Daily Archives: March 11, 2014

1979 Called and It Wants Its Tuffskins Back

Here’s a genuine blast from the past: On Facebook, my pal Gary Mizuhara unearthed our fifth grade class picture from Ben Lomond Elementary School in Covina, California, all the way back in (gasp) 1979. See if you can  guess which of these kids is me. I think it’s pretty easy to figure out which one I am, but then, I would.

What were you doing in ’79? “Being a gamete” is an entirely acceptable answer, incidentally.

The Orthodox Church of Heinlein

If you’re an aficionado of passive-aggressive fannish xenophobia, in which the frothing distrust of people who aren’t just like you is couched in language designed to give the appearance of being reasonable until you squint at it closely, then you’re not going to want to miss this piece by Baen publisher Toni Weisskopf. It’s a really fine example of the form. I recommend you check it out for the full effect, but for those of you who won’t, here’s an encapsulation of the piece:

“Once upon a time all the fractious lands of science fiction fandom were joined together, and worshiped at the altar of Heinlein. But in these fallen times, lo do many refuse to worship Heinlein, preferring instead their false idols and evil ways. What shall we, who continue to attend the Orthodox Church of Heinlein, do with these dirty, dirty people? Perhaps we shall wall ourselves away in His sepulcher, for we are the One True Church, and should not have to sully ourselves with the likes of them. P.S.: Also, their awards don’t mean anything because we don’t get nominated for them very much and maybe we don’t want to be nominated anyway.”

So, notes.

1. In one sense, Ms. Weisskopf is to be commended for her facility at marketing messaging, in which she, as publisher of Baen Books, quite adeptly makes the argument, implicitly and explicitly, that those who read Baen Books are in fact the One True Fandom, and that the One True Fandom reads Baen (it should be noted that the piece originally ran in the Baen Bar online forum, located at the Baen Books site). At the same time she also suggests that despite being the One True Fandom, Baen folk are also outside the mainstream of science fiction, thus playing the hand of rhetorical cards that includes both Heirs to the Throne and Belittled Outsiders. It’s a nice trick.

You might think I’m being sarcastic about that comment, but, in fact, I’m not. Anecdotally speaking, Baen’s folk really do appear to have a high level of identification with the house, and much (but to be clear, not all) of Baen’s stock-in-trade is a specific type of science fiction, which structurally resembles “golden age” science fiction and whose readership/authorship correlates with social/political conservatism. Conservative folks, pretty much by definition, tend to see themselves as caretakers and standard bearers of a lineage — in this case, of a brand of science fiction that hearkens back to an earlier age, and particularly to the work of Robert Heinlein.

So when Ms. Weisskopf addresses the Baen true faithful like this (as she does both in the Baen’s Bar and on the site of Ms. Hoyt, a Baen author), aside from anything else she’s doing, she’s engaging in the laudable tactic of binding — or rebinding — her company’s host to her company’s product: Baen fans are the real science fiction fans, and real science fiction fans want real science fiction, which comes from Baen. It’s a nice bit of commercial epistemic closure. So good job, Ms. Weisskopf.

2. That said, as a bit of messaging it does have its own risks: Namely, when a publisher of a science fiction house explicitly brands everyone else as heretics and interlopers in the House of the Future, she also implicitly argues that no one other than those she’s identified as True Believers should be touching her company’s books — they’re for the small and select in crowd. Sure, maybe once you’ve gone through a complex baptismal process, in which you memorize the Notebooks of Lazarus Long and are able to recite them at a gun range whilst the members of the faithful blaze away with their semi-automatics, then you can be allowed in. But you’ll still always be a novitiate — now go get papa a cigar, junior.

And, I don’t know. Maybe that’s what Ms. Weisskopf wants; maybe she’s decided that the self-identified True Faithful is a sufficient market, and will remain so, despite the fact that it’s aging as it goes along, and the numbers of people entering the genre through the Heinlein door has, shall we say, shrunk dramatically over the years. However, if I were one of her investors, or her distributor, I’d probably shoot her a note saying seriously, what the Hell are you doing? Because loudly and publicly dismissing a majority of a market segment in a publicly-accessible forum is not generally considered a smart business move. Fortunately I am not an investor or a distributor.

