Sunset, With Riding Mower

That’s Krissy out there on the riding mower, incidentally. I don’t mow the lawn because of grass allergies and also lack of competence; Krissy, on the other hand, can whip through the yard like nobody’s business. The riding mower here is actually a loaner, as our actual one is currently in the shop. The shop is run by very nice local Amish. Yes, they can fix riding mowers, and do a very fine job of it. They just don’t use them themselves.

I Have Nothing of Interest to Say Today, So Instead Here’s a Picture of the Dog in the Yard

I believe we can all agree that this is a fair trade.

Why I’m Disliked: A Ten Point List

(WARNING: Neepery, not directly about Hugos, but somewhat related. Also it is about me observing other people observing me, so there’s a whole lot of me in this post. So: Ego alert. Also, it’s long, because I wanted to get out in one place. Skip it if you just don’t care. I don’t mind! Really!)

Over on Facebook at the moment, and as a subset of a larger discussion, there’s a conversational thread about why so many dudes (and it is largely dudes, and dudes of a certain sort and political persuasion) have such a rabid dislike of me, both as a writer and as a human being.

Naturally, I have thoughts on this, based on years of personal observation, so below you’ll find my hypotheses on why I am so widely disliked by a certain type of dude. These hypotheses are mix and match: Not all will apply to everyone.

1. Because I’m an asshole. Gotta put this one in here, and have to put it up top, because indeed, I like pretty much everyone in the world can be a complete asshole from time to time. Depending on who you are (and my opinion of you), you may see my asshole side more often than others do. I do, for various reasons, some systematic and some relating specifically to me, have the luxury of being able to get away with being an asshole more frequently than some other people can or would. So when the mood strikes me, I often have the ability to go ahead and be one.

Disclaimers, now: I try not to be an asshole nearly all of the time, and the mood doesn’t strike me very much in any event, especially as I get older and the amount of fucks I have to give about this sort of nonsense decreases over time. I particularly try to be sensitive to being an asshole to people I see having less power than I do, structurally speaking (i.e., that whole “punch down” thing). I also try very hard not to lead with the asshole card, or to be the first asshole on the scene.

But I don’t always succeed, and also and independently, from time to time I decide that me being an asshole is a thing I need to do. In that situation, if I’m being an asshole in your direction, you’re perfectly justified in disliking me. I’m okay with you disliking me. I may even want you to dislike me. Because it likely amuses me, and because I think it’s what you rate. Some people deserve a thumb in the eye.

2. Because they’re assholes. Which a significant number of them are, for various reasons, including, apparently, some of them making a calculated decision that being a jerk is a viable marketing tactic. They’ve decided, apparently, to address an untapped “asshole” sales demographic. This is a bold strategy and we’ll have to see how it works out for them. Personally I suspect the number of people enticed by an “all asshole, all the time” public relations strategy is smaller than one might suspect. But it’s not my career, and if it gives them joy, then fine.

In which case disliking me is just part and parcel of being a professional asshole. I’m a nice big target, and there’s apparently an estimation that being seen in opposition to me, or framing one’s self as one of my hopeful nemeses, conveys certain marketing advantages. It’s sort of an unpleasant variation of starfucking. I am also skeptical of this as a viable marketing strategy, in part because generally speaking when I’m aware of it being attempted, I don’t address the starfucker directly anymore. It’s fine if they want to play that game; I don’t have to participate. Which sort of lowers its strategy value, in my opinion. But again, if it gives them joy, well, whatever.

3. Because of my politics. Many of the dudes who dislike me have politics that range from reactionary conservative to bourgeois fascist, accompanied by social positions that range from outdated to bigoted (there’s a strong correlation between those political and social positions, mind you, and probable causation as well). I’m no model liberal or progressive, to be sure, but my positions, social and political, are sufficiently left of their own that a) they see me as a useful foil, b) I am in their estimation a leader of a larger, and further left, social/political movement that they created in their heads as a threat to their own largely reactionary, somewhat bigoted way of life. In this case it helps that I’m a well-off straight white man, since using me as a target means they get to deflect criticism of a bigoted worldview.

It also means that they see me as an affirmative-action beneficiary of the non-existent political and social movement that they’ve created inside their heads, which they also think runs things in the science fiction and fantasy genre, which it does not, because, again, it doesn’t actually exist outside their heads. If it did, in the manner in which they seem to believe it does I, as a well-off straight white man, would be an extraordinarily unlikely candidate for their approbation when it came to sales and awards. The fact that they appear to think I am an excellent candidate for this approbation is a significant tell about their own worldview, i.e., that even an alleged social/political movement celebrating/ordering diversity requires a well-off straight white man as a figurehead.

Related to this:

4. Because I should be with them and I’m not. I’m a well-off straight white man who writes military science fiction (among other things); if you look at the stats, the correlation between these categories and “socially/politically conservative” is pretty high. That I’m not socially or politically conservative is apparently a source of confusion and upset for some. Likewise, I’m a well-off straight white man who is a loudmouth on the Internet and who writes about poverty and inequality and who has been unapologetically for things like same-sex marriage and the right of women to have total reproductive control of their own bodies, and has used his influence in his field to speak against harassment, and for diversity. Which is also apparently not what I should be doing.

