When I was putting together Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, I noticed something about my short fiction: I write a lot of stories about brains. Not so much the neurons inside our skulls (although there’s certainly some of that), but an examination of what our brains do–the nuances of consciousness, the nature of the human mind.
In Philosophy there’s a thought experiment called Theseus’ paradox that asks: If you replace the boards of a ship one at a time until every board has been replaced, is it still the same ship? It’s a fascinating question because it gets at the nature of identity. What makes something the same ship–are the individual boards important? Does the rate at which boards are replaced matter?
It’s a fun problem to think about in the context of ships, but where it gets really interesting for me is when the thought experiment is applied to people. If a person replaces their body bit by bit, until every cell has been replaced, are they still the same person?
I love writing short stories because you can explore an idea from lots of different angles. What is the nature of human identity? There’s no simple answer to that, so my goal has been to revisit the question in a variety of ways. With science fiction I can deal explicitly with Theseus’ paradox. Several of my stories involve characters whose bodies are replaced, either entirely or only partially. In other stories, my characters abandon their biological bodies entirely or merge their minds into a collective consciousness. At what point do we draw the line and say ‘this is no longer the same person’ or even ‘this is no longer a human at all’?
I draw a lot of inspiration from my academic background in Developmental Psychology. Infants and young children change rapidly as they learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around them. I don’t have much in common with my 3-year-old self–the way I think about the world is different, I’m a different size, a different shape. Over the years, most of my cells have been replaced. But despite all that there is a continuity to my existence: all these changes have been gradual, so from one day to the next I am the largely the same person. Three-year-old me was similar to 4-year-old me, 4-year-old me was similar to 5-year-old me, and so on for over three decades…a continuous chain leading up to the version of me that is writing this essay–an essay that my 3-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to read or understand.
In my short stories I try to capture this interplay between continuity and change. When I’m writing fantasy, I often make my characters undergo drastic transformations–a girl made of bamboo rebuilds herself with driftwood, a sugar clown is dissolved in a cauldron and regrown from a seed crystal, a Lovecraftian fish-frog mermaid becomes a beautiful human. Writing about these kinds of transformations has been another way for me to explore what is (and isn’t) important to who we are.
The nature of identity is something that’s important to me on a personal level, too. I’m mixed race, and that’s an aspect of my identity that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Being half Japanese and half white I don’t feel like I fully belong to either group. There’s a degree to which I’m constantly reconstructing my identity, like a chameleon trying to blend in with its surroundings. I wrote a fantasy novelette, original to the collection, that tries to capture my longing to find the place where I fit. “On the Pages of a Sketchbook Universe” is set in a fantasy world where some people are made of watercolor paint and others are made out of pencils. I wanted to write a story that examines what happens when someone falls between those two categories, a character who is a blend of both pencils and paint.
I didn’t initially set out to write a themed collection, but the nature of identity is an idea that I return to again and again, often with more questions than answers: What makes us who we are? Is there some essential core that defines us as individuals? How much of ourselves can we replace before we become something entirely new?
When I was writing the first draft of The Brass Giant back in 2011, I thought it was going to be a standalone novel, a nice and neat, one and done foray into the steampunk genre, and then I’d move on to other things. It wasn’t until I got about three-quarters of the way through my outline before I realized that the story I was writing was much bigger than one single book could tell. For the story to be over, my main character would have to emerge victorious against a villain she didn’t yet know existed, against a plot far more sinister than she yet realized. The closer I got to the end, I had to start asking myself the hard questions: How could a naïve teenage girl topple a conspiracy she hadn’t yet discovered? How could she emerge victorious?
The simplest answer? She couldn’t.
So, at the end of The Brass Giant, Petra fails. Horribly.
The trick then was to figure out what happened next. What happens when the hero fails? What happens when it’s the villain who wins? Where does the story go from there?
That was the story I wanted to explore. I just never realized how deeply personal it would become.
Failure is not something we accept easily—especially those of us who do creative work. To fail at something we poured our souls into… it’s scary.
I tried several times to write this book over the last five years, but I never made it more than halfway through a first draft. I was terrified of getting it wrong, of writing something unworthy of the hypothetical paper it might be printed on. I was afraid that whatever meager talent I had poured into the first book was spent and I’d never write another book for the rest of my life. I wondered if I was wasting my time trying. And then other things came up in my life that forced me to stop working on it—an excuse to never discover if my fears were warranted or not, a streak of bad timing that I started to call a curse. I wanted to write this book—I really did—but I was afraid of it. I was afraid of failure. So I abandoned it, hoping I might one day have the courage to try again.
Fast forward to early 2015, months away from The Brass Giant’s traditional debut, and that fear of failure manifested all over again. But not about the impending book release. I was nervous, sure, but I was confident in what I had done with The Brass Giant under the tutelage of Harper Voyager’s editing team, and I was fairly optimistic about how the book would be received.
What scared me was the fact that my contract with Harper Voyager wasn’t for just one book. It was for three. Which meant that I needed to write the sequel. For real, this time.
So I did what any sane person would do: I took my fear of failure and poured it into the book. If I could write a character moving past her own failures, then maybe I could get over the fear of mine.
So The Guild Conspiracy is about overcoming that failure, with the main character at her worst, a victim of her own hubris, her own naivety. It’s about starting the fight all over again, striking out on an uphill battle despite every last odd being pitted against her. It’s about mistakes and bad choices and trying desperately to make things right, about recognizing when she’s wrong, recognizing her own weaknesses, and trying to do better.
