Sugar and Daisy Pause and Contemplate the True Meaning of Memorial Day

And hope you will too, between the relaxing and grilling and enjoying the of the traditional start of the American summer.

Athena’s Graduation, in Pictures

Yup, she did it, and here is the photographic proofa photo set with her (and Hunter, her boyfriend) before, during and after the graduation ceremony. Enjoy it as if you were there your very own self!

(And for those wondering, it was a fine ceremony, and very quick, since Athena had a graduating class of 32. Small rural schools, man. But it was enough time to get all misty-eyed.)

We’re the Ones Who Wrote the End

Athena’s high school graduation ceremony is today and this is the song running around in my head about it.

Big day, folks. Pictures later, perhaps.

New Books and ARCs, 5/26/17

As we ease into a long weekend, here’s a very healthy stack of new books and ARCs that might ring your bell. Call out the ones you’re interested in down in the comments!

The Poverty “State of Mind”

Ben Carson, our HUD Secretary of somewhat dubious expertise, recently burbled on about how he thinks that “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind,” a statement which earned him some well-justified push-back and which prompted several people, knowing of my general thoughts about poverty, to wonder if I had any thoughts on the matter.

My thought on poverty in the United State being a “state of mind” is that what it really is, to a rather larger extent, is a lack of access — to money, to education, to opportunities, to adequate housing, to networks of expertise and help, among many other things, and most importantly (and as often a consequence of all the others noted and more) to the margin of safety that people who are not in poverty have when any individual thing knocks them off their stride.

It’s the last of these, in my opinion, that illustrates the gormlessness of Carson’s thoughts on poverty. You can have the most can-do spirit in the world, but your state of mind doesn’t mean jack when confronted with, say, a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, which means that you can’t get to your job, which means that the job goes out the window, putting you at risk of not being able to pay the rent (or other bills), increasing the possibility of putting your family out on the street, making it more difficult for your kids to get and maintain an education. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to a worn-out timing belt or transmission. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the landlord who decides to raise a rent you can barely afford, because he knows he can get more from someone else. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the ice outside your home you slip and fracture your arm on when you head off to your second job. Your state of mind is not telekinetic. It can’t fix things that are out of your control, and which by dint of poverty you have no immediate way of addressing. When you’re poor, so many things are out of your control.

Conversely, if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less — because you have the ability to address problems as they arise. It doesn’t matter what my state of mind is if my car stops working; I can afford to have it taken to the shop and fixed. My state of mind is not relevant when I crack my arm; I have good health insurance with a low deductible. My state of mind is neither here nor there to my housing situation; my mortgage is paid off. My margin is considerable and will be regardless of what state my mind is in.

Yes, you might say, but you, John Scalzi, have an industrious state of mind! Well, that’s debatable (more on that later), but even if it is true, is it more industrious than the person who works two shitty jobs because they have no other choice? Am I more industrious than, say, my mother, who cleaned people’s houses and worked on a telephone exchange while I was growing up, so that I could eat and have a roof over my head? My mother, who barely cracked a five-figure salary while I grew up, worked as hard as hell. Tell me her “state of mind” was less industrious than mine is now, and I’ll laugh my ass off at you. Tell me any number of people in the small, blue-collar town I live in, who make significantly less than I do, and who are one slip on the ice away from tumbling down the poverty hole, have a “state of mind” substantially less industrious than my own, and I’ll likely tell you to go fuck yourself.

I happen to be one of those people who went from poverty to wealth, and because I am, I can tell you where “state of mind” lies on the list of things that have mattered in getting me where I am. It is on the list, to be sure. But it’s not number one. Number one is access to opportunity, which I got when my mother — not me — decided to chance having me apply to Webb, a private boarding school that cost more than she made in a year (I was a scholarship kid), with immense resources that allowed me entree into a social stratum I might not have otherwise had access to.

Number two is a network of people — mostly teachers at first — who went out of their way to foster me and nurture my intellect and creativity when they saw it in me. Number three is luck: being in the right place at the right time more than once, whether I “deserved” the break I was getting or not. Number four is my creativity, my own innate talents, which I then had to cultivate. Number five are the breaks I got in our culture that other people, who are not me, might not have gotten. Number six would be Krissy, my wife and my partner in life, who has skills and abilities complementary to mine, which has made getting ahead easier and building out our family’s margins much simpler than if I had to do it on my own.