3. However, I have been — and am — a reader of Baen books and authors. The company has excellent stores of both. I’ve featured Baen authors here for the Big Idea segment; I note here and on Twitter the new books that Baen puts out every month, because I think that Baen authors and books are worth letting people know about, including people who aren’t already self-identified as members of the Baen faithful. Have I been wrong to do this? Have I been wrong to personally enjoy the books of Baen authors? Because certainly there are enough Baen authors out there who have been happy to consider me a poster boy for Everything That Is Wrong in Science Fiction. I would hate to sully their books with my gaze, or my willingness to let the wrong people know about their work.

So, a personal note to Ms. Weisskopf: If you’d like me to stop reading and appreciating the work of your publishing house, and to stop publicizing it to the people outside of the True Faithful, all you have to do is let me know. I will be sad to do it, because your authors do good work, well worth celebrating. But if, as you say, you are “not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them,” where “them” includes a very large segment of the audience who reads this site — and almost certainly me — then I will regretfully stop accepting Baen authors for the Big Idea and stop noting when Baen Books come over my transom.

You know where I am; let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’ll just assume you actually do want me to keep promoting your authors and books.

4. Speaking as someone who does, in fact, love the work of Robert Heinlein, has acknowledged his obvious influence in his own work, defended him from detractors and who has been labeled “The New Heinlein” more times than he can count, I feel I can say this: The fetishization of Robert Heinlein creeps me the fuck out. Heinlein was a great writer, a central figure in the development of science fiction as a literature and as a community and, by all I know of him from people who knew him, a fine and decent human being — flawed, to be sure, but here’s a stone for you to cast if you are not also flawed.

With that said, using him as the yardstick for who is a True Fan and who is not, and picturing him with the sort of uncritically slobbering reverence one offers gods or Ayn Rand is risible. First and most obviously, a man who made a point of aiming for “the slicks” — the general interest magazines that would grow his audience exponentially beyond the pulps and helped him to position himself as a writer of wide cultural significance — probably should not be used as the fetish object for a group of people actively trying to exclude other people as real fans of science fiction.

Second, if memory serves, Heinlein took a exasperated view of people who read his stuff and then climbed his walls looking for him to be their guru. From what I know of the man I would suspect he would feel the same exasperation with the people who want to do to him in science fiction what conservatives do to Ronald Reagan in just about every other sphere. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer my Heinlein as a human being, not a hand-sized plaster idol, perfectly sized to bludgeon those I’m uncomfortable with.

Third, if you want to make the argument that people who are serious about science fiction as a genre should read Heinlein, then you get no argument from me — indeed, I would agree! Just as they should read Wollenstonecraft, Verne, Wells, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Russ and Tiptree. If you want to make the argument that writers should pay attention to how Heinlein crafts his work, I’m right there with you, too. But if you say that none but those who go through Bob shall enter the Kingdom of Fandom, you’re going to lose me. Because it’s wrong. People can, people do, people have. They’re quite happy in fandom, too! And there’s nothing a member of the Orthodox Church of Heinlein can do to evict them. Which is the thing which really busts some of their chops, I suspect.

5. There is no one way to be a fan of the genre. Ms. Weisskopf’s unilateral attempt to establish fans of her publishing house as the One True Church, with Heinlein as its graven image, is flat out wrong. Not only are they not the One True Church, they don’t even get Robert Heinlein to themselves. They have to timeshare him with me and with many other fans who love his work, see him as an influence, and at the same time are happy to welcome anyone who wants to be part of the science fiction and fantasy community into the fold, no matter how they got there. Try to take Robert Heinlein from me, guys. See where that gets you. He’s not yours alone. You can’t gatekeep him from me.

Likewise, Ms. Weisskopf’s handwringing about what should be done about the interlopers and heretics incorrectly arrogates to her little group the ability to make any sort of decision on the matter. They can’t. Baen is not, in fact, the core of science fiction and fantasy; people who identify as Baen fans are not the only “real” science fiction and fantasy fans. They’re not even “one side” of science fiction and fantasy; that’s like saying Virginia is “one side” of the United States of America. They are a constituency at best — one with no more or less significance than many others.

If the Baen folks do, in fact, decide to contract into a little defensive ball in which only the pure of heart shall be admitted into Bob’s sight, the impact on the rest of the science fiction and fantasy field will be pretty much exactly nothing. The rest of the field will chug along in its myriad ways, happy not to be bothered by a small and shrinking group yelling at them you aren’t the true fans, no not at all, why aren’t you listening to us. 

