Wildflowers, by Sascha Long Petyarre

Before I headed off to Australia, a friend of mine who has worked in the fine art industry advised me to keep an eye for aboriginal art on the basis that there is some very excellent work out there. To which my response was, yeah, okay, but that’s not going to happen because it’s not like I’m going to bother to jump through all the hoops I’d need to jump through to bring a substantial piece of art back with me.

And then I went into an aboriginal art gallery in Perth and saw this piece, by Sascha Long Petyarre, and couldn’t stop looking at it. Nor was I the only one; there was a couple in the gallery as well and I saw them doing the same thing I was doing, which was looking at it, wandering off to look at other pieces and then coming back to it. I came back to it enough that eventually I figured out that if I didn’t buy it I was going to eventually regret not having done so. So I did — and had to jump through a bunch of aggravating hoops to get it back home, exacerbated by the fact I was also injured at the time, so schlepping a really large Tube O’ Art was that much more annoying.

But: Totally worth it. The painting, roughly six feet by three, looks great in this picture but it looks frankly amazing live and in person. It now resides in my daughter’s room, not only because it fits the decor there but because I hope she finds Ms. Long Patyarre’s door into dreamtime a creatively inspiring one (also, before any of you fine art folks ask, the painting is on a northern wall, away from direct sunlight).

I wasn’t expecting to get art when I was in Australia, but I’m happy I did anyway. Life is funny that way.

Incidentally, if you do like the image above, it appears Sascha Long Petyarre has done a lot of work that is thematically similar, much of which is for sale. Here’s the Google listing of her name, which features links to several galleries and other places that have her work for sale. Check out her work; it’s pretty great.

Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits

And now, quick answers to questions related to writing, publishing, and such-like topics:

Standback: “What’s your take on the state of short fiction in the genre? Print magazines, anthologies, e-zines, and anything else? Is the form viable and sustainable? And how much of an audience does it actually have?”

I suspect short fiction in the genre is healthier than it’s been in years, because there are so many outlets for it, and both e-pub and self-pub have expanded the ability for authors to distribute. I see a lot of Kickstarted anthologies that previously would have had to wait for a publisher to greenlight them that now directly appeal to a niche audience, and I see a lot of authors taking their shorter work and putting it up for sale electronically, creating a nice second market for that work. I personally do very well selling short fiction online, via Subterranean and Tor. So, yes, I’m bullish on it.

Angua: “What is your stand on fan fiction and other transformative works? I’m not merely asking if you are ok with your characters and worlds to be interpreted by fans, but also what intrinsic value do you see in such works, if any?”

My stance on fanfic is the same as it’s been for years: I’m cool with it, and if people are writing it about my stuff, it’s a positive thing because it speaks to how invested they are in the world I’ve created. The intrinsic value? I think it varies from fanfic writer to fanfic writer. The one thing I particularly see fanfic having value in is letting newer writers have a low-pressure space to explore their own writing skills, as some of the creative work (characters, situations, etc) is already done and they can focus on other aspects. Many excellent pro writers have now come out of fanfic space. It’s not to say that’s the only value to it (or that all fanfic writers want to be pro writers), but that’s an advantage I see.

Beej: “The word ‘brand’ gets a lot of mockery, but I think you’ve established a brand for yourself: snarky, ‘light’ SF, often with an element of mystery. How much of that is deliberate? How much is a function of your own personality and tastes?”

Well, it’s definitely deliberate, and it’s definitely a function of who I am. I write what I like to read, by and large, on the adage that one’s first and best audience is always one’s self. The sort of writing I do isn’t the only sort I like, nor the only sort I can do (see The God Engines as evidence of the latter), but it’s a reflection of my general tastes. Also, as a practical matter relating to sales, at this point when people think “Scalzi” they often do have a particular style in mind, and it does behoove me to continue in this vein, commercially. Fortunately I still like this vein, and I have opportunities to do other things when I want to change things up. So it’s all good.

Caroline: “What was the title of the first science fiction book you read? Was that book what drew you to science fiction?”

The first science fiction novel I can remember reading (which may be different from the first I ever read) was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. I liked it so I started reading more Heinlein and also more SF, so I guess you could say it drew me to the genre, yes.

Devnull: “If I recall, you attended your first SF con after you sold a novel. Do you think your relationship with con-going SF fandom is different than it would be if you had attended them before becoming an SF pro?”

Oh, probably, although obviously it’s difficult for me to quantify how. I suppose honestly it’s the difference between coming into any well-established subculture as an adult rather than as a younger person (or being born into it, as many of my friends in fandom were). I’m a citizen of SF/F fandom, but I’m a naturalized citizen. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it (or find it exasperating) any less, just that I started from somewhere else before coming into it. I like to think I still hold dual citizenship, with my other “country” being journalism.

Samantha Bryant: “Thinking back to the beginning of your career (first book). What do you wish you had known?”

Not really, because my first book was published when I was 32 and my first novel at 36, and in both cases I had been a professional writer long enough that there were no real surprises, and I was well-positioned to handle whatever came next — which was good because my first non-fiction book was a big failure, and the first novel a big hit, so they were definitely contrasting experiences. In both cases I handled them pretty well, I think.

Cat Amesbury: “If you could have a roundtable conversation with Heinlein, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Octavia Butler, what would you discuss?”

Almost certainly what a pain in the ass publishers and editors can be. It’s a staple of writer conversation.

A. Sebastian: “Is the publishing industry, and by extension, Hollywood, ready to invest real dollars on fantasy books featuring girls?”

I think the publishing industry already does invest lots of real dollars in fantasy books featuring girls (a quick check of both the YA and SF/F shelves in your local bookstore will confirm this). I would also be wary of taking the “and by extension, Hollywood” argument as a given. My experience, which is not entirely insignificant, is that they really are different beasts.

Rherdman1953: “If you were offered a cameo role in a movie/tv adaptation of any one of your books, what would your favorite one be?”

I could see myself being John Perry’s son at the opening of Old Man’s War. But I’ll note I’m not hugely interested in having a cameo. If I were going to be on screen I’d want something that would qualify me for SAG membership.

Dapeck: “Tom Bombadil: Important to the world-building of Middle Earth, or just needlessly weird?”

I’m not a Bombadil fan, and it’s one of the reasons why I think the Peter Jackson version of LoTR is many ways a superior telling of the story of Lord of the Rings than the books are (this is a very contentious position).

Just Good Sense: “What is the likelihood of you finding another publisher for—and updating—the Guide to the Universe and the Guide to Sci-Fi Movies? (They’re great, but could use a little refresh.)”

The rights to both have reverted back to me so it’s possible it could happen but as with anything the question is time and scheduling. Of the two I am mostly likely to update the Movies book, although if I do I would probably recast the book rather a bit while updating. We’ll see. But don’t wait up.

George William Herbert: “You wrote one book in another (now-deceased) author’s universe, more or less. If you could chose any still living author’s universe to write another book in, who and what setting?”

None, because I did that “write in another author’s universe” thing once and doing it again doesn’t interest me. I did recently write a short story in another writer’s universe for an upcoming anthology (more details later, I’m not the one in charge of these announcements), and I did that mostly for fun. But again it’s not something I’m actively looking to do more than once.

Rene Quebec:Lock In in its bare bones, is actually a pretty good crime thriller. Have you given thought to writing outside of the genre?”

Yes, although as Lock In shows I can write any number of things and still be inside the genre, which is a nice thing, too. SF is a pretty flexible genre in that regard. As for writing outside the genre, as a practical matter the issue isn’t interest or opportunity (preeeeety sure I could sell a contemporary mystery, for example) but, once again, time.

Andrew: “What do you think about Eric Flint’s idea of changing the Hugo and Nebula categories to differentiate between novels, short novels, multi-volume, and series?

I think it would be a lot of work and if someone wants to try it, I wish them joy. The only lit-related Hugo I’d personally be interested in adding at this point is a Young Adult Hugo; I think its absence is notable and a bit ridiculous given how huge YA is as a science fiction and fantasy market these days.