Number seven — not even in the top five! — I would say is my “state of mind,” my desire and determination to make something of myself. And let’s be clear: this “state of mind” has not been an “always on” thing. There have been lots of times I was perfectly happy to float, or fuck around, or be passive, because times and opportunities allowed me to be so. There have been times when I have been depressed or apathetic and not interested in doing anything, and I didn’t — but still got along just fine because of my margin of safety. There have been times I have been overwhelmed and barely able to make any decisions at all. “State of mind” is a changeable thing, and importantly can be deeply influenced by one’s own circumstances. It’s much easier to have a positive “state of mind” when you know that no one thing is likely to knock your entire life askew. It’s easier not to give in to fatalism when not everything has the potential to ruin everything else. It’s easier to not feel like nothing you do matters, when you have the ability to solve many of your problems with a simple application of money.

I have seen people with what I’m sure Carson would describe as the correct “state of mind” fail over and over again because their legs are kicked out from under them in one way or another, and who never seem to make it no matter how hard they try. I’ve seen people who definitely don’t have the right “state of mind” succeed and even thrive — have seen them fail upward — because on balance other things broke their way. “State of mind” as a predictive factor of economic mobility is, bluntly, anecdotal bullshit, something to pull out of your ass while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that economic mobility in the United States is becoming more difficult to come by. It’s not “state of mind” that’s the issue. It’s long-term systematic inequality, inequality that’s getting worse as we go along. Ignoring or eliding the latter and pinning poverty “to a large extent” on the former means you’re giving everyone and everything else that contributes to poverty in the United States — from racism to inertia to greed — a free pass.

I’m well aware that Carson has his own anecdotal rags-to-riches story, as I do; we both even have mothers who sacrificed for us so we could succeed. Good for him! I applaud him and his effort to get where he is now. But this doesn’t make his story any more than what it is, or what mine is — a single story, not necessarily easily replicated at large. Certainly my story isn’t easily replicated; not every poor kid can be given a break by a private boarding school catering to the scions of wealth and privilege. I think it’s fine if Carson or anyone else wants to lecture or opine on the poverty “state of mind.” But until and unless our country makes an effort to address all the other long-term issues surrounding poverty, Carson’s opinion on the matter is bullshit.

Control for opportunity. Control for access. Control for margin. And then come back to me about “state of mind,” as it regards poverty. I’ll be waiting, Dr. Carson.

New Books and ARCs, 5/24/17

Suddenly, books! What in this particular stack is catching your interest? Let everyone know in the comments.

And Now, a Trenchant Glimpse Into My Dream Life

In my dream last night, I was annoyed at my cats for not sufficiently appreciating the in-ground pool I had installed specifically for them.

Can you blame me? I think not.

Taking a News Break

The last couple of weeks have been genuinely and literally amazing as far as news goes — so much happened every day, of such importance to the nation, that it’s been hard to keep up or to process it all, or (and this is important) to get into a frame of mind to do a whole lot of work. The very last of these is not great for me, as I have a book due soon.

So this week I’ve decided to go on a news diet; basically, to not go out of my way to read news or to follow it on Twitter or other social media (I’ve also muted the word “Trump” on Twitter, to aid in this project). I’m sure some of it will leak in regardless; I’m just not going to go out of my way to find it. What I’m saying is, I’m going to go ahead and let everyone else be on top of things for a bit while I recalibrate and try to get my work/outrage balance back into whack.

This is, incidentally, something I suggest everyone does from time to time (I mean, if your job doesn’t actually involve writing about the news), especially these days when just the daily dose of news can be overwhelming. Pace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a long haul.

Cory and I Talk at Goodreads

Because when we were on tour together, we went to Goodreads and talked! Here’s the interview.

