First Day of School, 2016

And Athena is ready for it!

This is Athena’s senior year, and this year she’s doing something a little different; basically, having exhausted the possibilities of her lovely but very small local rural high school, this year Athena is taking classes at the local community college. She’ll be getting credit toward her high school graduation and also, as I understand it, getting transferable credits for whatever four year college she attends next year. Or something, I’m honestly not 100% clear on this. But, the point is: She’s a senior, she’s off to her first day of classes today. Thus begins another school year. Indeed, her final school year before college.

I’ve been doing these “first day of school” pictures since Athena’s first day of school in the first grade (see below), with a couple of years missed when I was off on a tour (we also missed the first day picture for Athena’s second grade year, on account she was at Disneyland that day; I think it’s a good excuse). It’s a little odd to think that this is the last one I’m likely to do — I’m very unlikely to be there on her first day of classes for college, and I think we all agree this is probably a good thing. I wouldn’t call the moment bittersweet, since time passing is a thing and that’s all right. But it is a reminder that time does pass, and that just as there is a first time for everything, there is also a last. One chapter of Athena’s life, and ours, is coming to an end this school year. Time to get ready for the next chapters. I think they’ll read just as well. I’m excited to get to them.

The University of Chicago, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

Last week the University of Chicago caused a bit of an uproar by sending out a letter to incoming students telling them not to expect intellectual safe spaces or trigger warnings when it came to critical inquiry. This caused celebration in some quarters and consternation in others, in both cases in no small part to the use of the phrases “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” which are apprehended in different ways by different general audiences, cutting roughly but not exclusively along US liberal/conservative lines.

I am a University of Chicago graduate, and having come out of its classically liberal educational ethos, I have some thoughts on the letter, and on the general matter of intellectual inquiry, and on safe spaces and trigger warnings and so on and so forth. Note that a lot of this follows on (and may repeat) what I’ve written about free speech and other related topics before, so some of this may seem familiar to you.

1. In a very general sense, as a graduate, what I understood the University of Chicago letter to mean is this: “When you get here, your previous notions are going to be confronted and challenged and sometimes this process might be deeply uncomfortable for you. We find this to be a feature, not a bug.” Which I find to be a largely unobjectionable sentiment, when it comes to education and the development of the individual. You have to be confronted, you have to be challenged, and you have to learn the skills that allow you to robustly defend your point of view and to abandon that point of view when it is not tenable, and come to a new understanding through the process. This is all very Hegelian — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — which means it’s very Chicago, where Hegel might as well be the school mascot.

2. I thought the Dean of Students did a less than 100% excellent job in conveying this particular point, choosing to spice up his letter to the kids with lingo to show how he’s hip and with it, or something, in the process letting shouty people drag the letter out and wave it about for their own purposes. So, yeah, well done, there, dean. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure that that message in that particular letter was necessary. This is the University of Chicago, guys. Is anyone who actually intends to attend unaware that the university prides itself on rigorous examination, discussion and debate? Basically, I found the letter a bit silly. If I were an instructor (or an editor), I would have sent it back with the instruction to tone down the posturing and just get to the meat of the letter sooner.

3. I think it’s good and fine and necessary that an education requires confronting one’s own thoughts and beliefs, subjecting them to the crucible of inquiry and discussion, and thus tempering the quality of one’s own beliefs as a result. What is equally important — and what in my experience Chicago was good at, and a thing not conveyed very well by the letter — is that those leading these excursions, the professors and other instructors, work the room. Which means not only leading discussion but also focusing and shaping it and creating an environment in which every student can be a component of the discussion. Which can mean anything from making sure a couple of egotistical loudmouths don’t just drone on every goddamn class session, to drawing out those students who might otherwise feel like there’s no percentage in making their own points. You can only robustly interrogate beliefs and assumptions when everyone who is there to learn knows they can speak. That’s on the instructors, and professors, and on the University as a whole. I believe Chicago does that — or did, when I was there — and that’s something I wish was better articulated.

4. Likewise, the educational process is more (and better) than some sort of Intellectual Thunderdome where the validity of a point of view is decided solely through trial by combat. Robust interrogation of one’s point of view by others is a thing, and a necessary thing, but is not the only thing. There are all sorts of ways to learn, to acquire knowledge, assess and reassess one’s ground assumptions, and come to a better understanding of the world therein. My Chicago experience had a lot of me squaring off against some other student — or a professor! Screw you, Dr. Whoever! I have points I’m gonna make and I will fight you on them — but just as much or not more of my education was spent doing other things, from quiet reading to co-operative participation to just shutting up and letting someone more knowledgeable and experienced than I was show me something I didn’t already know.

