To usher us into the new year, a grab bag of photos I like, not previously collected, that I took in 2013.
See you next year!
To usher us into the new year, a grab bag of photos I like, not previously collected, that I took in 2013.
See you next year!
And as the year winds down, it’s time to look at what the most popular posts on Whatever were for 2013. In order of visits, they are:
It’s an interesting mix. One, there’s not a political piece in there, which is unusual, but then again I didn’t write too much on politics this year, so maybe that’s a “chicken-or-egg” sort of thing going on. Two, the archives continue to be a source of traffic, with four of the top ten spots going to pieces I wrote in other years.
Three, clearly, this is a year where I spent a lot of time dealing with/ruminating on sexism and other harassment issues in my community of science fiction and fantasy (and in the online world in general). And, you know, I feel pretty good about that — I think I had useful things to contribute and also that I helped move the conversation forward. That said, let me be the first to suggest I need not pat myself on the back too hard there. As I’ve noted before other people have been doing the hard work on these topics. I’ve been adding my voice to the chorus. The good news: The chorus seems to be making real progress.
The plan for Whatever in 2014 is the same as it ever is: I’ll write what I want to write about, and then we’ll see what happens then. With that said, I would expect that as it’s a mid-term election year here in the US, you’ll see me probably write about politics more. By this time I suspect most of you know what my biases are, politically speaking. Consider yourself warned. I’m also giving some thought about format — specifically, whether to do more short pieces and/or compilation pieces. We’ll see as the new year rolls around. Which, uh, should not be too long from now.
In any event, before the year finally switches over, thanks again for dropping by and reading. It’s been an interesting 2013. Let’s hope 2014 is interesting, and yet doesn’t make us all want to strangle each other by the end of it. It’s not too much to ask for.
It’ll be up to historians to decide whether 2013 actually reached a sort of Peak Asshole event, from which there had to be an inevitable decline, or whether it was simply another new high before year another new high, as Complete Asshole levels rise in correlation with global temperatures. Whatever the historians decide, however, from the inside it certainly seemed like the assholes were out in force in 2013, mad to leave the streak marks of their existence all over the pages of the year. What’s terrifying is it wasn’t even an election year. This makes me want to hide under a blanket for the whole of 2014.
Who’s on my finalist list of complete assholes for 2013? Well, let me tell you — and then you can vote for which one of my finalists you’d choose.
Barack Obama: Surprised? Don’t be — between the NSA stuff and the complete bungling of the Healthcare.gov Web site, he’s earned the spot. The NSA issues are the more existentially troubling items, but it’s the Healthcare.gov thing that makes me want to smack the dude upside the head. It’s like, Jesus, man, you just crushed the GOP on the government shutdown thing, now all you have to do to rip out their spines for the whole next election cycle is just have a fucking Web site that works. It’s like his finishing move was tripping at the finish line into a flaming pit of spikes and alligators.
(And no, he didn’t code the thing. But you know what? If I were president and the way that people were going to connect with the one thing that will cement my legacy as the leader of the nation was through a Web site, I would have damn well made sure the thing actually functioned. And yes, I know about the DDoS attacks. If Obama’s team didn’t know those were coming after everything leading up to the site going live, that’s indicative of a larger problem).
Look, I think the ACA is a good thing. So when even I am exasperated with this fuck up, there’s a problem. His saving grace with me is that I think he’s less of an asshole than others on the list. But at this point, five years into your presidency, not being ready for prime time makes you an asshole, period.
Rob Ford: You know, down here in the United States, we have a surplus of asshole politicians, so it really takes effort for one from Canada to not only impinge on our consciousness but also to impress. And partly that’s our fault; if the Harper administration has shown us anything it’s that Canadians are just as capable of electing assholes into office as we are. So, sorry, Canada. But on the other hand Rob Ford really is something special. It’s like if Chris Farley lived, lost any shred of loveableness, dropped 30 IQ points and started bragging about his oral sex skills. There’s nothing there that doesn’t scream “asshole.” So thank you, Toronto, for letting us know this uptick in assholes isn’t just a US thing.
Tech Dudes: 2012 had comic book and science fiction dudes front and center as assholes of the year, but this year they got tapped out of the ring by tech dudes, who have more money and apparently even more social entitlement, whether crapping on women or the homeless, or pushing to break up an entire state of California so they don’t have to deal with, you know, the dirty dirty people who do other things they don’t. Sure, they apologized (except the one trying to break up California, who is still at it). That’s nice. You shouldn’t need the whole Internet to drop on your head before you realize you’re being a jackass.