Anne: “When you write here on controversial topics, you are clear, direct, your prose builds, you include links that are interesting and to the point, and there’s humor. Do you have to do rewrites and research, then let them sit, and go back for re-reading? Or is what I read frequently off-the-cuff?”

Mostly off the cuff, but occasionally researched. And sometimes inbetween. Note as a former journalist, current freelance writer and as a grad of the University of Chicago, research is not something I find particularly onerous, especially in the current era of All the Information At Your Fingertips. You can find a lot of information, of good quality, pretty quickly these days.

Docrocketscience: “Being an ‘expert': So, you hold a BA in Philosophy, but have been paid to write as an expert on various topics, such as film, finance, and astronomy. I understand that film criticism is mostly just expressing an opinion, and that you likely did significant research when writing the ‘Guide’ books. I’m also familiar with (read: have heard of) the adage ‘Fake it till you make it’. But, has the notion of presenting yourself (or being presented) as an expert in a subject in which you lack more traditional bona fides ever given you pause? If so, how do you reconcile? If not, why not?”

It doesn’t particularly bother me because I find that the more time you work/write in a field, the more your backlog of work — if it is of good quality — answers the question of your expertise for you. It also helps to, you know, not overstate your bona fides. I’ve written science books but I’m not a scientist, and I’m happy to note that. Likewise, my experience with finance is as writer and consultant, not as, say, an accountant. I’m perfectly happy with letting people know of my experience and then letting them decide, based on that and on the writing at hand, what they think of the information I bring to the table.

Tim: “What are your thoughts (if any) on the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, scheduled for release later this year, as well as the controversy and questions regarding her condition and wishes for the novel?”

My own personal gut feeling about this, unsupported by anything else, is that if Harper Lee had wanted the book out there in the world, it would have been out there already. Other than that, no opinion.

Yoyogod: “As a science fiction writer (and occasional ukelele player), what are your thoughts on filk music?”

If it makes people happy, then filk on.

Knightwork: “Since you’ve recently made another lap around the sun, would you reflect on the advance of writing technology in your life? Would you still be a writer if you were stuck with using an old Olvetti typewriter, white out, and carbon paper?”

I’ve always made it clear how delighted I am I came of age when computers started being the primary way to put down words, as the ease of editing it affords is hugely congenial to my personal work flow. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t be a writer if I had had to work on a typewriter, but I can say I imagine I would be a lot crankier about the writing and editing process, and also that the first thing I would have done when I became successful as a writer would have been to hire a typist to rekey everything after edits, because honestly, retyping is a bunch of bullshit, right there.

Lanternhues: “How would the discovery of (or the being discovered by) an intelligent alien species change the science fiction genre?”

Well, a lot of first contact stories would go right out the window, that’s for sure.

Road Work

Here’s a needed bit of infrastructure work coming to pass — these dudes repaving our rural road. Now as far as the eye can see we have nothing but flat black asphalt. It’s lovely. Also, watching the repavement was strangely hypnotic; Krissy and I gawked at it for several minutes. There was something almost Zen about it, not counting the asphalt smell.

Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass

MRAL asks:

There are a lot of people who consider you an egotistical jackass. In your opinion, is this accurate?

Maybe?

Some thoughts on this, in no specific order.

* I certainly have an ego, in the common usage of the term, and don’t believe I’ve ever tried to hide that aspect of my personality. I had an ego well before it was adequately warranted on the basis of my work, and now that I have a track record of work behind me that speaks for itself, it continues well apace. I’m good at what I do, I’m successful at what I do, and I don’t have much fake humility about either of those two facts.

So: Ego? You betcha. Egotistical? I think I am less egotistical than I was when I was younger, because I have a better understanding of myself and the context of my ego, but I would also cop to still having occasional moments where my self-regard outpaces a healthy understanding of my talents, ability and self. So yes, sure. From time to time I am egotistical. I think whether you see me as overbearingly so depends on what you think about a number of things, including whether you dislike obvious displays of ego and/or dislike me for other reasons as well. I don’t think it’s difficult to see me as egotistical.

* Likewise, I certainly have been a jackass, and am likely to be so again in the future, because none of us are our best selves every single moment of our lives, and from time to time I can be seen not being my best self out in public. Sorry about that. And again, if you are inclined to think less than charitably of me on a regular basis, then, quite obviously, my moments of public jackassery will stand out for you.

* Have I combined the two and been a public egotistical jackass? Oh, almost certainly. Am I an egotistical jackass all the goddamned time? I hope not, and try not to be, but it’s not really up to me to decide. You have to decide that one for yourself. In your own estimation (or in the estimation of others) the answer might be “Hells yeah, he is, all the time.”

* Which is fine.

* But doesn’t necessarily mean I should care, which, trust me, is a statement that I understand will only confirm my egotistical jackassery to those inclined to see me in that mode. Do understand, however, that I am freely allowed to assess other people, just as they are allowed to freely assess me. A large number of the people who think I am an egotistical jackass I assess to be in the “And I Give a Shit What You Think About This or Anything Else Exactly Why Now” category — which again, only confirms their opinion, since if I had any sense I would be passionately interested in their assessment. But I’m not! And probably won’t ever be! Which just makes them more annoyed still.

* But, I don’t know. If you’re annoyed that I don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, what does that make you?

* The above should be tempered with the realization that your life would be better if there were some people whose opinion you listen to, as regards your behavior and presentation, and that sometimes even someone you don’t know might accurately assess when you’re being an egotistical jackass in a specific instance. Closing yourself off from any opinion that is critical of you or your actions is indeed a very fine way of actually ending up being an egotistical jackass all the time. It helps to be self-aware enough to know that you are fallible, both in your actions and in your self-assessment, and it helps to have people you trust who feel comfortable enough with you to call you out when you show your ass (and it helps if your ego can get out of the way enough for you to listen).

* Obviously, I don’t think having an ego is a problem — a healthy self-assessment of skills and abilities is a good thing, in my book, and I don’t think you should have to minimize those skills or apologize for them just because someone somewhere might have issues with you for it, for whatever reason. The problem is them, not you. Likewise, I don’t think being appropriately rude or dismissive of someone else is a problem, either. It’s not usually what I would suggest leading with, when you meet people or interact with them, but sometimes, when all is said and done, there are some people for whom the best response to them or their antics is “You’re an asshole. Fuck right off,” or some appropriate variation. Sometimes, on the Internet, these folks let you know very quickly when they’re not worth your time. Sometimes it takes a little bit more work.

* Related to this, there are some people who really are egotistical jackasses all the time, at least in terms of how they deal with other people publicly, and think that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s okay to feel sorry for them and avoid them whenever possible. There are others who are making jackasses of themselves, whose egos preclude the possibility of them seeing such a thing, despite the worried intervention of friends. It’s okay to feel sorry for them, and to avoid them too. There are still others whose egotistical feelings have made them act like jackasses. Once again, okay to be sorry for them, and not to bother with them unless you have to. In the latter two circumstances, you can hope that one day soon they pull their heads out and recognize the errors of their ways. In the former case there’s not much to be done, unless you decide you have nothing better with the startlingly few moments of your lifespan than to engage with an unrepentant shitheel of a human being. In which case I wish you happiness in your entertainment choices.

* But overall, again, it’s worth remembering that none of us — and certainly not I — are always our best selves. We have our egotistical moments, our moments of jackassery, our moments of weakness, or neuroticism, or envy, or anger, or pettiness or what have you. They happen and you deal with them. Owning up to them, acknowledging them and trying to do better the next time is a good thing to try to do. If you can work on that, even if you have been an egotistical jackass (or whatever) at some point, then there’s hope that you won’t be that all the time. And that’s a good thing to move toward.

Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement

Tim H asks:

What’s your dream retirement scenario? Will you carry on writing as long as you can?

