them.
As I was unable to be at the Locus Award Weekend because it conflicted with ALA, my wife Krissy went to Seattle on my behalf. If the award won (and if you’re reading this it did), this is the acceptance speech she gave for me:
Let me begin by apologizing for not being here today to accept this award; I am in Chicago, hanging out with librarians. As you can see, in my place you have my wife, and I’m sure you’ll agree this is a more than fair substitution.
I am delighted by this award, more than I can express in this speech. Thank you Locus and to the voters in its annual poll. Thanks also to everyone at Tor and in particular my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Thanks also to the folks at Audible, including Steve Feldberg, and also to Wil Wheaton. Additional thanks to Ethan Ellenberg, my agent, and my wife Kristine.
However, I have one confession to make: I was hoping for a different outcome for this award. I was pulling for Iain M. Banks to win, not only for The Hydrogen Sonata, which is amply deserving of the award, but for the entire body of his science fiction work, and for his universe of The Culture, which is, simply, one of the great imaginative achievements in our genre.
I did not know Iain Banks personally, but I was a fan. I was honored to be a finalist with him, and would have been honored to lose this award to him. Since I did not accomplish that I will instead ask your indulgence as I dedicate this award to him and his work. He is missed; his work remains. Thank you.
And indeed, thank you. This is a lovely way to wrap up June.
So, when I am dealing with contentious comment threads, I will occasionally have to deem a particular conversation on the thread as something derail-y or not germane to the actual topic of the thread, and tell people to move on from it, or (more bluntly) that if I see any more comments on the subject, I’ll Mallet them. This is inevitably followed by a couple more posts where someone comments further, immediately followed by “oh, crap, didn’t see the warning, I must have cross-posted.” This happens often often that I sometimes (not always, but sometimes) wonder if people write up a post on a subject I don’t want, and then use the “oh, crap, cross-posted” follow-up as a talisman against being Malleted.
So I’ve decided to make a more-or-less official policy on the subject. It is as follows:
1. If I declare a subject off-limits in a discussion thread, the five minutes immediately following the posting of the warning will constitute the official “crosspost penumbra.”
2. During the “crosspost penumbra,” I may or may not decide to Mallet a comment on the subject I just declared off-limits, on an entirely subjective basis (i.e., whether or not I think a good point is raised, whether or not I’m irritated, whether or not I have gas and it’s making me cranky, etc). I’ll likely err on the side of “genuine crosspost,” but I reserve the right not to.
3. After the “crosspost penumbra” anything on the subject I declared off limits will get Malleted regardless; immediately if I’m around, later if not (as will all the followups to the now-deleted comment that might get posted).
In either case, if I Mallet a comment for being late on a topic I closed, that doesn’t mean the person who left the comment can’t otherwise post on the thread; they can feel free to post something more on topic (exception, of course: If I also say that the commenter is off the thread).
I think this is a reasonable and easy-to-understand policy that will make my life simpler. Consider it in effect as of this very second. Also, as a general guideline, if you’re commenting in a contentious thread, it’s not a bad idea before responding to do a quick refresh to see if I’ve labeled something off-topic. Thanks.
My friend Elise Matthesen was creeped upon at a recent convention by someone of some influence in the genre; she decided that she was going to do something about it and reported the person for sexual harassment, both to the convention and to the person’s employer. And now she’s telling you how she did it and what the process is like. Here’s her story.
We’re geeks. We learn things and share, right? Well, this year at WisCon I learned firsthand how to report sexual harassment. In case you ever need or want to know, here’s what I learned and how it went.
Two editors I knew were throwing a book release party on Friday night at the convention. I was there, standing around with a drink talking about Babylon 5, the work of China Mieville, and Marxist theories of labor (like you do) when an editor from a different house joined the conversation briefly and decided to do the thing that I reported. A minute or two after he left, one of the hosts came over to check on me. I was lucky: my host was alert and aware. On hearing what had happened, he gave me the name of a mandated reporter at the company the harasser was representing at the convention.
The mandated reporter was respectful and professional. Even though I knew them, reporting this stuff is scary, especially about someone who’s been with a company for a long time, so I was really glad to be listened to. Since the incident happened during Memorial Day weekend, I was told Human Resources would follow up with me on Tuesday.
There was most of a convention between then and Tuesday, and I didn’t like the thought of more of this nonsense (there’s a polite word for it!) happening, so I went and found a convention Safety staffer. He asked me right away whether I was okay and whether I wanted someone with me while we talked or would rather speak privately. A friend was nearby, a previous Guest of Honor at the convention, and I asked her to stay for the conversation. The Safety person asked whether I’d like to make a formal report. I told him, “I’d just like to tell you what happened informally, I guess, while I figure out what I want to do.”
It may seem odd to hesitate to make a formal report to a convention when one has just called somebody’s employer and begun the process of formally reporting there, but that’s how it was. I think I was a little bit in shock. (I kept shaking my head and thinking, “Dude, seriously??”) So the Safety person closed his notebook and listened attentively. Partway through my account, I said, “Okay, open your notebook, because yeah, this should be official.” Thus began the formal report to the convention. We listed what had happened, when and where, the names of other people who were there when it happened, and so forth. The Safety person told me he would be taking the report up to the next level, checked again to see whether I was okay, and then went.