You know, I love tech and I have many friends and fans who make their living in tech-related fields — hell, I’m working on a video game as we speak. And not nearly everyone in tech is an asshole, thank God, just as not nearly everyone in comic books and science fiction are assholes. But there are some days when what I’d really like to do is tell all the ones who are that we’ve approved their sea-stead, let them float out into the Great Pacific Trash Gyre and then watch their pocket nation of assholes burn once they figure out some of them will have to gut fish and clean sewers, and then fall in on themselves in an utterly vicious game of “not it.” Don’t worry, in their absence Silicon Valley would be fine — turns out you don’t actually have to be a smug, fake-meritocratic libertarian in order to innovate and code. Funny about that.
Justin Bieber: Who knew that being young and rich and famous with no one on your payroll to tell you “no” would turn you into a complete asshole? Well, in point of fact, nearly everyone knows that, since it’s a tale as old as time. Justin Beiber is the one who got to tell it in 2013, just in time for his teen idol shine to transfer over to One Direction, who should enjoy their next couple of years. Save up your money, guys! Justin can tell you why. Let’s hope in a decade he’ll re-emerge as not a total tool of a human being.
Ted Cruz: This guy, I tell you. He’s like the Platonic ideal of an asshole. He’s the poster child of assholes everywhere, the one that young ambitious assholes look at and say, wow, he’s not about anything other than himself and wants what he wants because he wants it and I wish that was me. It take a special sort of asshole to talk for 21 hours on the Senate floor and have it not be filibuster but to pretend it is and also pretend that it did anything other then self-aggrandizement, but that’s Ted Cruz for you.
Likewise, there’s only one name for the sort of asshole to maneuvers to shut down the government without an end game planned out, and again, that’s Ted Cruz. He’s like Newt Gingrich minus the charm or political saavy, which is saying something absolutely terrifying. Gringrich is famously known as a “dumb person’s idea of a smart person”; Cruz is an asshole’s idea of a principled statesman.
(This is the spot where I’m supposed to insert a joke about Texas, but at this point I feel mostly sorry for Texas. Maybe they intended to elect an asshole to the Senate, but I don’t imagine they understood the magnitude of the asshole they actually sent along. Some things are too big even for Texas.)
What really burns me about Cruz is that he’s one of my generation — a Gen-Xer, and it embarrasses the shit out of me that the two most prominent national politicians in my age cohort are him and Paul Ryan, i.e., the current poster boy for the GOP’s Intellectual Poverty. Seriously, Gen X, what the hell.
Also: Cory Booker, speaking to you as a fellow Gen-Xer, you have a lot to make up for here. Get to it, please.
And now, a poll:
If you want to nominate someone else as the biggest asshole of the year, go ahead and do it in the comments. Do me a favor, however, and limit it to actual public personalities, i.e., don’t nominate a co-worker or some random dude you saw online. Thanks.
Oh, look at that, we have just enough time to get one more Big Idea in under the wire for 2013. The honor for the year’s final Big Idea goes to Shannon Page, with Eel River, which combines 70s communes with horror — one of which, at least, was experienced by the author directly…
“You should write a book about that!”
Who hasn’t heard such words, upon telling someone about their childhood on a commune, with goats and naked hippies and a pot garden and no electricity or indoor plumbing and…
Oh, is that just me?
I did indeed have an interesting childhood on “the Land,” and I am a writer, so of course I found the idea tempting. But there are plenty of really good hippie-kid memoirs out there, not to mention some really amazing fiction, such as Drop City by T.C. Boyle. And anyway, I’m a genre writer. I love a creepy story, something with a strong dose of unreality in it. Bizarre as the hippie lifestyle was (and don’t think we didn’t know it at the time), it still actually happened. So I really wasn’t sure how to write my own “true” story.
After a few false starts, I put the idea away and wrote other novels and short fiction filled with witches and fairies and demons and monsters. You know, good stuff.
Then one year I wanted to do NaNoWriMo—the National Novel Writing Month. My writer friends had all these great ideas for their own NaNoWriMo projects, but I was still dithering. Then, in one of those blinding moments of insight, I thought, What about “the Land” story…but with a monster?
And I was off and running. In NaNoWriMo, the goal is to write 50,000 words in a month—a little too short for a novel, but it would make a good start, if it was working; and I’d have only wasted a month, if it wasn’t.