That all came from a place of personal truth, a place of fear and uncertainty in my own career. But like Petra, I was able to face my fears and forge a path ahead, despite not knowing where the journey would take me. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.
Hey! I’m tremendously excited to announce that Midnight Star: Renegade, the mobile first person shooter that I’ve been working on with Industrial Toys, is now out and ready for you to play on iOS devices. It’s the sequel to last year’s Midnight Star game and features many of the same bad guys, kicked up with new gameplay and and a fast-paced setup that lets you get in, blast the crap out of some aliens, and get back out again. It’s the perfect shooter to play out in the world.
Let me quote the press release here:
Renegade is the culmination of decades of shooter development, completely re-imagined from the ground up for mobile. The game features a control system built around native touch, tap and swipe inputs to allow gamers to run, dodge, chase, fly, shoot, blast and destroy like a boss. The game has 150 campaign levels, daily and weekly multiplayer events and enough gear to build 1000s of customized rifles, pistols and grenades.
Renegade is a fast-paced, arena-style shooter combined with a deep RPG. Players build their characters from humble recruits to elite Renegade operatives. Weapon crafting allows players to construct everything from Auto Fire Electro-Shock rifles to dual-wielding Pure-Ice Rocket Pistols. Combined with custom skinning, players make characters that are truly their own. Renegade raises the bar for gameplay and graphics by leveraging the latest mobile GPUs and Unreal Engine 4 to achieve state of the art effects such as HDR lighting, full screen render effects and real-time shadows.
Set 130 years into our future, Renegade sets players on an adventure to unravel the secrets of an alien civilization that disappeared 22,000 years ago. When we discover we are not alone in our search, an epic war erupts for the future of the galaxy.
Yeah, you know you want to play it. There’s already a community built around the game, with challenges and events and people to set yourself against. It’s the most fun you’ll have with your phone.
(Android folks? I’ve played the beta. Don’t worry, we’re on it.)
Naturally I’ve been playing builds of Renegade as it’s been coming along, and while I’m biased — I did help create the world of Midnight Star and Renegade — as a fan of first-person shooters, I kinda love this one. It nails what I love about first person shooters (mainly, cathartically blasting away at evil aliens), while building the controls out intelligently for mobile, and improving on the control scheme from Midnight Star, to give players even more control and mobility. Plus it’s fun to build the perfect weapons to blast the aliens to bits. It’s big fun in an easy-to-take-with-you package.
Try it out. I think you’ll have as much fun with it as I’m having. Maybe more. You’re probably a better shot than I am. Seriously, I need to play more.
Earlier in the year DragonCon announced they would inaugurate the Dragon Awards, a fan-voted award covering science fiction and fantasy literature, games and media. Last night, the list of nominees was sent out to people who had signed up to nominate and vote for the awards (you can see the full list here) and it turns out that The End of All Things is a nominee in the category of Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel.
I have two thoughts on that:
1. Awesome! I’m thrilled to be nominated and happy enough fans liked the book enough to make it a finalist in this, the inaugural year of the award. That’s very cool, and I am, of course, deeply honored.
2. I have emailed the folks at the Dragon Awards via their Web site requesting to decline the nomination, because as I said in November, I’ve decided to withdraw my 2015 work from award consideration, and The End of All Things was originally published in 2015.
As the Dragon Awards are a new award, I don’t know what their policies are for withdrawing a finalist work; it may be that it’s not possible. If that turns out to be the case, this is me saying I hope those of you who vote for the Dragon Award in that category will consider the other eminently worthy finalist works and authors. There’s good stuff to choose from.
I want to stress that this request for withdrawal should not be construed as an intended slight toward the Dragon Awards — I made my policy about my 2015 works before the Dragon Awards even formally existed. In another year, with another work, I’d be happy to be nominated again for this award. I hope the Dragon Awards are successful this year and enjoy a long run highlighting excellent works in the genre.
To all the other people and works on the finalist lists: Congratulations and the best of luck to you! And to fans: If you’d like to vote for the other finalists for the Dragon Awards, in any category, here’s the link to the award’s home page, where you can sign up to vote. Enjoy!
I write funny things professionally, and have done for years. I’ve made a fair amount of money and even won some awards for funny things I’ve written. So as a professional writer of funny things I have thoughts on Donald Trump’s oblique joke yesterday about how great it would be if a gun nut assassinated Hillary Clinton and/or some of the judges she might appoint. As with many examinations of humor, this will not be particularly funny. You have been warned.
1. Of course Trump’s comment was a joke, and as someone who has told more than his share of inappropriate jokes to his later regret, I’m pretty sure I can model Trump’s brain process to getting there. He’s up on stage, he’s pissed off that he’s losing, he’s with a sympathetic crowd that wants him to say something punchy, and he has no goddamn filter at all, because why would he, his brand is “I say what I think” and his brand has gotten him this far. So out of the woodwork of his brain comes the clever observation that well, actually, some jackass with a gun could offer up a lead veto to Clinton and/or her judges, and out it went through his teeth. Trump didn’t give it any more thought than that: pop! into his head, push! out of his mouth. Maybe three tenths of a second from conception to utterance, if that. This is was not a statement he’d been consciously planning months to say.
Was it a joke? Sure. Was it funny? Like most jokes, it depends on whether you’re the audience for it. It didn’t work for me. Should Trump have said it? Immaterial, since it was said.