That I am doing these things, and that I don’t have the expected politics for my easily-slottable demographic, is confounding — and also, if you’re the sort of person who gets upset about these things, suggests possibly that I am a traitor to well-off-ness, and straightness, and whiteness, and man-ness, all of which have, apparently, very specific conditions of being, of which I may not actually meet. Hold that thought, we’ll get back to it.

5. Because I’m successful: Despite not slotting in how I should socially or politically, and not receiving the imprimatur of the folk who apparently believe they have the ability to decide who and what is really science fiction and what is not, I’ve nevertheless done very well in my field, while others doing similar things (and doing it better, in their opinion), are not doing as well as I am. This clearly isn’t fair or right.

Obviously, the fact that I am doing better than some others despite my inauthentic nature means that I am a beneficiary of manufactured success, either at the hands of the social/political movement they’ve created inside their head which does not actually exist, or by the manipulations of my publisher, who for some reason has decided that tying itself to a writer who doesn’t sell, to the tune of millions of dollars and more than a dozen books, is a valid and solid commercial strategy. Which, of course, just makes the detractors even more annoyed.

All of this combines to the following:

6. Because I’m not a real man. My political and social positions, and my success which must obviously not be real, mean that I’m not an actual man man. I’m not an alpha male. I’m a beta or even a gamma, a submissive tool of women, in cowering awe of real men, and probably gay, because being gay is the worst possible thing for a man to be, and one that is, is hardly deserving to be called a man at all.

Note well the strategy here: When a man who does not meet these fellows’ requirements for manhood nevertheless succeeds — and succeeds in a field they have claimed as their own stomping ground — the play is de-masculinize him (by their silly definition of “masculine”) as much and as quickly as possible. In other words, they try to demote that man. They’re trying to demote me from manhood, because manhood, in this formulation, is really the only thing that matters.

This, unsurprisingly, leads to the next reason they dislike me:

7. Because they can’t actually do anything to me. In point of fact, I can’t be demoted by them, either out of my manhood, or out of any other advantage I have. After all their blathering and whining and conspiracy theories and nasty mean awful snarkings, they have changed precisely nothing. Look, I’ve been on the receiving end of this nonsense literally for years, and none of it — none of it — has ever made a single material difference in how I’ve led my life, how my career has advanced, or how I do my work on a day-to-day basis. Nobody cares. Literally no one cares.

When faced with this sort of general impotence, the response appears to be: Try harder. Well, again: I wish them joy. It won’t matter to me.

8. Because of envy. This one is pretty obvious in some specific cases. I’ve been pretty successful despite being a mewling coward of a gamma, whereas some of them have been notably unsuccessful at nearly everything they’ve done despite being awesome supergeniuses who are always thinking sixteen steps ahead, so tremble when I walk amongst you, puny humans. To which my response is: I’m sorry your life has turned out so poorly for you, but this is not really my problem, and also, I wish you would stop trying to make it my problem.

9. Because I refused to recognize that they were right about something that one time, or several times. This is also specific to a couple of people who thought they were pretty good with that whole arguing thing, and were making points that were clearly self-evidently correct, and were non-plussed when I noted that they were not self-evident, and also, they couldn’t argue their way out of a paper bag. Clearly in these cases the problem was not their positions or their inability to elucidate them in a coherent manner, but that I was mean. Unsurprisingly, people who think they are right about most things more often than not appear to hold long grudges against people who point out they’re often not right, and not right more often than they would like.

10. Because of tribal identification. At this point there’s simply a small cadre of people who have decided that the world is against them — or have decided that it’s a smart career move to convince other people that the world is against them — and moved to hook in a bunch of other like-minded folks to create a tribe. When doing something like this, it’s nice to have something for the tribe to exercise their daily two-minute hate against. For this cadre, at this moment, these things include a non-existent political and social movement they’ve created in their heads, the awards this non-existent political and social movement supposedly control, and me, as a titular icon of this non-existent political and social movement.

If you’ve been convinced to join this tribe, this is great — you’ve been pointed in a particular direction, given your instructions, and now all you have to do is follow the steps. That the steps are silly, based on nonsense and are, in the case of me at the very least, liable to effect nothing, is almost aside the point. The point is: membership. Belonging. And something to hate, or at least dislike.

And again: If it gives these people joy to dislike me, it’s no skin off my nose. I’ll be doing my own thing. I do think it’s sad, however. I hope eventually they decide that they have better things to do. There are, indeed, so many other, better, things to do with one’s life. Let’s hope they figure out what those things might be.

 

New Books and ARCs, 7/17/15

Welcome to the weekend — and to get you started, here’s a nice stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Tell me in the comments which ones excite your “gotta have it” neurons.

Today’s New Glasses

My old glasses prescription was going out of date, so I went to get a new pair. I ended up getting three pairs instead.

This is my new general set of glasses. It looks generally indistinguishable from my previous set of glasses, because I liked how they looked on me. They’re progressive lenses, which is the same as having bifocals but less obvious so you don’t have to acknowledge that you’re getting old.

These are my computer glasses, which is to say a pair with a fixed focus distance roughly in line with how far I sit from my computer screens. I got these because when I use my progressive lenses at my desk, I ended up doing a lot of neck craning to be able to see the screen (not a good idea) and/or taking my glasses off and parking my face a couple of inches in from the screen (not a good idea either). Now I can type rather more comfortably. Considering how much time I spend sitting in front of a computer, this is a positive turn of events.