5. Over on Twitter the other day I noted the following:

Which made a lot of conservatives on Twitter really rather foamy, bloviating about how they never ask for safe spaces, harupmh harumph, gwaaaaaaaar. Which I found pretty funny. First because I found it non-responsive to the point that Chicago’s policy means that all points of view will be open to interrogation, which will include conservative points of view that new students might bring in. Having seen more than a couple of young conservatives at Chicago walk into a moving fan blade of people as smart as they were, with better command of facts and rhetoric, and coming out rather upset and angry with the experience, I’m not at all convinced every young conservative is ready to have their own baseline assumptions challenged. I expect some will assume Chicago is an implictly “safe space” for them, like, as it happens, most of the rest of their world. Which is of course is the point: when (some) conservatives like to brag that they never ask for safe spaces, that’s very much like a fish bragging that it never asks for water.

Let me suggest a radical idea (which is to say, it’s not really radical at all), which is that the ability to take a challenge to one’s fundamental precepts of the world, and the enthusiasm to engage with those who oppose those precepts, is largely orthogonal to one’s political views. There are liberal-minded folks who love to walk into a room full of people ready to hate them and bellow, bring it, suckas; there are conservatives who are the most special of special snowflakes who ever wafted down, weeping precious and icy tears. And vice-versa, and the same no matter where one plots one’s self on a multi-dimensional political chart.

I might suggest a salient difference between liberal and conservatives in this regard is that many of the groups that traditionally comprise the liberal coalition — minorities, women, LGBTQ+ — don’t have the baseline assumption of safety in the world that generally white, generally straight conservatives do. This makes it easier for (some) conservatives to pretend that don’t in fact expect to have their worldview coddled and allowed for every bit as much as they accuse liberals of doing. And when they run into a buzzsaw that shreds their worldview — as they will at Chicago, almost guaranteed — their perhaps previously unrealized assumption that Chicago was “safe” for them, intellectually, is going into the hopper.

6. With respect to the University of Chicago specifically, it’s been suggested that one reason for the letter is a bit of institutional territory marking (see this Vox article) basically telling the kids that the sort of protesting that works at other schools isn’t going to fly at Chicago, so don’t even bother. While I’m not at all convinced that this is really what the letter was about, it is absolutely true that institutionally speaking the University of Chicago doesn’t take kindly to protesting. When I attended Chicago, I wrote an in-depth series of articles about when, in the 1960s, Chicago students, like other students at elite universities, took over the administration building as a protest (in the case of Chicago, for a popular teacher being dropped). Chicago’s response, basically, was to wait out the protesters, discipline a stack of the students for being a nuisance, and then never speak about it again (the teacher was not rehired, either). This last year, the president of the student government at Chicago barely escaped with his degree after he allowed students into the administration building for a different protest (seriously, don’t screw with the administration building. They get annoyed and they will punish you).

But again, I don’t think the letter was a warning so much as a poorly expressed declaration of intellectual intent. Yes, the school and/or students will occasionally bring in people to speak whom you hate. No, your protests won’t stop it. Deal. Which again is a very Chicago thing to do.

7. How do I personally feel about safe spaces and trigger warnings in a general sense? With regard to the latter, I think they’re fine, and often courteous. I think the world has come to place where we understand people have their various sensitivities, and if it would be a kindness to give people a heads up that something involves violence or racism or whatever, sure, why not? It’s not censorship to make people aware they should prepare (which ironically, means you could say that silly letter was a trigger warning letting students know about their future lack at the school — in which case, very sneaky, Chicago).

As for safe spaces, my own understanding is that it’s also generally fine and courteous to give people space to despressurize and relax and be themselves, often without me around (or at least, if I am around, with me following rules others set). This is, I will be the first to admit, a very simplistic approach to what the concept of a safe space is. But it’s the foundation on which I build out complexity regarding the subject.

Also, you know. I don’t feel obliged to pretend “trigger warnings” are a liberal phenomenon; when they’re basically conservative, they’re usually called “ratings.” Movie, TV and video game ratings, content advisory notes on music, etc — none of which in the US are currently dictated by the government, incidentally — they’re pretty much so people don’t get triggered (or get triggered by their children seeing something inconvenient for them as parents). I don’t really have an opposition to ratings either. I mean, hell, back at the turn of the century I ran a video game site specifically calling out game elements ranging from violence to drug use to racism to nudity so people could decide whether or not to get a game, or get it for their kids, or be prepared for that content when it happened (here’s one of the reviews). You know, kind of like trigger warnings. Conservative folks loved the site. But that’s different! Well, no. It’s really not.

Likewise I can think of several places online and off which qualify as “safe spaces” for non-liberals, where like-minded people go to rest and relax and not have to feel like they always have to be looking over their shoulder for the politically correct thought police, etc and so on, places that have rules that you have to follow, set by moderators or owners or whomever, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Whether they’re called “safe spaces” or not is neither here nor there. Apply the duck test to it.