Should it be excused as “just a joke”?
Well, but, see. Here’s the thing about that: There’s no such thing as “just a joke,” and Trump of all people knows that.
2. The first problem with saying “it’s just a joke” is that people very often use that phrase to mean “I get to say/enjoy a horrible thing without penalty.” Well, as a professional writer of funny things, I feel perfectly within my rights to call bullshit on that. Jokes don’t come out of nowhere. They are the product of a presumably thinking brain just like any other speech, and like any other speech they are susceptible to the same scrutiny and criticism. Just like any other speech the context of the joke is useful, too.
So here’s the context of that joke: Donald Trump is a man who has pursued the presidency through racism and white nationalism and by insinuating criminal activity on the part of his opponents (or their families), who has encouraged foreign agents to subvert the US election process (another “joke”) and who is actively training his base of support — angry and scared white people, many of whom have a nearly-fanatical attachment to their firearms — to consider the election process rigged if it does not produce the result they want. Then, at a political rally, as the GOP candidate for president, while speaking about the 2nd Amendment and arguing how his opponent Hillary Clinton wants to get rid of it — to get rid of his angry white supporter’s firearms! — he drops a little joke about how, well, actually, they could oppose her, nod nod, wink wink.
Trump wasn’t making a private joke with friends in the comfort of his own ridiculously baroque home. He wasn’t writing satire (which is often not funny) or black humor in the pages of, say, the New Yorker. He wasn’t on the stage of a comedy club trying out five minutes of edgy new material in front of a half-drunk midnight crowd who are there to see someone else anyway. He wasn’t putting it in the comments of his liberal friend’s Facebook post about gun control. He wasn’t doing any of those things — although even if he were, he could still be held accountable for his words. Rather, he was, as the GOP candidate for president, at a rally of his supporters, in a race he is currently far behind in, joking about someone killing off Hillary Clinton, or whomever she appoints as a judge. He wasn’t there to make comedy. He was there, quite literally, as a political statement. That’s the context.
3.What, politicians can’t make jokes? Well, speaking professionally, it’s usually better when they don’t. They can’t all be Ann Richards. Every time Hillary Clinton attempts humor my desire to vote for her goes down a tenth of a percent. I don’t want or need my politicians to be funny. I need them to wonk out on unsexy topics like water rights and trade deals, and represent the interests of their constituencies. That’s the gig, not killing it for ten minutes at The Comedy Store.
That said, sure, if politicians can make jokes, why not? Yuk away. But again, jokes aren’t Get Out of Jail Free cards for saying horrible things. And when the jokes are, in fact, saying horrible things, like when the GOP candidate for president pops one off about maybe someone assassinating the Democratic candidate for president because of her alleged position on the 2nd Amendment, it’s all right to haul the joke out into the light and begin the utterly unfunny process of picking it apart to see what’s really going on there.
Why can’t you just let a joke be a joke? Because, to repeat, and as others have noted, it’s never just a joke. Jokes mean things, just like any other kind of speech. In fact, jokes often have greater impact, because jokes aim for the pleasure centers of our brain, not the analytical centers. The information of a joke hits in a place where you have fewer defenses against it, and fewer walls barring it from sinking into your overall worldview. This is why, among other things, you probably laugh at things you know you shouldn’t laugh at. It’s also why you’re probably quicker to excuse the content of a joke — it’s just a joke! — or to minimize the importance of what’s being said within one. How bad can it be if it made me laugh? And also, if the joke is saying something horrible, what does it say about me? You have a vested interest either way in explaining away your reaction.
Trump is not a great politician — indeed, if this election cycle has done anything, it has reminded us that the oft-derided skills of being a great politician are in fact useful and needed — but he is a marvelous bully, and like any gifted bully, he’s aware of how to use humor for its manipulative qualities. This is why he mocks his opponents and gives them silly names, why he says outrageous things, planned or unprompted and then immediately wraps them in the rhetoric of humor, and why all his defenders are instructed and prompted to explain away the jokes. He’s not the problem, you’re the problem if you can’t take a joke. No one wants to be accused of not being able to take a joke.
4. This is where once again I put on my hat as a writer of funny things to tell you the following:
It’s okay not to be able to take a joke.
It’s okay to think a joke is not funny.
It’s okay to focus more on the content of a joke than the delivery.
It’s okay to hold a joke to the same standard as any other speech, and to pay attention to the context in which it is delivered.
It’s okay to be scared of a joke and the joke-teller. Sometimes that’s the right thing to be.
Finally and perhaps most importantly:
Always question the motives of the person who is telling you “it’s just a joke.”
Why? Because, well, why are they saying that? Sometimes it’s because the person is a comedian, trying to convince you they’re funny (pro tip: if you have to convince someone you’re funny, you’re probably not funny to them). Sometimes the person who told the joke realizes they just stepped in it, and is trying to backtrack without making themselves look too much like an asshole. Sometimes the person is gaslighting you, trying to make you doubt yourself, for their own purposes. And sometimes that person is trying to normalize hateful rhetoric — or keep hateful rhetoric normalized — and is trying to make you defensive about seeing it clearly as what it is: hateful.
A person saying “it’s just a joke” isn’t always an asshole. But assholes are almost always happy to say “it’s just a joke” to make it look like the problem here is you. So when someone says “it’s just a joke” to you, that’s your cue for skepticism. Jokes mean things. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t understand the uses of humor, or is hoping that you don’t.