I had been nervous about doing it, even though the Safety person and the friend sitting with us were people I have known for years. Sitting there, I tried to imagine how nervous I would have been if I were twenty-some years old and at my first convention. What if I were just starting out and had been hoping to show a manuscript to that editor? Would I have thought this kind of behavior was business as usual? What if I were afraid that person would blacklist me if I didn’t make nice and go along with it? If I had been less experienced, less surrounded by people I could call on for strength and encouragement, would I have been able to report it at all?
Well, I actually know the answer to that one: I wouldn’t have. I know this because I did not report it when it happened to me in my twenties. I didn’t report it when it happened to me in my forties either. There are lots of reasons people might not report things, and I’m not going to tell someone they’re wrong for choosing not to report. What I intend to do by writing this is to give some kind of road map to someone who is considering reporting. We’re geeks, right? Learning something and sharing is what we do.
So I reported it to the convention. Somewhere in there they asked, “Shall we use your name?” I thought for a millisecond and said, “Oh, hell yes.”
This is an important thing. A formal report has a name attached. More about this later.
The Safety team kept checking in with me. The coordinators of the convention were promptly involved. Someone told me that since it was the first report, the editor would not be asked to leave the convention. I was surprised it was the first report, but hey, if it was and if that’s the process, follow the process. They told me they had instructed him to keep away from me for the rest of the convention. I thanked them.
Starting on Tuesday, the HR department of his company got in touch with me. They too were respectful and took the incident very seriously. Again I described what, where and when, and who had been present for the incident and aftermath. They asked me if I was making a formal report and wanted my name used. Again I said, “Hell, yes.”
Both HR and Legal were in touch with me over the following weeks. HR called and emailed enough times that my husband started calling them “your good friends at HR.” They also followed through on checking with the other people, and did so with a promptness that was good to see.
Although their behavior was professional and respectful, I was stunned when I found out that mine was the first formal report filed there as well. From various discussions in person and online, I knew for certain that I was not the only one to have reported inappropriate behavior by this person to his employer. It turned out that the previous reports had been made confidentially and not through HR and Legal. Therefore my report was the first one, because it was the first one that had ever been formally recorded.
Corporations (and conventions with formal procedures) live and die by the written word. “Records, or it didn’t happen” is how it works, at least as far as doing anything official about it. So here I was, and here we all were, with a situation where this had definitely happened before, but which we had to treat as if it were the first time — because for formal purposes, it was.
I asked whether people who had originally made confidential reports could go ahead and file formal ones now. There was a bit of confusion around an erroneous answer by someone in another department, but then the person at Legal clearly said that “the past is past” is not an accurate summation of company policy, and that she (and all the other people listed in the company’s publically-available code of conduct) would definitely accept formal reports regardless of whether the behavior took place last week or last year.
If you choose to report, I hope this writing is useful to you. If you’re new to the genre, please be assured that sexual harassment is NOT acceptable business-as-usual. I have had numerous editors tell me that reporting harassment will NOT get you blacklisted, that they WANT the bad apples reported and dealt with, and that this is very important to them, because this kind of thing is bad for everyone and is not okay. The thing is, though, that I’m fifty-two years old, familiar with the field and the world of conventions, moderately well known to many professionals in the field, and relatively well-liked. I’ve got a lot of social credit. And yet even I was nervous and a little in shock when faced with deciding whether or not to report what happened. Even I was thinking, “Oh, God, do I have to? What if this gets really ugly?”
But every time I got that scared feeling in my guts and the sensation of having a target between my shoulder blades, I thought, “How much worse would this be if I were inexperienced, if I were new to the field, if I were a lot younger?” A thousand times worse. So I took a deep breath and squared my shoulders and said, “Hell, yes, use my name.” And while it’s scary to write this now, and while various people are worried that parts of the Internet may fall on my head, I’m going to share the knowledge — because I’m a geek, and that’s what we do.
So if you need to report this stuff, the following things may make it easier to do so. Not easy, because I don’t think it’s gotten anywhere near easy, but they’ll probably help.
NOTES: As soon as you can, make notes on the following:
- what happened
- when it happened and where
- who else was present (if anyone)
- any other possibly useful information
And take notes as you go through the process of reporting: write down who you talk with in the organization to which you are reporting, and when.
ALLIES: Line up your support team. When you report an incident of sexual harassment to a convention, it is fine to take a friend with you. A friend can keep you company while you make a report to a company by phone or in email. Some allies can help by hanging out with you at convention programming or parties or events, ready to be a buffer in case of unfortunate events — or by just reminding you to eat, if you’re too stressed to remember. If you’re in shock, please try to tell your allies this, and ask for help if you can.
NAVIGATION: If there are procedures in place, what are they? Where do you start to make a report and how? (Finding out might be a job to outsource to allies.) Some companies have current codes of conduct posted on line with contact information for people to report harassment to. Jim Hines posted a list of contacts at various companies a while ago. Conventions should have a safety team listed in the program book. Know the difference between formal reports and informal reports. Ask what happens next with your report, and whether there will be a formal record of it, or whether it will result in a supervisor telling the person “Don’t do that,” but will be confidential and will not be counted formally.
REPORTING FORMALLY: This is a particularly important point. Serial harassers can get any number of little talking-to’s and still have a clear record, which means HR and Legal can’t make any disciplinary action stick when formal reports do finally get made. This is the sort of thing that can get companies really bad reputations, and the ongoing behavior hurts everybody in the field. It is particularly poisonous if the inappropriate behavior is consistently directed toward people over whom the harasser has some kind of real or perceived power: an aspiring writer may hesitate to report an editor, for instance, due to fear of economic harm or reprisal.