The words poured out. With the barest of outlines, the whole story came alive for me, like no other fiction I’ve ever written. Having the world-building already so well taken care of, I was free to concentrate on the characters and the story. I reached 80,000 words and “the end” before the month was over, and the novel has needed very little editing since then.
Yes, I grabbed the setting and all the colorful details I could from my own life—but it is not, after all, the literal story of my childhood. It is, however, a true story. A story doesn’t have to be “true to life” to tell the truth about life. Genre fiction—fantastical fiction—can be an easier way of exploring and understanding real life than “mundane” fiction with its “factual” details in all their obscuring complexity. Eel River is about danger and fear and betrayal; about a little girl learning to confront uncertainty, and that grownups don’t always have all the answers. It’s about the failure of great ideas when confronted with on-the-ground realities and real people. It’s about the real issues of my childhood, even though these parents are not my parents, that brother is not my brother, and, of course, the actual Land did not contain a monster.
Well, not that monster, anyway.
You ask: So, John, what’s the plan for 2014? Well, since you’ve asked (“you” in this case being “the stand-in for actual people who lives inside my head”):
THINGS THAT ARE DONE
* Lock In, my eleventh novel, will be out on August 26 in US/Canada and 28 August in the UK/Commonwealth.
* Midnight Star, the video game I helped create, is currently in beta-testing and on schedule to be released in 2014, probably in the first half of the year.
* Just before Midnight Star is released, its accompanying graphic novel Midnight Rises, which I wrote (and which is illustrated by Mike Choi), will also be out.
So: A novel, a graphic novel and a video game, all out in 2014. Not a bad schedule of releases.
THINGS TO WHICH I AM CONTRACTUALLY COMMITTED
* I will be writing the follow up to The Human Division, very likely in the same episodic format as that novel. THD2 (which will not be the title, obviously) will be released in 2015; no specific dates yet.
* I’ll be recording a song with Paul & Storm for their album of cover songs called Extra Balls, as part of their Kickstarter commitment. We haven’t decided on the song, nor do we have a specific recording date set yet. I don’t know their release schedule, but I assume it will be in 2014.
* Also, as another part of the P&S Kickstarter thing, I’ll be writing a short story based on one of their songs. This will likely be a short-short. It will also likely be a funny piece. Also probably 2014.
PLACES I HAVE SAID I WILL BE, AND SOME OTHER POSSIBLES
* Appearances that I have definitely committed to are covered in my Scheduled Appearances page and include Detroit (twice), Seattle and San Francisco.
* Appearances that are sort of penciled in but not entirely confirmed yet include Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and London. There are a few others that are possibles but still tenuous enough I won’t mention them by name. If/when these get confirmed I’ll note them here and put them on the Scheduled Appearances page.
* I’m talking to Tor about a tour for Lock In. At this point it’s just talk. If we do it, I’ll note it here and let you know what the itinerary is (please note that we’re not taking requests at this time).
* I have at least one. Obviously, I can’t tell you about it/them. That’s why they’re called “seekrit projects.” I will announce them when they are announceable, promise.
THINGS I AM THINKING ABOUT FOR 2014, NON-CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGED DIVISION, MOST OF WHICH WON’T NECESSARILY GET DONE, BUT HEY, WHY NOT BE AMBITIOUS
* A science fiction-oriented novella.
* A dark fantasy novella.
(Don’t rush to the e-mail, editors: If I do these, they already have homes.)
* A non-sf/f YA novel I’ve been thinking about for a while.
(This one you can rush to the e-mail for, editors.)
* A graphic novel adaptation of one of my existing works (“The God Engines” is what I’m leaning toward).
* A new book on writing.
Everything in this list is theoretical, and contingent on a number of factors. I will note that there are things not on this list I can see myself doing in 2014, but I don’t note them here in no small part because they would be contingent on other people, and I have no control over any of that. This is the stuff I do have control over, i.e., all it takes for most of these is me deciding to write.
AND IN A GENERAL SENSE, I’D LIKE TO DO THESE THINGS IN 2014
* Do a better job organizing my time, with particular emphasis on Internet management, because, damn, the Internet, you know?
* Maybe exercise a little more because I’m a middle-aged dude, which means entropy is having its way with me more than I would like.
* Learn to play my guitar better.
* See friends more and do a little more family stuff.
* Take more and better naps.
So that’s 2014, in theory. Let’s see how it works in practice.
My two favorite people in the world.
So, barring me falling down some stairs in the next couple of days or some similar incident that drags down the curve of the year, I can say pretty authoritatively that 2013 was a very good year — a career year, in point of fact.