And obviously these are sunglasses. These are also single-distance, designed for far distances since I will use them primarily for driving lounging about on a beach, where close vision will not be at a premium. These glasses have a nice Matrix-y vibe to them. Now all I need is a long leather duster (note: I will not be getting a long leather duster).

For those about to ask: My optometrist didn’t think I was an especially good candidate for contact lenses, because of the need for progressive lenses and because of a specific astigmatism that I have, and as for Lasik, well, I think lasers and eyeballs are a bad mix. So: new glasses! Three pairs! And there we are.

Seriously, These Cookies Are Awesome

I made some awesome cookies, and by “made” I mean “combined ingredients that other people have already made to make them even better in combination.” And you can too! Here’s what you do.

Get with Trader Joe’s Ultimate Vanilla Wafers, Biscoff cookie spread, and Dandies vegan marshmallows. I suspect the recipe will work just fine with any brand vanilla wafer, cookie spread or marshmallow, but in my opinion these are the ones that taste the best (and yes, vegan marshmallows taste really good, or at least Dandies do), so these are the ones I suggest.

Get out three or four pairs of wafers.

Put a healthy (but not ridiculous) amount of cookie spread on each wafer.

Put a marshmallow on half of the wafers.

Complete the assembly.

CONSUME THE DELICIOUSNESS.

Seriously, these are waaaaaaaay tastier than you would think, and you would think they’d be pretty damn tasty. It’s the synergistic effect of wafers and cookie spread and marshmallow.

Now, I hear some of you saying “But, John, what you’ve got there is basically a modified s’more of sorts, so shouldn’t you cook the marshmallow first? I’ve anticipated this question, and while I did not create a campfire to toast the marshmallow, I did take one of the completed cookies and slap it into the microwave to gooey up the middle.

Verdict: It is also delicious this way, but you’re only going to want to nuke that cookie for about five or six seconds because the marshmallow expands to dimensions both comic and messy. Also, any longer than that and the wafer starts to lose its crispness. I personally prefer the unnuked version, but I wouldn’t stop you from eating it this way if such was your joy.

Enjoy your cookies. They are fabulous.

The Big Idea: Stina Leicht

For her new novel Cold Iron, author Stina Leicht took inspiration in one of the genre’s foremost practicioners — but then gave that influence just a little twist. What’s the twist? A change of location.

STINA LEICHT:

About eighteen years ago, I happened upon an essay about the evils of Fantasy. In it, the author declared the whole genre to be inappropriate for Americans because it glorified feudalism. I was, I admit, taken aback by the audacity of that generalization. Largely because, well, Fantasy is a broad genre. It doesn’t only consist of stories about Joe Bob the lowly peasant farmer boy who finds the magic [sword/ring/stone] and goes off on an adventure with a mysterious [ranger/thief/wizard/bard/fighter] and thus, not only saves the kingdom from the [evil wizard/evil empire] but discovers he’s a long lost [prince/king/powerful wizard] who was foretold by the ancient [chronicles/fortuneteller.]

Fantasy outgrew that template sometime around 1986 with Terri Windling’s Bordertown anthology.[1] I’m pretty sure the likes of Charles de Lint, Ellen Kushner, Emma Bull, and Midori Snyder weren’t writing about how glorious it was to be the king. Nonetheless, there was a time when that template was in force, and to be honest, that was what drove me out of Fantasy for a while. So, I understood where that came from… to a degree.

Just not in 1994.

At the same time, that essay made me think about Fantasy’s origins. J.R.R. Tolkien is the father of Fantasy, and J.R.R. Tolkien was a British author writing mythology for the British people. Of course, feudalism features heavily in his work. And that was when I asked myself the question that got me started writing Cold Iron: What would Fantasy look like if Tolkien had been American?

First, I set up my imaginary world in the end of the eighteenth century. North America existed before that, of course[2], but after some thought, I decided upon the late eighteenth century anyway.[3] Mind you, I didn’t restrict myself to that period. I wanted The Malorum Gates to be a secondary world fantasy. Middle Earth is. So, I pulled ideas and technology from a forty year period… say 1770 through 1810. In addition, Tolkien, although he was using medieval sources, chose to give his characters modern dialog. Therefore, I did too. Tolkien’s elves were primarily Finnish. So, my kainen are Scandinavian.

Tolkien also used Middle Earth to discuss the realities of war—realities that had deeply affected him, specifically World War I. For me, that meant dealing with themes from the Vietnam War.
I’m not, nor have I ever been a soldier. Still, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected. You see, I was a child when the Vietnam war played out on national television. It was on the news every night. I didn’t understand how much that affected me, a GenXer, until Hollywood began making films about the war. Frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of them because they brought on panic attacks. It was so bad that it wasn’t until 1995 that I could bring myself to watch Full Metal Jacket, and I still haven’t let myself see The Deerhunter. You don’t have to be a soldier to be affected by war. Being human is enough.