And that’s fine too — with safe spaces and trigger warnings, however you choose to label them, everyone needs their gathering holes and has their sensitivities and desires companionship with others whose journey is similar to theirs. Sometimes you need a respite from the world, because very often the world is work. It’s courteous to let others have them, and if necessary, to offer them. It would be lovely if people stopped pretending they don’t exist all across the human experience, including across the political spectrum.

8. I don’t believe the Chicago approach, or that silly letter, means fewer liberals (or conservatives! Or any other political orientation!) are going to come out of the school, a belief buttressed by looking at the rather wide cross-section of political positions and opinions that its alumni espouse. A school that counts both Saul Alinsky and Milton Friedman among its graduates can encompass a wide scope of thought; the alumni issuing forth from it since the heady days of the tenure of Alinsky and Friedman appear similarly varied in their politics. This is good for the school and it’s good for the people who attend it today — they are going to meet up with people not like them, and argue with them, and hopefully come away with a better understanding of opposing positions, and their own. And who knows? Maybe they’ll even become and remain friends with people who don’t think in lockstep with them. It happens. It happened to me. And that is a definite positive of a Chicago education.

New Books and ARCs, 8/26/16

To send you off into the last weekend of August, here’s another very fine stack of books and ARCs. What looks good to you here? Tell us in the comments!

New Books and ARCs, 8/24/16

Lots of new books in this week so we’ll have two stacks, one today and one Friday. See anything in this particular stack that trips your proverbial trigger? Let us know in the comments!

The Rest of MidAmeriCon II

Now that I’ve opined about the Hugos, how was the rest of my MidAmeriCon II?

I had fun! My schedule was relatively light: Two panels, a reading, a signing and a kaffeklatsch, which left a lot of time to do fun things with fun people. The panels — one on moderation (with Teresa Nielsen Hayden) and one on social media — went off without a hitch and with good crowds and questions. The reading went especially well; I read a chapter from The Collapsing Empire which was well received (the audience actually clapped at a moment of climactic action, which made me squee inside), and then after that the short story I read from Miniatures, my upcoming collection, was interpreted by an ASL speaker who did an amazing job keeping up with the made-up alien words in the story. She really took it over the top and I was delighted she was there.

Aside from that Krissy and I hung out with friends, ate a lot of barbeque, went to a ton of parties and then slept in the next day. It was everything I like about a Worldcon.

Also, it turns out that Kansas City is quite a congenial place to have a Worldcon-sized convention (which is one that’s about 4,000 – 5,000 members, usually). There are a number of really excellent restaurants, the square around the convention center is filled with hotels, and everything was walkable. A+++ two thumbs up, would Worldcon there again.

(Actually, this is the fourth time I’ve been to Kansas City for a convention and each previous time was also really excellent. Kansas City: A tragically underappreciated convention town.)

I also give MidAmeriCon II high marks as a Worldcon. As with any convention, I’m sure behind the scenes there were people running around with their hair on fire, but from my point of view everything worked like it should, which I think is the point. Also, MAC II did a fine job with harassment and consent policies and with the Incident Response Team tasked with taking reports — I know people who had to avail themselves of them (alas), and the IRT came away with high marks. This is important; until we’re at a point where harassment/consent policies aren’t need (which will be never), the next best thing is a responsive convention at that addresses problems quickly.

(I’m also aware of at least one person getting booted from the convention; the short version of that story as I understand it is that someone decided to be a raging dickhead in an overt and premeditated fashion, and as a result was invited to be a raging dickhead on his own time, elsewhere. Seems fair to me. If you want some details, here’s a more detailed write-up, and feel free to leave comments about it there, not here.)

The basic gist of this Worldcon is that I got to spend with people I really like, and had fun in a cool place. Thanks, MidAmeriCon II — you were just what I needed.

Gum on the Shoe of History, or, Why the Hugos Are Still Not Destroyed

Before I get into the post-mortem of 2016’s Hugo Awards that I promised, let me first say that the award that made me happiest was Naomi Kritzer winning the Best Short Story Hugo for “Cat Pictures Please.” Naomi and I go waaaaaaay back — if she was not actually the first person I knew in science fiction genre circles (and I think she was), then she’s certainly one of first three or four. She’s always been one of the best of people, to me and to others in the field, and a consistently wonderful writer. We came up in the field together, and to see her work get recognition makes me immensely happy, and even more happy for her. As you can see, she looks pretty pleased herself. And, well. She deserves to be. Good story, great person.

Now, for some other stuff about the Hugos, and this year’s set of nonsense.