I think asking a middle-aged adult what their dream retirement scenario is, is a bit like asking a kid what she wants to be when she grows up: She may have an idea, but that idea is based on her current circumstance and view of the world, which may not apply when she actually grows up. When I was eight, I wanted to be an astronomer. Then at about 13 I realized that math was nothing but confusion to me. Fortunately at 14 I discovered I could write. And what I wanted to do when I grew up changed.

Which is to say that at 46 I don’t know what I will want to do when I’m 70, which seems to me to be my most likely “retirement” age, to the extent that a writer retires at all. I mean, that’s 24 years away, which is a longer amount of time than between the age of 14, when I wrote my first short story — the story that convinced me I should be a writer — and 36, which is when my first novel was published. No offense to the 14 year old, but he couldn’t have possibly imagined what his life would be like at 36. He literally had no idea.

By the same token, I have no idea who I will be at 70 or so, or what my life circumstances will be, so it’s hard to say what will be ideal then. I would like to say I’d be happily on the downslope of a long and prosperous career as a writer, but two and a half decades is a long time from now. Maybe by then they’ll have figured out how to halt aging, I’ll look and feel like I’m 35 and the idea of retiring would just be stupid. I wouldn’t mind that! But who knows? We will see.

That said: The 46 year old me sees the ideal retirement scenario as, simply, one that lets me do what I want to do without worrying about starving. At 46, my needs for “doing anything I want” are relatively simple: I want to see people I like, and write. As I get older I have the urge to travel maybe a bit more than I do, so maybe that will be added onto the schedule. But honestly: Write, see people, maybe travel. That seems doable. What it will require is prudent saving, staying as healthy as possible, and (this is largely not up to me) humanity not destroying itself in a spasm of stupidity. We’ll see what happens in each of these cases.

I don’t really see me retiring from writing, since it’s a thing I like to do even when I’m not getting paid for it. Will I write on the “book a year” schedule I currently hold? I sort of doubt it, but there are a ton of writers at the age of 70 and beyond who crank out books on that schedule, or even faster than that. So, again, who knows? But honestly, the only thing I see keeping me from writing well into my eighth decade and beyond is substantial mental deterioration. I’m hoping that writing on a regular basis will keep that from happening.

Bear in mind that my current retirement scenario — writing, seeing friends, a little travel — bears quite a lot in common with my current life, which in which I write, I am fortunate to see friends, and a travel rather a bit. Which I guess is to say that right now I’d like my retirement life to be like my life. The good news there is, I suspect it’s achievable. I should just keep doing what I’m doing. And, uh, save some money prudently. And maybe take a walk every now and then.

In any event, let’s see what I think when I’m 70.

The Big Idea: Karina Sumner-Smith

We all wish for that big break, whatever that “big break” might mean — but will that big break cause more problems than it solves? It’s a question that Karina Sumner-Smith considers in Defiant. Here she is to explain how it manifests in the world she’s created.

KARINA SUMNER-SMITH:

Imagine you won the lottery.

At one time or another, most of us have imagined what we’d do with that money. Debts eliminated, bills paid without a thought. Buying a house or a car, a bigger house or a better car, a yacht or a new wing for the family mansion with a secret library, a trapdoor, and a bouncy castle. (Or am I alone in that last bit?)

Yet despite the odds against our tickets coming up the big winner, we still dream—because it is, however unlikely, possible. It’s that possibility that keeps people clamoring. It’s hope.

But what if money wasn’t something that you have or earn, but a part of something that you are? What if affluence is as much a biological trait as your skin or hair, the shape of your face or the color of your eyes?

That’s the big idea behind the Towers Trilogy. In this far-future society, magic is everything. A power naturally generated by the human body, magic is used as money and fuel. It heals illness and prolongs life, powers machinery and keeps the lights on, and is a critical part of countless everyday tasks, big and small. The magic-rich reside in living, floating Towers that play out an unending political dance for position and altitude. Yet the people without enough magic end up in the Lower City—a rough, dangerous society that exists in the ruined skyscrapers on the ground.

The first book of the trilogy, Radiant, tells the story of Xhea, a homeless girl in the Lower City who has no magic at all. She can’t buy food or clothing, can’t open doors; she can’t even work the simplest of spells. Then she meets the ghost of a girl who has not died, and everything changes. That ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a person who generates so much magical energy that her body and soul are used as a power plant—even in death. Despite being very different young women from disparate ends of their society, the two form a bond and fight to free Shai from her fate.

The second novel, Defiant, sees the Lower City’s social structure begin to break down. Because in saving Shai, Xhea brings a source of untold wealth to the poorest of the poor. In effect, the people of the Lower City win the lottery—and that sudden influx of power creates more problems than it solves.

I thought, when I started, that I was writing a fun little cross-genre tale about magic, ghosts, and a friendship between two very different young women caught in strange circumstances. It was only when I was neck-deep in story and paused to look around that I realized that I was, of course, writing about inequality and economic disparity.

Because if affluence is a biological trait, a direct result of your ability to generate magic, then so by extension is poverty. “The value of a person” has a very literal meaning—and cascading consequences for concepts of social class and economic mobility within this constructed world.

Dark concepts, all. Yet I’m also just trying to write a fun, different fantasy with ghosts and magic, war and politics and friendship, bounty hunters and sentient buildings, and strange creatures that stalk the ruined streets when night falls.

These books are also, in the end, about hope. Because when we dream about winning the lottery, we’re looking for a huge, outside force to change our lives for the good—to save us from our circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before. Yet that change can come from the  inside, too. There are a myriad ways to defy the fates that biology and money and societal structures create; and people, working together despite terrible odds, can find ways to save themselves.

Defiant: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans

G.B. Miller asks:

From what I’ve read, you seem to be progressive Democrat with a distaste for Republicans. Has there/will there be a time where a Republican, on any level, will do something that might momentarily soften your distaste for the Republican party?

Heh.

One, I’m not a Democrat. I’ve been registered as an independent for as long as I’ve been a voter. Two, I’ve voted for Republicans as recently as the last election, for local offices where I believed they were the best-qualified candidates. Three, the last actual politician I donated money to was Jon Huntsman, in the belief that even if I was not a Republican, as a citizen of the US, it behooved me to encourage the Republicans to nominate for president someone who was not ridiculously out there. It didn’t do him much good, alas, nor the Republicans.

Four, I’m not at all sure I qualify as a genuine “progressive.” I will certainly allow that to folks on the right, I look like a progressive, but then, for a lot of folks on the right, Obama looks like dyed-in-the-wool socialist, rather than what he is, which is a technocratic centrist with just a little lean to the left. Obama being called a socialist causes actual socialists a nasty case of hives, as I understand. With the exception that I was for same-sex marriage well before he was, overall I’m probably a smidge to the right of Obama. As I am fond of saying to people, in the days of yore, the politics I have today would have qualified me to be a “Rockefeller Republican.” Which is to say I didn’t leave the GOP; the GOP left me. When I was, like, eleven.

(If you want another perspective on my politics, ask lefties from outside the United States, i.e., where there is still a genuine political left, if I seem like a lefty to them. I suspect most of them would position me as center-to-center-right; in other words, the guy who is wrong in a lot of his politics but doesn’t make an ass of himself about it at family gatherings.)

What marks me as a “progressive” these days is the fact I’m for same-sex marriage and am pro-choice, which are positions that could be equally “libertarian,” if “libertarian” hadn’t somehow transmuted itself into “reactionary conservative” here in the US lately, and the fact that I am both for having the United States have a slightly better social net and infrastructure than it does (which is a “liberal” position) and that it should actually pay for those services/infrastructure rather than deficit finance them (which is a “conservative” position), and that probably the best way to do that is punt up the marginal rate a bit on the high end because those of us on the high end (Hi! I’m the 1%!) can afford it. There are other fiddly details but that’s the gist of it.

Bluntly: if that’s a “progressive” viewpoint, there’s something very wrong with the definition of “progressive.” In a world where the politics of the moment weren’t ridiculously skewed, these positions would be “moderate” at best. Equally bluntly: I’m a well-off, white, middle-aged dude who likes being comfortable and likes his country genially middle-class. I should not be seen as anywhere near the vanguard of leftist politics in this country. That I am seen to be so really is a problem, both for the left and for the right.