STAY SAFE: You get to choose what to do, because you’re the only one who knows your situation and what risks you will and won’t take. If not reporting is what you need to do, that’s what you get to do, and if anybody gives you trouble about making that choice to stay safe, you can sic me on them. Me, I’ve had a bunch of conversations with my husband, and I’ve had a bunch of conversations with other people, and I hate the fact that I’m scared that there might be legal wrangling (from the person I’d name, not the convention or his employer) if I name names. But after all those conversations, I’m not going to. Instead, I’m writing the most important part, about how to report this, and make it work, which is so much bigger than one person’s distasteful experience.
During the incident, the person I reported said, “Gosh, you’re lovely when you’re angry.” You know what? I’ve been getting prettier and prettier.
I’m in Chicago this weekend for the American Library Association conference, where I’ll be doing all number of events. So if you’re a librarian at ALA this weekend and you want to see me, check your ALA schedule to see what I’m up to. Me, I’m just happy to have another excuse to be in Chicago. And yes, I’ve already had deep dish pizza. Even better, my hotel room overlooks a Harold’s Chicken. I may gain 17 pounds before the weekend is over.
Sometimes, when an author meets a piece of obsolete technology, it can change the way he looks at the world — or at least, a world. Just ask Jason Sheehan about that, and about aircraft, and his debut science fiction novel, A Private Little War.
I figured I was in trouble when I actually saw my first biplane.
Not in a movie. Not in a grainy Youtube video. Not on the smudged photocopies of pages from a book on the technical specifications of the Fokker, the Spad, the bloody Camel. I knew I was in trouble when I saw my first for-real biplane—when I stood close enough to smell its exhaust and see the pissing drizzle of rain beading on its skin.
The machine was nothing like I’d expected. And standing in a muddy field outside of Seattle, Washington, surrounded by dozens of biplanes—touching them, staring into the gleaming complexities of their engines and talking with their pilots—I seriously considered junking my book entirely.
Why? Because the book that I was working on at the time (the book that would become A Private Little War) was about biplanes. It was about biplanes being flown by mercenary pilots working for a private military company who had chosen to employ them against a primitive and distant alien species because biplanes are cheap and simple and because it just does not take that much to achieve air superiority in a place where the natives still think that god makes the thunder. The biplanes, therefore, were important. Hell, they were central. They were the howling, flame-spitting, fuel-injected heart of the story. And biplanes-versus-aliens? That was my Big Idea.
Or so I thought at the time.
I’d had other moments like this. Early on in the process, I’d pitched the book based around a half-remembered story that’d stuck in my brain like a burr since I was a teenager. It was from a newspaper article I would’ve (and did) swear that I’d read following the first Gulf War, about Saddam Hussein attempting to hire pilots to fly biplanes against the Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq. Following the ’91 war, the Iraqi military infrastructure was smashed. There were no runways, no air control, no radar. All the Iraqi MIG’s had been shot down or bombed in their hangars. But Hussein still wanted to go north and drop poison on the Kurds. And to do so, he needed planes.
Biplanes, as I kind-of-incorrectly recalled, were deemed perfect for this by his surviving air force officers. They didn’t need radar or modern runways. They didn’t need anything but a pilot willing to climb into what was essentially a bathtub strapped to a flying lawnmower and hand-drop chemical weapons on his fellow man for money. And since the Kurds were, for the most part, fighting from donkey-back with 100-year-old bolt-action rifles, going after them in wooden airplanes covered in flammable cloth seemed to make a weird sort of sense. My Big Idea then was the kind of dissonant brain-noise made by the crashing together of futures and pasts. I thought I was so goddamn clever.
After I’d used this story as the central hook of my pitch (“Look what these crazy idiots were doing! How cool would it be to do the same thing all over again in the future!”), I learned that I was wrong. That I’d had the bones of the tale right, but some vital historical details dead wrong. Near as I could figure, what I was actually recalling was a story from the end of a different war (WWII) where Iraq, after having their infrastructure smashed during the fighting (and subsequent coup) and being desperately in need of something air-worthy, employed a dozen-odd British Gloster Gladiator biplanes left over from the colonial days to go north and (of course) attack the Kurds. This was in 1949. A 42-year difference that, I believed, made all the difference in the world.
Again, I seriously considered junking the entire book. And might have, had I not already been, you know…paid.
I thought, for a time, that the Big Idea I had working was this whole economies of war thing. I was wrong.
There was a draft where my Big Idea was all about man’ instinctive fear and hatred of the unknown. One paragraph of that survived to the publishing date. About five lines. They’re really good lines and I like them a lot, but they are the distillation of tens of thousands of words of just utter, terrible crap—the living core of a Big Idea that died on the vine.
In case you’re interested, here are those lines:
“Arriving on a new planet, any new planet, is like being born again. Everything is new. Nothing has a name. For lack of anything better or more productive to do, you ascribe malice or creeping evil to the stupidest of things: that rock, this plant. It’s the same everywhere. Everyone does it. After his first half-dozen landings for Flyboy, Ted was never able to look at a baby the same way again, knowing for a stone fact that from the moment they come into the world they are full of hate and formless terror.”
I believed once (and still, to some extent, do) that my Big Idea in A Private Little War was a discussion of the military doctrine of “least application of force,” and the absurd limits of exigency and penury to which that can be taken when wars are planned and fought on spreadsheets by accountants and lawyers who risk nothing in their execution.