I’ve always been a bit of a hippy. I don’t believe that wars solve problems. I believe they create them.[5] Even as a child I was conflicted. I agreed with the protesters about ending Vietnam. However, I absolutely did not agree with how they often treated soldiers. Subsequently, Nels and Suvi, two of my main characters, live in a nation (Eledore) that claims to abhor war. The kainen of Eledore fear death. There are reasons for this, but it’d be spoiler-y for me to tell you why right now. Just understand they don’t even talk about death, not directly. They pretend everyone lives forever. Soldiers carry a death taint. Therefore, when Nels takes up weapons to defend himself and a few villagers from raiders, he’s made an outcast, and his sister assumes his place in the leadership of Eledore.

Oh, sure, there are certain tropes I couldn’t bring myself to give up on—as you can see. Epic Fantasy kind of has requirements or it doesn’t feellike Epic Fantasy. However, Eledore will one day be a democracy, and it will be repopulated with immigrants… eventually.

—————————

[1] Maybe even sooner than that.
[2] Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth Fenn sites solid evidence that there were millions of American native peoples living in North America long before the white man’s westward expansion. In fact, the smallpox epidemic of 1775-82 was to the North American native population what the Black Death of 1347-51 was to Europe. That epidemic was started by white men who spread the disease among the native peoples with the intent of wiping them out. Smallpox was America’s first venture into germ warfare. Manifest Destiny, my ass.
[3] Some people will tell you that the Fantasy genre is a moveable feast. Writers can steal anything from any culture that isn’t nailed down. I’m not one of those people. My research indicated that a large segment of the native people of America are not happy with their culture being used as source material by white writers.[4] Thus, I respectfully decided not to go there.
[4] Ah, cultural appropriation.
[5] Yet, a great deal of my chosen entertainment contains war and violence. Trust me, I think about that a lot.

Pluto

Like every other astronomy nerd, I’m super-geeked about all the pictures and data we’re getting from the planet. The only thing I have to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said that for some reason the photos we’re getting back from New Horizons feel drawn or painted to me, rather than being entirely photorealistic. In fact, they remind me quite a bit of old drawing of Mars, not unlike this one, from 19th Century French astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot:

It’s probably only me who sees it, but I still see it. I think it has to do with New Horizons’ camera, which among other things is adapted to see in very very low light (Pluto is very far away, and we’re looking at the side of it not illuminated by the sun). I like the effect, mind you. But it weirdly makes Pluto still very much mysterious to me.

Thoughts on our Pluto sojurn?

The Movie Review That Made Me a Movie Reviewer

Me at 21. No, really.

Here’s something fun:

As many of you know, I wasn’t always a novelist — my very first job out of college was as a film critic for the Fresno Bee newspaper in central California. I had spent most of my senior year of college doing freelance music writing for the Chicago Sun Times and New City magazine, and during the second half of that year I sent my resume out to newspapers all over California (my-then home state), looking for a music critic gig. I was rejected everywhere, except for the Bee. There, the Features Editor, Diane Webster, called me on the phone and said to me, “We already have a music critic, but we’re looking for a movie critic. Do you think you could do that?” To which I said, “Yes. Yes, I could.”

But they need proof that I could, so that very night I went to the local theater and bought a ticket for whatever movie was about to start showing. That movie: The Silence of the Lambs, about which I knew next to nothing. When it was done, I walked back to my apartment and wrote the review which follows. After this review and a couple others (for the Oliver Stone-directed biopic The Doors, and the utterly forgettable Michael Keaton film One Good Cop), I got flown out for a face-to-face interview. And then after that I got the job.

I thought it might be interesting for you all to see what I wrote like, when I was twenty-one years old and desperately, desperately trying to get a job as a movie critic.

What do I think of the review now, after nearly a quarter of a century? I think it shows that editors are good things; it’s too long, for for the length the review should have been, and for newspapers (it’s over 1,000 words; in the actual gig I was lucky to get 600). I gives away too much of the plot and particulars. It reads like I was trying to ape Roger Ebert (mostly because I was, him being a very good writer, and also the film critic I read the most). Also, and I think obviously, I’m trying to show off.

But there are good points, too. I also think the review is fairly observant, has some good turns of phrase, and largely accurate about the strengths and weaknesses of the film. I wouldn’t write this review now, but I don’t disagree with what I wrote then. The good news for me was that all the review’s weaknesses were solvable by subtraction, rather than by addition — which is to say, fixable through editing rather than requiring additional training. Which was ideal for the daily newspaper grind.

In any event, here is me at twenty one, writing about The Silence of The Lambs. Enjoy.

The Silence of the Lambs. Starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Written by Ted Tally from the book by Thomas Harris. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Rated R.

The most horrifying creatures in the world don’t wear hockey masks or wield chainsaws. The most horrible creatures in the world are composed and cultured. They take the time to build a convincing front of civilized behavior. They’re the type of people you’d have over for dinner, without realizing they’re planning to make you the main course. The subtle monsters.

This is why the most chilling monster in “The Silence of the Lambs” is not the serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who has earned his nom de mort through his habit of skinning his female victims, but Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), an absolutely civilized and erudite psychiatrist incarcerated in a Baltimore institution for the criminally insane because of his unseemly taste for human flesh.

The first glimpse of him is enough to send a shock down the spinal column. Lecter stands at the end of a corridor of howling madmen, politely and contritely awaiting a visitor. He’s beaming a knowing smile that is not quite predatory.