(Interestingly but not entirely surprisingly, what they didn’t put in this interview transcript was the question where we were asked to offer our opinions on Amazon, which is the parent company of Goodreads. My answer to that was, basically, that Amazon had done some great things for my career and also had done some not so great things for my career, and that I don’t operate under the impression that Amazon cares about me more than it cares about itself. I suggested that other authors operate likewise.)

New Books and ARCs, 5/19/17

Heading into a very fine weekend, and what better way to do that then with some very fine books and ARCs? Tell us what in this stack is beckoning you to read it!

Once Again News is Coming in Too Fast to Process Intelligently, So Here, Have a Picture of Krissy

And she’s happy to see you. And a little squinty, as I took the picture in full daylight and she prefers her sunglasses for that. But, you know. Good squint, I’d say.

My Trump Quandary

I’m not writing about Trump and his party pals as much as one suspects I might here, and honestly, here’s the reason for it: Everything is happening so damn fast these days. Hard as it may be to believe, if I’m going to write something more than a snarky tweet, I want to be able to actually think about the thing and frame it in my head, and every time I try to do that, by the time I’ve figured out what I want to say, that dense, angry Tribble-scalped bastard has done something else, and I have to rethink. I literally can’t keep up, especially because I’m trying to do other things, too, like write books.

It’s frustrating, because I have a lot I’d like to say. It’s just that by the time I would say it, it’s already three news cycles back, and all I’m left with is me howling SEE I TOLD YOU THIS SHIT WOULD HAPPEN, and really, now, how often can I say that before it gets boring.

So: Sorry, folks. I’m trying my best. But Trump watching isn’t actually my full-time gig. And it’s really hard to keep up.

My Boring Shoes

Behold the Sketchers Men’s Diameter Slip-on, size 8.5, which just arrived here at the Scalzi Compound. This is the third pair of these that I’ve gotten, the first having been purchased more or less on a whim three years ago at Sears, back when you could still go into Sears without being crushingly depressed at how far the store had fallen. The shoes are super boring — there’s really nothing that calls your attention to them. I wear them because they’re cushioned and have arch support, and because they’re easy to take off and on at the airport. They are, in effect, designed to be worn by middle-aged men who value comfort over fashion, which is, basically, me.

I came to these shoes reluctantly, I’ll note. I was a devotee of Vans slip-ons for years but a few years ago had to come to terms that Vans slip-ons are not actually designed with the “increasingly middle-aged” demographic in mind, since they have zero arch support, and wearing mine to conventions or anywhere else that required lots of walking meant having feet that felt like they were being stabbed by the end of the day. I still love Vans and have a couple of pairs, but I save them for short trips and lazy days. For other every purposes: Super boring, cushy Sketchers above.

(I suppose I could find prettier shoes with equal arch support, but, meh. These work well enough, and they’re relatively inexpensive. I have dress shoes when I need dress shoes.)

The funny thing is that when I wear these shoes, every once in a while another middle-aged dude will compliment me on them, and I’ll look down and see him wearing the same shoes. Because he’s a middle-aged dude and he knows. Arch support, man. It’s a thing.

Robots vs. Fairies: I’m In This

Saga Press today announced a new anthology called Robots vs. Fairies, in which, as you might expect, there are stories about robots, and stories about fairies, and perhaps a few with robots and fairies. The anthology includes a story by me, entitled “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Human Era for the First Time,” which, well. The title pretty much spells it out.

The author line-up for the book, as well as the story of the really very cool cover, is available here on the Barnes & Noble blog; the book itself will be out in January 2018. Something to look forward to in the coming year.

Mother’s Day 2017

This is my Wonder Woman. 

To mothers and the people who love them, have a fantastic day.

Hey, Wanna Watch Me and Cory Doctorow Talk for an Hour About Super Nerdy Stuff?

Sure you do! Here you go. This is from when Cory and I did a stop together at Google during our book tours.

Diversity, Appropriation, Canada (and Me)

So, I’ve been following this thing that’s been happening in Canada, where (briefly), Hal Niedviecki, a white editor of a literary magazine, in an edition of the magazine focusing on the indigenous writers of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he encouraged white writers to include characters who weren’t like them, saying “I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

This outraged a bunch of folks, and Niedviecki ended up apologizing and resigning, which in turn outraged a bunch of other (mostly white) literary and journalistic folks, some of whom briefly started going about on social media about actually trying to fund an “Appropriation Prize” before at least a few of them realized that maybe they shouldn’t be doing that and started backtracking as fast as they could.