This certainly became a theme in the final version of the book. It became the driving plot device (which, in a perfect world, would make it, by default, my Big Idea, but what world—even among the made-up ones—is ever perfect?). I humanized it in the character of Eden “Fast Eddie” Lucas—the white-collar company man sent along on the ill-fated mission to Iaxo to make sure that the pilots and their biplanes kept the war on schedule and under-budget—and have even said in other interviews and conversations that this is What The Book Is About.
But I’ve never been entirely sure that this is true.
Obviously, I didn’t junk the entire book after seeing my first biplane up close. I changed the things I had to change (the sound of the engine at idle, the feel of the doped skin, where the f’ing gas tank was located) and—accurately, I think—retained the initial sense of awe and wonder and terror I’d first felt when picturing in my head these modern biplanes roaring across the alien skies of Iaxo. This worked because, as cool as the biplanes were, they weren’t the thing that held the story together or made it sing.
I didn’t give up after learning that my pitch was a load of crap. Instead, I laughed like a crazy person over the similarities between the false story I was remembering and the actual thing that had actually happened. As a lie, it’d been plausible enough to hang in my head for twenty years and eventually become the basis for a science fiction novel. And in its true form, the story was even better because it felt, weirdly, like proof. Of course this could happen because, look—it’s already happened once before.
As I imagine must happen with all books (save a very fortunate few), A Private Little War’s Big Ideas were whatever I needed them to be on the day and in the moment that I was putting them down on paper. And in the end, all of them—the half-lies, the unknowns, the worthwhile explorations and even the worst flights of high-minded dumbassery—contributed to the final product. This is a book about madness. About power and its limitations. About the technological curve, lust for machinery, love and death and whiskey and toast. It is, in its final version, a lot like the story of its creation: a record of miscommunication, false belief, wrong-headed assumptions and the failure of Big Ideas on every conceivable level.
For me, this is great because I came out the other side with a pretty cool book full of biplanes and aliens.
For my characters? Well, things turn out a little bit rougher for them in the end. I mean, it is a war story, after all. And those things? They rarely end well.
I wanted to write a book about kink.
This was around the time that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books were getting popular; well before the time that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey took Edward and Bella’s figuratively Dom-Sub relationship to its more literal manifestation in Christian and Anastasia. Part of my interest was mercenary—at that point, my previous two novels (Eutopia and Rasputin’s Bastards) were at the polite-rejection stage of their life cycle, and it sure seemed that this emerging kinky-horror market was a good place to set up a booth.
But I soon realized it would have been a lousy booth. Because every time I thought about the sparkle-skinned vampires of the town of Forks, I couldn’t help but also consider the silicon-skinned hausfraus of the town of Stepford. And while there’s a lot of sex, and sexual politics, at work in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, it’s not what anyone would call titillating.
In Stepford, kink is expressed as its nasty uncle: perversion.
So it was that I set out to write The ‘Geisters: a horror novel about perversion.
It’s the story of Ann LeSage, a young woman whose life has been shaped by the continual intrusion of a poltergeist that she eventually named the Insect. Unlike poltergeists of lore, which are said to wreak havoc for months or years in households including a troubled young daughter, the Insect doesn’t just disappear when she passes puberty. It in fact becomes downright murderous.
That’s bad enough. But the Insect has attracted the attention of a group of men who have a twisted and erotic obsession with poltergeists. They are long past chat rooms and dungeon play. They are powerful and wealthy and determined to use those advantages to court the real thing.
And the Insect… it’s prepared to show them reality like they’ve never seen it before
The book as it’s come together really owes a debt to Ira Levin. Think Rosemary’s Baby, with the part of Rosemary Woodhouse played by Carrie White.
It owes another kind of debt to a real-world perversion: the horror story that emerged in 2008 in Austria, of Elizabeth Fritzl who’d been kept prisoner in a cellar for 24 years as a sexual slave by her father Josef, among a growing “family” of children borne of repeated rapes. The ‘Geisters was in the proof-reading stage of its life-cycle when Amanda Berry made her escape from a makeshift dungeon in Cleveland, where she’d been literally chained for years along with two other women, so I can’t say that story influenced the book. But it surely did confirm to me the existence of a continuum of men using their predilections as a jumping-point for a literal life’s work of the objectification, subjugation and rape of women who are anything but willing ‘Subs.’ In that manner, the privileged gentlemen of The ‘Geisters aren’t playing a sex game divorced from human consequence, even as they trick themselves into thinking that they are. They are not sexy. They do not sparkle.
The ‘Geisters goes to an ugly and horrific place. It’s not the place most people go when they decide to experiment with responsible BDSM or other non-vanilla varieties of consensual sex. It is a place, to use the current parlance for these things, that contains more than a few triggers.
But it goes to that place in the company of Ann LeSage, and the Insect. I like to think that the horror show in my made-up story The ‘Geisters is at least more of a two-way street than it is for the victimized women in our sad reality.
In one of the better days for the United States recently, the Supreme Court of the United States knocked down the “Defense of Marriage Act,” pointing out, quite reasonably, that you can’t actually defend marriages if you’re telling some people that their unquestionably legal marriages are less marriage-y than others. Here’s the full decision (pdf link). As a bonus, it also punted on California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage, in the basis that those bringing the suit (who were not the state of California) had no standing to do so. That effectively allows same-sex marriages to continue to happen in the Golden State, since the state government itself has chosen not to defend Prop 8, possibly because it’s a bigoted, hateful piece of crap. Here’s the full ruling on that, too (pdf link).
So in one day: Those same-sex marriages that are legally constituted in their respective states are to be recognized on a federal level; the most populous state in the union gets its same-sex marriages back. Again, all things considered, one of our nation’s better recent days.