Lecter’s visitor is newly-deputized FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), who has been pulled out of her training by her boss Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn). Crawford needs insight into the mind of Buffalo Bill, insight that Lecter, both a psychiatrist and a serial killer, is in a unique position to give. Crawford believes that the sight of Clarice might entice the uncooperative doctor to open his mouth. The last time Lecter saw a woman was eight years ago, and he opened his mouth then only long enough to gobble up her tongue.

But Lecter isn’t interested in Clarice’s body. He’s more interested in her soul, the only part of her that he can get at through his glass cage. He offers her a deal: He’ll dole out views into Buffalo Bill’s mind. In return, she’ll answer any question he asks. Starling, who is only slightly more ambitious than she is terrified, accepts, figuring she can hold her own against Lecter and puzzle out the Buffalo Bill murders from Lecter’s cryptic utterances. She’s half right.

“The Silence of the Lambs” revolves around the twisted symbiosis of its two main characters. Everything else, including the nominal objective of tracking down Buffalo Bill, takes a back seat to the electrifying dialogue between Lecter and Starling. Director Jonathan Demme courts disaster grandly; if either of his main actors failed at their challenge, his film would have collapsed like a house of cards. Fortunately, Hopkins and Foster are up to the challenge. When they are both on the screen (usually photographed by Tak Fujimoto in extreme closeup), the movie cracks along.

Jodie Foster, in particular, deserves special mention. Foster’s Starling is not nearly as flamboyant as Hopkins’ Lecter, but in many ways she is more impressive. There have been many believable psychopaths before Lecter. Starling, however, is the first action heroine in recent memory who a) isn’t required to put herself in tight clothing and b) doesn’t need a man to get her out of trouble. Starling may have been chosen for her task by Crawford for her sexuality, but that criterion is ignored by Lecter in favor of her overlooked mentality. It’s ironic that the only male Starling is supposed to entice is the only one who treats her like a fully-functional human being.

Foster’s grounded Starling gives Hopkins’ Lecter room to fly. Hopkins chews scenery with nearly as much enthusiasm as his character chews on a human liver (accompanied, he tells Starling, with “some fava beans and a nice Chianti”). Hopkins plays Lecter as the ultimate subtle monster, so polite, so engaging, and so utterly possessed of an unholy need to devour.

Lecter probably woudn’t consider himself a cannibal. It’s just that there are so very few human beings out there. Certainly not Jack Crawford, who Lecter guesses wants Clarice for his own. Certainly not Ruth Martin (Diane Baker), mother of Buffalo Bill’s latest victim, and the unwitting agent of Lecter’s grand escape. And most certainly not head psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), whose petty digs at Lecter include blasting evangelistic television at him twenty four hours a day. All these “people” would be lunch meat in under thirty seconds, if Lecter wasn’t tightly bound up at all times.

The only person in “Silence” who is totally safe from Lecter’s culinary idiosyncrasy is the only one who deals with him fairly: Starling, who is bound by agreement to be totally honest and open with him. Lecter feeds on that honesty like manna from heaven. After one particularly harrowing confessional scene, which explains the title of the movie, Lecter sits back, eyes closed, with a look of such grateful sensuality that it crawls the skin. Hopkins controls that crawl masterfully, jacking it up to chair-gripping tension for as long as he owns the screen.

The Starling-Lecter scenes are so powerful that they almost cover up the fact that the rest of the movie is only average, as suspense movies go. Buffalo Bill, the other murderer, is hardly the menace Lecter is. He can’t even keep his latest victim (played with admirable feistiness by Brooke Smith) from getting the upper hand on him. On the level of plot, the devices which allow Starling to track Buffalo Bill down aren’t very well explained; she manages to end up in his living room on the barest of clues.

Before we can argue the point too much, Starling is thrown into a final confrontation with Bill, who stalks the novice agent in the dark with a pair of night finder glasses. The scene is a beautifully-shot nail-biter, but the loose ends are never quite tied up. The suspense in this suspense film peters out, unfulfilled.

These shortcomings and short cuts keep “The Silence of the Lambs” from being an unqualified success. They take nothing away, however, from the very fine performances of Foster and Hopkins, and the unforgettable character of Hannibal Lecter, the subtlest, and best, movie monster in years. Novelist Thomas Harris hasn’t closed the book on this character. It’d be interesting to see where he goes.

The Things I Find in My Yard After a Heavy Rain

Here you go.

Close up of the crawdad, say? Very well, here you are:

Also, I found this, too:

I don’t know what kind of fish it is. I call it a “yard trout.”

Both of these things were perfectly alive, incidentally. The yard trout was slightly beached on the grass, however; I gently pushed it back into the “river” with my toe and it swam away in the direction of the creek down the road.

You find such interesting things in your yard after heavy rains, I have to say.

Just a Little Rainy Right Now

This is my backyard at the moment, illuminated by lightning courtesy of the ridiculous thunderstorms coming through the area, and long exposure times. The big muddy river-looking thing is in fact a small river of water coursing through my yard, put there by a massive downpour that’s overwhelmed the yard drainage system. Don’t worry, we’re fine; we’re on a hill and the land directs water away from the house in any event. But it’s pretty impressive.

Here’s a view looking down toward the road, which at the moment is entirely flooded. Fortunately, we don’t have anywhere to go right now. We’ll stay here in the house and see if the rain lessens any. If it does, by the time we wake up in the morning most of this water should be gone. And if it’s not, well. Good thing I work from home, I guess.