The county I live in is overwhelmingly Republican and/or conservative; I get along with nearly everyone here on a day-to-day basis, even if I vote differently than many of them do. I have Republicans and/or conservative friends and family members and business associates; I get along well with them too. By and large they don’t have to do anything to make me think better of them; I think well of them as it is.

That said, and to be blunt again, there’s very little chance I’ll be voting for GOP candidates for jobs above the local level anytime soon, because at the state and national party level, I don’t see a lot of rationality when it comes either to individual rights or the proper role of the government with regard to services/infrastructure or taxes. I also think the party’s been blinded by frankly incomprehensible hatred of Obama, which almost certainly does have a racial element to it, thanks for asking, added on top of a general howling outrage that a Democrat is in the White House at all. I like many Republicans but I actively dislike the policies and strategies (such as they are) of the Republican Party on the state and national levels.

If the GOP ever wants me to vote for it above the local level — and who knows? Maybe they don’t! — then they will need to ditch the Gingrich/Atwater philosophy of painting anyone of differing politics as heretics to be burned and never to be negotiated with, and they’ll have to have a serious rethink of how they approach taxation and services. I think it’s possible to believe in low(ish) taxation and constrained government coupled with a robust private sector while still recognizing that some things really do need to be handled by government, and paid for. I’d also like to see evidence they believe civil rights are indeed for everyone, not just the straight, white and/or embryonic.

But — and this is significant — there is no reason for the GOP to change its current strategy. If you’ve not noticed, it holds both the House and Senate at the national level, and a whole lot of state executive and legislative branches. What it’s doing is pretty successful, and when it’s not (2008, 2012), the strategy simply to double down and do it harder has not been a bad one for them (2010, 2014). So I don’t see the GOP doing anything it needs to do to win my vote — or even to lessen my overall dislike of it — on the state or national level anytime soon.

Which I’m sure they think it fine. They don’t, in fact, need my vote. By the time they ever do, I suspect it might be too late for them.

Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John

Peter asks:

Hi there! I’d like to hear your thoughts about the name “John”. It’s one of the most common names in the English-speaking world. It’s also your name. Do you like being named John? If you had to change your name, what would you change it to?

“John” is indeed a very common male name in the English world, as are its various cognates in other languages (Ian, Sean, Juan, Ivan, etc), but in English at least, its stock has come down in quite a bit in recent years — once a perennial Top Ten name, last year “John” was merely the 55th most popular name in the US (according to this baby name site), wedged between “Julian” and “Colton.”  At this point, if you hear someone’s named John, you might reasonably surmise he’s likely over 25, which of course in my case is perfectly correct.

I like being named “John” just fine, but I’ll also note that almost no one calls me by the name. In most social situations I am almost always and exclusively called “Scalzi” and have been since I was child, not by family (my family nickname was “John-John” to distinguish me from other Johns in the family, including my father) but by just about everyone else. Indeed, I am often referred to by “Scalzi” even when everyone else is referred to by first name (“I had dinner with Bob, Ted, Cyndi and Scalzi”).

One reason is practical: I’m usually the only Scalzi in most contexts, so referring to me by that name is useful for identification, particularly when there’s another John in the social mix, who is then often referred to by his first name. Another reason, I suspect, is that “Scalzi” is more fun to say than “John.” Go ahead, try it. A third reason is that I lucked into the name as branding — there are other Scalzis in the English-speaking world, but none so prominent as I; check Google on this for confirmation (or Bing, if you like, you deviant). There are other Scalzis, and there are even other John Scalzis, but in terms of to whom the name refers in our culture, I am the Scalzi. And that’s pretty cool. Might as well call me that name; it’s me.

Whereas I will never be the John, no matter how hard I try. There are several saints at the head of the line, and then a few kings and presidents, other world historical figures and then the long long line of celebrities who share the name. Even fictional Johns have more notability than I; I will never ever be more famous than John McClane, for example. I’m not necessarily even the first John people think of when it comes to science fiction: There are the Johns Varley, Wyndham, Christopher and Ringo which come to me right off the top of head, and many others I could name if I thought about it more, and of course there’s John W. Campbell, who as an editor largely defined what we think of as the “Golden Age” of science fiction.

Which is neither here nor there as to whether I like the name “John,” mind you. I do; it’s nice and comfortable and it’s me — I will answer to it, when it’s used (which is rarely) and it’s meant to refer to me in context (slightly more rarely). I just recognize that a very common name means that you share it with a wide number of people. “John” is me, but it’s not only me, and it will never be primarily me, when people think of the name, in the way “Scalzi” is.

As for what I would change my name to, well, as noted above, there’s already a name for me that, culturally speaking, I kind of own, and which is what most people actually use to refer to me, so changing my first name would not only be unnecessary, there’s also a real question of whether anyone would actually notice. But if I had to change it, and I would have to exclude “Jon” from the list of names I could change it to (technically “Jon” and “John” are different names), I’d probably go with “Michael,” which is my middle name and thus one comfortably already allied with my identity. And it’s about as common as “John,” which solves no problems, as far as names go. Fortunately, “Scalzi” is still available to me for identification purposes.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me

Bettie Pager asks:

Generally, bullies bash people to get particular reactions — they want to shut down others’ voices or at least scare them. But, at least from the outside looking in, the only affect the Mewling Manlings/Rabidly Sad Puppies/etc. have on you is an occasional volley of very well-crafted snark. Given that they don’t seem to be getting what bullies generally want out of you, why do you think they keep at it?

Well, with regard to the Puppies specifically, I don’t think they’re trying to bully me. They just like to use a fictional version of me as a poster boy for Everything That’s Wrong With Science Fiction, and occasionally the poster boy for Sure We’re Doing a Shitty Thing But This Guy Kinda Did It First If You Squint Real Hard, and always as the poster boy for WAAAAAAAAAAAH SCALZI WE JUST HATE YOU SO MUCH AND WISH YOU WOULD DIE. Which is different than bullying. There’s not much to do but snark on that, honestly. They keep at it, I suppose, as a community-building activity. Which, you know. I guess is nice? None of their rationales for slating holds up to even casual scrutiny but at least they’re united in their dislike of me? Bless their little hearts. I wish them joy.

Which is not to say that occasionally someone on the Manly Men Who Manfully Man Mantastically spectrum won’t occasionally try to get in my face (online) in an attempt to intimidate me. In which case a little condescension followed by judicious application of the mute button is the usual order of things. I suspect some of them might consider ignoring them “running away,” but then they would, wouldn’t they, the dear, sweet lads. OH YOU CAN’T TAKE IT CAN YOU? Sure, I can take it. I just don’t have to take it, so I don’t. Life’s too short.

But note well that a) as a well-off straight white dude, I find it very easy to condescend to, and then ignore, all manner of schmuck, b) as a well-off straight white dude who can condescend and then ignore, I am a low-value target for bullies. The bully pathology is “punch down, suck up”; that is, harass and threaten people they believe are lower (or should be lower) on whatever fucked-up social hierarchy they subscribe to, and then run back to people they see higher up on the hierarchy for head pats (this is why bullies on Twitter often “@” who they see as higher-value bullies when they try to crap on someone).

For lack of a better way to put it, for their pathology, bullies get a lot more mileage out of other people than they do me. And alas for those other people, it is more difficult for them to wave off attempted bullying, both in terms of its seriousness, and its volume, than it is for me. My ability, and luxury, to point and laugh at, and then ignore, the sad little dudes who try to pull this crap on me, should not be construed as me suggesting this sort of nonsense is not a real problem for others. It is, and it needs to be dealt with.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women

This question was asked by JRed and seconded by a number of people in the thread:

What advice do you have for raising a strong woman in today’s world*? Our daughter just turned one, and I want her to grow up to know who she is and what she wants, and to not take crap from anyone. But it’s overwhelming when society seems to have 10,000 conflicting messages about what those qualities even mean for women, much less how to cultivate them. I realize this topic might set you up for the haters, but my husband and I would love your thoughts.  *OK, let’s narrow “the world” to the United States.

