Sunset, 5/24/20

Some good drama in this one.

Have an excellent rest of your Sunday, folks.

About That Deal, Five Years On

Today is a red-letter day in my personal history, because five years ago (and also on a Sunday, calendars are weird), the New York Times announced that I had signed a 13-book deal with Tor books for $3.4 million, a deal notable for its length (we expected it to run for roughly a decade) and for the amount of money being splashed out. In the wake of the announcement was a week of congratulations for me (which I appreciated) and a whole lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about whether this deal was actually a good deal for me, or for Tor (which I found mostly amusing). We’re now halfway through the expected decade of the deal, so I figure now is as good a time as any to offer some thoughts on it and how it’s been for me, living with it in the real world.

First, how has the deal been working out? Well, so far, four books covered by the contract have been released: The Collapsing Empire, Head On, The Consuming Fire and this year’s book, The Last Emperox. Of the four, three were New York Times bestsellers and the one that wasn’t was nominated for the Hugo and won the Locus Award (there was an additional bestseller in there too: The Dispatcher, which showed up on the NYT’s inaugural Audio Fiction best seller list). In terms of the Interdependency series, the sales and bestseller rankings grew from the first of the books to the last. All the published books in the deal have been optioned for film/TV, and some of the currently unpublished ones have been, too. All the published books have sold in multiple languages.

This isn’t (just) luck. The deal was designed, in large part, to allow Tor and me the luxury of time to strategically build on the sales and the following I already had. One of the things I said to Tor when we were negotiating the deal is that I was perfectly happy to be known and to be labeled as a science fiction writer — I didn’t want to suddenly go “mainstream,” but I would be happy to be science fiction’s ambassador to the mainstream. Since the deal, that’s been the general thrust of our efforts; I write unapologetically science fictional books that non-genre readers might find approachable, and Tor’s magnificent marketing and PR people pitch me to the usual suspects in terms of press and readership — and then beyond that, too.

So yes, the deal has absolutely been working out so far. I have been the beneficiary of intentionality, and the agreement of the two primary parties to work strategically toward a goal, that goal being selling loads and loads of books to as many people as possible. To my credit, I’m writing accessible books that people (mostly) seem to like, and to Tor’s credit, they’ve been very active and creative in marketing and selling the books, and me. I can’t overstate the importance of the latter, and I saw it in action in the last few months, when my physical book tour had to be scrapped and Tor’s PR/Marketing folks built an online tour for me in a matter of days. I am in awe of and grateful for Tor’s publicity machine (and particularly Alexis Saarela, my direct PR person), and in return I try to hold up my end of the deal, not just in what and how I write, but in helping them promote me, and in supporting Tor and the other writers they have and promote. This is how the deal is supposed to work, and how things get done.

I’ve been asked if having a contract with so many books on it exposes me to pressure, as in Oh Jesus, I just finished another book and yet I still have nine more books that I have to write please release me from my prison of words. The short answer to this is, lol, no. I get to write for a decade (at least!) and don’t have to worry about whether what I’m writing will sell and if I’ll get paid for it. There are very few writers who would turn down that deal.

The slightly longer answer is: Hello, have you looked at the global economy at the moment, it’s in a shambles and it’s absolutely the freelancers and gig economy workers of the world — including the writers — who are going to take it on the chin. It might be years before things hit a new equilibrium. Many if not most of the writers I know are incredibly apprehensive about what this means for their ability to support themselves and their families through writing. And then here’s me, who all he has to do is — write. If I write, I get paid. Someone is contractually obliged to pay me a specified amount for every single book they’ve already agreed that they will take from me when I finish writing it. I have many problems with the state of the world today — oh boy, let me tell you about that — but getting paid isn’t one of them. That is an actual gift.

(Well, no, not an actual gift, since I still have to, you know, write the books in order to get paid. But I think you know what I mean.)

When I first talked about the deal five years ago, one of the things that I noted was that it gave me stability — rare for a writer in any era, and it feels even more rare in this one. Stability, as it turns out, is a huge boost to my productivity. This should not be a surprise — strange how when you don’t have to devote brain cycles to how you’re going to afford eating or keeping a roof over your head, you might have more cycles to commit to creativity — but when talking about a large, long contract, I think people tend to see the obligation it requires rather than the constancy it affords. For me, I don’t really see the obligation, because, you know, as a commercially-oriented author whose only job is writing, I’m obliged anyway. If I didn’t have this bigass contract, I would still have to write a book a year, more or less, plus a bunch of other things, or else I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills. That obligation was already baked in to how I live my professional life.

What the contract did, again, was alleviate the anxiety of whether what I wrote would sell, or whether I would get paid for it (or more accurately, if I would get paid what I thought was reasonable). Now, being the lucky dick that I am, I will cheerfully note that selling work was never really a problem for me prior to the contract; my modus operandi was to say to Tor, “Hey, here’s a book, want it?” and they would say “Thank you, yes, that would be lovely.” But on the other hand, there is a three-year gap in my novel publishing schedule between 2008 and 2011, and it’s there for business reasons, not because I didn’t want to write novels in there. Yes, it’s weirdly coincident to the last major global economic downturn. Strange, that. Lesson: There are no guarantees in this business, even if you’re already a best selling award magnet. Unless you get that guarantee in the form of a contract.

That stability has business applications aside from money. For example, Tor has, for print and eBook, my entire back list of novels — fourteen so far, and (obviously) more to come. Having them all with the same house means we plan and strategize on how to use the back list to our advantage. So, for example, this April we did a one-day giveaway of The Collapsing Empire and a one-day $2.99 eBook sale of The Consuming Fire, directly ahead of the release of The Last Emperox. Tor can also do things like make the entire backlist readily available to bookstores when a new release comes out, so people who like the newest book have no problem finding older work, to the benefit of us and to bookstores. Book sales aren’t just about new books and bestseller lists — Old Man’s War is still my biggest seller, and it’s never been near a NYT list — and having stability and continuity in who is distributing the Scalzi library is a huge competitive advantage not every author gets to have.