1. Well, obviously, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novel for Redshirts was a big moment for me. And I’m not gonna lie: Several months along, it’s still damn cool. Let me put it this way: I’ve won my fair share of awards, and winning awards is fun and cool and nice when it happens. But there’s only one writing award I actually dreamed of winning when I was kid, and that was the Best Novel Hugo. And now I have one, it’s right here in my office, and every once in a while I look back into my bookshelf and see it and think, holy shit, I won a Best Novel Hugo. Only 25 other living people on the whole planet have won this thing. The teenage version of me hasn’t stopped dancing about the room in joy.
2. I also won the Locus and RT Reviewer’s Choice Awards for Redshirts (in their respective Science Fiction categories) and a Seiun Award (that’s the Japanese Hugo) for The Android’s Dream. I was also nominated for awards in Germany (for Redshirts) and Spain (for Fuzzy Nation). That’s not a bad awards season overall, and I am of course immensely grateful.
3. The Human Division came out in episodic format starting in January, one episode a week for thirteen weeks, and each episode made it onto the USA Today Bestseller list. One author getting thirteen separate titles onto the list in thirteen consecutive weeks is, we’re pretty sure, a record of some kind. It’s in the same sort of record category that, say Most Career Sacrifice Bunts is in (that record, incidentally, held by Eddie Collins). But you know what? I’ll take it (also, Eddie Collins? In the Baseball Hall of Fame). It’s done pretty well in hardcover, so that’s nice, too.
4. The Mallet of Loving Correction, my second collection of Whatever posts, also came out in 2013. It’s my ninth non-fiction book.
5. The Whatever (the blog you’re reading right now!) celebrated fifteen years of existence, which in Internet years means it was around when dinosaurs walked the earth. Considering that when I started the blog AOL was still the largest online service in the world, this is absolutely correct.
6. I helped raise over $16,000 in donations for the Carl Brandon Society this year, and helped garner over $60,000 in pledges for organizations dedicated to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia and sexual assault. I feel pretty good about both of those.
7. I finished up a three-year term as president of SFWA, not without a bit of drama, to be sure. That said, overall I feel pretty good about having left the organization on better financial and organizational footing than when I came in.
8. Pledged not to attend as a featured guest conventions that did not have harassment policies or the willingness to promote and enforce them if they did. I was delighted that over a thousand pros and fans co-signed the pledge.
So, in all, a pretty good year.
Downsides to 2013? Well, I’ve been running more or less full out for about three years, in terms of work, tours and public appearances, so 2013 found me a little crispy around the edges. I cut back the number of appearances I did in the year and made sure I had a little time to relax and recuperate (I’m feeling better, thanks for asking). I also had a small group of online twits spend a whole lot of their time being assholes in my direction. They were adorable. In any event, the upsides outweighed the downsides by a considerable margin.
Onward to 2014.
You know them. You love them.
And now for fun, some animals that aren’t pets, but which I took pictures of this year anyway:
Not a bad year for the animals.
Intergenerational family dynamics — in spaaaaace! This might sound like an odd combination at first blush, but with any idea, it’s the execution of the concept that matters. Author Jason Fry is here to tell you how he made it work in his new middle grade novel The Jupiter Pirates: Hunt for the Hydra.
The Jupiter Pirates, my middle-grade space-fantasy series, didn’t start with a big idea at all, but a little one. While walking through Hudson River Park with my wife Emily, I mused that it might be fun to write a kids’ book about space pirates. We chatted about that and the ideas started clack-clack-clacking into place, in a faintly miraculous way that almost never happens to me or any other writer.
“Space pirates” became “a family of space pirates.” Then “a family of space pirates” became “there’s a family starship – the mother’s the captain, the father’s the first mate, and the children are midshipmen.” And then the last domino: “As a ship’s crew, the children have to cooperate. But they’re also competitors. The rank of captain is handed down from one generation to the next, and only one of the children will be the next captain.”
Emily and I looked at each other. That did sound like fun. In fact, it sounded like a lot of fun.
Starting with that little idea, I layered in ingredients inspired by stories I loved. Star Wars went into the mix, of course – I was eight years old when the original hit theaters and have written some two dozen Star Wars books, so it was guaranteed to be in there somewhere. There was a helping of Treasure Island and all its descendents, a pinch of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series, and even a dash of “The Sopranos.”