(You can catch up with all of this here and here.)

As I’ve been reading this, I think I have a reasonably good idea of what was going on in the mind of Niedzviecki. I suspect it was something along the line of, “Hey, in this special edition of this magazine featuring voices my magazine’s reading audience of mostly white writers doesn’t see enough of, I want to encourage the writing of a diversity of characters even among my readership of mostly white writers, and I want to say it in a clever, punchy way that will really drive the message home.”

Which seems laudable enough! And indeed, in and of itself, encouraging white, middle-class writers out of their comfort zones in terms of writing characters different from them and their lived experience is a perfectly fine goal. I encourage it. Other people I know encourage it. There’s more to life than middle-class white people, and writing can and should reflect that.

But it wasn’t “in and of itself,” and here’s where Niedviecki screwed up, as far as I can see:

1. In an edition of his magazine about indigenous writing in Canada, his essay pulled focus away from indigenous writers to focus on white, middle-class writers, (probably unintentionally) signaling who was really more important here.

2. He tried to be clever about it, too, and the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Specifically, the crack about the “Appropriation Prize,” which probably sounded great in his head, and by all indications sounded pretty great to a bunch of other mostly white Canadian authors and journalists.

3. Which is a point in itself, i.e., the easy conflation of “diversity of characters” with “appropriation.” Very basically, the former says “I as a writer acknowledge there’s more to the world than me and people like me and I will strive to represent that as best I can,” and the latter says “The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.” And, yeah. Maybe these two should not be conflated, even if it makes for a punchy, memorable line in an essay. Also, if you genuinely can’t tell the difference between these two states, you might have work to do.

(This is why the white Canadian authors/journalists yakking about funding an Appropriation Prize are particularly clueless; they’re essentially saying “Hey! Let’s give money to white writers for the best fake version of people they’re not!” Which is not a good look, folks, really. Words do mean things, and “appropriation” doesn’t mean a good thing in this context.)

This whole event really appears to fall into the category of “Well-meaning person does something they thought would help and instead makes things worse.” Niedzviecki thought he was championing diversity in Canadian writing — because (I have no doubt) he actually does wish to champion diversity in Canadian writing — and instead blundered into controversy because lack of understanding about what he was doing, or at least, lack of understanding of how what he was doing would look outside of his own circle of experience. He meant well! But he showed his ass anyway.

And, well. Join the party, Mr. Niedzviecki! There are many of us here in the “We Showed Our Ass” club. And judging from the response to the piece, and Mr. Niedzviecki’s decision to resign his post, more are joining as we speak. “Cultural Appropriation: Why Can’t We Debate It?” asks one Canadian newspaper column headline, from another white writer who clearly doesn’t understand what “cultural appropriation” actually means and seems confused why other people are upset by it. Niedzviecki, to his credit, seems to have picked up the clue. Some others seem determined not to. And, look. We all show our ass. The question is whether we then try to pull our pants back up, or keep scrunching them down to our ankles, and then poop all over them and ourselves.

****

Now, related but slightly set apart (which is why I’ve separated this part off with asterisks), let me address this issue of diversity of characters in writing, using myself as an example, and moving on from there.

I’m a white male writer of North American middle-class sensibility, and I try from time to time to write characters that are not like me, because it reflects the reality of the world to do so, and because in science fiction I believe we write the futures we want to see, and I want to see diversity. How do I do, writing these characters who are not like me? Well, that’s for other people to decide. But here is my thought on doing it, which I take from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s essays here on the subject:

a) I should write diverse characters.
b) I’ll screw up sometimes, and when I do people with the lived experience I’m trying to represent will let me know.
c) I’ll learn and when I write diverse characters again, I’ll try to do better. If I make mistakes again, they’ll be new ones, not the same ones over again.
d) Repeat until dead (or I quit writing, which I suspect will happen simultaneously).

