The Thing I’m Giving Up For Lent, 2015

I’m not religious, but in the last few years I’ve taken to giving up something for Lent, because I like the idea of mindful deprivation of a thing you enjoy (or at the very least, just plain do a lot), with an eye toward reflecting on that thing and its place in your life. Last year I gave up junk food; a couple of years before that, I gave up Coke Zero.

This year I am giving up something a little more esoteric, but still something I indulge in quite a bit: Ego searching. As long as there have been search engines, I’ve checked a few times a day on what’s being said about me on the Internet. This hasn’t always been a positive thing (did you know that some people on the Internet don’t like me?), but by and large it’s been interesting to see how I’m seen by people who are not me and who very often have no conception of the idea that I’m out there somewhere, lurking about. I’ve ego searched so often, and for so long, that I don’t really think about the fact I’m doing it.

So it seems a prime candidate for something to give up for Lent. It’s something I do, and enjoy and to some extent informs my view of the world, so giving it up will both require me to deal with its absence, and reflect on why I ego search so much in the first place (hint: the answer is in the first word of the phrase).

So between now and Easter I’m removing my ego search links from Google, Icerocket, Twitter, and other social media. I’m also (to the extent that it’s possible) going to avoid looking at searches and stats through WordPress, so no checking in to see how many visits the site gets, etc. Basically I’m trimming down my online ego gratification to levels I’ve not attempted since Alta Vista walked the earth. I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate it, but then, if it was easy, there wouldn’t be any point in doing it.

Basically, if you ever wanted to talk about me behind my virtual back, this Lenten season is a perfect time to do it. Enjoy it, you jerks.

You Can’t Take Back What You Already Have

First, go read this. This is only one dude, to be clear, but his defensive, angry and utterly terrified lament is part and parcel with a chunk of science fiction and fantasy fandom and authors who want to position themselves as a last redoubt against… well, something, anyway. It essentially boils down to “The wrong people are in control of things! We must take it back! Attaaaaaaaack!” It’s almost endearing in its foot-stompy-ness; I’d love to give this fellow a hug and tell him everything will be all right, but I’m sure that would be an affront to his concept of What Is Allowed, so I won’t.

Instead let me make a few comments about the argument, such as it is. Much of this stuff I addressed last year when a similar kvetch appeared, but let me add some more notes to the pile.

1. The fellow above asserts that fans of his particular ilk must “take back” conventions and awards from all the awful, nasty people who currently infest them, as if this requires some great, heroic effort. In fact “taking back” a convention goes a little something like this:

Scene: CONVENTION REGISTRATION. ANGRY DUDE goes up to CON STAFFER at the registration desk.

Angry Dude: I AM HERE TO TAKE BACK THIS CONVENTION AND THE CULTURE THAT SO DESPERATELY CRIES OUT FOR MY INTERVENTION

Con Staffer: Okay, that’ll be $50 for the convention membership.

(Angry Dude pays his money)

Con Staffer: Great, here’s your program and badge. Have a great con!

Angry Dude:

I mean, everyone gets this, right? That conventions, generally speaking, are open to anyone who pays to attend? That the convention will be delighted to take your money? And that so long as one does not go out of one’s way to be a complete assbag to other convention goers, the convention staff or the hotel employees, one will be completely welcome as part of the convention membership? That being the case, it’s difficult to see why conventions need to be “taken back” — they were never actually taken away.

But the conventions are run by awful, nasty people! Well, no, the small local conventions (and some of the midsized ones, like Worldcon) are run by volunteers, i.e., people willing to show up on a regular basis and do the work of running a convention, in participation with others. These volunteers, at least in my experience, which at this point is considerable, are not awful, nasty people — they’re regular folks who enjoy putting on a convention. The thing is, it’s work; people who are into conrunning to make, say, a political statement, won’t last long, because their political points are swamped by practical considerations like, oh, arguing with a hotel about room blocks and whether or not any other groups will be taking up meeting rooms.

(Larger cons, like Comic-cons, are increasingly run by professional organizations, which are another kettle of fish — but even at that level there are volunteers, and they are also not awful, nasty people. They’re people who like participating.)

But the participants are awful, nasty people with agendas! That “problem” is solved by going to the convention programming people and both volunteering to be on panels and offering suggestions for programming topics. Hard as it may be to believe, programming staffers actually do want a range of topics that will appeal to a diverse audience, so that everyone who attends has something they’d be interested in. Try it!