Mind you, when the deal came out, there were a number of commentators who suggested that I had traded stability for the opportunity to make real money, since, depending on how one decided to slice it, an average of $261,000 per book or $340,000 per year, guaranteed, wasn’t all that much money; it wasn’t, really, what a bestselling, award-winning author should be making, now, was it?

(This is where actual authors, and actual bestselling authors, throw their heads back and laugh outrageously loudly, by the way.)

But these commentators are not entirely wrong. I mean, they’re wrong about $261k not being “real” money for a book, honestly, that’s just a ridiculous assertion in a world where the average advance for a science fiction novel from a “Big Five” publisher is something like $12.5k. But they’re not wrong that stability was as important to me as the price tag on the deal. And this was for a couple of reasons.

The first is: Look, unless you’re buying yachts and helicopters and trophy spouses and cocaine, or live in San Francisco, there comes a certain financial threshold where all your life needs and wants are taken care of and more money just becomes more money and not much more. What that number is for you depends on several factors, including where you live (see: San Francisco above), what your debts and owes are, how important being flashy with your money is, whether it’s really critical to you that your kids go to an Ivy-level school rather than Eastern Michigan University (or your state’s equivalent), where you vacation and (hopefully) how much you save for the day when you’re not making money anymore.

Turns out, for me, that number is somewhere around $200,000. At $200,000 all my bills and debts are paid, I’m able to invest and save and pay for my kid’s college, I get to buy whatever thing it is I want to buy (usually tech stuff and musical instruments), I can donate to charities and most of all I can just stop worrying about whether I can afford to live. More money after that? Great! Love it! I’m a capitalist! Into savings and investments it goes. But for me, the quality of my day-to-day life is not manifestly changed above $200k — a sum which in itself, incidentally, would still put me in the top ten percent of income earners in the United States.

What that realization means for me is that after a certain point, I had the luxury of looking at a book deal not just in terms of what the money was, but what else I was getting from it and what that would mean in the long term, financially and otherwise. It might not surprise you to know that before Tor made their offer, I was actively being scouted by other science fiction imprints, and had more than one lunch with editors and publishers where we talked about how I would fit into their house and plans. I think it’s not unreasonable for me to suggest that I could have gotten something like a seven-figure, three-book deal from another Big Five publisher, where the average advance per book would have been significantly higher than what I got from Tor.

But here’s the other reason stability was as important as the money: Because the tradeoffs matter. Is it better, for example, to go for a book deal that offers more money up front but has a shorter term, and represents a concrete break with your publishing past (this is the back list thing again), requires you to get used to a new publisher, editor, PR/Marketing team and so on, with the knowledge that if those three books underperform, for whatever metrics “underperform” represents, you’re out on the pavement again and everyone knows why? Or is it better to get possibly less per book up front than you might get elsewhere (but still more than enough, I mean, Jesus), work with people you know, like, and respect professionally, know — because it’s in the contract — that your books will be a priority on release, and if one or two (or more!) underperform, you have time and resources to adjust and compensate? For a decade, at least?

There is no wrong answer to this, incidentally — the answer is entirely about one’s own tolerance for risk and/or desire for the ability to do long-term planning and strategy. By this point, I think, my own answer is obvious.

And part of that, and because I’m not entirely immune to the charms of money, even when I have enough, is because here’s a thing I know: Money makes more money, and calls attention to itself — which is to say that the longer you’re making significant amounts of money, the easier it is to make significant amounts of money, and to be visible to the people who will give you money. When commentators looked at the deal as $261k per book or at the $340k per year figure, they were only seeing the money in a blunt and not very useful breakdown that was only about the money in the contract. What they didn’t see was what the attention a $3.4 million, decade-long, 13-book deal, could get me.

Which was, in this case: a separate deal for the audiobook rights, mirroring the Tor deal in length, with the result being that each book release is a priority for a second publisher (Audible, who is a delight to work with), meaning more publicity and marketing, also from exceptionally smart folks. More long-term deals from foreign publishers with more money attached. Increased interest from Hollywood, with option deals following. Paid speaking gigs and other business opportunities. Write ups and profiles and analysis in mainstream media, not just genre and trade publications. A raised profile that Tor and my other publishers can work with and use to increase interest in my work and grow sales, which makes the next round of publicity and marketing easier, raising my profile further — something we can do over and over and over, not just two or three times. And — this is important — increased interest in my back list, which generates sales and royalties between new releases.

Money makes money, or can, anyway. With this deal, at least, that has absolutely been the case. Krissy does not like for me to talk specific sums and I think she has a reasonable basis for this. I can say, without being overly specific, that with respect to the contract and all the knock-on deals and benefits that accrued because of it, and after (absolutely earned) agency and lawyer fees, we left that $3.4 million figure in the dust a while back. With luck, we’ll close out the contract having made a respectable multiple of that amount (Ifif I don’t mess up and write something unreadable, if the economy doesn’t crash so hard that people just stop reading, or at least, paying for books, if I don’t die of coronavirus or marauding bears, if I don’t become such a complete jerk that people can’t bear the sight of my name on a book, if a meteor doesn’t dinosaur us all, if, if, if). Please note that if I’ve already cleared that sum, my partners, Tor most of all, are doing pretty well with the arrangement too. Sometimes things work like they should.

So yes, I paid for stability. I’m happy to say it’s paying me back.

Perhaps the best thing I could say about this contract five years in is that if I had to do it over again, I can’t think of much that I would do differently. It created for me the ability to write the books I want to write, and apparently the books that people want to read. All while knowing that I have partners I can trust to sell the work, and me, to the world, over and over again. Again, this is a gift that not every writer gets to have. I’m immensely grateful for it, and I look forward to writing more books under this contract. Nine more, in fact. I can’t wait.