As you may recall, once again this year Theodore Beale (aka “Vox Day”), in his guise as the ringleader of the Rabid Puppies, tried to hijack the Hugo Awards via slates dictated by him, nominated by minions. Last year Beale, along with Brad Torgersen, who administered the Sad Puppy variant of this nonsense, engaged in simple cronyism and/or favor-currying, with a couple of unwitting human shields thrown into the mix. That didn’t work out so great for them, so this year Beale asked himself “what would Xanatos do” and came up with a three-prong strategy:

a) Put people and works that were already popular on his slate so he could claim credit for their success when they won, regardless of the fact those people/works would likely be on the ballot anyway;

b) Comb through the Locus recommended reading list for the year and nominate people Beale suspected the people he hates would want to vote for, i.e., more human shields, just a slightly different strategy;

c) The usual cronyism of pals and/or work and people he published through his personal micro-press.

Plus there was homoerotic writer Chuck Tingle, whom Beale slated for the lulz.

(The Sad Puppies, the originators of the nonsense Beale sucked himself onto like a tick, were largely a non-factor this year, which is probably better for them in the long run. They’re now all in for the brand-new Dragon Awards, administered by DragonCon, and you know what? Good for them. I wish the Dragon Awards every possible success, and independent of that, if the Sad Puppies want to focus on them instead of the Hugos, I wish them absolute joy in the work.)

So, how did this particular strategy work for Beale? Well, of course, poorly. The stuff that was obvious cronyism mostly ended up below “No Award” in just about every category, again, for the third year running. In the cases of the human shields and the already popular nominees, Hugo voters simply ignored the fact Beale slated them. In the case of the latter, no one sensible believes that folks like Neil Gaiman, Andy Weir or Neal Stephenson would willingly associate themselves with a minor racist shit-stirrer, and in the case of the former, Beale’s obvious assumption that the people he classifies as SJWs would explode with cognitive dissonance when he put people/work on his slate that they’d otherwise want to vote for (“I want to vote for it! But I can’t now because it’s on a slate! Nooooooooo!”) is predicated on the idea that these folks are the strawmen he’s created in what passes for his mind. They’re not; they knew what was up, and they largely decided to ignore his master strategy.

And then there was Chuck Tingle, who, when he found out what was going on, trolled Beale so long and so hard and with such obvious glee that it became an enduring thing of joy. Rather than being appalled that Tingle had been nominated, the Worldcon community largely embraced him (or whoever Tingle is; no one is really sure). Here was someone who was nominated by a bigot to antagonize other people, who instead allied himself with those folks and was appreciated by them in return.

Did stuff on the slates win? Yup: The stuff that could have won anyway, and the stuff that had merit despite Beale’s cynical attempt to make other people run away from it. Nothing that won, won because it was on his slate. At best (for Beale) it won despite being on his slate, an assertion we can infer from the performance of everything on the slate that fit into category c); again, nearly every crony nomination finished below “No Award” in the voting. An active association with Beale is, bluntly, death for your Hugo award chances. I mean, it takes a lot for someone as esteemed in the field as Jerry Pournelle to finish below “No Award” in Hugo voting, and yet, there he is, sixth in a field of five in the category of Best Editor, Short Form.

But that’s a sign of bias! It most certainly is. For three years Beale, with or without assistance, has been placing mediocre to awful work on the Hugo ballots; for much longer than that Beale has been a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. The Beale brand, earned through time and repetition, is “graspingly untalented bigot.” And of course Beale knows this, the poor bastard, which is why he tried to drag down actually talented people and their good work by attempting to associate his brand with them. That didn’t work (because again people aren’t stupid), but if you actually intentionally attach yourself to the Beale brand? Then, yes, “associates with a graspingly untalented bigot” is now part of your brand, too. If it’s powerful enough to drag down Jerry Pournelle, a man of no uncertain talent and accomplishment who does in fact deserve better than to finish below “No Award,” think what it’ll do to you.

Beale has stated, in a pathetically grandiose fashion that belies the limit of his actual ability to affect the world at large, that his intention is to “destroy the Hugos.” He’s failed spectacularly three years running. In the years of his effort the Hugos winners have, in point of fact and entirely independent of his efforts, highlighted the immense diversity of talent currently operating in the field. Beale publicly flatters himself, as he publicly flatters himself in all things, as somehow being a prime mover in these events. What Beale is really doing at this point is trying to mitigate his own inability to have the status and influence he assumed would be his, by pathetically attempting to shoehorn himself into the history of others who have done more, and better, than he has. If he can’t be the hero, and at this point it’s become clear he can’t, then he’ll settle for being the footnote — the gum on the shoe of someone else’s long walk to esteem.

Here’s the thing about that. See my friend Naomi up there? She was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award along with the Hugo. At no point does the story of Naomi Kritzer — her talent, her ability, her recognition for her work — rely on Beale in any way. If he didn’t exist, she’d have been on the ballot anyway. At no point does the story of Nnedi Okorafor, who won the novella Hugo, rely on him either. Or Andy Weir’s. Or Neil Gaiman’s. Or Ellen Datlow’s or Shelia Gilbert’s or N.K. Jemisin’s — Jemisin, who Beale has repeatedly targeted for blatant overt hatred because of who she is, and who has accomplished so many things he hasn’t and is likely never to — all without reference to him. Nora, her talent, her work and her recognition, exist without him, thrive without him, impress without his approval, don’t need him and never will.