Speaking as someone who once was in charge of a small convention open to the public, i.e., the Nebula Awards Weekend (I would note I was only nominally in charge — in fact the convention was run and staffed by super-competent volunteers), my position to anyone who wanted to come and experience our convention was: Awesome! See you there. Because why wouldn’t it be?

Again, science fiction and fantasy conventions can’t be “taken back” — they were, and are, open to everyone. I understand the “take back” rhetoric appeals to the “Aaaaugh! Our way of life is under attack” crowd, but the separation between the rhetoric and reality of things is pretty wide. Anyone who really believes conventions will be shocked and dismayed to get more paying members and attendees fundamentally does not grasp how conventions, you know, actually work.

2. Likewise, the “taking back” of awards, which in this case is understood to mean the Hugo Awards almost exclusively — I don’t often hear of anyone complaining that, say, the Prometheus Award has been hijacked by awful, nasty people, despite the fact that this most libertarian of all science fiction and fantasy awards is regularly won by people who are not even remotely libertarian; shit, Cory Doctorow’s won it three times and he’s as pinko as they come.

But yet again, you can’t “take back” the Hugos because they were never taken away. If you pay your membership fee to the Worldcon, you can nominate for the award and vote for which works and people you want to see recognized. All it takes is money and an interest; if you follow the rules for nominating and voting, then everything is fine and dandy. Thus voting for the Hugo is neither complicated, nor a revolutionary act.

Bear in mind that the Hugo voting set-up is fairly robust; the preferential ballot means it’s difficult for something that’s been nominated for reasons other than actual admiration of the work (including to stick a thumb into the eyes of people you don’t like) to then walk away with an award. People have tested this principle over the years; they tended to come away from the process with their work listed below “no award.” Which is as it should be. This also makes the Hugos hard to “take back.” It doesn’t matter how well a work (or its author) conforms to one’s political inclinations; if the work itself simply isn’t that good, the award will go to a different nominee that is better, at least in the minds of the majority of those who are voting.

The fellow above says if his little partisan group can’t “take back” the awards, then they should destroy them. Well, certainly there is a way to do that, and indeed here’s the only way to do that: by nominating, and then somehow forcing a win by, works that are manifestly sub-par, simply to make a political (or whatever) point. This is the suicide bomber approach: You’re willing to go up in flames as long as you get to do a bit of collateral damage as you go. The problem with this approach is that, one, it shows that you’re actually just an asshole, and two, it doesn’t actively improve the position of your little partisan group, vis a vis recognition other than the very limited “oh, those are the childish foot-stompers who had a temper tantrum over the Hugos.” Which is a dubious distinction.

With that said: Providing reading lists of excellent works with a particular social or political slant? Sure, why not? Speaking as someone who has been both a nominee and a winner of various genre awards, I am utterly unafraid of the competition for eyeballs and votes — which is why, moons ago, I created the modern version of the Hugo Voter’s Packet, so that there would be a better chance of voters making an informed choice. Speaking as someone who nominates and votes for awards, I’m happy to be pointed in the direction of works I might not otherwise have known about. So this is all good, in my view. And should a worthy work by someone whose personal politics are not mine win a Hugo? Groovy by me. It’s happened before. It’s likely to happen again. I may have even nominated or voted for the work.

But to repeat: None of this contitutes “taking back” anything — it merely means you are participating in a process that was always open to you. And, I don’t know. Do you want a participation medal or something? A pat on the head? It seems to me that most of the people nominating and voting for the Hugos are doing it with a minimum of fuss. If it makes you feel important by making a big deal out of doing a thing you’ve always been able to do — and that anyone with an interest and $50 has been able to do — then shine on, you crazy diamonds. But don’t be surprised if no one else is really that impressed. Seriously: join the club, we’ve been doing this for a while now.

3. Also a bit of paranoid fantasy: The idea that because the wrong people are somehow in charge of publishing and the avenues of distribution, this is keeping authors (and fans, I suppose) of a certain political inclination down. This has always been a bit of a confusing point to me — how this little partisan group can both claim to be victimized by the publishing machine and yet still crow incessantly about the bestsellers in their midst. Pick a narrative, dudes, internal consistency is a thing.

Better yet, clue into reality, which is: The marketplace is diverse and can (and does!) support all sorts of flavors of science fiction and fantasy. In this (actually real) narrative, authors of all political and social stripes are bestsellers, because they are addressing slightly different (and possibly overlapping) audience sets. Likewise, there are authors of all politicial and social stripes who sell less well, or not at all. Because in the real world, the politics and social positions of an author don’t correlate to units sold.