But the big idea came later, while I was writing what would become The Hunt for the Hydra. My first glimpse of it came as I figured out the backstory. When my protagonist Tycho Hashoone was a baby, there was a big battle in which warships from Earth ambushed and destroyed many of the Jupiter pirates. After that the Jovian Union outlawed piracy, but gave some of the surviving pirates letters of marque as lawful privateers. The family patriarch, Huff Hashoone, was so badly injured that half his body was replaced with cybernetic parts and he had to step aside as captain. His daughter Diocletia was raised a pirate but became the captain of a privateer. And her children – Carlo, Yana and Tycho – would grow up thinking of piracy as a thing of the past.
And that’s where my mind started to go beyond carbines and tattoos and unironic uses of “Arrrr!” (Though all those things have been great fun.) The kids are privateers, learning space law and standards of conduct. Their grandfather is an unreconstructed pirate, given to grousing that the end of piracy was the ruin of the family tradition. Their mother and father are caught in the middle, ex-pirates trying to teach their children to stay on the right side of the law.
That made for a basic, fundamental family conflict beyond the competition to be the next captain. And that, in turn, showed me the path I wanted for my protagonist.
Tycho is 12 years old in Hunt for the Hydra, insecure about his skills and doubtful that he can eclipse his twin sister or his older brother in the struggle to become captain. Hunt for the Hydra starts as a mystery (with a side of courtroom drama) and ends with a hammer-and-tongs fight between warships and their crews. By the time it’s over, Tycho’s learned he has capabilities he hasn’t guessed at, and that some of his skills are more important to commanding a starship crew than he thinks.
I think that makes for a satisfying story — but there’s also a shadow of what’s to come for Tycho. He’s trying to measure up to his famous grandfather and his formidable parents, but he’s not growing up the way they did. As he gets older, Tycho will start to question the value of the Hashoone family tradition. He’ll discover family mysteries and become obsessed with solving them, even though he might be better off leaving them alone. He and his siblings will wind up valuing very different things. And he’ll ask himself hard questions about what he thinks is right and what he really wants.
That’s the big idea that came into focus: What happens to the hero’s journey if the hero changes his mind? I think answering that question will lead to a more believable path than those taken by some heroes, one with unexpected roadblocks and detours and a chance of getting thoroughly lost. That’s something I think kids will understand – you’re a different person at 18 than you are at 12. Now, it’s my job to make sure future books in the series fulfill the promise of that idea, while making sure Hunt for the Hydra feels like a first step and not a feint in a different direction.
Aside from this one piece, I haven’t done a lot of public talking about the whole thing where the NSA ate the entire Internet and then seemed surprised that people were annoyed once it was discovered. So in the spirit of not leaving 2013 with it completely unobserved, a few thoughts.
1. First things first: I’m inclined to agree with the idea that what the NSA is doing, i.e., sucking up every bit of information possible from the online world when and wherever it can, is a gross and egregious violation of the U.S. Constitution (specifically the 4th Amendement, although I suspect there are other Constitutional issues as well), and also a really bad idea with respect to everyone else on the planet. And while in one sense you may wish to admire the chutzpah of a governmental organization that will, say, bug the cell phone of the leader of one of the US’ closest allies, apparently just because they could, out in the real world, this is how the Internet fractures and Balkanizes and the potentially greatest tool of human expression we’ve yet seen shatters into nothingness. So, yeah. Dumb across the board.
2. I am utterly unsurprised the NSA did it, for two reasons. One, the whole last decade of OH GOD OH GOD THE TERRORISTS ARE COMING FOR OUR FREEDOMS gave the NSA (and anyone else) carte blanche (it’s not for nothing the NSA’s employee talking points for Thanksgiving were heavy on playing the “9/11” card); Two, anyone who thinks that an organization that’s given a mission to collect data unencumbered by any real oversight or public knowledge won’t in fact go as far as they possibly can in that mission doesn’t really understand either human or institutional nature. Why did the NSA do it? Because they could, because no one told them not to, and 9/11 OUR FREEDOMS THE TERRORISTS OH GOD THE TERRORISTS.
3. I’m not going to attempt to excuse Obama’s acceptance of the continuation of such a wide net of data collection, which started under Bush, but I will say that I suspect if Obama had publicly tried to reel back the data collection, we’d have seen a huge freakout on the GOP side of things, proclaiming that Obama was undermining our ability to protect ourselves 9/11 TERRORISTS DEATH OH GOD AND ALSO BENGHAZI. Please note this does not suggest that Obama was planning to rein this stuff in (I don’t see any indication of that), just that if he had, this would almost certainly have been the response. I also believe that such a response is part of the the reflexive “we hate everything Obama does” thing the GOP does; if a GOP president were to suggest reining things in, the GOP response would be more measured. Lesson: partisan politics suck, especially these days.