Caveat: Same-sex marriage still is not legal everywhere in the United States. Here in Ohio, where I live, there is still a ban on it in our state constitution. Two-thirds of the states still don’t have same-sex marriage and/or have active laws (or constitutional amendments) against it. If anyone believes peeling off those laws and constitutional amendments is going to be a walk in the park, you’re at the very least a lot more sanguine about it than I am.
What the DOMA ruling does do, I think, it make it a lot less easy for those who work to deny same-sex marriage to say they do so out of anything other than bigotry. 57 million people in the US now live in states where same-sex marriage are legal, and (now) recognized by the federal government; in those states no opposite-sex marriage has been threatened or undermined by those same-sex marriages, the respective state governments did not fall and in general the world did not end. Religious organizations who oppose same sex marriage don’t have to sanctify them. And no one’s slippery-sloped themselves into marrying a goddamned horse or dog, for Christ’s sake.
None of the arguments against same-sex marriage, at any level of reasonableness, have stuck the dismount. At this point, the reason you’re against same sex marriage is just because you don’t want people of the same sex to have the same rights and privileges you do, because waaaaaaah. I think it’s fine (if sad) if one believes same-sex marriage is somehow wrong, but otherwise leaves people to do as they will. But if you’re out there trying to keep people of the same sex from getting hitched, then we have a word to describe what you’re doing.
Now, as it happens, I don’t believe everyone who has a bigoted point of view is inherently a bigot, in the sense that they actively go out of their way, day in and day out, to discriminate against other people. It takes a while for the scales to fall from one’s eyes. But I will say that the correlation between bigots and bigotry is pretty high. I think we’re at the point where on this matter, the longer you hew to bigotry, the less convincing a protestation that you’re not a bigot is going to be. The axing of DOMA makes it that much harder to pretend. I think that’s just fine.
Congratulations to my married friends whose marriages now count to the IRS.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 26, 2013
Today I'm happy people I love now have the same rights I do, but even happier people I don't know have the same rights I do.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 26, 2013
90 minutes into the post-DOMA era: MY HETEROSEXUAL MARRIAGE STILL STRONG. Will wait another 30 minutes to see if it sticks.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 26, 2013
Two hours into the post-DOMA age. Marriage still intact. None of the pets, of either sex, have proposed polygamy. WE MAY YET SURVIVE
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 26, 2013
I should have posted this earlier, but, hey, I’ve been busy: Since I am taking at least a semi-vacation here in July, with the exception of a July 2nd Big Idea piece (which was scheduled before I decided on a vacation), there will be no Big Idea pieces for July. I’ll pick things up again in August (indeed, I have Big Idea pieces scheduled for August 1st and 2nd already). So if you’ve been waiting to hear back about whether you have a Big Idea slot for July, this is the official news.
Also, and related, I’m thinking of revamping the intake process for Big Idea pieces to a) make it easier for me to post them b) make it at least little more open to work that’s outside the usual confines of “traditional” publishing. I’ll let y’all know about that as it comes along, probably (again) in August. Thanks.
My, what a lovely collection of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound today! Do you see anything you yearn for? Note it in the comment thread.
It’s funny, the things your book can tell you about yourself. When I wrote vN: The First Machine Dynasty for Angry Robot Books, my “big idea” was to write about robots from the robot perspective. Specifically, I wanted to write about the one self-replicating humanoid — Amy Peterson — who could hurt human beings. All the others would remain beholden to their “failsafe,” a feature programmed in by the Rapture-minded megachurch that funded their development, but Amy would be different. Amy wouldn’t see what was so special about human beings. Amy wouldn’t love them.
I left my husband shortly after finishing it.
Staring down the barrel of a sequel, I decided to invert everything from the first book. How would it feel to be a robot with an intact failsafe? How would he navigate a world whose relationship to its robot population was changing? How could he protect himself without resorting to violence? And that’s the “big idea” behind iD: The Second Machine Dynasty. It’s the story of Javier, Amy’s love interest from the first book, as he makes his way from Puerto Limón to Las Vegas to Walla-Walla to Nagasaki. It’s a story about a robot uprising, sure. But my idea was to tell that story on the personal scale — to talk about one humanoid turning away from humanity.
Making that big idea happen was tough. I didn’t possess the emotional wherewithal required to confront my subject matter head-on, at first. The only other fiction I wrote that year were science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs and the government of Ontario. That paid rent while I dealt with the whole Cape Fear situation going on at my new place. The guy living below us would, in between raking deep claw-marks in the dead clay of our front yard, threaten my new partner and accuse us of bugging his apartment. That made it tough to relax. But really, I was just scared. I was scared that I couldn’t do it. My circumstances were so different. I was out of school and drumming up clients. I had more stress and less time. I didn’t have years to while away on a passion project — I had a deadline. Plus, I was working on an even darker story than the first one. What if I couldn’t pull it off? For help, I started watching The Godfather, Part II over and over.
(For future reference, everything you need to know about sequels is in The Godfather, Part II.)
But I didn’t really discover what I needed until after my wallet was stolen in San Francisco. The wallet had my passport and my Canadian Permanent Residency card in it. Without the latter, I couldn’t get back into the country. Being trapped this way had been one of my deepest phobias since immigrating to Canada. It’s sort of like that nightmare about standing in front of an audience without any clothes on, only you’re standing in front of an armed guard without any papers. “I can’t go home,” I kept saying. “They won’t let me come home.”