Today’s Adventure in Rural Living

We re-graveled the driveway. 

For those of you who don’t live in rural parts, when you have a long dirt-based driveway (as we do), in time that dirt can develop ruts and potholes and otherwise become difficult to drive on. To avoid that, and to give the driveway an overall consistent driving experience, we pay a dude to come and drop several tons of gravel on the driveway with a dumptruck that distributes the gravel in a consistent orderly fashion. The gravel also gives you traction (useful in winter) and allows for drainage (useful the rest of the time). Plus, it’s cool, in a “feel like you’re five” sort of way, to see just an unfathomably large load of crushed rock being poured out onto the driveway. Even Lopsided Cat is impressed!

So, yeah: Gravel. It’s a thing.

And Now, For No Reason Other Than It’s a Lazy Sunday, a Ranking of My Creative/Artistic Abilities

Also because I figure it might be fun and interesting to list them. So here they are, in order of my own personal opinion of my competency with them.

1. Writing. I mean, duh. You don’t do something professionally and profitably for a quarter of a century without being rather proficient at it. I think it can easily be argued whether my writing is any one person’s particular cup of tea, but that’s different from me being competent at this particular skill (I mean, if you want to argue I’m not a competent writer, go right ahead; I won’t stop you. I just won’t be able to hear you over the sound of me signing book contracts). Likewise, it’s easily arguable that other writers are better or more competent writers than I am. I don’t disagree. However, I’m more than competent enough, both for what I want to do as a writer, and for making money at it.

That said, it should also be obvious that I am better at some types of writing than others. The two types of writing that I think I’m most competent at are novel writing, and column writing. If there’s a type of writing at which I am the least competent, I’m pretty sure it’s poetry, which I’ve only occasionally attempted, and the results of which I found to be mediocre at best (the lone exception being The Sagan Diary, which I wrote as free verse but then formatted and edited into prose form. I like to joke that it’s stealth poetry, but I don’t know that the description is actually accurate).

Be that as it may, I write well, and I write profitably, which are not necessarily the same. Writing: It’s my thing.

2. Public Speaking. I do a lot of this, especially in the last several years, in which I’ve done a book tour yearly plus various conventions, book fairs and one-off events. I’m good at reading my own writing, of course, but I’m also pretty good at speaking off the cuff and for being entertaining in Q&As, panels, public interviews and so on. I don’t get nervous speaking in front of large crowds and in fact enjoy it quite a bit (it’s exhausting, but fun).

I think my facility for public speaking and public events has been a positive thing for my writing career. It’s also profitable, both in the sense it sells my books, and that I make money from speaking engagements. I expect it will continue to be a part of my overall creative career.

3. Editing. A skill separate from but related to writing, and I do think it’s a creative endeavor, actually, thanks for asking. It takes creativity to look at a mass of words and see not only what’s there, but also what the author intended to be there, and how you can help the author get from the first point to the second. I was a professional editor back in the 90s, working intensively with other writers, and have done it sporadically since then. Aside from helping me become a better writer myself (in no small part by helping me to see that not everything I write is pure gold right out of the box), I learned that I was pretty good at helping people shape their work, to make it say what they wanted it to say. It’s not a skill I use very often these days, but it’s one I know I have and that I’m pretty good at, and one I could make money from.

4. Photography. I take a lot of pictures, and for an amateur I think I’m pretty good at it. I have a reasonably good eye for composition, and I’m competent enough on the photographic back end to get the mood and feel I want out of any particular picture I’m working with (well, that’s not entirely true; there are pictures no amount of tweaking will fix. But then, those stay in my archive, rather than being put out where other people can see them).

I’m not as good a photographer as any competent professional photographer is, but I believe that if made a concerted effort (and picked up some good equipment), and had a few years to focus on it, I could over time become as good as at least some pro photographers. This is one creative field where I have never worked professionally where I think I could work professionally, if I had time and resources.

Alas, the chance I will ever have the time to really focus on photography is rather slim. That’s fine. There are enough professional photographers, and I’m good enough as an amateur for what I want to do with my own photos.

5. Singing. I can carry a tune and I don’t embarrass myself in karaoke. If I’m singing in my natural range (I’m a baritone) I can occasionally surprise people with the not-suckitude of my voice.

So, I can acquit myself, but I’m not a pro-level singer, and if I wanted to be I would have to spend more than a little time learning breath control and actual performance techniques. I want to be a better singer than I am, but I don’t expect to get much better at it than I am now. I have fun singing in my car, though.

6. Dancing. I used to be a very good dancer; I took two years of it in high school, and I was never self-conscious about being on a dance floor. I’m fond of saying I’m one of the few straight white men who can dance while completely sober (I don’t think it’s true, really, but it’s amusing to say). These days if I do any serious amount of dancing, I pay for it the next day, which is more about my general flabosity than anything else. With all that given, at no point would I have said that I was a good enough dancer to do it professionally; that would be, uh, a little much. I’m good enough to have fun and to dance with my wife and friends, and that’s all I want from dancing.

7. Acting. This is different from public speaking, since with public speaking I’m being me, whereas with acting I’m trying to be someone else. I am a passably adequate actor, which is to say that if you saw me on Broadway you’d say I was terrible, but if you saw me at your local community theater you might say I was pretty good. I have reasonably good acting instincts in terms of playing characters, but mediocre ability in transferring those instincts into actual performance. I would have to put in a lot more work to be a better actor than I am. It seems very unlikely at this point that this will ever happen.