4. I could be wrong about this but I don’t really get the sense the US general population gives much of a crap about any of this in anything but the most abstract sense; it’s largely a concern of tech and politics nerds. I also pretty strongly believe that to the extent there is negative feeling about this sort of massive data collection, it’s paper-thin at the moment, and that pretty much all you would need to get the general population to go along with a permanent surveillance state, especially one that, generally speaking, is utterly unconcerned about them on an individual level, is another large terrorist attack. This is, as you might expect, one of the scarier things to me, on an intellectual level, about all this NSA stuff.
5. But then on a personal level I also understand why it seems the vast majority of people don’t seem to give a crap. It’s because for most people, what’s the worst that can happen? The worst that can happen is that the government knows you look at porn online. And, well, shit. Who doesn’t know that? Who among us over the age of thirteen has not used the Internet to procure pictures of hot objectified humans who tickle their particular triggers? If we just all own up to the fact we look at porn, for most of us, the spectre of Big Brother becomes less of a thing in our lives.
This is not to say the massive governmental dragnet of data isn’t a real problem. It is (please see point one). It’s to say most people probably aren’t that concerned because they know they’re actually pretty boring. And maybe these folks are even right, so long as the US government remains generally blandly unconcerned with their day to day lives. But you know, we have ample examples of the US government deciding people are enemies of the state just for doing things they have a Constitutional right to do, so it’s well within reason not to assume the US government will remain blandly unconcerned.
6. An amendment to the US Constitution that explicitly allows for a right to privacy would likely help make it clear that programs like this are not to be tolerated, but the chances of a Right to Privacy amendment passing are close to zero, since that would essentially shut the door on the long attempt at rolling back Roe V. Wade, and there’s no possible way social conservatives are ever going to let that happen.
7. The US is correctly getting blowback from the NSA’s adventures, but let’s not pretend that every country that had the ability to do this wouldn’t (or didn’t, or doesn’t) do this. Let’s also not pretend that if the NSA stopped these programs tomorrow, programs like these would continue elsewhere (hello, China!), and that ultimately that’s going to be part of the argument that the NSA (and other governmental organizations) will make — and continue making — to authorize these sorts of programs in the future.
In short: If you weren’t already assuming that everything you do online isn’t already tracked, recorded and remembered forever, and will continue to be so, you’re probably utterly naive. The real question will be if you ultimately care.
In chronological order.
And as is tradition, one sunrise:
Great job, sun! Let’s do it again next year.
And the whole clan here wishes you a merry day today, however you celebrate it (and even if you don’t celebrate it at all). Enjoy your time with family and friends. Eat a ridiculous amount of food. Sleep in! And so on.
Christmas Eve is the time I take a look at my writing on Whatever to see what pieces I wrote that I liked, that others liked, and that had the most impact out there on the Intarweebs. For this year, this is the list, arranged chronologically.
I also raised some money this year, which was nice.
In all, an interesting year for Whatever. Let’s see what 2014 brings.
Athena Marie Scalzi, December 23rd. 2013. Fifteen years old today.
Midnight Star, which is the video game I wrote the story for, is getting closer to final release, and one of the milestones toward that release is a revamped Web site that features new information about the game and the graphic novel prequel (Midnight Rises, which I also wrote), and forums, where you can learn about what’s coming up with the game and participate in the conversations about it (yes, I have an account here. Because, well, yeah).
Here’s the Midnight Star site. Check it out, sign up, and get on the ground floor of this thing. It is — seriously, now — one of the most cool things I’ve been a part of. Come be part of it too.
Author Timothy S. Johnston has a thing for the “imposter” theme in science fiction, and yes, that pun was most definitely intended. Here he is to tell you why the theme intrigues him so, and how he uses it in his novel The Furnace.
TIMOTHY S. JOHNSTON:
In 1938 the Imposter theme made its first appearance in Science Fiction. The work was Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Other authors advanced the premise over the next several decades, increasing its popularity immeasurably. Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters (1951) and Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (1955), along with Campbell’s novella, are the most well-known literary iterations of the theme. Since then it has appeared on both the silver and the small screen, in shows such as Star Trek (both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine), The X-Files, and the short-lived Invasion just to name a few. There have been three movie versions of Campbell’s novella, one of Heinlein’s novel, and a whopping four big screen versions of Finney’s, the most recent being The Invasion starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.