New Books and ARCs, 5/22/20

As we begin the Memorial Day weekend, here’s a stack of the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Anything here that speaks to you as we head into the long weekend? Share in the comments!

The Big Idea: Nancy Kress

In today’s Big Idea, Hugo and Nebula Award winner Nancy Kress takes a look at controversy, science, and change — Sea Change, as a matter of fact.

NANCY KRESS: 

At parties in my city—environmentally conscious, crunchy-granola, high-tech and socially activist Seattle—it is easy to start a flaming argument. Just walk up to a group, tilt your head, and say inquiringly, “What do you think of GMOs?” Then stand back to avoid being scorched.

Genetically modified organisms have passionate denouncers and equally passionate supporters. This is especially true for GMO crops, since the genemod bacteria and animals are usually hidden away in labs, ranches, or manufacturing facilities. But there is GMO food right out front on your table, plated in front of your kids. Everybody has an opinion.

Including me.

But I didn’t want my new novella from Tachyon, Sea Change, to be a polemic for one side of the controversy. I wanted to explore in a balanced way both sides of the myriad questions involved.  In this corner of the boxing ring: GMOs aren’t natural! We don’t know what they do to the human body long-term! GMO crops will contaminate wild flora and/or kill animals, possibly including us!  There are studies! Look at the science!

And in the opposite corner: Neither is most of medical science “natural” to the human body, from Tylenol to heart transplants! There are decades of research already! Not one person has ever died from a GMO! If we don’t engineer crops, climate change and a growing world population will starve billions of people! Those studies have been invalidated! Look at the science!

The pugilistic metaphor is a deliberate choice. It isn’t only in Seattle that “GMO” is a fighting word, and with reason. There is a lot at stake: money, scientific reputations, food security, perhaps the future of the planet. The politics of genetic engineering, of agribusiness, of food regulation are all more complicated than they first appear. Both sides have waged wars of disinformation. Sometimes the war of words has spilled over into actual violence, with test farms attacked and crops destroyed, or Monsanto employees bodily threatened.

I am not a scientist. I think I would make a very bad scientist: not detail-oriented enough, or patient enough, or logical enough. Science fascinates me (forget rock stars and movie actors—I’ve always been a science groupie, sometimes embarrassingly so). But what I find really compelling are people. Why does a given person believe, act, love as they do? This is fortunate, because a writer cannot make a story solely out of controversial arguments. The science needs to happen to characters.

Sea Change happens to Renata Black. As I age, my protagonists get older (eventually I expect to be writing about octogenarians), partly because I get tired of brash, young, badass heroines. So Renata is a middle-aged woman in a near-future Seattle. Her life is not going as expected. She is a mother, a wife in a difficult marriage, an activist in a secret organization. An idealist, but one who recognizes that realizing ideals happens slowly, with effort, imperfectly, and sometimes at great personal cost.

Sea Change also happens to Jake, Renata’s actor husband. To their chess-loving son, Ian. To thirteen-year-old Lisa, a member of the Quinalt Nation. To Kyle, an ex-NFL wide receiver turned teen counselor, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold together a revolutionary cell of talented, utopian-minded misfits.

Finally, the novella is about other things as well as GMOs. Ocean blobs. Legal jurisdiction fights. Love and loss (if I hadn’t thought of it too late, I would have called my story Sea Change: A Love Story). The Quinalt Peninsula northwest of Seattle, which contains the world’s only temperate rainforest: wild, coastal, and beautiful.

A section of the Peninsula belongs to a Native American tribe, the Quinalt Nation, and so they, too, are part of my story.  For this, I had the help of a Native American sensitivity reader. The Quinalt, who have occupied their land for 1,000 years, depend heavily on salmon fishing, which is threatened by modern agricultural run-off, in addition to the host of other threats the outside world poses to Native American cultures.

Sea Change spans twenty-eight years. It begins in 2005, the year that Switzerland banned genetically modified foods and the United States added sugar beets to the GMO foods available to consumers, which already included summer squash, soybeans, papayas, and tomatoes. Renata is in college. When the novella ends, she and the world are both very different. But the battles over science go on.

And, as I read the news each day, it seems that they always will.

—-

Sea Change: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site.

Ohio’s Opening Up But I’m (Still) Staying In

So, Ohio is on its way to opening up entirely — restaurants can open their inside dining areas today, and by June first places like banquet halls and bowling alleys can be back in business. This is all presuming social distancing, etc, inside those halls and alleys. A lot of people around here are thrilled, and I can’t say I blame them; it’s difficult to be away from the world for two months, even in the best-case scenario where your job and well-being are miniminally impacted by these events. A lot of people are ready to go back into the world, or at least the bit of it encompassed by Ohio.

I’m probably not going to be one of them. And, briefly, here’s why:

1. Because the virus wasn’t (and isn’t) actually contained.

2. Because lots of people think the virus was contained, when it wasn’t (and isn’t).

3. As a result, they’re not really paying attention to things like masks or social distancing.

4. Or they think that things like masks/social distancing make you look weak and/or like a Democrat.

5. And I live in a county that went 78% for Trump in 2016, so you do the math here.

Sooooo, yeeeeeah. My plan is to stay home for most of June and let other people run around and see how that works out for them. The best-case scenario is that I’m being overly paranoid for an extra month, in which case we can all laugh about it afterward. The worst case scenario, of course, is death and pain and a lot of people confused about why ventilator tubes are stuck down their throats, or the throats of their loved ones, when they were assured this was all a liberal hoax, and then all of us back in our houses until September. Once again, I would be delighted to be proved overly paranoid.