5. You are not automatically a bad person if you laugh at horrible things or find funny a joke whose content, on reflection, is not funny at all. You are a human being, and a skilled communicator — and Trump, for one, is a very skilled communicator — is going to play the changes on you. You might laugh because of the delivery. You might laugh because as a human you like the pleasure of laughing. You might laugh because of the context of the joke, or because it’s subversive, or because the butt of the joke is someone you dislike. You might laugh because the person telling you the joke is someone you admire. You might laugh because it’s expected. You might laugh because not laughing might be noticed. You might laugh because honestly you don’t know what else to do. You might laugh because it’s not safe to do anything else.
Laughing at a horrible joke is not the problem. Excusing that hateful and horrible joke as “just a joke” is the problem. The pleasure of humor don’t mitigate the damage it can do when the hate it offers slips into someone’s worldview, or simply reconfirms the hate they already hold. You’re not automatically a bad person if you laugh along with hate. You’re a bad person if you walk along with it. Humor makes it easy to take that walk. It’s up to you to resist moving your feet. The more you resist, the more you’ll recognize that hate actually isn’t all that funny.
6. Trump made a joke about someone assassinating his political opponent, or the judges she might appoint. Trump’s minions and enablers have been scurrying around trying to spin it, or mitigate it, or accuse people of misunderstanding it and anyway it was just a throwaway line, it was just a joke. But context matters and who is making the joke matters. Trump is a bigot and he’s ignorant and he is a buffoon and he has no filter but he is not stupid. He knows when he puts things out into the air that they are heard and that they are taken seriously. Even the jokes. Especially the jokes.
Trump wished out loud that someone would assassinate Hillary Clinton because inside, the screaming tantrum-throwing infant that Trump is wants her out of the way, and so does the slightly more grown-up version of him whose business model includes cheating contractors and workers out of their contractually-obliged fees and wages, and so does the 70-year-old version who has spent decades getting his way, who wiped the floor with the laughable opposition he had in the GOP primaries and sees no reason why he should do anything different than before, and is possibly confused as to why it’s not working any more, so just try harder. Does Trump actively want Clinton dead? No. But out of the way covers a whole lot of ground. Trump is a bully and he knows how to phrase a wish. So when that wish came howling out of his id up there on stage yesterday, he wrapped it into a joke and sent it on its way.
Trump made the joke because he knows, better than almost anyone, that there is no such thing as “just a joke.” He knows it, and the fact he knows it, and made the joke anyway, should scare the shit out of you.
As should this: When Donald Trump is president, he won’t have to make jokes anymore.
If Jay Kristoff had managed nothing else with this Big Idea piece for his new novel Nevernight, he would have had arguably one of the most grabbing first sentences in the history of the feature. But there’s more to it than the first sentence, promise.
Nevernight started with an argument about vaginas.
More accurately, an argument between two of my lady friends about a particular curse word we use for vaginas. Friend A asserted that the C-bomb was the most offensive curse word in the English language. Friend B’s thesis was that, unless you’re an idiot, vaginas aren’t any more offensive than any other body part, so curse words denoting them shouldn’t be, either.
It was New Year’s Eve. Everyone was quite soused. Friend B won the argument.
. . . Okay, let me back the truck up. Because you might not have even had your morning coffee yet and you probably wandered in here looking for an article on fantasy books, and hey, surprise vaginas.
At this point in the article, I’m supposed to be talking about the big idea behind my new novel, Nevernight. I could talk about the fact that it’s an epic fantasy set in a trinary star system, meaning the world only gets two weeks of night-time every two and half years, and that makes it really hard to construct a narrative starring an anti-hero/rogue archetype, because typically they get up to all their roguery and anti-heroics when it’s dark, and hey, surprise run-on sentence.
I could talk about flipping the switch on the light vs dark trope, and building a world where the folks in white hats aren’t necessarily the good guys. Or I could talk about the big idea behind Nevernight’s setting, which is kinda like Hogwarts, if Hogwarts was a school where, instead of learning magic and the true value of friendship and painfully British stiff-upperlippedness, you learn to murder the shit out of people instead. Writing a school full of neophyte assassins is actually a real pain in the nethers. It’s difficult to keep your characters sympathetic when they’re all training to become the sort of bastards who murder people for money.
But honestly, the big idea in Nevernight is the heroine, Mia. She’s the beating, bleeding heart of the entire book. After the Great 2013 NYE Vajayjay Debate, I went home and wrote a scene about a boy and girl. The boy tried to convince the girl that the C-bomb was the Worst Word Ever, and the girl smoked a cigarette and explained to him why it wasn’t. At the end of that scene, I was fascinated with this girl. I had no idea who she was or what she wanted, and so I built her a world to find out.
It is a world of perpetual sunlight, where Mia’s ability to manipulate darkness isn’t all that useful. It’s a world where Light conquered Dark, a world that illustrates how badly it can turn out when the good guys get what they want. It’s a world of assassins and cats made out of shadowstuff, murder and betrayal and a bit of smut. But ultimately, a fantasy world is just a stage for a story. And this is a story about a girl and her vengeance, and whether the price she pays for the revenge she craves will be worth it in the end.
We have a five acre lawn, and occasionally people from generally drier climes who think upon the lawn ask, aghastedly, how we water the thing — I think they imagine a complex set of sprinklers that suck the water table dry bringing us all that much closer to the water apocalypse. The answer to “how does it get watered” question, however, is “from the sky,” meaning that during those times when rain is not forthcoming, the grass goes dormant until it is. We’re in one of those times at the moment; there’s been rain in the last few weeks, but not a lot of it, so the lawn has gone yellow.