With the exception of publishing houses that specifically have a political/cultural slant baked into their mission statements, publishing houses are pretty damn agnostic about the politics of their authors. The same publishing house that publishes me publishes John C. Wright; the same publishing house that publishes John Ringo publishes Eric Flint. What do publishing houses like? Authors who sell. Because selling is the name of the game.

Here’s a true fact for you: When I turn in The End of All Things, I will be out of contract with Tor Books; I owe them no more books at this point. What do you think would happen if I walked over to Baen Books and said, hey, I wanna work with you? Here’s what would happen: The sound of a flurry of contract pages being shipped overnight to my agent. And do you know what would happen if John Ringo went out of contract with Baen and decided to take a walk to Tor? The same damn noise. And in both cases, who would argue, financially, with the publishers’ actions? John Ringo would make a nice chunk of change for Tor; I’m pretty sure I could do the same for Baen. Don’t kid yourself; this is not an ideologically pure business we’re in.

(And yes, in fact, I would entertain an offer from Baen, if it came. It would need many zeros in it, mind you. But that would be the case with any publisher at this point.)

Likewise, I don’t care how supposedly ideologically in sync you are with your publisher; if you’re not selling, sooner or later, out you go. These are businesses, not charities.

But let’s say, just for shits and giggles, that one ideologically pure faction somehow seized control of all the traditional means of publishing science fiction and fantasy, freezing out everyone they deemed impure. What then? One, some other traditional publisher, not previously into science fiction, would see all the money left on the table and start up a science fiction line to address the unsated audience. Two, you would see the emergence of at least a couple of smaller publishing houses to fill the market. Three, some of the more successful writers who were frozen out, the ones with established fan bases, could very easily set up shop on their own and self-publish, either permanently or until the traditional publishing situation got itself sorted out.

All of which is to say: Yeah, the paranoid fantasy of awful, nasty people controlling the genre is just that: Paranoid fantasy. Now, I understand that if you’re an author of a certain politicial stripe who is not selling well, or a fan who doesn’t like the types of science fiction and fantasy that other people who are not you seem to like, this paranoid fantasy has its appeal, especially if you’re feeling beset politically/socially in other areas of your life as well. And that’s too bad for you, and maybe you’d like a hearty fist-bump and an assurance that all will be well. But it doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, no matter who you are, there will always be the sort of science fiction and fantasy you like available to you. Because — no offense — you are not unique. What you like is probably liked by other people, too. There are enough of you to make a market. That market will be addressed.

Again, I am genuinely flummoxed why so many people who are ostensibly so in love with the concept of free markets appear to have a genuinely difficult time with this. It’s not all illuminati, people. It never was.

4. And this is why, fundamentally, the whole “take back the genre” bit is just complete nonsense. It can never be “taken back,” it will never be “taken back,” and it’s doubtful there was ever a “back” to go to. The genre product market is resistant to ideological culling, and the social fabric of science fiction fandom is designed at its root to accomodate rather than exclude. No one can exclude anyone else from science fiction and fantasy fandom when the entrance requirement is, literally, an interest in the genre, or some particular aspect of it. You can’t exclude people from conventions that require only a membership fee to attend. Even SFWA has opened up to self-publishing professional authors now, because it recognized that the professional market has changed. To suggest that the genre contract to fit the demands of any one segment of it doesn’t make sense, commercially or socially. It won’t be done. It would be foolish to do so.

The most this little partisan group (or those who identify with it) can do is assert that they are the true fans of the genre, not anyone else. To which the best and most correct response is: Whatever, dude. Shout it all you like. But you’re wrong, and at the end of the day, you’re not even a side of the genre, you’re just a part. And either you’re participating with everyone else in what the genre is today, or you’re off to the side wailing like a toddler who has been told he can’t have a lollipop. If you want to participate, come on in. If you think you’re going to swamp the conversation, you’re likely in for a surprise. But if you want to be part of it, then be a part of it. The secret is, you already are, and always have been.

If you don’t want to participate, well. Wail for your lolly all you like, then, if it makes you happy. The rest of us can get along without you just fine.

The Big Idea: Peter Darbyshire

In today’s Big Idea, author Peter Darbyshire casually subverts the Bible, Shakespeare and the reasons why one might choose a pen name, all in the service of his latest novel, The Dead Hamlets.