Deep down, I realized that this was what my book was really about. It was about not being able to go home.
I took a 12-hour Greyhound ride down to Los Angeles, home of the only Canadian consulate in that state for travellers. This was surprisingly easy without any photo ID. I stayed there for two weeks, sleeping on my old roommate’s couch while I waited on new documents. There’s a terrible powerlessness in waiting on government bureaucracy. A willowy woman selling artisanal truffle salt told me the universe must have wanted me to be there, and I smiled politely and privately told “the universe” to fuck right off and die. Then some members of Amanda Palmer’s new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, told me the same thing when I saw them at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Their new record has a whole song about a lost wallet. I teared up as they played it, and told them as much afterward. “I guess it’s for the best that this happened, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” one of the band told me.
Well, maybe. The experience did lead me to face one of my greatest fears. And after you’ve done that, after you’ve gone to the place beyond fear, you realize that writer’s block is bullshit. I opened up the manuscript and out came a weird little story about an homme fatale who finds out how much he loves his fellow robots in the bedrooms of America.
What I like about that weird little story is that it significantly expands the world introduced in the first novel. Readers of vN wanted to know more about New Eden Ministries, the church that developed the vN for post-apocalyptic mass production. Now they will. They wanted to know more about Mecha, the city in Japan built by and for robots. Now they will. They wanted to know how Amy thought she could just start orphanages for unwanted robots in the middle of the ocean, without any repercussions from the human world. They’ll see how that turned out.
But that’s not what I really love about Javier’s story. What I love about it is that his story, like my own, is about having something secure and choosing something real. It’s about knowing you can never going home again, and going somewhere else to have another adventure. It’s about doing something scary. Something unfathomable. Something impossible. And living through it.
The headline basically gets the gist of it: I plan to have a very light schedule of posting here at Whatever in July — “very light” meaning anything from “maybe once a day” to “not at all for most of the whole damn month.” I’m being vague because I haven’t entirely figured out what I want to do yet other than generally feeling that a summer vacation would be lovely.
I’m telling you now for two reasons: One, it’s a way to commit myself to taking a break of some variety. Two, it’s so that if I don’t post on a daily basis in July, you don’t worry and ask me if I’ve fallen down a well or am rage quitting the Internet or whatever. I’m fine, folks. Just been busy enough recently that I want to take a break and relax.
(Please note this is not your cue to volunteer to guest blog. If I want guest bloggers, I’ll ask for them, almost certainly privately. Thanks, though.)
In any event: Head’s up! It’s going to be a mellow July around here. You have a week or so to prepare. I think you’ll be fine. I really do.
And I’m not going to argue with it about the fact.
So, to keep you amused, a question for you to answer and discuss in the comment thread:
Name a favorite “deep cut” from a band you like. A “deep cut” meaning a track that was never a single or radio/video hit and wouldn’t generally be known to people who are not already huge fans of that particular band.
This is in my head today because earlier in the morning I was discussing this particular track from Electric Light Orchestra, which is apparently obscure enough at the moment that you can’t even find chords for it online, which is pretty weird for a band as well-known as ELO was in its day. Nevertheless:
So that’s my deep cut for the day. What’s yours? If you want to include a link to it (youtube or elsewhere) in your comment, that would be groovy. Rickrolls will, of course, be looked askance upon. Dig deep!
And his expression of “what?” does seem to suggest that he believes he has full, rightful claim to it. For the moment, Zeus. For the moment.
For those of you who have been asking what kind of recliner this is, here’s a listing for it. I would note that Krissy says she got a rather better price for it than the one listed here, and knowing Krissy, I believe that entirely.
I noted yesterday that the old recliners in the front room were being taken out to make space for new furniture. Here’s one piece of that furniture: A new recliner whose proportions seem better suited for Andre the Giant than me. Seriously, I look even more like a hobbit in this thing than I usually do. On the other hand, it really is pretty damn comfortable and I can already tell that I’ll be happy to sit in it and type away when I need a break from my office (I’m sitting in it right now as I’m typing this).
The chair is accompanied by a sofa of similar ridiculous size and reclination (not pictured) and a coffee table and two end tables (one of which is shown here). Krissy bought the set while I was away on tour, which I suppose puts me on notice that when I go away for three weeks at a stretch, I should not be entirely surprised if this is how she decides to keep herself occupied. Fair enough.
Although the cats don’t know it, they are on a clock; in about 24 hours, those chairs are to be carted off and replaced with a couch, around which my wife will then redecorate the front room. This may be of some consternation to Ghlaghghee and Zeus, both of whom enjoy the chairs and indeed have their particular ones to sleep in (she prefers the southerly one, while Zeus is partial to the northerly one), but inasmuch as a) their lives are pretty sweet in a general sense, b) both of them have several other favorite sleeping places in the house, I think they may be able to get over this particular disruption. It remains to be seen in either or both will take to the new couch (or whether Krissy will let them).
As for the recliners, they’ve more than earned their keep. My wife bought them from Big Lots eight years ago for something like $100 each; they were ridiculously cheaply made (we suspect that stiffened cardboard was an element of their construction), but they were also pretty darn comfortable, and held up surprisingly well. I am assuming they are off to charity; they’re still usable and nice to sit on. Hopefully whoever buys them will not have a cat allergy. I think cat fur is part of the chairs’ DNA at this point.