I can’t give a recipe for this other than what we’ve done with regard to our own daughter, but inasmuch as I expect that’s what you’re asking, here’s how we’ve done it.

(Disclaimers early: I’m not a perfect parent. Neither is Krissy. Any suggestion that we are should be treated with skepticism. Likewise, take into account who we are and the conditions of our life, ie, we have a whole lot of advantages, and by association, so does our daughter. Also, this is not meant to be an exhaustive and complete list. Also, I am not a perfect feminist. And so on. Got it? Okay.)

1. Give your daughter a strong woman as a role model. In our case, this would be Krissy, Athena’s mother. Krissy is intelligent, strong, organized, opinionated, clearly used to being in charge of her own life, and doesn’t take shit from anyone while at the same time being kind and loving. When this sort of woman is your mother, then every day of your life you have that as your primary definition of what being a woman is and can be. This is a good baseline to work from. How Krissy is a strong woman is not the only way to be one, mind you. But she definitively is one. A woman’s role model for a strong woman, likewise, does not have to be her mother (and to be clear Krissy is not Athena’s only role model in this regard). But if you can have a strong woman the house, I think it probably helps. Likewise:

2. Let your daughter see the man in her house treating women with respect and as equals. That would be me, in our house. Athena has always seen her mother and I in a relationship where not only are we loving to each other, but we treat each other with respect, and she can see many places where her mother is the lead in our partnership (because of skill or inclination or other reasons) and I not only acknowledge that fact, but am pleased about it. Nor is this lead role always in “traditional” male/female tasks and roles. Again, in a day-to-day sense, our daughter sees the two of us in our relationship with each other, and that becomes her baseline of expectation of how men and women together treat each other. We don’t treat each other as we do because our daughter is watching — we treated each other that way long before she came along. But our daughter receives the benefit of seeing that relationship dynamic. But while we’re on the subject of men:

3. Let your daughter see the man in her house have good relationships with women who are not his spouse and (again) treat them with respect and as equals. I don’t think it’s enough for Athena only to see the respect with which I treat her mother; it’s also useful to see me interact with other women and see how I treat them as well. The reason it’s important is that Krissy is my wife, and that spousal dynamic is always going to be its own thing. So she needs to see me with my women friends, my women colleagues, and even how I respond to women I don’t even know. Once again, the day-to-day experience of that sets her baseline of what behavior she should expect from men, when they talk to and interact with women. And once again, I don’t treat women with respect because my daughter is watching; I treat them respect because people deserve respect. It’s still important that my daughter sees it.

None of the above points, it should be noted, are things that should be called out for praise or are meant to be cookie-bearing activities — this is simply about what you do with your life on a day to day basis, which your kid will see and pick up on by osmosis. Parents are their kids’ first teachers, and kids watch and learn even when you don’t think you’re teaching them. You’re always teaching them. They’re always watching you.

Moving on.

4. Give your daughter appropriate agency. Here’s a small example, which I’ve noted here before: As soon as Athena was old enough to understand it, I’ve always gotten her permission before posting pictures, or talking about things she’s done, here and other places online. Why? One, again, simple respect, but two, I wanted her to understand from a very early age that she should have a right and expectation that her wishes and opinions would be listened to and followed and taken seriously. You’ve never seen a picture or anecdote here about her after the age of about four, that she didn’t sign off on. It’s a small thing, but on the other hand, it’s also a concrete example to her that she is being respected. From me, a man. In time that becomes a baseline expectation. If it’s not met elsewhere, she’ll know something is off. Related to this:

5. Treat your daughter as a thinking human. This is not the same thing as treating your kid as “an adult,” which is a brag I sometimes hear: “We’ve always treated our children like adults.” Well, that’s dumb; kids aren’t adults and depending on their age, there’s a whole lot of mental and physical development between where they are now and where they will be as grown-ups. What I think is more important is to realize that every step of the way your child has a brain, and it’s working, and you address that brain with respect. Which means your child learns to trust that you are dealing with them fairly, even (especially) when you are being the parent. Again, it’s about the expectations you’re offering your kid: To be taken seriously, to be heard, and to be appreciated.

6. Point out cultural nonsense as it happens (in an age appropriate way). Culture sends 10,000 conflicting messages, but it doesn’t mean that those messages have to be received unmediated. We very early on taught Athena how to recognize when she was being sold to, when someone was asserting something that wasn’t true, and in particular regard to the question at hand, when she was being exposed to sexist bullshit. We didn’t necessarily make a big production of it — stop everything! It’s time for a lesson! — but calling things out does a couple of things. One, it trains your kid not to uncritically accept what culture is pushing on them; two, it makes them aware that culture’s messages don’t have to apply to them, and that they’re free to make up their own minds.

7. Back your daughter up. Back her up when she wants to try things. Back her up when she succeeds. Back her up when she fails. Back her up when she’s confronted by people who try to make her into something society expects rather than what she’s interested in. Back her up when she needs information. Back her up when she tells you how she’s feeling. Back her up when one of the less pleasant messages society is trying to send her manages to hit home. Back her up when people give her shit, just for being a woman. Back her up when she fights back. Back her up. Be the solid ground your kid plants her feet in to push against all the bullshit. She’s going to need it. She’s going to need it a lot.

8. Do all of the above without needing to get credit for it. Kids are self-centered, in the worst and best ways. They don’t always get what their parents do for them until a whole lot later. That’s fine. The goal isn’t a Parent of the Year ribbon. The goal is a daughter who is strong, capable and her own person. Help make one of those, and it’s a pretty good bet eventually she’ll figure out what you did for her.

So, that’s how we’re doing it on our end. Maybe some of this will be useful for you, too.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

The Big Idea: Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh

Sabaa Tahir and Renée Ahdieh are authors of young adult fantasy, with books releasing in April and May, respectively. Their novels are both inspired by unique settings, so they decided to interview one another for The Big Idea and share how they approached worldbuilding from different perspectives.

SABAA TAHIR & RENÉE AHDIEH:

RA: The desert is a huge part of An Ember In the Ashes, but it’s not a setting we see in a lot of YA high fantasy, except in passing. What led you to pick it as your primary setting?

ST: I grew up in the Mojave Desert of California, midway between the highest and lowest points in the continental U.S. Living in such an extreme place made me feel like the land had a distinct personality. Sometimes, the desert loved me, like in the middle of a thunderstorm, or in the early morning, when a breeze came off the mountains. Other times, the desert hated me—like when it was 115 degrees out and the asphalt melted beneath my feet.

But it was always beautiful and dramatic. When I started writing Ember, I knew it was going to be a story of extremes—so the desert seemed like the perfect setting for it. It’s the place I know the best, so in a sense, this was also my way of paying homage to that.

RA: I could absolutely sense that in your writing—a world of extremes. It was both beautiful and harsh. So wonderful.

ST: Thank you! Speaking of wonderful, one of the things that struck me in reading The Wrath and the Dawn was the way you depicted food and clothing. It was so rich and evocative. Tell me about your inspirations.

RA: Thank you so much! I used to write for a food magazine, and food is a great passion of mine. When I began writing Wrath, I spent a lot of time researching Persian cuisine, which provided much of the inspiration for the food in the book. I knew I wanted those particular scenes to resonate with a reader. Some of the books I remember most fondly as a child did that for me—The Redwall series, for instance. I still want to try hotroot soup and beetroot pie! Similarly for the clothing, I did a lot of research into sartorial trends during both the Sassanid Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate. The importance of authenticity was always at the forefront of my mind.

ST:  I’d say you pulled it off very well. The first time I read Wrath, I stopped to cook myself a kebab feast because I got so hungry.

RA: Ah, kebabs! I’ll have to make plans to stowaway for the next feast. But before that, I’d love to know how you went about building the world of Ember.