Which is fine. I like having a large lawn, but not so much that I’m going to be a control freak about it. When it doesn’t rain, you get a yellow lawn. It’s water math. This is not unusual for August around here anyway; typically more rain will come in September and October and it will get green again before it gets covered in snow. We’ve been here 15 years, we know the drill by now.
That said, the forecast is for thunderstorms, starting tomorrow and lasting literally all the next week. It might get greener sooner than later. We’ll see.
I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon, although only for a couple of days because of schedules and deadlines. But on those two days (Friday, August 19 and Saturday, August 20) I have a pretty busy schedule. Here’s what I’m doing, and where:
Friday Aug 19, 2016
1:00 PMReading: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center 2203: This reading will mark the debut of material from my 2017 novel The Collapsing Empire, so this will be your chance to hear it first, literally before any other people, ever. I will also be reading from my upcoming collection Miniatures, and depending on time, doing a little Q&A.
3:00 PMModeration and Online Community Management — Kansas City Convention Center – 3501D: This will be me and Guest of Honor Teresa Nielsen Hayden talking with each other about what it takes to keep an online community humming along.
Saturday Aug 20, 2016
1:00 PMSocial Media, or, Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel — Kansas City Convention Center – 2206: In which I and other panelists will talk about the pleasures and perils of social media when you have deadlines. Other panel members are Melissa Olson, Mur Lafferty, Jack Campbell, Jr. and J.R. Johansson.
3:00 PMKaffeeklatsch: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center – 2211: I sit at a table with ten other people and they ask me questions. You have to sign up for this if you want to attend.
5:00 PMAutographing: Sarah Beth Durst, Arnie Fenner, Jerry Pournelle, Cerece Rennie Murphy, John Scalzi, Ferrett Steinmetz, Michelle (Sagara) West — Kansas City Convention Center – Autographing Space: I and these other fine people will be signing books and probably whatever else you want.
The irony of Nick Mamatas’ new novelI Am Providence being released during the week in which the World Fantasy Convention got a spate of criticism over some of its program items is so perfect that I wonder if it wasn’t somehow planned. It’s not, I’m sure (probably). But still. Now, how does the latter event fit with the former? Read on below.
A not-so-dirty, not-so-secret but still rarely discussed fact of publishing is this: if you’re even a little well known, one day a publisher may call you and ask you to write a novel. Not just any novel either, but a novel based on idea they already have kicking around. Sometimes you’ll get a new name, a new face, like a secret agent or a witness to a mob murder. Other times, they want you for you.
Jeremy Lassen wanted me for me, for a book he could bring to Skyhorse Publishing in New York. And that book was a parodic novel about E. T., with the kids now in their forties and forever traumatized by their encounter with Keys and the government bureaucracy. I’m the same exact age as Elliott, and when people in publishing think traumatized losers, for some I reason I often come to mind. Then the pesky attorneys got involved and that project was killed.
Later that week, Jeremy called me again and meekly suggested, “Uh…Zombies 11?” He knew that idea—undead Frank Sinatra planning a posthumous heist—was stupid as it was leaving his mouth.
Then, a month later, another contact and another idea.
“Hey Nick, how about something like Bimbos of the Death Sun?”, referring to Sharyn McCrumb’s humorous cozy murder mystery set at a science fiction convention.
“Fuuu—” I began.
“Meets True Detective!” Jeremy finished.
“….uiiine. That sounds fine!” It was 2014. Discerning, intelligent people still liked True Detective.
The project, originally called Madness of the Death Sun, was a perfect fit for me. It’s practically a stage of human psychological development: hit middle age and write a mystery novel about one’s workplace in which the most loathsome employee has been brutally murdered, and all one’s co-workers are suspects. The author makes himself or herself the sleuth! Novelists work alone, but fandom is pretty much a workplace for pros in the field of fantasy and horror. The True Detective angle of course suggested Lovecraft fandom as a niche within a niche, and who is the most hated person in the Lovecraftian world…?
Ah, it’s me. So our poor victim, Panossian, is me. The me that has Armenian parents, not Greek ones. Who grew up in Massachusetts, not New York. Who wrote one failed novel instead of seven semi-successful ones. The me who never got it together, started a family, or found a real job. The me who isn’t so nice and sweet. Panossian is so changed from me that he wasn’t me at all. Hell, I’d slice his face off too.
Now I needed two other main characters—a murderer, and an amateur detective. I was talking to a Lovecraftian friend of mine while working on the book proposal, and asked her if she would like to be “my” killer, or my vengeful friend the sleuth. She said, “Sleuth, of course! I’m all about Law & Order!” (She meant the TV show, not the sociopolitical-legal system.) So she got a few personality changes and action heroine upgrades—kung fu, green hair, the ability to examine a faceless head on a mortuary slab without vomiting onto it—and was cast. When I was done, she wasn’t herself at all either, but someone new: Colleen Danzig.
All the other attendees of the Summer Tentacular…well, they are made up. Like the disclaimer at the front of novel says, “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious, especially you. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” No more pesky lawyers for me!