Five years from now, few people will remember, and even fewer will care, about the nonsense Beale and his pals kicked up; hell, last year, the crest of the Puppy nonsense, is already mostly remembered with rolled eyes and a “well, that happened” mutter. Ten years from now, only academics and true Worldcon nerds will think about it at all. But Naomi and Nora and Nnedi and Neil and everyone else who won a Hugo this weekend will still have had their moment of deserved recognition, and god willing will still be at it, making work and finding their audiences. They will continue to create and build and make science fiction and fantasy a genre worth reading and thinking about, and will probably do so for decades.

And none of it will be about Beale at all.

View From a Hotel Window, Kansas City Edition + Look! I’m in Rolling Stone!

Kansas City yesterday as we got into town. Today is overcast, so you’re getting the better picture, even if it’s slightly tardy. Today at MidAmeriCon, at 1pm, I’m doing a reading, where I will be reading two (2) pieces no one has ever heard me read before. If you’re at the convention, don’t miss it.

Also, look at this, I’m in Rolling Stone! I’m writing about the new video game, No Man’s Sky. This is my first Rolling Stone byline. I’m a little geeked about it.

 

New Book and ARCs, 8/17/16

Feast your eyes on these new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the last couple of weeks. Anything here you’d like to dig into? Tell us in the comments.

Also, starting tomorrow I’ll be at MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon. Here’s my schedule there. If you’ll be there, come see me! If you’re not there, I probably won’t update here until Monday, although I am likely to be on Twitter off and on over the next several days. Either way, have a fabulous second half of your week. Catch you later!

Midnight Star: Renegade is Out!

Hey! I’m tremendously excited to announce that Midnight Star: Renegade, the mobile first person shooter that I’ve been working on with Industrial Toys, is now out and ready for you to play on iOS devices. It’s the sequel to last year’s Midnight Star game and features many of the same bad guys, kicked up with new gameplay and and a fast-paced setup that lets you get in, blast the crap out of some aliens, and get back out again. It’s the perfect shooter to play out in the world.

Let me quote the press release here:

Renegade is the culmination of decades of shooter development, completely re-imagined from the ground up for mobile. The game features a control system built around native touch, tap and swipe inputs to allow gamers to run, dodge, chase, fly, shoot, blast and destroy like a boss. The game has 150 campaign levels, daily and weekly multiplayer events and enough gear to build 1000s of customized rifles, pistols and grenades.

Renegade is a fast-paced, arena-style shooter combined with a deep RPG. Players build their characters from humble recruits to elite Renegade operatives. Weapon crafting allows players to construct everything from Auto Fire Electro-Shock rifles to dual-wielding Pure-Ice Rocket Pistols. Combined with custom skinning, players make characters that are truly their own. Renegade raises the bar for gameplay and graphics by leveraging the latest mobile GPUs and Unreal Engine 4 to achieve state of the art effects such as HDR lighting, full screen render effects and real-time shadows.

Set 130 years into our future, Renegade sets players on an adventure to unravel the secrets of an alien civilization that disappeared 22,000 years ago. When we discover we are not alone in our search, an epic war erupts for the future of the galaxy.

Yeah, you know you want to play it. There’s already a community built around the game, with challenges and events and people to set yourself against. It’s the most fun you’ll have with your phone.

Here’s the cool thing: As with Midnight Star last year, Renegade is free to download and start playing.

(Android folks? I’ve played the beta. Don’t worry, we’re on it.)

Naturally I’ve been playing builds of Renegade as it’s been coming along, and while I’m biased — I did help create the world of Midnight Star and Renegade — as a fan of first-person shooters, I kinda love this one. It nails what I love about first person shooters (mainly, cathartically blasting away at evil aliens), while building the controls out intelligently for mobile, and improving on the control scheme from Midnight Star, to give players even more control and mobility. Plus it’s fun to build the perfect weapons to blast the aliens to bits. It’s big fun in an easy-to-take-with-you package.

Try it out. I think you’ll have as much fun with it as I’m having. Maybe more. You’re probably a better shot than I am. Seriously, I need to play more.

Declining My Dragon Award Nomination

Earlier in the year DragonCon announced they would inaugurate the Dragon Awards, a fan-voted award covering science fiction and fantasy literature, games and media. Last night, the list of nominees was sent out to people who had signed up to nominate and vote for the awards (you can see the full list here) and it turns out that The End of All Things is a nominee in the category of Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel.

I have two thoughts on that:

1. Awesome! I’m thrilled to be nominated and happy enough fans liked the book enough to make it a finalist in this, the inaugural year of the award. That’s very cool, and I am, of course, deeply honored.