The SyFy Channel announced today that it would be releasing a film called Sharknado, about, yes, a tornado filled with sharks. Naturally enough, I had a comment about that on Twitter:
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 20, 2013
AND YET @Syfy told me that my "SNAILQUAKE" idea was garbage. COME ON SYFY. If you're doing Sharknado, YOU OWE ME SNAILQUAKE.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 20, 2013
EVERYONE TAKE TO YOUR TWITTER FEED NOW AND TELL @SYFY TO HIRE ME TO WRITE "SNAILQUAKE." FINALLY A QUALITY MOVIE IDEA FOR THEM.
— John Scalzi (@scalzi) June 20, 2013
To which Syfy responded:
@scalzi Be careful what you wish for…
— Craig Engler (@Syfy) June 20, 2013
Yes, well. And while we are waiting around for SyFy to send money to my door for my brilliant, brilliant idea, folks on Twitter wasted no time getting to work on key art. Thus:
— n8 (@NateSurber) June 20, 2013
— Scott Sigler (@scottsigler) June 20, 2013
— shari chankhamma (@sharihes) June 20, 2013
Honestly, I don’t know why SyFy hasn’t just given me all the monies already.
SnailQuake, people. It will happen. Oh yes. It will.
Writer Ramsey Hootman grew up loving one literary genre but writing in an entirely different one for her debut novel Courting Greta. But don’t think that doesn’t mean her first literary love wasn’t an influence anyway. She’s here to explain how it was.
I first read The Martian Chronicles at age 12. This glorious, mind-expanding gateway drug lured me away from the kid’s section and into the clutches of Heinlein, Asimov, Bova—our library was a bit outdated when it came to SF, forcing me to cut my teeth on the classics.
As I aged, my reading horizons expanded. These days my addiction is best sated by the hard SF of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge, but I’ve also come to adore the character-centric space opera of Lois McMaster Bujold and the hyrbid weirdness of China Mieville. I majored in English because words were my strength, but I attended a technical university and satisfied my GE requirements with physics, astronomy, and aviation.
So when I, a lifelong science fiction fan, finally became a novelist myself, the genre of my debut title was obviously… um…
Well, not quite. Courting Greta breaks too many genre conventions to be considered straight-up romance, so it’s technically just contemporary fiction. But the heart of the book is undeniably a story about two people negotiating the rough terrain of a very awkward relationship. Maybe even doing what you’d call falling in love.
How does a SF addict write a love story? Not very well, according to the pile of agent rejections detailing why no editor in his or her right mind would consider my book. The only point of view character was male (a big no-no), the story was “too unconventional,” and, to quote one rejection in particular, my characters needed to be “more conventionally attractive.”.
Approaching a problem from a completely different angle, however, is often what it takes to produce something unique and innovative. In an echo of that rejection, Library Journal’s recent starred review of Courting Greta called the story original, refreshing, and – surprise! – “unconventional.”
So… how does a SF addict write a love story? Accidentally. I started not with a romance, but with a character – someone I wasn’t seeing anywhere outside my own favorite genre. Samuel is the kind of guy who’d feel totally comfortable running a LAN party or a D&D table. Not your cool retro hipster geek, but a genuine computer nerd. Totally 1337, but not so hot on the interpersonal skills. There are a lot of books written for this kind of guy, particularly in SFF, but none that I knew of written about him. At least, not in a contemporary real-world setting.
Of course, “geek” is more of a class than a character attribute, so to be more specific: Samuel Cooke is a snarky programmer whose world consists of his apartment, his office, and a computer screen. At least until something prompts him to take up his crutches (he has spina bifida) and venture into the real world. He’s bitter, self-centered, and painfully conscious of how pathetic his life looks to everyone else.
Sam has a couple of antagonists, the biggest one being himself, but what he needed was a foil. Not just someone to draw him out of his defensive shell, but to really get under his skin and provoke him to actions he’d normally never consider. This person would ideally be his opposite: domineering, physical, action-oriented.
It’s probably pretty cliche that the first person that popped into my head was my junior high gym coach. You know the guy I’m talking about; perhaps you even spent a few semesters trying to avoid his disapproving bark. Except that in my case, he was a she. Hmm. Now that was interesting. To make the situation even more dire, let’s say she’s a conservative Christian. Older. Bigger. Stronger. He would be all words, she’d be all action. The strong and silent type.
And just like that, I discovered something I love even more than a good science fiction yarn: a serious challenge. In fact, the reason I love hard SF so much is because it forces me to stretch just beyond the bounds of my own understanding. Which, for better or worse, is why it’s a genre I’m unlikely to tackle. Writing it would require knowing just enough to spoil the magic.
Writing Courting Greta, however, was a different kind of challenge altogether. Trying to put Samuel and Greta in a relationship that didn’t stretch the bounds of credibility meant learning to understand and empathize with both characters, as different as they were from each other – and from myself. Over ten years (yes, I said ten) I rewrote the entire manuscript several times. The climax, which seems so essential now, didn’t even come into being until a couple of months before I landed my agent. Throughout the process, it was never a question of how to fit them together so much as whether it was possible at all.
So. How does a SF addict write a love story? Quite a bit like writing science fiction, I suppose: extrapolating from what I knew of the world to speculate about the unknown. In what situation, under what circumstances, might I behave like my gym teacher? Giving her the benefit of the doubt on all counts, what would her motivations be? From Sam’s perspective, what on earth would he see in Greta? Could those qualities be magnified? I established a set of parameters – physical and emotional – and then launched my explorers toward a new horizon.
And like any good SF yarn, the best part is not the destination, but the possibilities explored along the way.