8. Playing musical instruments. I love playing musical instruments; I’m not great at playing them. I’m most competent at playing drums, which I’ve been playing since high school. If you need a meat-and-potatoes rock drummer who can 4/4 all night long, I can do that for you (uh, after I get back up to speed, as I’m kind of rusty at this point). If you need a versatile jazz drummer who can handle 8/13 time without blinking, well, you should probably call someone else.  I also play ukulele and tenor guitar in a minimally competent way, in that I can strum decently enough and make chord figures that usually correspond to actual chord figures. I have no idea how to solo. If we were in a band, I would be the rhythm guitarist, and you would probably fire me as soon as someone better came along. Nor would I blame you for doing so.

One musical thing I’m actually not bad at: Sequencing musical samples to make compositions out of them. I used a bunch of (royalty free) samples some years back to make an entire album of electronic music, and it wasn’t terrible. I might do that again at some point. I won’t be giving up my day job, however.

I’m also a pretty good DJ, in the classic “play a bunch of songs in a row that people want to dance to” sense, not the modern “drop the bass on a bunch of ravers” sense. I DJ dances at science fiction conventions. I have fun with it.

9. Cooking. I can make grilled cheese, ramen, and schadenfreude pie. Anything else you probably want someone else cooking for you. I mean, I won’t poison you, or anything. No one has died from eating food I’ve made. But don’t go out of my way to eat my own cooking, you know? Given the choice between making myself something to eat and ordering pizza, I’d pretty much always go for the pizza. I’m never going to be anything better than a “manages not to burn water”-level cook, and I’m just fine with that.

10. Drawing/painting/any non-photography visual art. Oh, man, I suck at these. I used to say that I could draw stick figures, but then Randall Munroe and xkcd came along, and I realized how much better his stick figure people were than mine. Now I know I’m not even competent to draw stick figures. Go to Hell, Randall Munroe! Go straight to Hell, damn you! Seriously, though, if I had to draw or paint to make a living, I would starve inside a week. There would be nothing left but bones.

That’s what I’m good at, creatively and artistically, and what I’m not.

For Those Wondering Where the Most Recent Site Subtitle Comes From

It comes from this.

(For those of you seeing this in the future, after the subtitle has changed, at the time of this writing, the subtitle was “I still dream of Orgonon.”)

Further Tweaking

If you’re visiting Whatever via Web and mobile, you’ll notice I’ve changed up the theme again; the new version is slightly less twitchy and a little bit more basic functionality (like dates/times in comments, etc). I may fiddle with the look a little bit more, but I think this is going to be it for a while.

Being and Nothingness: The Series

This morning I updated to Final Draft 9, i.e., the most recent iteration of the most popular script-writing software out there, and because it’s been a while since I’ve used it, I wrote up a short script to reintroduce myself to its functionality. Here it is.

EXT. A large vast expanse of nothingness
Two dudes sit about looking at the nothingness.
TED
Dude, that’s a whole lot of nothingness there.
BOB
Right? I’m, like, looking at all that nothingness and
I’m, just, JESUS, that’s a lot of nothing.
TED
I mean, I knew there was a lot of nothingness out there.
Like, an infinity of nothingness.
BOB
Yeah, yeah.
TED
But when you look at how MUCH nothingness there is,
it’s kind of, like, whoa.
BOB
I feel ya, dude.
TED
I feel like I’ve merged with the nothingness, you know?
BOB
I totally get it. So much merging.
TED
I didn’t wake up this morning thinking I’d be doing
a lot of merging with nothingness.
BOB
No one ever does.
TED
I figured I’d just get a latte.
BOB
Right. Right.
TED
But here we are.
BOB
Here we are.
TED
Just… merging.
BOB
Yeah. Yeah.
Silence.
TED
So, want to get a latte?
BOB
Yeah, sure.
The two leave to go get lattes.
The nothingness continues.

Yep, I’m definitely getting a series out of this one.

New Books and ARCs, 7/10/15

As we approach the weekend, here’s another stack of new books and ARCs for you to admire and yearn after. What looks good to you here? Tell us in the comments!

Who Won That ARC Contest, Anyway?

Why, it was Paul Nikkel!

How did he win it?

Because I asked my wife to pick AM or PM, then a number between one and 12, then a number between zero and five and then a number between zero and nine. She picked PM, 9, 2, and 0. 9:20pm. The entry closest to that time? Paul Nikkel’s!

Congratulations to him and thank you everyone for playing!

Today’s Quick Answers to a Bunch of Stuff I’ve Been Asked About Recently That I Feel Like Addressing Briefly Because, Hell, Why Not

Some questions asked of me recently in person, via e-mail or on social media.

You haven’t written anything much on the Hugos situation recently. Why not?

Because at this point it’s boring as shit and neither I nor anyone else has anything new to say about it, and I have better uses of my time. Plus I’ve already voted. Done thinking about it unless forced to.

Related: Hey, remember that boycott of Tor Books? Did that affect you at all?

As far as I can tell it had no impact on my sales, or anyone else’s. This did not surprise me in the least.