2. I have emailed the folks at the Dragon Awards via their Web site requesting to decline the nomination, because as I said in November, I’ve decided to withdraw my 2015 work from award consideration, and The End of All Things was originally published in 2015.

As the Dragon Awards are a new award, I don’t know what their policies are for withdrawing a finalist work; it may be that it’s not possible. If that turns out to be the case, this is me saying I hope those of you who vote for the Dragon Award in that category will consider the other eminently worthy finalist works and authors. There’s good stuff to choose from.

I want to stress that this request for withdrawal should not be construed as an intended slight toward the Dragon Awards — I made my policy about my 2015 works before the Dragon Awards even formally existed. In another year, with another work, I’d be happy to be nominated again for this award. I hope the Dragon Awards are successful this year and enjoy a long run highlighting excellent works in the genre.

To all the other people and works on the finalist lists: Congratulations and the best of luck to you! And to fans: If you’d like to vote for the other finalists for the Dragon Awards, in any category, here’s the link to the award’s home page, where you can sign up to vote. Enjoy!

Trump, and His Jokes, and You

I write funny things professionally, and have done for years. I’ve made a fair amount of money and even won some awards for funny things I’ve written. So as a professional writer of funny things I have thoughts on Donald Trump’s oblique joke yesterday about how great it would be if a gun nut assassinated Hillary Clinton and/or some of the judges she might appoint. As with many examinations of humor, this will not be particularly funny. You have been warned.

1. Of course Trump’s comment was a joke, and as someone who has told more than his share of inappropriate jokes to his later regret, I’m pretty sure I can model Trump’s brain process to getting there. He’s up on stage, he’s pissed off that he’s losing, he’s with a sympathetic crowd that wants him to say something punchy, and he has no goddamn filter at all, because why would he, his brand is “I say what I think” and his brand has gotten him this far. So out of the woodwork of his brain comes the clever observation that well, actually, some jackass with a gun could offer up a lead veto to Clinton and/or her judges, and out it went through his teeth. Trump didn’t give it any more thought than that: pop! into his head, push! out of his mouth. Maybe three tenths of a second from conception to utterance, if that. This is was not a statement he’d been consciously planning months to say.

Was it a joke? Sure. Was it funny? Like most jokes, it depends on whether you’re the audience for it. It didn’t work for me. Should Trump have said it? Immaterial, since it was said.

Should it be excused as “just a joke”?

Well, but, see. Here’s the thing about that: There’s no such thing as “just a joke,” and Trump of all people knows that.

2. The first problem with saying “it’s just a joke” is that people very often use that phrase to mean “I get to say/enjoy a horrible thing without penalty.” Well, as a professional writer of funny things, I feel perfectly within my rights to call bullshit on that. Jokes don’t come out of nowhere. They are the product of a presumably thinking brain just like any other speech, and like any other speech they are susceptible to the same scrutiny and criticism. Just like any other speech the context of the joke is useful, too.

So here’s the context of that joke: Donald Trump is a man who has pursued the presidency through racism and white nationalism and by insinuating criminal activity on the part of his opponents (or their families), who has encouraged foreign agents to subvert the US election process (another “joke”) and who is actively training his base of support — angry and scared white people, many of whom have a nearly-fanatical attachment to their firearms — to consider the election process rigged if it does not produce the result they want. Then, at a political rally, as the GOP candidate for president, while speaking about the 2nd Amendment and arguing how his opponent Hillary Clinton wants to get rid of it — to get rid of his angry white supporter’s firearms! — he drops a little joke about how, well, actually, they could oppose her, nod nod, wink wink.

Trump wasn’t making a private joke with friends in the comfort of his own ridiculously baroque home. He wasn’t writing satire (which is often not funny) or black humor in the pages of, say, the New Yorker. He wasn’t on the stage of a comedy club trying out five minutes of edgy new material in front of a half-drunk midnight crowd who are there to see someone else anyway. He wasn’t putting it in the comments of his liberal friend’s Facebook post about gun control. He wasn’t doing any of those things — although even if he were, he could still be held accountable for his words. Rather, he was, as the GOP candidate for president, at a rally of his supporters, in a race he is currently far behind in, joking about someone killing off Hillary Clinton, or whomever she appoints as a judge. He wasn’t there to make comedy. He was there, quite literally, as a political statement. That’s the context.

3. What, politicians can’t make jokes? Well, speaking professionally, it’s usually better when they don’t. They can’t all be Ann Richards. Every time Hillary Clinton attempts humor my desire to vote for her goes down a tenth of a percent. I don’t want or need my politicians to be funny. I need them to wonk out on unsexy topics like water rights and trade deals, and represent the interests of their constituencies. That’s the gig, not killing it for ten minutes at The Comedy Store.