In the year since the book, now called I Am Providence, was completed, we’ve experienced a fair share of controversies in fandom: the successful movement, which I supported, to eliminate the bust of Lovecraft as the World Fantasy Award and the creation of a far-right literary award that adopted its own version of a Lovecraft bust; a keynote speech widely regarded as Islamophobic at a major Lovecraftian convention; and the continuing dismissal of women writers working in the Lovecraftian mode and pointedly negative reviews of a women-only Lovecraft anthology. Then there was that horrible second season of True Detective.
Also over this past year, several authors have read I Am Providence in manuscript form and, to a person, they’ve all said the same thing about my tour of the murderous underbelly of organized fandom:
The voting for the 2016 Hugo Awards closed yesterday, and you may ask (and some of you have) — how did I vote? Why, the same as I vote every year: By ranking the works I liked highly, those I did not lowly and employing judicious use of the “No Award” option when necessary. This year, as with last year, the “No Award” option got more of a workout than it might normally, thanks to the inclusion of nonsense on the ballot put there by obnoxious people. But certainly in most categories there was good stuff to celebrate, and I happily celebrated it.
With regard to the obnoxious people incursion this year, it does seem after an initial flurry — and excepting Chuck Tingle’s glorious trolling of said obnoxious folk — things settled down quickly enough and people just did their usual voting thing. Which was nice! Lack of outside drama surrounding the Hugos are what they need at this point.
Aaaaaand that’s all I have to say about it this year. Good luck to most of the nominees, and we’ll see who takes home the rockets in about three weeks in Kansas City.
Most of you will recall that I have a soft spot for the band Journey, whose album Escape I adored insensibly when I was thirteen, and whose general Album Oriented Rock stylings are my musical equivalent to comfort food. I saw the band on the Raised on Radio tour back in high school, but since that time haven’t felt much of a need to see them in concert, in part because Steve Perry, their singer through their “classic” era, is no longer part of the band.
But this year the band offered up something nearly as good: Steve Smith, who was the drummer for the band during most of its classic era (but who was not on the kit for the Raised on Radio tour), was returning to tour with the band after more than 30 years. I’m a drummer (I have still have the trap set I got as a teenager in the basement) and I love Smith’s sound on the Journey albums. To have a chance to see him do his thing with these songs live was too much of a temptation. I got tickets.
And how was watching Steve Smith hit the skins on this tour? Very different than what I expected! Journey’s drum sound is massive, but Smith, who primarily plays jazz when he’s not thumping out rock hits, is not a hugely demonstrative drummer. His movements are precise and deceptively economical considering the amount of noise he makes. I understand of course that wild arm swinging does not necessarily correlate to big sound with drums, and that good miking and sound mixing can make even small drum hits sound as big as the sound guy wants them to be. But it still really was counter to my expectation. When I play a Journey song on drums, my arms are swinging everywhere. But then, I’m maybe 1/100th the drummer Steve Smith is. He is genuinely phenomenal.
The rest of the concert was perfectly good, and utterly unsurprising, which is in itself utterly unsurprising. The rest of the current iteration of the band (keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory, guitarist Neal Schon, and vocalist Arnel Pineda) have pretty much played the same set list, with minor variations, for a decade (and Cain, Valory and Schon, all classic-era members, for an additional decade before that). It’s difficult to imagine they all couldn’t do their standard show in their sleep. The band played the hits — nothing before Infinity, nothing after Raised on Radio — and the only song that could have been called a deep cut was “La Do Da” from Infinity, which mostly served as a scaffold for a Smith drum solo.
And that’s fine! Journey at this point understands its place in the universe as (charitably) the A-list of legacy bands, or (uncharitably) as its own best cover band. It’s here to give the people what they want, which is the track list of Journey’s Greatest Hits, give or take one or two bits. I mean, I would have been fine with more deep cuts, a track or two from Trial By Fire, and even the band’s first single with Arnel Pineda, the perfectly Journey-ish “Never Walk Away.” But if the band did too much of that for too long, they wouldn’t be playing music sheds that seat 20,000 people in their fifth decade of being a band. When you can make 20,000 middle-aged people deliriously happy for 90 minutes, you let me know. I’m not gonna fault them for that, or for knowing what side their bread is buttered on. At this point if you go into a Journey concert expecting anything other than a comforting nostalgia wallow, that’s really on you, not them.
I do have quibbles. One, Neal Schon surely does love his guitar solos, of which there could have been at least three fewer (and the ones that remained, better structured). Two, the sound quality of the concert was meh; Pineda suffered from bad miking at the start (it seemed to improve as it went along) but overall things were a smidge muddy. Three — well, no actually there is no three, just those two. I have no quibbles about Pineda, the sole performer on the stage who was not a member of the band’s classic era. He knows his role — to be the best damn Steve Perry he can be — and after close to a decade, no one holds it against him, if they ever did. I mean, everyone gets it, Perry doesn’t want the gig, so, fine. Here’s Pineda, with a fantastic set of pipes, delivering the goods and looking like he’s having a ball doing it. Good for him. Good for the fans.
Also on the bill: Dave Mason, who seemed pleasantly happy to be the warm-up act, and the Doobie Brothers — with two founding Doobies! — who I enjoyed as much as I expected to, so that’s good.
In all, a perfectly lovely date night for me and the missus with thousands of other people who also graduated high school in the 80s. A+++, would recommend.