ST: Like most of my writing process, I did my worldbuilding in layers. I didn’t want something strictly Roman, strictly Middle Eastern—or really strictly anything. I wanted a setting that reflected the complexity of Ember’s world. Much of the book takes place in the desert city of Serra, a place that was once beautiful, but that has been conquered and transformed. To reflect this, I wanted a mix of architectural design: the mud-brick houses of a recently created ghetto; the gentle arches of an old, beautiful city; the brutal simplicity of a black granite military academy. I layered each style in over multiple drafts, in the hopes that they ultimately reflected a city with a complex history.

RA: I love hearing about how you approached the setting and the architecture in Ember because it’s so different from what I did and so reflective of Ember’s tone and themes.

ST: How did you approach creating setting in Wrath?

RA: I knew I was going for something atmospheric and almost dreamlike. The world of Khorasan is loosely based on ancient Persia, but the palace in which most of the action takes place is, in its own way, emblematic of the kingdom and its young ruler, Khalid. It’s cold and foreboding—made of marble and stone—but rich and full of history. I wanted the main character, Shahrzad, to realize that the palace—the kingdom—had many secrets in its shadowed corners.

ST: Shahrzad’s internal commentary on the palace and the world she’s thrust into is one of the best parts of Wrath. Specifically, I thought it was a great way to showcase her growth.

RA: I appreciate that so much, as the character development in Ember is done so well. I think a large part of that has to do with the fascinating backstories you created for each of them. Tell us about myth in your world. It can be such a big part of YA fantasy—what role does it play in yours?

ST: As with the setting, I blended various traditions to come up with the mythical underpinnings for Ember. Two quick examples:  I added middle eastern mythology based on the stories my mother scared me with when I was a little girl—Jinn, Efrits, Ghuls and other supernatural creatures. But there are also a group of seers called the Augurs in my book. Their myth is very loosely based off of the Pythia—more commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi.

RA: The scenes with the Augurs were some of my favorites in Ember.

ST: The inspiration for Wrath came about from The Arabian Nights. But I can also see some nods to Beauty and the Beast in it. How did you approach tackling such well-loved classics and making them your own?

RA: I think the key is just that: making it your own. It was daunting trying to shape something well-known and beloved into something fresh and new, but I think it’s important to step back and distance yourself from the source material, especially when you’re writing a retelling. You have to give yourself the freedom to make it your story.

—-

An Ember in the Ashes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Wrath and the Dawn: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

Lock In a Finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

In 2006 I won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; now I’m a finalist for the other John W. Campbell Award — the one they give out for the best science fiction novel of the year. This is exciting because it’s the first time a work of mine has been nominated for the award. It’s always nice to have firsts!

And it’s a crowded, quality field. The other finalists, listed alphabetically by author:

Nina Allan: The Race (Newcon Press)
James L. Cambias: A Darkling Sea (Tor)
William Gibson: The Peripheral (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Daryl Gregory: Afterparty (Tor)
Dave Hutchinson: Europe In Autumn (Solaris)
Simon Ings: Wolves (Gollancz)
Cixin Liu (Ken Liu, translator): The Three-Body Problem (Tor)
Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (Knopf)
Will McIntosh: Defenders (Orbit)
Claire North: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (Redhook)
Laline Paull: The Bees (Ecco)
Adam Roberts: Bête (Gollancz)
John Scalzi: Lock In: A Novel of the Near Future (Tor)
Andy Weir: The Martian (Broadway Books)
Jeff VanderMeer: Area X (Book 1 of The Southern Reach Trilogy) (FSG Originals)
Peter Watts: Echopraxia (Tor)

That’s a hell of a reading list.

Congratulations to all the finalists! There’s not a one of you I won’t be delighted to lose to.

Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux

Susan asks (and I’m including appropriate links):

You gave up ego-searching for Lent, and right after lent ended put up a post that you found you hadn’t missed it that much and though you had been doing it out of habit (I’m paraphrasing that post).

Is that still true? Have you resumed ego searching or do you only respond if directly contacted (ie, @scalzi on twitter, tagged on facebook, etc).

Do you think this has impacted your response to the Hugo/Puppy kerfluffle?

Indeed, since Easter I have not done any substantial ego surfing; I think I’ve done it three times. I used to have shortcuts to ego surfing on my bookmarks, and I had some Google alerts tied into my name, but I deleted those during Lent and have not been moved to return them. I also took out the “Scalzi” search on Twitter as one of my Tweetdeck columns and haven’t returned that either. The closest I come to ego searching now is periodically checking my WordPress stats and seeing where people are coming in from, and getting a daily email report from ThinkUp. But neither of those are particularly granular, in terms of specific people saying things about me.

I’m surprised how little I miss it. I’m very much of an “I want ALL THE DATA” sort of person, and also, I was previously jazzed at the idea that someone somewhere online was always talking about me. But I think over time I either got a little bit more secure in my ego, or I just simply stopped caring what other people had to say about me, either negatively or positively. I don’t mean that in a hostile who cares what the peons think sort of way; more that I have enough things to be thinking about on a day to day basis without having to know what some other person was thinking about what I was thinking, especially if I didn’t know them or have an interest in them one way or another.

Also, at a certain point for someone in my position you really do have to accept that people are going to talk about you, and that you don’t need to be part of that discussion. Previously I was generally happy to lurk on those discussions, but now I don’t even have the interest to lurk. It takes time and it takes brain cycles and I have increasingly less free time/cycles to devote to it. I’d rather spend that time/cycles on people I actually like and love, or on activities I enjoy doing.

With regard to Puppies/Hugos, it’s also probably better than I don’t spend a lot of time ego surfing. I mean, I’ve been visiting File770 daily for updates (seriously, if the site doesn’t get a Hugo nod — a legitimate, non-slate nod — for keeping up with it all, I don’t know what the Fanzine category is good for). In the recaps and comments there I see enough nonsense with my name appended to it, from basically the same few jerks, that I know ego searching my name will just reveal the same jerks plus a couple others stinking up the results. As the saying goes, ain’t nobody got time for that, and I honestly just don’t care.

At this point I assume if there’s something particularly juicy involving me, someone will let me know, and indeed that’s pretty much how it’s gone. News does get back to me. And if it doesn’t get back to me, it doesn’t much appear that I need to know it and I will get along fine without knowing. This is my new reality, when it comes to knowing what people are saying about me online, and I have to say I find it pretty congenial.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not

It’s time to begin this week’s Reader Request Week! So let’s start with something chunky. Evan H asks:

There seems to be increasing polarization between those who view freedom of speech as an absolute, unfettered necessity for free society, and those who argue that since speech can cause harm, and the job of government is to protect its citizens from harm, the government should be allowed to limit speech in some (perhaps restricted) way.

Philosophically, where do you fall on this issue? Do you think speech is fundamentally different from other potentially harm-causing actions? Should the government ever be able to limit speech in pursuit of the greater good?

Tangentially: large free services like Twitter and Facebook are severely blurring the line between privately-owned spaces (where they have complete control over what speech is permitted) and public forums (where they do not). Twitter is legally a private space, but most of the time it *feels* a lot more like a public forum. Do you think the law needs to “catch up” in how it handles these quasi-public forums?

Let’s begin by noting that “free speech” here is by no means an absolute on the level of individual governments. People, and on the Internet particularly, often seem to take their concept and definition of “free speech” from United States constitutional norms, but, strangely enough, no country in the world is actually bound to the United States constitution but the United States. This is a state of affairs that often appears to confuse people.

In point of fact, however, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and the assorted Supreme Court rulings associated with it apply only to the United States. Everyone else works under whatever rules regarding free speech their countries have. By and large, particularly in Western countries, this means quite a lot of leeway in what one is legally able to express, but there are limits (generally) which are more strenuous than those in the United States, and obviously there are other countries where these limits are even more strenuous than that.