I sometimes reflect on this theme, wondering why I was so driven to tell a story that embraced the idea that there could be intruders close to us masquerading as people we knew. I’ve read Finney’s book multiple times. I’ve watched every movie mentioned above. The 1978 take on Finney’s novel, starring Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy, is one of my favorites. Even poorly made versions of the premise keep me riveted and wanting more.
But why is the theme so popular with fans of Science Fiction?
After the first film based on Finney’s story appeared in 1956, the most common reason postulated was that it was due to a fear of communism. It was the time of the Red Scare, after all, an intense panic over the growing power of the Soviet Union, the Cold War with the recent flare up in Korea, a looming World War III, and the period of McCarthyism from 1950 to 1956 and the associated investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in which thousands lost their jobs due to a real or perceived stigma associated with communism, and hundreds imprisoned as a result. It was a witch hunt. The film appeared at the culmination of this period in US post-World War II history and it resonated with people. The notion that your friend, your neighbor, or your spouse could be one of Them terrified Americans.
But was Finney’s book really about communism?
When asked about the connection, Jack Finney apparently denied it. There’s no question that this is why the movie and book intrigued people so back in the 50’s, but the premise has continued for many decades since, long after communism has dropped from most people’s radars.
My own foray into the theme is The Furnace, a murder mystery in space. A homicide hnvestigator is sent to a claustrophobic and remote station to solve a crime, and while there, stumbles onto something beyond his experience. I had entered the Imposter theme, without aliens I might add, and every day at my computer a chill traced along my spine. But I also felt Finney and Heinlein and Campbell over my shoulder while writing it. I played the movie The Thing (1982) countless times while working. I could hear whispers in the dark warning me that my family had been substituted, that my friends, although present physically, were now something else. Them. Not my friends. Not there to support and love me, but there to trick and deceive. To punish.
They drove me to write it.
But what had compelled me to dip my toes in this proverbial well that had been tapped hundreds of times before? And why do so many writers, filmmakers and producers choose to dabble in it?
I realize now why it echoes so strongly within us. And it’s simple. It’s about self-esteem. It’s about not knowing if those people who claim to love us really do. It’s about wondering what our friends are saying about us behind our backs, or about what our lovers are doing when we’re not around.
It’s an irrational fear, really, a worry that exists in the back of everyone’s mind, much like that fallacy of communists hiding around every corner back in the 1950’s, but it’s one that triggers something within us that has existed ever since grade school. It’s become something primal. We’ve all experienced it. Encounters with the schoolyard bully. Betrayals by supposed friends. Lovers who crush us unexpectedly. Things we hope will never again happen.
The Imposter theme is very important to me. I’ve even played the video game version of The Thing and loved every second of it. The paranoia and fear that our co-workers and friends are actually enemies in hiding scares the hell out of me. And it’s one whose foundation was laid while we were barely out of diapers. And for that reason, it brings us back to those days that we had been hoping were well behind us, but never will be.
I’ve got my tattered copy of Finney’s novel sitting before me now. I can’t wait to pick it up again and read about Dr. Miles Bennell and the mystery he stumbles upon after a routine medical appointment with a patient.
In the room next to my office, my wife is speaking on the phone with her mother.
Back when our daughter was very young we wouldn’t tell her when her birthday was; we’d spring it on her by waking her up with a cake with candles and singing “Happy Birthday” to her. As she got older, she figured out her actual birth date, but we’d still descend into her room in the morning to wake her up. Because it was a family tradition. Now, on her fifteenth birthday, as the picture shows, she may be getting less enthused about being wrenched from sleep by maniacally grinning parents thrusting a flaming dessert at her. But we’ll keep doing it anyway, because that’s what parental love is all about! And also, you know. Tradition.
Anyway: My kid is fifteen today. That’s pretty cool.
A couple of months ago William Beckett, a favorite musician of mine, tweeted that he was available to do in-house concerts in December. Well, I thought, I have a house, and additionally, my daughter, who is also a fan of his music, has a birthday coming up. So I inquired to see if he might be available the weekend before her birthday, and he was. So: In-house concert featuring William Beckett.
This was the first time we had ever done an in-house appearance, and I was curious to see how it would go. The answer: Really, really well. One, William did an excellent set, interspersing songs and banter in a highly entertaining way, so from a pure entertainment point of view it was a hit. Two, he’s also just a lovely person who was friendly and personable to all the guests, and happily signed CDs and took pictures and did all the things to make sure folks who came to the house left feeling they had taken part in something special.