Baen and its fans and writers are what any of us in the genre are: a constituent part, something the makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a shame so many of the people who identify with it — the publisher included — appear to be yelling at the rising tide of the current field to keep it from coming in. I imagine that Robert Heinlein might have something pungent to say to them about it. Maybe he already did. I’ll have to check the notebooks.

The Big Idea: Leah Cypess

In this edition of The Big Idea, author Leah Cypess has a shocking confession about the genesis of her new novel Death Sworn! Which isn’t, uh, actually all that shocking for those of us who are writers, because I think most of us do something like it. I mean, I do. But even so! Remember to be shocked when she confesses! Now!

LEAH CYPESS:

I have a mental list of snarky answers to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, things that I’d never say but that I sometimes think rather forcefully. Topping the Never Say list is, “I steal them from more popular books.”

I can’t say it for two reasons. First, because people would take me seriously; and second, because there is a germ of truth in it. Reading is my primary source of inspiration, and many of my ideas come from the spaces between other writers’ ideas.

I grew up on a steady, undiluted brew of epic fantasy and golden-age science fiction, but it was clear to me that wasn’t what I was going to write. (Well, it was clear after a few misguided attempts that will never see the light of day.) The ideas that caught my imagination as a writer, rather than a reader, were never those of the main character and his world-saving quest. They were the untold stories of the minor characters, the potential complications hidden in the world-building, the what-ifs that weren’t pursued.

I remember clearly when the idea for Death Sworn came to me. I was in my parents’ home, nursing my seven-month-old daughter while re-reading my much-worn copy of the first book in The Elenium, a trilogy by David Eddings. The main character in the trilogy is a soldier in a religious military order, and one of the secondary characters is a pacifist sorceress sent to tutor the soldiers in the arts of magic.

In Eddings’ books, this works out wonderfully; aside from the occasional icy stare and caustic comment, the knights and the sorceress get along swimmingly. But obviously, this scenario might not work out so well, which is where my “what if” came in. What if the pacifist sorceress wasn’t the slightest bit thrilled about tutoring a group of people she regarded as killers? What if she was being forced to do it, and found them repulsive?

And – because you have to mix in your own ideas, or what’s the fun? — what if she wasn’t really a sorceress at all? What if she had lost her powers, and had to keep that secret from her new students, who were all assassins-in-training?

By the time the baby was fed, the first scene of the book had come alive in my mind: a young woman who had lost everything was approaching an underground assassins’ stronghold, prepared to die. I handed the baby over to her grandparents (for writers with kids, I highly recommend coming up with new ideas when there are grandparents around), and started writing.

Despite that strong start, it took the book a long time to take shape; the seven-month-old is now seven years old. This is partly because ideas are just ideas, and it can take time to flesh them out, think them through, and hammer them into a story. It’s partly because grandparents aren’t around all the time. And it’s partly because my research into the historical sect of Assassins, from whom we derive the word, pulled my story in an entirely new direction.

The typical assassin in a fantasy novel is a murderer-for-hire. If they are the protagonist, the story usually revolves around them, at some point, balking at killing someone. But the historical Assassins didn’t kill for money (or at least, not only for money). Their assassinations were driven by ideology and politics, and their goals were often not understood by their enemies or even their allies.

It was the history and legends of that sect that kept coming to mind as I created my own society of assassins, rather than the lone dagger-wielders with tragic childhoods and hearts of gold I was used to reading about. I soon found myself writing a story very different from the one I had first envisioned.

In Eddings-style epic fantasy there’s good, and there’s evil… and there are, despite frequent diatribes to the contrary, gray areas. But all three tend to be clearly defined, to the reader if not to the characters. In my story, everyone starts out knowing that there’s good and evil, and that they are on the right side of that divide. But while a young sorceress struggles both to stay alive and to redefine who she is without her magic, she will come up against a worldview diametrically opposed to the one she has always believed. And she will discover that confronting other peoples’ certainties can cast doubt upon your own.

Not that I’ve turned my back on my epic fantasy roots. The fate of the world will indeed come into play… in Book Two. (This is a duology.) But Death Sworn is a contained murder mystery that isn’t about the world – not yet. It’s about a claustrophobic underground stronghold where two visions of right and wrong will meet and clash; and where what will be changed is not the world, but one powerless girl’s view of it.

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Death Sworn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.