Let’s also put onto the table that even in the United States, which is generally acknowledged to have the fewest legal impediments to unfettered free speech, there are still limits, which the government has acknowledged. The old chestnut that free speech does not include the right to (falsely) yell “fire!” in a crowded theater is still applicable (even if the the reasoning in the Supreme Court case in which the comment appeared has been largely overturned by more recent jurisprudence). These limits are few, but they are there, and the over the course of US history, they have been continually reinterpreted by the courts. I imagine this goes on in other countries as well. So anyone who argues (other than philosophically) for a state in which “free speech” was indeed ever unfettered by government expectation is either referring to a point before actual human governments larger than a family unit, or doesn’t much know what they’re talking about.

Let’s also do acknowledge that as a practical matter, “free speech” laws and obligations apply to governments and public institutions, to private institutions rather substantially less (although the government, in the US at least, may try to oblige private institutions to these laws in some manner and through various mechanisms) and to individuals and their private spaces almost not at all. This is also deeply, deeply confusing to many people, apparently.

Finally, let’s make the point that your right to “free speech” does not mean I (or anyone else) is obliged to listen. I can, and often will, walk away if I think you’re spouting nonsense. This is another fact which seems to deeply confuse certain people; the idea that being dismissed or ignored equates to censorship appears to be hardwired in their heads. But it’s wrong, and they’re wrong for believing it, which makes them wrong twice.

With all that as the landscape in which we will walk during this discussion:

Personally speaking, I tend to be, both philosophically and as a political actor, a believer in the value of a robust definition of “free speech” as it applies to governments and public institutions, not just in the United States but worldwide. This belief in a robust definition of free speech means that I acknowledge that hateful, hurtful, triggering and generally awful speech must be given a place by the government in the public sphere. Racists, sexists, homophobes and other assorted bigots cannot have their soapboxes in the square removed — not just for the defensive measure of “and then the government will come for me” but because, simply, I believe in the end you acknowledge a human right to express yourself, even if that other human is wrong, or you don’t. The limits I would place on speech are pretty high and of the “imminent harm” level — exhorting a mob to violence against someone and giving them directions to their house is an example I would give as speech that crosses that line. Short of that: It’s got to be allowed by the government.

But I also place a pretty hard line between the government and everything else. The government has to tolerate your bullshit and give space for it; I don’t. Neither, for that matter, does Twitter, or Facebook or any online social media network or construct not run by the government. I don’t accept the argument that services like Twitter or Facebook blur the line between private entity and public service, regardless of whether they are “free” (i.e., no cost to use); that’s a little like saying my local Kroger’s or Safeway is a public gathering place because anyone can walk through the sliding doors (shopping malls? The same, unless you are in California or New Jersey).

If you want to argue that Twitter/Facebook/etc are in fact “quasi-public” spaces, my first response would be “show me the law.” I doubt there is one there that makes it so. My second response would be “have you asked Twitter/Facebook/etc what they think?” Because I’m reasonably certain that their corporate lawyers would mount a pretty robust argument that they are, in fact, private entities rather than a public good or utility. Their lives become immensely more complicated if they are judged the latter.

Not to mention everyone else’s lives: If the Supreme Court of the United States ruled, for example, that Twitter/Facebook/etc are public services, with regard to the First Amendment, I don’t suspect the ruling would be confined to those specific services; it would probably apply to online sites generally — including this one, as it is housed on WordPress — and what a mess that would be. My own response to such a ruling would likely be to close comments forever, since if I am not allowed to moderate that space I’m responsible for, then I’m just not going to bother having comments. I have standards.

So, no: Twitter/Facebook/etc are not “quasi-public”; they are in fact private entities, and they have a right to dictate to the people on them — as I have a right to dictate to people who comment here — the rules of the virtual road. The First Amendment (and, I suspect, whatever free speech protections that exist in other countries) simply do not exist on these services. Facebook is not obliged to house your bigotry, nor Twitter your harassment of people you don’t like, nor I your bad arguments that offend me in their stupidity. Whether any of us do allow them is up to our own particular levels of tolerance for such things. I myself make it pretty clear what I’m willing to put up with. I don’t think the law needs to “catch up” to this in any way; I’m not a proponent of the government nationalizing Twitter, or Facebook, or, well, my blog.

As for whether the government should protect people from the harm of free speech, well, per above, I don’t believe that speech needs to be curtailed by the government, but let’s also recognize that speech doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Context matters, and government should recognize that speech — even and perhaps especially protected speech — has consequences, and that an appropriate role of government may be to protect speech and to handle the effects of it. What form and shape might that “handling” take? Well, that’s indeed an interesting question, and one that is neither simple nor likely to be resolved in the scope of this entry. But it is a question worth asking and trying to answer. If a government wants to promote free speech — as it should — it should also be ready for what comes from free speech.

On a personal note, it does seem to me that a lot of the kvetching about “free speech” and censorship comes down to people wanting the right to be just plain assholes in every possible situation. Well, fine: You can be an asshole in every possible situation, if that’s a thing you want, and bless your heart. But I do believe that a great deal of free speech is not about what you have the right to say, but what you choose to do. I made a joke recently that (without specific intent on my part) referenced child sexual abuse, and some folks called me on it. I had the right to say “it stays because I think it’s funny,” but what I did was to say “whoops, you’re right, let me fix that,” and to change it to something else funny that didn’t have the same set of problems. I have the right to display visual images of Mohammad; I haven’t because I know that many Muslims dislike that, and I can work with that as part of my world view. I have the right to call trans folks by the gender they are transitioning from, but I would prefer to acknowledge them for who they are rather than who they were. And so on.

The point is that it’s not really difficult to pay attention to the concerns and interests of others and still be able to say what you need to say; I have not found it difficult to do so, in any event (unless you are a complete bigot, I suppose, but, well. I guess you just have to live with that). My point is that I haven’t found my own ability to speak freely — and pointedly — on any subject at all constrained in any real sense by being aware of other people’s concerns. It is slightly more work. But, you know what, one, I’m a writer, this is kind of in my wheelhouse, and two, if a little more work means more people are receptive to what I say because I don’t unnecessarily antagonize them, it’s worth the investment (I do occasionally antagonize people on purpose).

And you may say: But what about the people who demand trigger warnings and that the world revolve around their sensitivities? Well, personally, trigger warnings don’t really bother me, in part because, look, if you’ve had trauma and reading what I wrote (or what I’m pointing you to) will cause that trauma to revisit you, I think it’s reasonable for you to know that ahead of time. I don’t think trigger warnings are a demand that the world revolve around you; they might be a simple recognition that you exist in the world, which is a different thing. Likewise, I don’t think everything has to be tailored to the people who have triggers or other concerns, but letting them know they might want to route around things is fine. This is, I don’t know, courtesy? Courtesy seems okay to give.

I’ll close by noting that obviously this piece speaks only in broad strokes — as noted, speech is not a free-floating concept; it’s heavily embedded in the real world and all its complexities. Anyone who tries to separate the two of them is showing they don’t really understand the issue. With that said, I think it’s possible to be a free speech maximalist and someone who understands that with the right to free speech comes a responsibility to consider one’s speech. Rights are what one can do; but it’s what one should do that is equally important.

(There’s still time to ask questions for 2015’s Reader Request Week — get your requests in here.)

My Birthday Present

Krissy got a headstone for Ghlaghghee’s grave (underneath the maple tree in the back yard) and planted flowers around it. And yes, I got a little choked up about it. She was a good cat and I miss her. But it’s a lovely little marker, and I’m glad it’s there. It was a very good present for me.

The Hugos Not Actually Being Destroyed, Part the Many

(Warning: Hugo neepery follows. Avoid if you’re bored of it.)

It’s been a week or so since I’ve posted about the Hugos here, so that’s good. But there’s a persistent shibboleth I see bruited about, which is that the events of this year have in some way destroyed the Hugos (most recently here, in an otherwise cogent set of observations). I’ve addressed this before, but it’s worth addressing again. Here it is:

1. No, the Puppies running their silly slates have not destroyed the Hugo Awards. What they have done is draw attention to the fact that the nomination system of the Hugos has a flaw.