As I did last week with the Republican National Convention and Trump, some thoughts today on the Democratic National Convention and Clinton:
1. At the beginning the DNC certainly looked like it had all the fixin’s for an RNC-level shitshow, what with the Dead-End Berners and e-mails and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s career imploding in real time. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the shitshow: it all got managed. Wasserman-Schultz was ridden out of town on the nicest, most face-saving rail that could be found, Bernie Sanders and the majority of his delegates were publicly honored and catered to, and the ones that wouldn’t be mollified were first put in their place (via the good graces of Sarah Silverman) and then on later nights generally counteracted and out-chanted on the floor.
Meanwhile, up on stage, the A-list of Democratic politics and of Celebrityland went out, hit their marks, gave their speeches that ranged from dully competent to oh, wow, and without exception endorsed Hillary Clinton, as they were supposed to. All of which is to say, this convention went off about as well as it possibly could, especially considering the potential for chaos that had unloaded itself earlier in the week.
Remember how last week I asked how Trump could be trusted to manage an entire country if he couldn’t even handle a four-day self-advertisement? To flip it around, the competent running of this particular four-day self-advertisement does not imply the Clinton and the Democrats will also run the country well, but, Jesus, the mere, simple competence of it, even with its concomitant drama, is like a cool glass of water after a hard wander in the desert.
This year a major difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is simply this: They both had their shitshows, but only the Republicans put theirs up on a stage and called it a convention.
2. During President Obama’s speech on the third night, I started seeing tweets and comments from GOP operatives that were, bluntly, a little shell-shocked at how much better and, honestly, more adult Obama and the other DNCs speakers’ speeches were than what transpired at the RNC the week before. The general gist of the tweets was “Waaaaaaah the Democrats are stealing our stuff” — meaning the themes of patriotism, military honor and, yes, “real American-ness” had found their way into the DNC speeches when they should have been at the RNC.
It’s certainly true the Democrats swept up all that iconography, gave it the slightest of twists to the left, and held it up for all to see. But two things here. One, it never was the GOPs to own exclusively in the first place, particularly when the rhetoric of the GOP rarely jibed with the policies of the GOP. The Democrats have as much right to them as the GOP does. Two, well, what the hell did the GOP expect? You left all that iconography just lying around because you’re off nominating a self-interested blowhard who is trying to scare the shit out of enough old white people to get into the White House. What did you think was going to happen? The Democrats were just going to leave it in the yard for you to come back to in 2020? Rumor is, the Democrats would like to win the presidency.
As others elsewhere have noted, the problem with the Democrats using these themes previously is not that they couldn’t use them, but that given the high-volume co-option of the themes by the GOP, it seems like the Democrats were saying, “hey, us too,” which is not a good look. This year, they don’t have to worry about that, and of course that’s no one’s fault but the GOP’s. The other thing about that is that now that these themes are in the Democrats’ hands, the GOP’s attempt to use them later is likely to have that “hey, us too” feel to it, which will not be a good look for them, either.
3. In my lifetime, there have been contentious conventions on both sides of the US political aisles, blockbuster speeches and speeches that have left craters of careers, lots of drama and excitement (and lots of oh lord why are we even running this in prime time it’s sooooo boring). But I don’t think there’s ever been a convention season where the contrast between candidates and parties has been so sharp. Right now, the Democrats are the party of the grown-ups: They have detailed policies and a plan and a system in place and a presidential candidate who has the resume and experience for gig. The GOP has a candidate who retweets white supremacists and “jokes” about asking the Russians to hack his opponent, and whose policy stances are “Trust me, it’ll be great,” and “You’re all doomed without me.”
This should not be a close contest. That it is a close contest (right now) is a testament first to the twenty-five years that the GOP and conservatives have spent demonizing Hillary Clinton, and second to the effectiveness of the GOP and conservatives in creating an epistemic bubble inside which millions of (largely white, largely older, largely less educated) people live, trained to be suspicious of facts, trained to see political opponents as traitors, trained to be afraid first and anything else after that.
And yes! When you say those things in sequence out loud, it sounds ridiculous! But yet here we are in 2016 with Donald Trump, ignorant, hateful, horribly afraid Donald Trump, as the Republican candidate for president. He didn’t appear out of nowhere. The way was prepared for him over decades, by people who couldn’t see that they’d laid the way for an incipient demagogue who would have no loyalty to them or their political goals, such as they were. They didn’t see that the person who would be tasked to stand in his way is the person they’d spent a quarter century convincing those in bubble land is one of the gravest threats to America that had ever put on a sensible pantsuit ensemble.
Again, someone elsewhere said it first, and I’m just repeating it because it’s true: This year is not about Democrat versus Republican, or conservative versus liberal, it’s about normal versus highly fucking abnormal. The conventions were just the easiest compare-and-contrast manifestation of that schism. You may not like the Democrats, but they’re coloring inside the lines. The GOP isn’t coloring inside the lines; they’re not even coloring inside the book or using crayons. What they’re doing is splashing pig’s blood on a wall and scrawling ALL HAIL THE ANGRY CHEETO with the gore. This is where we are in 2016, and it does us no good to pretend otherwise.
So yeah, all you GOP operatives moping about how much better the Democratic convention was than yours: This is on you and your party. You built this over the course of a quarter century. And if you have anything left in your brain other than a Pavlovian revulsion response to Hillary Clinton, you know what you should be doing between now and November.
4. Certainly Hillary Clinton didn’t waste any time trying to pull in the folks who have not gone entirely around the bend; her speech, which started slow but picked up steam, was an open invitation to anyone horrified by the concept of Trump to get on the Clinton bandwagon. This year the Democrats are dragging their nets wide, as they should; here’s a chance for them to flip the “Reagan Democrats” script that was played out three and a half decades ago, and bring in the right-leaning folks who are sensibly concerned about the current state of things. This is your campaign, she said, over and again, to the people who in a year not written by a speed-addled hack novelist would be voting for a Republican. She’s not wrong.