With that said, while I think it’s useful for me to have diverse characters in my writing, I also think it’s even more useful for publishing to have diverse writers. This is not just because of some box checking sensibility but because other writers tell stories, create characters and interrogate writing in ways I would never think to. I’m a pretty good storyteller, folks. But my way of storytelling isn’t the only way it gets done. As a reader I like what I like, but I also like finding out about what I didn’t know I’d like, and I even occasionally like reading something and going “wow, that was so not for me but I get that it’s for someone.”

This is relevant because even when I write diverse characters, they get filtered through me, and while that’s fine and I think necessary, in a larger sense it’s not sufficient. I’m not running me down here. I give good character. But as a writer I know where my weaknesses are. Some characters I will likely never explore as deeply as they could be explored by other writers, because I am not able to write those characters as well as others could. I strive for diversity in my writing. But my writing won’t ever reflect the diversity that literature in general should be capable of. You need writers whose lives are not like mine for that.

White writers adding a diversity of characters into their work is one thing. Publishers seeking out and publishing a diversity of writers is another. A fall down happens when people — writers, editors, and publishers — appear to think having the former is somehow equivalent to the latter, or that having the former is sufficient, so that the latter is optional, if the former is present. It’s not. The former can be laudable (if it doesn’t fall over into appropriation, which it can, and when it does is its own bag of issues), but it’s not and never is sufficient. A field of literature that comes only from one direction is bad literature because it’s incomplete literature. There’s more to it and it’s being missed out on. And that’s a much larger issue.

So, yes. Good on me and any white writer for having diverse characters. Go us! But if your argument about diversity in writing and publishing is centered on that, and not on an actual diversity of writers, you’re missing the point in an obvious way. Everyone who isn’t a white writer is going to notice.

That James Comey Thing

I tried writing about the James Comey firing earlier in the week and got mostly a lot of GRWARRRRGHNNNNGHFFFFFK out of it, so I decided to let it be, and anyway, at this point there’s very little to add to it that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, mostly relating to Trump being incompetent, possibly criminal, and in all cases a schmuck.

That said, I think it’s reasonable to address a point that both Trump and his various apparatchiks have been petulant about, namely that no one on the left liked James Comey and many people thought he should have been booted from the job, and yet when Trump booted him, they freaked out. Isn’t this what they wanted? I mean, hell, just before he got punted, I wrote this tweet about him:

So you would think I would be among the ones cheering the punting. As much as I roll my eyes at the Trumpkins, I think it’s reasonably fair for them to be confused about this.

Well, here’s an answer:

Let’s say there’s this guy who is an enormous asshole and everybody hates him and wishes that he’d get, like, hit by a bus or something. Then one day, a bus indeed comes up on the curb, smacks into him and basically turns him into paste. Does everyone then pin a medal on the bus driver? Well, no, the bus driver just killed someone. Now we look into why the bus went up on the curb. And if in this particular case the bus driver just happened to be someone the enormous asshole was investigating for possible criminal activity (because the enormous asshole was maybe a cop or a private investigator), well. There might be cause for concern. Especially if the bus driver then says “I was driving around looking for him in order to hit him with a bus!” to Lester Holt in a televised interview.

An even shorter, analogy-free version is: It’s allowed to both believe Comey wasn’t very good at his job and that Trump fired him in order to impede the FBI’s investigation into his, his campaign’s and now his administration’s ties to Russia. And while the first is a problem, the second is stuff impeachments are made of.

That Trump appeared to think that the annoyance of the first would make people brush aside the potential criminality of the second is yet another reason why he’s not actually very good at his job. So there’s irony there, at least.

New Books and ARCs, 5/12/17

Hey, look! More books and ARCs! Who’d’ve thought? If you see something here you have an interest in, tell us all in the comments. We want to know.

The Dispatcher a Locus Award Finalist!

In the “novella” category. I’m super pleased.

Here are the other finalists in the category:

That’s a very excellent field for the category, with many wonderful writers. I’m honored to have my work among them.

Here’s a link to the entire slate of finalists in all categories. Congrats to everyone! This is a very fine way to start the weekend.