That said, sure, if politicians can make jokes, why not? Yuk away. But again, jokes aren’t Get Out of Jail Free cards for saying horrible things. And when the jokes are, in fact, saying horrible things, like when the GOP candidate for president pops one off about maybe someone assassinating the Democratic candidate for president because of her alleged position on the 2nd Amendment, it’s all right to haul the joke out into the light and begin the utterly unfunny process of picking it apart to see what’s really going on there.

Why can’t you just let a joke be a joke? Because, to repeat, and as others have noted, it’s never just a joke. Jokes mean things, just like any other kind of speech. In fact, jokes often have greater impact, because jokes aim for the pleasure centers of our brain, not the analytical centers. The information of a joke hits in a place where you have fewer defenses against it, and fewer walls barring it from sinking into your overall worldview. This is why, among other things, you probably laugh at things you know you shouldn’t laugh at. It’s also why you’re probably quicker to excuse the content of a joke — it’s just a joke! — or to minimize the importance of what’s being said within one. How bad can it be if it made me laugh? And also, if the joke is saying something horrible, what does it say about me? You have a vested interest either way in explaining away your reaction.

Trump is not a great politician — indeed, if this election cycle has done anything, it has reminded us that the oft-derided skills of being a great politician are in fact useful and needed — but he is a marvelous bully, and like any gifted bully, he’s aware of how to use humor for its manipulative qualities. This is why he mocks his opponents and gives them silly names, why he says outrageous things, planned or unprompted and then immediately wraps them in the rhetoric of humor, and why all his defenders are instructed and prompted to explain away the jokes. He’s not the problem, you’re the problem if you can’t take a joke. No one wants to be accused of not being able to take a joke.

4. This is where once again I put on my hat as a writer of funny things to tell you the following:

  • It’s okay not to be able to take a joke.
  • It’s okay to think a joke is not funny.
  • It’s okay to focus more on the content of a joke than the delivery.
  • It’s okay to hold a joke to the same standard as any other speech, and to pay attention to the context in which it is delivered.
  • It’s okay to be scared of a joke and the joke-teller. Sometimes that’s the right thing to be.

Finally and perhaps most importantly:

  • Always question the motives of the person who is telling you “it’s just a joke.”

Why? Because, well, why are they saying that? Sometimes it’s because the person is a comedian, trying to convince you they’re funny (pro tip: if you have to convince someone you’re funny, you’re probably not funny to them). Sometimes the person who told the joke realizes they just stepped in it, and is trying to backtrack without making themselves look too much like an asshole. Sometimes the person is gaslighting you, trying to make you doubt yourself, for their own purposes. And sometimes that person is trying to normalize hateful rhetoric — or keep hateful rhetoric normalized — and is trying to make you defensive about seeing it clearly as what it is: hateful.

A person saying “it’s just a joke” isn’t always an asshole. But assholes are almost always happy to say “it’s just a joke” to make it look like the problem here is you. So when someone says “it’s just a joke” to you, that’s your cue for skepticism. Jokes mean things. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t understand the uses of humor, or is hoping that you don’t.

5. You are not automatically a bad person if you laugh at horrible things or find funny a joke whose content, on reflection, is not funny at all. You are a human being, and a skilled communicator — and Trump, for one, is a very skilled communicator — is going to play the changes on you. You might laugh because of the delivery. You might laugh because as a human you like the pleasure of laughing. You might laugh because of the context of the joke, or because it’s subversive, or because the butt of the joke is someone you dislike. You might laugh because the person telling you the joke is someone you admire. You might laugh because it’s expected. You might laugh because not laughing might be noticed. You might laugh because honestly you don’t know what else to do. You might laugh because it’s not safe to do anything else.

Laughing at a horrible joke is not the problem. Excusing that hateful and horrible joke as “just a joke” is the problem. The pleasure of humor don’t mitigate the damage it can do when the hate it offers slips into someone’s worldview, or simply reconfirms the hate they already hold. You’re not automatically a bad person if you laugh along with hate. You’re a bad person if you walk along with it. Humor makes it easy to take that walk. It’s up to you to resist moving your feet. The more you resist, the more you’ll recognize that hate actually isn’t all that funny.

6. Trump made a joke about someone assassinating his political opponent, or the judges she might appoint. Trump’s minions and enablers have been scurrying around trying to spin it, or mitigate it, or accuse people of misunderstanding it and anyway it was just a throwaway line, it was just a joke. But context matters and who is making the joke matters. Trump is a bigot and he’s ignorant and he is a buffoon and he has no filter but he is not stupid. He knows when he puts things out into the air that they are heard and that they are taken seriously. Even the jokes. Especially the jokes.