I do plan to leave my house. I have a dentist appointment in June, and it’s likely at some point or another I will go to the grocery store, or the post office, or run some errands. When I do, I’ll wear a mask (well, probably not in the actual dentist chair, but right up until then) and I’ll keep my distance from most folks. You know, like I have done for the last few months anyway. Mind you, even if I stay at home there’s a chance I’ll still get exposed, because people are becoming more mobile in general, so there are more potential vectors for infection, etc. So I’m not under the illusion that I’m safe. Just safer.

(I could go on about all the political/social dimwittery that caused us as a nation to waste the time all of us were inside, and how we could have been in a better place vis-a-vis this virus if we had better leaders, but, honestly, you already know where I would go with all that, and I don’t want to bother right now. I’m angry about it, but mostly at the moment I’m just exasperated. And tired. Possibly mildly depressed. Meh.)

I am of course immensely privileged to have the resources to stay at my (objectively nice and comfortable) home, a job that allows me to work from that home, and a temperament that mostly doesn’t consider staying at home a hardship. As far as dystopias go, mine is quite cozy and it won’t be exactly onerous to hunker down for another month (or two! Possibly three!). I feel sorry for the people who would like to able to do what I can, but cannot, for various financial and personal reasons. And again, I have sympathy for the people who are all, the hell with this, I’ll risk getting sick, just let me out of my fucking apartment. I get where you’re coming from. You probably don’t actually know what you’re asking for. I hope that you never have to learn.

In any event: Hi, I’m still staying home. Probably. Mostly.

Today in “The Hell With It, I’m Gonna Treat Myself” News

I got myself some stupidly expensive caramels. Why? Because I wanted them, and this is week (mumble mumble) of quarantine, and fuck it, I’m getting myself some stupidly expensive caramels to see if they’ll break up the slog.

Did they? Yup! I’m not going to buy stupidly expensive caramels on a regular basis, but as a momentary mood-lifter, they did the job just fine. Also, I think two of these caramels a day is a hard limit; I could feel the fat in them attaching itself directly to my aorta. Worth it! But, moderation. It’s a thing.

Have you splurged on anything recently? Tell me in the comments.

The Big Idea: Jennifer Brody

People have dreams — and then they have the dreams that come after that first set of dreams came true. For Jennifer Brody, who created Spectre Deep 6 with Jules Rivera, her new graphic novel is about the latter.

JENNIFER BRODY:

I always wanted to work in Hollywood. Growing up in a small town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, movies were my escape. Well, movies and books and TV. Anything that allowed me to travel to different places and worlds and see how other people lived, even if they were fictional characters. My imagination always ran big and wild, especially because I spent a lot of time bored in school. But Hollywood seemed so exotic and far away—so impossible. An acceptance to Harvard got me out of Virginia, and an internship landed me at Disney.

Disney. Pinch me.

Upon graduating, I knew that I was moving to LA one-way without much money or even a job lined up. It was like that back then. You packed up your car and hit the road. You had to have blind faith. You chased after your dream. You lived on ramen. You had a roommate. You got paid $500 bucks a week. You ran errands and answered phones and started at the bottom. My first job was at Michael Bay’s new company Platinum Dunes. The first film we made was a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We were the first to do the remake thing. Everyone thought we were crazy. My parents wondered if my tuition money had gone to waste.

The film was a hit, earning over $80 million at the domestic box office. Within a year of moving West, I landed my dream job working for the executive producer of The Lord of the Rings. Did I mention that I’m a giant nerd? I’d read Tolkien’s classics cover to cover numerous times. A run of book-to-film properties followed on our slate, including The Golden Compass, Love in the Time of Cholera, and Inkheart. Working in Hollywood was a dream come true, albeit a complicated one with its share of workplace toxicity (which has now become quite public).

Despite loving my job, I had an itch that started to grow stronger. It needed scratching. After working on so many wonderful authors’ books and helping bring their worlds to life on the big screen, I found myself wanting to write my own big sci-fi trilogy. It took years and tons of work, but eventually I found the courage to do so. The result was my debut novel The 13th Continuum, the first in what would become the Continuum Trilogy. You never forget certain the things. The first time you hold a galley of your first book in your hands—your words printed on real paper. The first time you read in public. For actual people. The first time you sign a book for a fan.

I love writing and building worlds more than anything. But something was still missing. One of the things I most enjoyed about my old job was working with a team to make a film, especially the director. In cinema, the director is the one who really brings the story to life in a visual medium. I’ve always been driven by collaboration. I love how different creative talents can come together to make something better than the sum of its individual parts. Even just working with a great book editor elevates your work. I was already starting to put my books and stories together for film and TV, but that is a process that takes years and years.

I wanted something that would combine both my love of books and my love of visuals—and that’s when it hit me. I needed to write graphic novels. The medium of comics had exploded since I was a kid fueled by the Marvel and DC Comics media empires, and expanded to include more experimental and diverse storytelling. I realized that I could work with an artist to bring my vision to life, and I didn’t need millions of dollars to shoot the film or TV show (that could come later, right?). This was the perfect middle ground between books and cinema.

I had stories aplenty—I needed an artist. But they don’t just fall out of the sky, or do they?

One fine Saturday, I moderated a panel at AnaCon and a plucky, fiery artist named Jules Rivera. caught my attention. She had green hair (we both had fun hair). She wrote a sci-fi indie comic called Valkyrie Squadron and a feisty web comic called Love Joolz. She had a background in engineering. I hit her up soon after over a sci-fi short story I’d written and published called 200, and then another crazy idea followed about soldiers that died in the line of duty, only to be reanimated by military scientists and brought back as ghosts—actual spectres—to continue to carry out missions for our government in exchange for day passes to haunt their old lives and fix their unfinished business. Spectre Deep 6  was born on an afternoon brainstorming in a hotel lobby in downtown LA (though it could more aptly be named The Secret Lives of Ghosts).