PETER DARBYSHIRE:

What if Christ left his body behind on our earthly realm when he went off to the undiscovered country?

And what if some other soul happened to find its way into Christ’s abandoned body and re-animated it?

This was the idea my demented muse burned into my mind with a mad cackle a few years back. When the smoke cleared, I had my Cross series of supernatural thrillers, written under the pen name Peter Roman*.

Cross was inspired in part by an Old English poem I read in university more years ago than I care to remember. I’ve forgotten most of what I learned while getting my English degree — there’s been little need for the politics of iambic pentamer since I fell out of the ivory tower and found myself in the real world, red in tooth and debt. But “The Dream of the Rood” has stuck with me over the decades, thanks to its intriguing perspective on the Crucifixion. It tells Christ’s story through the point of view of the cross that bore Christ.

I started thinking about the poem again one night when I was facing a relative’s death and had to deal with the practicalities of what to do with the body. When loved ones die, we tend to think of them in terms of memories or, if you’re so inclined, souls. We disconnect the dead from their bodies, which are soon to be hidden away somewhere out of sight and forgotten. The body becomes an afterthought to us, simply a carrier for the person, or at least what the person once was.

And then the muse struck, and I thought: what if the Rood from Christ’s story wasn’t a cross of wood but was instead the physical body that bore Christ’s soul during his time on Earth? What happened to that body after Christ left? What if, unlike all the other buried bodies, it didn’t stay forgotten?

And so I came up with the character of Cross, the poor soul who wakes up in Christ’s abandoned body in that cave all those centuries ago, with no idea of who he is or how he got there. He quickly learns that he can harness the supernatural powers of his body, and he discovers that he’s sort of immortal — he gets himself killed with disturbing frequency, but every time he does so the body resurrects with him still inhabiting it.

As it turns out, Cross is no saint. The first book in the series, The Mona Lisa Sacrifice, opens with Cross hunting down and killing an angel for its heavenly grace, which is the power his body needs to perform its magical tricks. That particular misadventure leads him unwittingly into the middle of a war between the seraphim, who are divided about what to do with themselves ever since God abandoned the lot of them on the mortal realm. Cross also has to deal with a colourful and dangerous cast of characters, including a vengeful faerie queen he once wronged, the real Alice from the Alice in Wonderland books, a curious gorgon — and Judas, who was not a misguided human but in fact an ancient trickster god.

I can’t say too much else about The Mona Lisa Sacrifice because, well, spoilers. At the end of the book, though, I was left with an unfinished relationship between Cross and the faerie queen. I began thinking about where to go with the series next, and lo and behold, I remembered another ancient text I’d studied in university: Hamlet.

Actually, I thought of A Midsummer Night’s Dream first, as the faerie feature prominently in that play, and their sense of mischief in Shakespeare’s text largely informed the way I wrote them in The Mona Lisa Sacrifice. But I quickly moved on to Hamlet because of its preoccupation with mortality and death — something that Cross grapples with on a regular basis. I started flipping through my battered university copy of Hamlet until I read the line “Enter Ghost,” and suddenly I had the idea for my next book.

The Dead Hamlets features a mysterious and deadly spirit haunting the faerie court, and it is somehow tied to the Shakespearian play Hamlet. Cross is the only one who has the ability to stop it, thanks to his own peculiar nature. But he quickly discovers that everything is not what it seems to be with the spirit, and that Shakespeare himself hid a terrible and deadly secret about his greatest play.

Some familiar characters from The Mona Lisa Sacrifice return in The Dead Hamlets — the faerie queen and her court, the eerie Alice, the mysterious and horrifying Royal Family — but the book also introduces some new players, including the eccentric Scholar, the undead playwright and demon hunter Christopher Marlowe, and a very supernatural and very dangerous Shakespeare.

If you like the first two Cross books, the third instalment in the series, The Apocalypse Ark, is due out in the fall of 2015 and I’m starting to outline the fourth book. Cross is a character that won’t die. Just like that Old English poem I read all those years ago.

*Why the pen name Peter Roman? The official story is I use the pen name to distinguish my genre books from my other novels, written under my real name, Peter Darbyshire. It’s a case of branding my different author streams. The true story is that “Roman” is shorter than “Darbyshire,” so I get to see my name in bigger type on the cover.

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The Dead Hamlets: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.