(This is, incidentally, why at this point she can blow off any remaining Dead-End Berners. She’s made her obeisance to her left flank and put their goals into the platform, and now she’s moving to haul in the many more millions in the middle. If the few remaining DEBs can’t get with the program, fuck ’em. Let ’em vote Jill Stein, then.)
Clinton is not and is never likely to be the orator either her husband or President Obama are. Her cadence in the first several minutes of her speech was a cross between Christopher Walken and a junior high assistant principal droning through the morning announcements. But she picked up when she got to the meat of the speech which consisted of a) lots of policy wonkiness, and b) punching Trump square in the nose. Her speech included a lot of applause lines that shouldn’t have had to be in there; as much as I loved her saying “AND, I believe in science!” it’s goddamn 2016. The idea that a candidate for the President of the United States has to use that line to differentiate herself from an opponent who even in the worst case scenario will garner tens of millions of votes is a tragedy for everyone involved.
The speech, and Clinton, did what needed to be done: Show Clinton as a reasonable human being with reasonable goals and a reasonable plan to implement them, and stand as a contrast to the ambulatory tire fire that is Donald Trump. Both of these are relatively low bars, so it’s not at all surprising she cleared them, and probably with some margin. We’ll see what happens in terms of polls from here. My suspicion is that Clinton gets some air between her and Trump, no doubt aided by Trump’s Russian adventures in the last week.
Clinton particularly got Trump’s number when she said that a man who can be taunted by a tweet shouldn’t be given nuclear launch codes. Trump’s response — of course — has been to embark on a furiously pissy tweetstorm, which makes her point. She did a pretty good job of messing with his toys.
5. There are three months between now and Election Day, and anything can happen, but I’ll go ahead and make a prediction now, which is essentially the same prediction I’ve been making all along, which is: Hillary Clinton is going to win this election, and in the end I don’t suspect that electorally speaking it’s going to be all that close. Trump is betting on older, less-educated white people and the built-up hatred of Clinton to get him in. That leaves Clinton literally everyone else in the country. With literally everyone else in the country, Trump’s trend lines don’t look all that great. I think literally everyone else in the country is going to be motivated to vote against him. I think he’s going to lose.
What I want to know is what happens then. I mean, I know what I think is going to happen with the GOP — confronted yet again with demographics and the general horribleness of their current philosophy of obstructing for political purity, they will of course double down once more on whiteness and truculence. It’s what it’s trained its base to demand, and inasmuch as it will (probably) keep the House after November, there’s another couple of years to ride this out at least.
But I genuinely want to know what the plan is from there. Trump is a racist and bigot and he is the GOP’s candidate for president because GOP primary voters put him there. The party’s not dog-whistling anymore. The party can’t pretend it stands for all Americans with him as its standard bearer. The GOP can’t hide any longer that it is, flatly, a white nationalist party. Whatever else it stands for, that’s front and center. Trump put that there, and the GOP primary voters put him there.
How does the GOP come back from that? After election day they can all look at each other and agree to never speak of 2016 again, but here’s the thing: There’s still literally everyone else in the county. They are not going to forget 2016, or that Trump was the GOP standard-bearer, or that the GOP went along with him. They are going to remember. They are going to remember for decades.
The Democrats have their own issues — the Dead-End Berners are a sideshow but a hard left is there and real and it’ll be interesting to see how the Democrats handle them, especially if this election gifts them a wide swath of center and center-right voters — but they pale in comparison to the GOP’s issues right now. And the thing is, again, it’ll just be easier for the GOPs not to deal with them and to, again, double down on whiteness and obstructionism. I think it’s going to kill them over time. The last one in the GOP room won’t have to turn out the light; the power will have been cut long before.
(Of course, Trump could win, in which case the GOP’s short-term problems are solved, at the expense of literally everything else that will be affected by boosting an ignorant racist nihilist into the White House. I don’t see this being a great option either, certainly not for the rest of us, nor in the long run for the GOP.)
6. I think Clinton will win the presidency, and I think her speech last night went a long way to helping with that. She made the argument that she was worthy of the job, not simply that she was last anchor post before the abyss. Likewise the DNC, especially contrasted with the RNC, showed who are the competent folks in this election cycle. Both mattered, and I think both will help seal with deal with a number of possibly reluctant voters. This was a good convention for Hillary Clinton, and for Democrats.
With that said, don’t forget that Hillary Clinton really is the last anchor post before the abyss. I said it months ago and I will say it again now: No one should be voting for Donald Trump for president. If you are historically a Republican voter, consider your other options. Clinton is there, but if that’s a bridge too far, there’s Gary Johnson, who, I say again, has an actual platform and policies that are probably closer in line with what your values are than Trump.
Likewise, no one should be complacent about this election. Register to vote. If your state is making it difficult for you to vote, know now so that well ahead of election day you can jump through all the stupid, intentionally-placed hoops preventing you from registering. Know what you need in terms of IDs, etc to vote (yes, it sucks. Do it anyway). Bother everyone you know who is eligible to vote to do the same. Do it today. Hell, do it now.
Then, when the time comes, vote. This one is different. This one you shouldn’t sit through. This one really, truly, matters.