The comics industry can be tough to break into, especially for women. I cautioned her. I thought we’d be lucky to sell one of our proposals. But then my amazing publisher stepped up and offered us a six book deal. Yup, you read that right. Six books! Both series would be built into trilogies. Working in graphic novel proved to be a beautiful middle place between writing prose novels (and trust me, I’m still doing those—my new series Disney Chills publishes in July) and making films. As the artist, Jules takes my words and punches them up and translates them into visuals. It reminds me of working with a director, one who gets your vision.

Jules makes my work better. We work closely together on every aspect of the scripting, character and world designs, visuals, and more. These books—Spectre Deep 6 and 200—are better for our shared imaginations and a touch of insanity. That’s how it should be for any creative work, right? I also know that Jules will be my partner in crime for many more projects.

—-

Spectre Deep 6: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop|Turner Bookstore

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Reader Request Week 2020 #10: Short Bits

To wrap up this year’s Reader Request Week, quick answers to questions I didn’t otherwise get to:

Stephanie Brown:

I’m sensing we’re at a major global change point: the virus, global warming, immigration, Trump & lots of major governing problems in the world—all coming to a head in the next decade or two.

Does this feel to you like a turning point for the world?

I mean, if it’s coming to a head in the next decade or two, it’s not really a turning point, is it? It’s more like a long slow curve at best. Also in a larger sense there is always something that feels like a turning point, but perhaps isn’t. Obama being elected as president felt like a turning point, and perhaps it was, just not in the way people expected or hoped. This is a way of saying that history is always happening and the world is always turning.

Kate M:

After losing my cat to old age a year ago, I’m looking for a new cat to share this crazy thing called life. It’s been years (over 20) since I’ve had a kitten around. I’ve also only had one cat at a time. Since you have adopted a number of cats of various ages, what do you think about one cat/kitten vs two? Some people have suggested I get two so they entertain each other. Does it really work out that way? What about adopting an older cat vs a kitten? Any thoughts/advice/anecdotes, amusing or otherwise, would be appreciated.

As a person with multiple cats, I can say that yes, indeed, they do end up entertaining each other, during the times that they are not assiduously and conspicuously ignoring each other. Kittens will have more energy and will (adorably) tear up a place if you’re not paying attention; an older cat is usually less about that, so it’s about what you want in a cat. We’ve had kittens and we’ve had older cats who just wandered into our yard and decided we’d do and moved in. They were all good.

Tom White:

John, what are your views on the two party system that controls US politics? Do you think we will ever get rid of it and (if so) what would that take?

The system wasn’t designed with two parties in mind but it makes it easy for two parties to predominate; if you want to change that you’d probably have to amend the US Constitution to do that. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

Beej:

Your dedicated fans know that you don’t drink alcohol (and haven’t ever). I’m going to assume that you also have never done recreational drugs. With pot becoming legal in more states and certainly more socially acceptable everywhere, what is your attitude towards it and other recreational drugs? I wonder especially about your feelings regarding Athena and the chance that she’ll try things.

I don’t take any drugs recreationally, no. I’m not a fan of pot but I’m not overly concerned about other people using it. It’s not my place to outline Athena’s use of any recreational drug (including alcohol) but I can note her stance is generally close to mine. She’s an adult now in any event, so her decisions are her own, along with the consequences of those decisions.

Ryan True:

If you were transported into the past, when and where would you want to end up?

Generally I’m not inclined to go to the past, because the past doesn’t tend to have very good medical care or human rights overall. I’d probably stick to the last hundred years and overall would probably likely hang around, like, Canada.

Thomas Beck:

What do you think about the confirmation from the US Navy, that the videos shot from the jets during the Nimitz UAP contacts are genuine? Does it have any influence to you as an SF author?

I’d remind people that “UFO” doesn’t inherently mean “aliens,” and it seems unlikely those UFOs are from some planet other than this one. It’s unlikely to be something I consider as a science fiction writer until and unless something more concrete happens or is learned about it. I realize this is a very boring answer.

Joe Arsenault:

I’d like to hear your thoughts about the feasibility/desirability of Earth humans trying to save the species by colonizing Mars. Maybe compare and contrast with spending that effort/time/money to repair and replenish our current home planet. Thanks!

If we’re colonizing Mars to save the human species, it’s doomed. If you want to save the species, work on this planet. It’s that simple.

Rick:

You’re attracting less attention lately from members of the Internet Hate Machine. Do you think they just got bored with you, or did you frighten them off?

Who knows? Who cares? Maybe they did get bored! Good for them. As noted previously, none of it ever did me or my career harm that I can think of, so it’s just as well they found a new hobby.

Steven desJardins:

Do you think that the cruise ship experience is necessary for an event like JoCo Cruise? How do you think JoCo Cruise will change as a result of the pandemic, both in the short and the long term? What about science fiction conventions in general?

Speaking personally, and not for the JoCoCruise in any way, I would love for things to have settled down by next March, which is when the JoCoCruise is meant to sail again. But we shall have to see. I know Carnival is planning to start cruises up again in August; I’ll be very curious as to how that goes and what the impact of those cruises will be on the future of that particular industry. With reference to JoCo Cruise in particular, it is so community-centered that the cruise aspect of it is no longer required; I think it could take over a single land-based resort for a week and it would have the same feel to it. But the key in either case (and in the case of conventions in general) is getting to a point where we all feel comfortable being in large groups again. Again: We’ll see where we are in the next few months.

Julie Lindstrom:

You’ve been without a dog for a while now, do you plan on getting one in the near future or do your mother-in-law’s dogs fill that hole?

I suspect a dog will be in the cards at some point in the near(ish) future. But the decision-making process there is likely to be handled by Krissy, not me.