Trump wished out loud that someone would assassinate Hillary Clinton because inside, the screaming tantrum-throwing infant that Trump is wants her out of the way, and so does the slightly more grown-up version of him whose business model includes cheating contractors and workers out of their contractually-obliged fees and wages, and so does the 70-year-old version who has spent decades getting his way, who wiped the floor with the laughable opposition he had in the GOP primaries and sees no reason why he should do anything different than before, and is possibly confused as to why it’s not working any more, so just try harder. Does Trump actively want Clinton dead? No. But out of the way covers a whole lot of ground. Trump is a bully and he knows how to phrase a wish. So when that wish came howling out of his id up there on stage yesterday, he wrapped it into a joke and sent it on its way.

Trump made the joke because he knows, better than almost anyone, that there is no such thing as “just a joke.” He knows it, and the fact he knows it, and made the joke anyway, should scare the shit out of you.

As should this: When Donald Trump is president, he won’t have to make jokes anymore.

The Yellowing of the Scalzi Compound

We have a five acre lawn, and occasionally people from generally drier climes who think upon the lawn ask, aghastedly, how we water the thing — I think they imagine a complex set of sprinklers that suck the water table dry bringing us all that much closer to the water apocalypse. The answer to “how does it get watered” question, however, is “from the sky,” meaning that during those times when rain is not forthcoming, the grass goes dormant until it is. We’re in one of those times at the moment; there’s been rain in the last few weeks, but not a lot of it, so the lawn has gone yellow.

Which is fine. I like having a large lawn, but not so much that I’m going to be a control freak about it. When it doesn’t rain, you get a yellow lawn. It’s water math. This is not unusual for August around here anyway; typically more rain will come in September and October and it will get green again before it gets covered in snow. We’ve been here 15 years, we know the drill by now.

That said, the forecast is for thunderstorms, starting tomorrow and lasting literally all the next week. It might get greener sooner than later. We’ll see.

New Books and ARCs, 8/5/16

A super-sized stack of books and ARCs has come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What here lends itself to your particular reading tastes? Tell us in the comments!

The Moon and Mercury, 8/4/16

Mercury being that bright speck in the upper right.

This is the first time that I’ve either seen or photographed Mercury in the evening sky. For an astronomy buff like me, that’s a pretty big deal. Mercury is a tough one to capture.

Hope you’re all having a fine evening.

My MidAmeriCon II Schedule

I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon, although only for a couple of days because of schedules and deadlines. But on those two days (Friday, August 19 and Saturday, August 20) I have a pretty busy schedule. Here’s what I’m doing, and where:

Friday Aug 19, 2016

1:00 PM Reading: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center 2203: This reading will mark the debut of material from my 2017 novel The Collapsing Empire, so this will be your chance to hear it first, literally before any other people, ever. I will also be reading from my upcoming collection Miniatures, and depending on time, doing a little Q&A.

3:00 PM Moderation and Online Community Management — Kansas City Convention Center – 3501D: This will be me and Guest of Honor Teresa Nielsen Hayden talking with each other about what it takes to keep an online community humming along.

Saturday Aug 20, 2016

1:00 PM Social Media, or, Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel — Kansas City Convention Center – 2206: In which I and other panelists will talk about the pleasures and perils of social media when you have deadlines. Other panel members are Melissa Olson, Mur Lafferty, Jack Campbell, Jr. and J.R. Johansson.

3:00 PM Kaffeeklatsch: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center – 2211: I sit at a table with ten other people and they ask me questions. You have to sign up for this if you want to attend.

5:00 PM Autographing: Sarah Beth Durst, Arnie Fenner, Jerry Pournelle, Cerece Rennie Murphy, John Scalzi, Ferrett Steinmetz, Michelle (Sagara) West — Kansas City Convention Center – Autographing Space: I and these other fine people will be signing books and probably whatever else you want.

And there you have it. See you there!

Twitter Is For Cats, feat. Chuck Wendig and Steven Spohn

Hey Scalzi, How Did You Vote For The Hugos?

The voting for the 2016 Hugo Awards closed yesterday, and you may ask (and some of you have) — how did I vote? Why, the same as I vote every year: By ranking the works I liked highly, those I did not lowly and employing judicious use of the “No Award” option when necessary. This year, as with last year, the “No Award” option got more of a workout than it might normally, thanks to the inclusion of nonsense on the ballot put there by obnoxious people. But certainly in most categories there was good stuff to celebrate, and I happily celebrated it.

With regard to the obnoxious people incursion this year, it does seem after an initial flurry — and excepting Chuck Tingle’s glorious trolling of said obnoxious folk — things settled down quickly enough and people just did their usual voting thing. Which was nice! Lack of outside drama surrounding the Hugos are what they need at this point.

Aaaaaand that’s all I have to say about it this year. Good luck to most of the nominees, and we’ll see who takes home the rockets in about three weeks in Kansas City.

 

Please Enjoy This Cat Picture On a Lazy Sunday

And look, it’s of Zeus. The Scamperbeasts are the new hotness, but Zeus is old school cool.

Hope your weekend’s going off well.