2. The flaw: That an organized group pushing a slate of nominees can, if the group is sufficiently large, dominate the final ballot with their choices.

3. The flaw was not addressed before because, protestations to the contrary, no one had run a comprehensive slate before. No one had run a comprehensive slate before because, bluntly, before this year, no one wanted to be that asshole. This year three people stepped up to be that asshole and got some party pals to go along.

4. The flaw is fixable by addressing the nomination process so that a) slating is made more difficult, while b) the fundamental popular character of the Hugos (i.e., anyone can vote and nominate) is retained. There are a number of ways to do this (the simplest would be to allow folks to nominate three works/people in each category and have six finalist slots on the ballot; there are more complicated ways as well), but the point is that there are options.

5. The nature of the Worldcon beast is that these changes will take a couple years; in the meantime, everyone who nominates (and votes on the final ballot) deals with the fact there are a few people out there who want to crap on the process because they’re whiny stompy children and/or complete assholes. It’s annoying but it’s dealable, so we deal with it until fixes can be made. We’re grownups; grownups sometimes have to deal with whiny stompy children being assholes.

Mind you, the Puppies would be pleased for you to think of them as deep thinking masterminds who are always one step ahead. But, you know, it doesn’t take a mastermind to exploit an aspect of a nomination system that everyone knows is there but no one else exploited because they are grown adults with enough social skills to know better. It just takes someone willing to be an asshole. Masterminds may be assholes (I’ve not met enough masterminds to say), but being an asshole is not sufficient to be a mastermind — and I have met enough assholes to feel confident about that. No one among the Puppies is a mastermind. They are merely assholes.

(This is why the people who have decided to vote “No Award” ahead of anything or anyone on a slate should not feel in the least bit bad about doing it: It’s perfectly fine and well within the rules to vote against people who wish to confirm to the public that they are assholes, and are using the Hugos as the instrument of that confirmation. You don’t give a toddler a candy bar for throwing a tantrum. There are also reasons not to do a blanket “No Award” vote, but let’s not pretend that the “No Award” option isn’t valid. It is. It’s a way of saying “nice try, but no, and also, you’re an asshole.”)

And yes, it’s a shame that now we have to factor rank assholery into the Hugo nomination process, but there it is, and the sooner it’s dealt with the better. Then the Hugos can get back to what they’ve been good at: A popularly-voted genre award that, for all its flaws, does a relatively decent job (particularly in conjunction with the other genre awards) of taking the temperature of the field in each particular year.

So, in sum: Hugos not destroyed; flaws in process revealed; flaws are fixable; some people are just assholes.

And that’s it.

46

And here we are again, another spin around the sun. And what can I say about it other than I continue to recognize that I am one of the most fortunate humans on the planet, in that I have a job I love doing, a family I love being a part of, friends whom I love being with, and a life that I strive every day to be worthy of. Without going into great detail about it, the week immediately preceding this particular birthday reinforced to me that this is indeed a good life, if I’m smart enough to keep it. I wish I could communicate adequately how grateful I am for all of it.

That’s all I’m going to say about that for now. I hope you will have a good May 10. If you’d take a moment during the day to tell someone you care about that you’re glad they’re in your life, I’d consider that a fine birthday present. It’s Mother’s Day here in the US (and probably elsewhere; I haven’t checked), so in one sense for many of you this will be taken care of. But other people will be happy to hear it as well, I’m sure.

Reader Request Week 2015: Get Your Requests In!

Next week is just about the only week in the next couple of months where I am not traveling, or on a deadline — so that makes it a perfect time to do my annual Reader Request Week!

And just what is Reader Request Week? Why it is what it says: Once a year, I let you, the readers of Whatever, offer up the topics I will write about for an entire week. Always wanted me to answer a question? Frustrated that I never write about what you want me to write about? Wish I would write more about a specific topic you can never get enough of? Now’s your chance! Submit your request, I’ll go through and select topics, and I will start writing them up, beginning May 11.

And what topics should you request? Anything you want. Politics, sex, religion, cats, entertainment, favorite talcum powders, advice for living, technology — honestly, whatever topic it is, if you wanted my opinion on it, this is where to ask.

With that said, some suggestions:

1. Choose quality, not quantity. Don’t unload a whole bunch topics that are really generic or overbroad, because those won’t interest me and I won’t write about them. One really excellent topic is more likely to catch my eye. As an example, don’t ask me “could you write about cats?” because that’s too general and kind of boring. Asking something like “You have cats — how do their personalities differ and what does that mean for how you relate to them?”, on the other hand, would pique my interest. I think you can see what I’m getting at here.

2. Questions on writing will not be a priority for selection. Because, dudes, I write about writing all the time. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions about writing, or that I won’t answer some, I’m just saying that I’ll be looking for topics that aren’t about writing first, and the ones I do answer (in a nod to point one above) will be stuff that’s specific and interesting. I note this every year, and yet every year about half of the questions are about writing. Be different this year!

3. Don’t request a topic I’ve answered recently. To help you eliminate these topics, you’ll find the last five years of Reader Request Week topics below. If you see your intended topic there, it’s very unlikely I will answer it again this year (and by “very unlikely” I mean “I won’t”).

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it). Please don’t send requests via Twitter/Facebook/Google+, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Reader Request Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year, and I’m looking forward to what you want to have me write about this year. Make me dance like a monkey, people! Get your requests in now!

Here are the Reader Request Week topics for the last five years (click through to see the full articles):

From 2010:

Reader Request #1: Christianity and Me
Reader Request #2: Rewriting the Constitution
Reader Request #3: How I Think
Reader Request #4: Quitting Writing
Reader Request #5: Rural Ohio, Revisited
Reader Request #6: Depression
Reader Request #7: Writery Bits
Reader Request #8: Short Bits

From 2011:

Reader Request #1: Children and Faith
Reader Request #2: The End of Whatever

Reader Request #3: Middle Ages Me

Reader Request #4: Old Man’s War and the Best SF/F Novel of the Decade

Reader Request #5: Taking Compliments

Reader Request #6: Sociopathic Corporations

Reader Request #7: Unruly Fans

Reader Request #8: Short Bits ’11

Reader Request #9: Writery Bits ’11

From 2012:

Reader Request Week 2012 #1: Snark and Insult
Reader Request Week 2012 #2: Would I Lie to You?
Reader Request Week 2012 #3: Why I’m Glad I’m Male
Reader Request Week 2012 #4: Future Doorknobs or Lack Thereof
Reader Request Week 2012 #5: Them Crazies What Live in the Woods
Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out
Reader Request Week 2012 #7: My Complete Lack of Shame
Reader Request Week 2012 #8: Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2012 #9: Writery Short Bits

From 2013:

Reader Request Week 2013 #1: Further Thoughts on Fame and Success
Reader Request Week 2013 #2: Regrets
Reader Request Week 2013 #3: Guilty Pleasures
Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)
Reader Request Week 2013 #5: How to Be a Good Fan
Reader Request Week 2013 #6: Intuition
Reader Request Week 2013 #7: Books and My Kid
Reader Request Week 2013 #8: Whatever Topics and Comments
Reader Request Week 2013 #9: Women and Geekdom
Reader Request Week 2013 #10: Short Bits

From 2014:

Reader Request Week 2014 #1: Travel and Me
Reader Request Week 2014 #2: Writerly Self-Doubt, Out Loud
Reader Request Week 2014 #3: How I Stay Happy
Reader Request Week 2014 #4: How I See You, Dear Reader
Reader Request Week 2014 #5: Hitting the Lottery
Reader Request Week 2014 #6: Enjoying Problematic Things
Reader Request Week 2014 #7: Editorial Independence
Reader Request Week 2014 #8: What Writing Lurks In the Shadows?
Reader Request Week 2014 #9: Short Writery Bits
Reader Request Week 2014 #10: Short Bits

So: What do you want to know now?