Steve C:

Getting down to dry financial matters, has the upheaval with Corona and the markets caused any permanent changes to your investment portfolios? I know for me at my age (67), I’ve gone super conservative.

Not really, no. My retirement, whatever that means for a writer, is still a couple of decades out, and I was already a pretty conservative investor. I’ve been investing for decades so the recent fumbletypeg does not mess me up in terms of my overall gains as it might with others who started investing more recently. Honestly, excepting a few tweaks here and there, I’m riding it out for now and we’ll see where we are a bit down the road.

Brucearthurs:

You’ve mentioned muting A Certain Politician’s name on Twitter to reduce the flood of depressing and enraging information.

How much news is too much news? How do you choose how much, and what, to filter out for your own peace of mind, and how much, and what, to follow to remain an informed citizen?

Well, to be clear, muting Trump’s name on Twitter doesn’t mean I’m not keeping up with news; it just means that on Twitter I don’t see all the rage tweets he inspires. Rage tweeting isn’t “news”; it’s visceral reaction. When I want news, I go to news sites to read the news. These days, I read the news after 5pm, when I’ve done everything productive I’m going to do in a day, so reading the news won’t get me so angry I can’t focus on work. It’s a more civilized way of dealing with things, and I have the luxury of being able to do it that way, so I do.

Sandy:

Do you think you could actually take the week off?

Maybe! I can and have gone weeks without doing anything of substance; I’ve managed to design my life so I can. Or could, and then I had to go and become successful enough in my field that there are always demands on my time if I’m not paying attention. I have to say the quarantine and everything uncertain about it elicited the reaction in me of piling up work, just in case. I’m a bit on the other side of that now. I would be happy to take off a week, and just may.

JReynolds:

Regardless of what you actually want (presumably Trump out on his ass after Monday, January 21, 2021), do you think DJT has a chance to win reelection (due to voter suppression, dirty tricks, etc)

Sure, and it doesn’t even have to rely on dirty tricks; his approval rate, low as it is, has been essentially unwavering, and all he has to do is boost it just enough come November. Mind you, I do expect dirty tricks and voter suppression in any event. So he could win. I hope he doesn’t. I won’t be voting for him, regardless.

Jay Brandt:

What are your thoughts on tracking individuals during the pandemic?

Dude, we can’t even get people to wear masks without a bunch of yahoos screaming about muh freedums, so regardless of the benefits/concerns regarding tracking people, I’m not exactly convinced it’s on the table as a practical matter.

Jani Korhonen:

These days twitter seems to a burning thrash-heap and a grotesque mockery of any true communication. As a reasonable person, how do you think it has affected you?

As noted above, I shape my Twitter feed a lot, including the muting of names and phrases, to make it more congenial and manageable. I think if you run it as an unfiltered feed, you’re gonna be unhappy. If you recognize that you can shape it to a large extent, then it becomes a better place. I make no apologies for managing Twitter (and every other bit of social media I’m on).

Steve R:

Space Force (the military branch, not the Netflix production): What are your thoughts?

At this point I have almost none, other than holding judgment to see if it will in fact turn out to be anything other than a vanity project for the current president.

Amysrevenge:

Swearing in front of your own child(ren). At what age, what sort of cusses? My kid is 9 and we are starting to pull back on our self-censorship, but we haven’t returned our vocabularies to pre-parenting full “fucking bullshit” yet. My wife is more likely to do use profanity while driving, and I’m more likely to use profanity in pursuit of humour. That said, I suspect that our kid will be the one teaching her friends on the playground what the best cuss words mean.

We always cursed in front of our kid and when she was young we laid out a schedule of what words she could say and when. That said, she didn’t actively start cursing around us until she was eighteen, and then it was like a firehose came on, suggesting that she’d been doing it all along, away from us. As I curse fairly freely, I wasn’t exactly concerned about it when she did, nor was I concerned that she would not understand when and where cursing was appropriate and when it was not. It turned out fine.

Laura Conrad:

In the current situation, how do you distinguish genuine precautions against infection from “plague theater”?

Does it stop or slow transmission of the virus? If so, then it’s a genuine precaution. If not, it’s theater. Honestly it’s just that simple.

Phil O’Dendron:

Short version: Lots of white men who made great art in the 60s-80s have turned out to be assholes. What are we supposed to do with them now?

What? White dudes turn out to be problematic in their old age? That’s unpossible! I suspect a lot of them were assholes before, too, we just didn’t know about it as readily, either because they were better at hiding it (and the culture excused it), or because in their old age they just don’t give a shit, or are experiencing a mental decline which means they don’t filter as well as they used to. As regards what to do with them: Aside from accepting that problematic people can make good or even great art, I don’t know if there’s anything you have to do. If their assholishness bothers you, leave off any of their new art, and any of their old art that you’re uncomfortable with now. Soon enough they’ll be dead and then you can decide whether you can go back their stuff now that they can’t be assholes anymore. I have my own “revisit when dead, maybe” list myself.

Professor Jason:

Why can’t we just be nice to each other?

We can! And most people usually are, on an individual basis. Being nice to each other and being good to each other are different things, however. Being nice is easy. Being good is not.

Thank, everyone, for your questions! Let’s do this again, formally, sometime next year. Informally, you can ask me questions to consider on the blog whenever you want. Try it sometime!

Reader Request Week 2020 #9: Writing Short Bits

The questions you folks asked this week about writing, answered briefly:

Target:

The Last Emperox (and the rest of the series) read to me as much more in “your” voice, or at least more similar to how you write on Whatever than your other books. Asides, turns of phrase, sarcasm are all examples where I noticed similarities.

Do you agree with that? Was it intentional?

Not really? I think I’ve written in a similar tone to that before — see The Android’s Dream — and I think all my books carry aspects of my personality and tone, just at varying levels. Honestly I think the Interdependency series is probably more flippant than I’ve been here recently; the last few years have gotten me down a bit.