Hey, they’re taking down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol! Your thoughts on that?

Good. Took long enough.

Bill Cosby?

Raping creep.

Donald Trump?

Enraging business associates with your racism when you’re never going to be president anyway doesn’t appear to be a fabulous strategy.

Bernie Sanders?

Also not going to be president, but I’m glad he’s giving Hillary some worries.

Chinese stock market!

I know very little about this. Glad I don’t have stocks there.

Greece!

What very little I know about this makes me suspect the drachma is going to make a comeback there sometime soon.

Ariana Grande licking donuts!

Why would I give a shit about this in any way?

But she licked some donuts!

So don’t eat those donuts.

It’s unsanitary!

Please don’t make me kill you.

Women’s World Cup!

w00t!

Government officials refusing to marry same-sex couples!

Bigots who should be out of a job.

Cats!

What about cats?

I don’t know, just, cats!

Okay: Yes!

San Diego Comic-Con!

Hope everyone there is having fun. I still want them to improve their harassment policy, which continues not to give useful examples of what harassment is, and I still won’t set foot into the convention proper until it does.

I think that’s everything today.

Well, good.

The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Here’s the deal: Charles Stross is awesome and his books are awesome and his Laundry Files series in particular is a hell of a lot of fun. Now Charlie’s here to tell you about The Annihilation Score, the latest installment in the series. You’re gonna have fun. That is all.

CHARLES STROSS:

The other day (July 7th) was the launch day for “The Annihilation Score”, the sixth novel in the Laundry Files series. Magic is a side-effect of mathematics, Lovecraftian elder gods have noticed us using it and are coming to eat us, but don’t worry: Her Majesty’s Government has a plan for that. There are a lot of committee meetings involved …

I’ve been writing these stories for fifteen years, and while they started as a one-shot gag (a dot-com era hacker geek has fallen into a seedy 1960s British spy thriller: there are tentacles) over time they’ve developed into a complex world. They’ve also changed from a series of pastiches of spy thriller authors, to examinations of different aspects of the fantastic.

If we posit an underlying hard-SF(ish) cause behind various mythological entities — zombies, unicorns, vampires, Cthulhu — how would a government agency *really* handle them? And by “government agency” I’m not discussing the pop culture imagery of two-fisted agents confronting bad guys, but actual functioning (and occasionally dysfunctional) bureaucracies trying to digest the indigestible.

The springboard for “The Annihilation Score” is how the Police, Courts, and Home Office (the British interior ministry in charge of law and order) try to get a handle on a rapidly snowballing superhero problem.

Superheroes are heroic archetypes — the roots of the genre lie in the classical pantheons — the myths of the Roman, Greek, Norse, Ancient Egyptian (and, less commonly, Shinto and Hindu) cultures. Our cultural values are rather different from the classical early Iron age empires, but we still hunger for archetypes. Today we use superheroes to ask questions about human agency — with great power comes great responsibility, after all. But if you cut away the myth-making and archetypical trappings and boil them down to their pragmatic roots, as in *Watchmen*, you find yourself looking at unsavory vigilantes and lynch mob justice.

Superhero stories may be an assertion of human agency in modern fantasy and SF, but bureaucracies are all about the diffusion of responsibility and autonomy. Bureaucracies want interchangeability and impersonal procedures, not unique and irreplacable heroes. The reaction of a real world law enforcement bureaucracy to an outbreak of superheroes won’t be one of gratitude: it’ll be an attempt to bring the hammer down *fast* before the random vigilantes throw grit in the wheels of justice. The only job a bureaucracy can conceive of for a superhero involves wearing a Police uniform and doing it by the book …

… And that’s before we get to the knotty existential question of supervillainy. Most supervillain crime is routine aggro — assault, robbery, and ordinary street crime, only with the dial turned up to 11. After all, most police work is routine. Most crime is spontaneous disorder, and mindless with it. But there are exceptions, and how does a real police force deal with a real Mad Science supervillain?

Criminology is the study of the criminal mind. But the only criminal minds we have available to study are the incompetent ones — the ones who got caught. Successful criminals don’t get caught: they get themselves elected Prime Minister of Italy or Russia and pass laws granting themselves retroactive immunity. (“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”)

Mad Science is more than a matter of putting more amps into the thing on the slab while Igor keeps the kite flying in the thunderstorm: so mad science in the 21st century needs a mad science organization, with a budget, human resources, research assistants, and a monetization strategy. Successful mad science villains are by definition organizational geniuses with a business plan — which means they’re rare, terrifying, and a existential threat.

So let’s bring this thought experiment back into focus on the personal. If you’re Dr. Dominique “Mo” O’Brien of the Laundry, teetering on the edge of a stress-induced nervous breakdown from one too many arguments with demons and tentacle monsters, being seconded to the Home Office to set up and run a new department *might* seem like a rest cure at first. But managing a small, tightly ffocusedPolice unit staffed by superheroes requires a rare combination of personal characteristics, including the ability to deal with unrealistic expectations from above and hero-sized egos from below. It’s almost inevitably going to be immensely stressful, and until you can train up a management team to shoulder some of the workload you’re on your own.

And that’s before a mad scientist calling himself Professor Freudstein robs the Bank of England and the National Library in rapid succession, then embarks on a plan to destabilize the government …

—-

The Annihilation Score: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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