You know, every now and again some dude will read my “Straight White Male” piece or one of the similar follow-on pieces, decide to put me in my place, and barf up a blog nugget consisting of straw men, bad logic, projection and anger issues with me as its target. This is fine, of course. Everyone needs a hobby and at the end of the day I’m not generally psychically or materially injured by the venting, and indeed I’m often amused. So let the blog nuggets fly.
Be that as it may, it’s worth it every once in a while to note a particular poor argument about me and point and laugh at it. The one I’d like to address today is the one which asserts that I have guilt for being white and/or straight and/or male and/or what passes for “liberal” here in the United States. The “guilt” assertion is a favorite tactic of bad rhetoricians, because, oh, I don’t know, if you feel guilt then you are weak, and if you are weak then your arguments aren’t good because SHUT UP YOU PATHETIC WEAKLING I LAUGH AS YOU MEWL IN THE DIRT STOMP STOMP STOMP or something along that line.
Let’s put aside for now the inherent poor logic of “You feel guilt therefore your argument is invalid” and ask the relevant question of: Do I, in fact, feel guilty for being white and/or straight and/or male and/or what passes for “liberal” here in the United States?
BWA HAH HA HA HA HAH HA you gotta be kidding me.
BWA HA HA HA HAH AH HA HA HAH HA HA HA AH HA HA HA no, seriously, you have to be absolutely, totally, completely joking. And if you’re not, that’s about seven different tangy flavors of stupid.
And now, the answer in that offers detail and some nuance:
So, not too long ago, I was at an amusement park with a friend of mine who is notable in his field, which is not my field. And because he is notable in his field, he has fans. At least one of those fans worked at this amusement park and said to my friend, hey, if you come to the park, let me know and I’ll make sure you get the VIP treatment. And who doesn’t like getting the VIP treatment? Very few, that’s who.
So we went and we got the VIP treatment and I have to tell you it was pretty sweet. For example, all those lines everyone else had to wait in to get a popular ride? We totally didn’t. We went down an open path and got escorted right to the head of the line. We passed all those folks who had been waiting for 90 minutes or so while we did it and slipped into a car for the ride. It was a fun ride.
Do I feel guilty for breezing past all the folks who had to wait an hour and a half to get on the ride? Nope. I was offered a break and I took advantage of it, and was happy to do so. It meant that I had an extra ninety minutes to go on more rides, and that my overall amusement park experience was not one of complete exasperation. It worked out well for me.
But let’s be clear: I got a break there, something other people don’t always get. And in my particular case, it was a break that I did nothing to receive — I got a break because I knew a guy. I don’t feel guilty about getting that break, but I also don’t pretend that it was deserved or earned, or that the people we walked past wouldn’t be within their rights to be irritated with me blowing right on by. And I don’t pretend that, for the fact that I just happened to know a guy, I wouldn’t have been in that line for an hour and a half. So, no guilt, but come on. I know what I got out of that situation, through no effort of my own.
Out here in the real world of the United States, me being white and straight and male is kind of like me going to the amusement park with my notable pal. I get some breaks and advantages, at least some of which I didn’t do anything on my own to get. Do I feel guilty about them? No. I have things I want to do in my life — and things I’m happy to avoid in my life — and if I get breaks that let me do/avoid them, I’ll take them. I do take them. But again, I don’t pretend I’m not getting breaks other people aren’t, and avoiding aggravations that other people have to deal with. I recognize what I get that’s due to me and my efforts, and what I get because of things that aren’t fundamentally about me at all.
Now, if you’re unsophisticated enough to confuse this sort of self-awareness with guilt, then yes, I suppose that indeed looks like guilt to you. If you are the sort of person who then additionally confuses guilt with weakness, because you don’t think things through, or because your own set of insecurities and neuroses compel you to do so, or whatever reason causes you to make such transmutations in your head, and you fear or despise weakness for whatever reasons you might have, then I can see why you might be inclined to treat people you see has having guilt with contempt, and their thoughts and opinions unworthy of your consideration. So sure, I get that.
It makes you look like a fucking idiot, however. I really wish you would stop doing that.
(Likewise, the whole bit about “liberal guilt.” Dude, please. Your 1993-era set of Newt Gingrich™ Brand “Mean Things to Say About Liberals” Cue Cards are worn from all the thumbing through they get.)
I don’t feel guilty about the breaks I’ve gotten. I don’t feel guilty about the breaks I still get. But — and I think this is relevant here — I also think it’s important that today and moving forward people who aren’t straight and white and male get access to the same set of breaks that I’ve gotten. I also think that as someone who’s gotten breaks that have worked to my advantage, I should be willing to put in the effort to make that happen. With great breaks comes at least some responsibility.
Now, as it happens, this belief dovetails very nicely with a central tenet of the Science Fiction and Fantasy community: “Pay it Forward.” This means, in its most basic form, that when you’re helped get to where you are, the way to repay that debt is to then help others who need it — take what’s been given to you and send it on. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been given a lot, by people and by the culture I live in. I have a large debt, so to speak, that can be repaid only by paying it forward. I am happy to do it, and I’m especially happy to do it in a way that makes sure that the largest possible field of people, of all sorts, have to chance to pay it forward from there.
So, no. I have no guilt about being a Straight White Male. Why should I? What I would have guilt about is if, as a Straight White Male, with all the advantages I have, earned and unearned, I wasn’t working to make my various communities better for those in them (and for those who wished they would be welcome as part of them). If I weren’t doing that I would feel very guilty indeed. It’s much better to believe in “Pay it Forward” than “I Got Mine.”