Esmé Cowles:

How is the SciFi and broader publishing industry doing in Covid-19? Who’s going to be OK, who’s hurting, and what’s the best way for fans to help?

Science fiction and publishing, at least the part of it I work in, is doing fine, actually — book sales have actually been steady or even up a bit, which is a bit astonishing considering how difficult it was to buy books from local bookstores recently. And, of course, on my end I got higher up on the bestseller lists than I ever had before, and I’m not the only one — Martha Wells’ latest Murderbot book placed nicely on the NYT list as well. This doesn’t mean science fiction/fantasy or publishing is out of the woods yet, because I don’t think the economy generally is out of the woods yet, but honestly it could have been much worse. The best way for fans to help: Keep buying books, and if you can buy them from your local booksellers, so much the better.

Bill Nelson:

What do you think about The Pursuit of the Pankera, that somewhat-new book published by Robert A. Heinlein?

I haven’t read it so I can’t talk about it critically. I’m not a huge fan of The Number of the Beast, the novel it is a conjoined twin of (it shares the first third with it, as I understand it), so while I was curious about it, it’s not something I was in a rush to read. As a general rule, I do tend to think that things an author intentionally left unpublished were left unpublished for a reason, but I can certainly understand why Heinlein fans/academics/completists would be excited about writing from him they had not yet seen.

Kate:

Do you use any word-processing shortcuts? Like, do you type “Nohamapetan” in all its 11 letter glory every time, or do you have an auto-complete option for it and other long proper names? Like alt-shift-N fills in Nohamapetan, or something. I had to slow down so much just to type it twice here, I can’t imagine how good a typist you’d have to be to keep typing those names!

I don’t typically use shortcuts, no; I can type pretty fast, and once you type Nohamapetan a couple dozen times, it flows out of the fingers. I do cut and paste words that have accents and diacritical marks in them because I can’t be bothered to learn how to make those marks happen on the keyboard. But otherwise, nope, just typing.

Russdk:

Why is Science fiction and Fantasy mixed together in book stores and libraries? Or why should I enjoy fantasy when I prefer Science fiction?

I mean, Science Fiction is fantasy (as is horror), so mixing them together doesn’t offend me, in any event, and by and large is there is a large overlap between the two with respect to both readers and publishers, so lumping them into one spot is not that much of an issue. Also these days the genre boundaries lines are fluid enough that trying to separate science fiction from fantasy will mean some arbitrary choices as to where particular titles would go (this happens enough anyway, between SF/F and mainstream). As for why you should enjoy fantasy — no one says you should, just read what you want.

Michael H:

SF has evolved over the past century {& a bit}. It is likely SF authors and readers from the 1930s would find both interest and surprise in the SF of today. Where do you think SF will evolve towards in the coming 50+ years, especially since you are likely to be an influence? Since some trends might interest you, and others not so much, are there trends you might like to try as a writer, especially if you are the creator of the trend?

I don’t know that you could look at the science fiction of 1970 and necessarily derive from that the science fiction of 2020, so I I’m not in a rush to imagine what the science fiction of 2070 will be based on what’s being written and published now — except to say that I imagine science fiction will still be an active genre then. And anyway, I like not knowing where the genre is going, and being surprised when it gets there. To the extent that I’m an influence at all fifty years from now, I think it’ll be in having made humor in the genre more commercially acceptable. But again, who knows? Not me! We’ll see.

annaparadox:

I’ve found sf in the last few years fresher and more exciting than the decade or so before. Is it just me, or are we having a wave? If so, what would you call it?

No, it’s definitely having a moment, and that moment is (very broadly) rooted in the fact that a much more diverse group of people are writing science fiction and fantasy, and a much more diverse group of people are reading it and claiming it as their own. This a real and noticeable long-term trend in the genre, and one of the major reasons we had that “sad/rabid puppy” freakout a few years back, which was essentially a “white panic” about all those other people moving into the neighborhood. But the result of the change is the neighborhood is a much cooler and interesting place to be than it was otherwise. I don’t know what I would call it; I’m just glad it’s happening.

Atrus:

How do you discover new books to read?

In my case, they literally show up at my door, usually unbidden. I understand this is not how it works for most people.

Aschenglut:

Creative personalities and other artistic media:

Since you also engage in music, photography, and DJ-ing, I was curious about how you view those pursuits. Are they fun hobbies with occasional professional applications, or something else? Is it relaxing to engage in them, or is there a sense of professional rigor attached to them? In your experience with other authors, is it common for them to also have other artistic pursuits?

For me they are hobbies, to be enjoyed. I already make more than enough money from writing so I’m not looking to professionalize my hobbies, although I don’t necessarily turn down money for doing those things if it is offered, and I was inclined to do the thing anyway. I don’t know if “professional” rigor is how I would describe doing things, but if for example I am going to be a DJ, I want to know what I’m doing so other people will enjoy themselves. Nearly every writer I know has other hobbies. It’s part of how we keep sane, to the extent we are sane at all.

Digadigadig:

why do so many authors (both written stories as well as screenplays) switch between A and B storylines instead of writing the story straight through? Is it so you don’t get bored writing it? Is it supposed to keep the reader hooked? Always bugs me when the A chapter ends on a cliffhanger and then you turn the page and it’s about other characters picking up after the B sections last cliffhanger. I have friends who actually skip ahead but I prefer to muddle through. It’s so pervasive I wonder if powers that be make everyone do that else the publishers threaten not to accept the work.

I can’t speak for other authors, but for me, look: 90,000 words is a long time and you got to keep things moving along. I don’t really tend to think of “A” and “B” storylines — all the storylines are part of the same story and they matter for the larger tale being told, and I switch between them because not everyone can be in the same room at the same time. It’s entirely possible to tell a story completely in a linear sequence from a single point of view (first-person novels are more likely to be that), but that doesn’t make them inherently better. You have your preference, obviously.