(As an aside, as a person who does public events and has interaction with fans, it’s always interesting to see how others in the same situation manage the task — it’s often (indeed is usually) fun, but it can be draining as well, and sometimes a bad day or the wrong person can really challenge one’s skill at being “on” and charming. I think the crowd at my house was a pretty easy crowd in that regard, but be that as it may I admired William’s facility with this particular skill. I was taking notes.)
In short, I couldn’t have been happier with the experience — and neither could have my daughter, which, as it was her birthday concert, was really the important thing. So consider this an endorsement of the William Beckett in-home experience: If you get a chance to host him (or see him) in this sort of setting, definitely do it.
This also encourages me to try this again with other musicians — it’s a neat way to see them do their thing, and also, you don’t even have to leave the house to do it. I can get behind that.
But busy with family stuff. See you tomorrow!
The other day I was reading an io9.com piece by Esther Ingliss-Arkell about why everybody thinks they’re better than everyone else, even if, in point of fact, everyone can’t be better than everyone else. While reading it, I had two thoughts:
One, it was a nice day when I learned I didn’t have to be better than everyone else, just good enough;
Two, I can think of several things where I am totally worse than many other people.
The first of these I think is pretty self-explanatory. To begin, when it comes to creative fields in which “better” or “best” become highly subjective after a certain, hopefully high, level of competence. To follow, once you are at that certain, hopefully high, level of competence, whether you are better or best is usually kind of immaterial. For example, in my field of work, publishers can’t make a business in publishing only the “best,” whatever their (or your) definition of that is. There’s not enough of “best” to go around, and anyway, what’s “best” isn’t always the same as what sells. In addition to “best” they also buy “pretty darn good,” or (at the very least) “competent enough to sell.” I am happy to say I am at least Competent Enough To Sell, which for a writer gets you through the gate.
When I was younger, wanting to be the Best Writer In The World was a fine motivating goal, in terms of sticking with writing and learning the craft and the business of the field. As I got older I realized that wanting to be the Best Writer In The World would eventually give me heartburn and make me envious of and pissy toward the people in my field who might otherwise be my friends when it turned out their talents were as prodigious (or worse, even more so) than mine. So instead I mostly focused on being a better writer. As a result I did in fact get better as a writer, and I learned not to hate other people simply for being good in my field, or needing to feel that I had to always imagine myself the Best Writer in the Room.
So: I do not think I am a better writer than other folks in my field. I can think of several I consider better writers. I keep working on the writing so I can get onto that level. I do think I’m pretty good at the writing thing, and I think my track record as a professional writer lends some credence to that opinion. If other people think they’re better writers than I am, good for them. If other people think other writers are better than I am, that’s okay too. My ego is focused on being good and getting better.
As toward the second, a short list of things I know I totally suck at:
1. Drawing. Man, I’m just terrible at drawing. And I used to say to myself “well, at least I can draw stick figures just fine,” and then xkcd happened. So now I can’t even say I do a good job at stick figures. Stupid xkcd.
2. Cooking. I can cook three things well: Shadenfreude Pie, minestrone soup, and ramen. Everything else you do not want me in the kitchen for. Except for exploding your kitchen. Which I could do.
3. Knitting. Seriously, how the hell do people even do that shit. I tried it once and it just turned me into a ball of anger and insecurity. I see knitters clacking away and making cool things and think what sort of witchcraft is this? It literally astounds me.
4. Dressing myself. I think this might be a field I could become competent in, if I invested the time, but the amount of time that I would have to invest is so large that as a middle-aged man I might not live long enough. So when we go out in public, I let my wife dress me. Because she has to be seen with me, right? She will protect me from myself.
5. Organization. Oh, Jesus. Just the thought of trying to be organized makes me tired and wanting to lay down. This is another place where my perfect wife comes to the rescue, enough so that I have told her that she is not allowed to die before I do, because if I had to manage the particulars of my life, I would end up buried in a pile of bills and starving to death.
To be fair, only some of these are relevant to my day to day life (cooking, dressing myself, organization). But the point is that anytime I start thinking I’m generally better than other people, I have a useful, practical list of things to remind me not to get too far ahead of myself.
Which is actually important because Ms. Ingliss-Arkell is correct — left to my own devices, I would happily think of myself as just plain being better at, oh, everything, because that’s how I’m wired, along with, apparently, a lot of other people. It’s not true, and, happily, it also doesn’t matter if I am. Good enough works just fine.