Raz Greenberg:

On a recent Facebook discussion, someones linked to a page which lists OMW as one of the greatest hard science fiction books (no link, can’t remember the details. Sorry). I replied that although I think OMW is a great book, I don’t think it qualifies as hard science fiction. What is your take on this?

I tend to think of it as straightforward military science fiction, but I’ve seen people also refer to it as hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, space opera, etc. Bluntly as a writer I don’t care how you classify it as long as you read it (and hopefully enjoy it), and if people want to have arguments about what specific subgenre of SF it is, well, that’s part of the fun of being a science fiction nerd. But yeah, I usually call it MilSF and leave it at that.

George M:

Is writing with a typewriter any different than by hand or by computer?

I tend to write differently depending on the tool I use to write with, so yes, I imagine writing by typewriter will be different than writing by hand or by computer. I say “I imagine” because I’ve literally never written any fiction on a typewriter, so I can’t be 100% sure. I can say the thought of writing long-form fiction on a typewriter fills me with a bit of horror. My writing process is so tied into writing on a computer that I can’t imagine doing it otherwise.

Jonah:

Thoughts on artists/writers etc getting locked in to certain genres after achieving success? This question comes following a conversation I had with a writer friend who happens to be black. He has wanted to write a sci-fi book for some time, but his publisher has done a lot of pushing back. Keep in mind, this is an award-winning writer with decades of publishing. He is respected. But his publisher wants him to keep writing topical ‘black experience’ works. What are your thoughts on that, and do you feel locked in to writing sci-fi in a similar way because of your history and success in the genre?

I sympathize with both the writer and the publisher; I think writers should write whatever they want to, and also I understand why a publisher doesn’t want a writer to mess with their established writing “brand.” One of the nice things about science fiction, especially these days, is that it’s expansive enough that when I want to write a murder mystery I can do it in SF (Lock In) or if I want to write a humor book I can do that as well (Redshirts). So I don’t feel particularly constrained. It also helps that I’ve been writing non-fiction alongside the fiction for the length of my career, so people are aware I write other things to. With all that said, if I was going to write something so wildly non-representative of my career to date, I would a) probably write under an at-least-slightly-different name to make it clear to people this is something else, b) manage my expectations because moving into a new genre of any sort usually means leaving your previous sales and profile behind. Everyone should be able to write what they want; everyone should be aware what that’s likely to mean for their career.

Sheila Crosby:

Your books feature a lot of snappy dialogue. Any tips for those of us who’d like to do the same?

Reading it out loud will help a lot with that.

Matt F:

I miss the blogs of the early 2000’s eras, now more than ever (so thank you for keeping Whatever running!). I think what made them so special – and what would be important today’s strange, mad world – is that the writer’s personality came through more than even in op-ed, giving the reader a little more grounding in who was writing, what their priors are, and a bit more personal feel to connect to.

So, my question is, why do you think blogs died, and do you think something like it will ever come back?

Blogs died because Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc are easier to use and maintain, and they do a better job of connecting people with the people they care about. All at the cost of people being data mined and not really owning their own words and works, but honestly most people don’t care about that. The people who (still) keep blogs are the ones willing to put in the time/effort because they want to have a level of control (and permanence) other social media don’t provide, and generally speaking that’s a very specific group of people, like, say, writers. So, no, I don’t think blogs are coming back for the general population of people; they were a poor fit for those folks anyway. But I think it would be nice if more creative people kept their own spaces and encouraged people to visit them away from the social media monoliths. I think that’s possible, with some effort.

New Books and ARCs, 5/14/20

The number of actual physical books that have comes to the Scalzi Compound has slowed to a trickle (because the people who work in warehouses have largely been at home, and reasonably so!), but some books have still made their way in. Here are the ones that have arrived in the last… month? Or so? See anything here that speaks to you? Share in the comments!

A Reminder, Re: Famous People I Know

Another one of those “post now, refer people to later” entries. I’ve written about this before regarding specific instances, but it’s nice to have something general to point people to.

So, it turns out I know, and am friends (or at least I have been friendly) with, people who are notable or famous to some degree or another. Yes, I am as amazed about that as anyone else. Sometimes, those notable/famous people:

* Are disliked by a large group of people, for whatever reason(s);

* Have a life event, often not a happy one, that gains attention in the public sphere;

* Will have a public conflict with some other person who is also generally notable;

* Says or does something that causes the Internet to fall on their head;

* Some combination of two or more of the above;

* Otherwise attracts attention to themselves in some manner or another that elicits general comment.

When that happens, occasionally people will remember that I know that person and that we are friends (or at least, are friendly), and will want me to publicly comment on/gossip about/publicly denounce or praise them, depending on that person’s own inclinations.

Here’s the deal with all of that:

1.  I don’t take requests. Which is to say that just because you or anyone else wants me to publicly comment about something involving a friend of mine, it doesn’t mean I will. Why? Because I reserve the right to deal with matters involving friends privately, no matter how famous/notable they might be. Also:

2. I probably won’t talk about it publicly. Because, again, if it’s a friend, then it belongs in a personal sphere, regardless of how public their life might otherwise be. If I do say anything publicly at the time of whatever event is happening, it’s likely to be either bland or oblique.

3. If it’s involving a friend, consider that as a friend, I’m processing what’s happening, too. If something bad has happened to a friend, I may be concerned or grieving. If a friend has done a jackassed thing, I may be angry or heartsick (or both). If a friend is having a public feud with someone else, consider I might be friends with that other person, too. And so on. This is a friend we’re talking about; someone I like, and care about, and probably respect, and possibly love. In which case, demanding I do/say something about them publicly, and on your schedule, might be unrealistic.

4. If I “come for my friend,” I will probably do that privately and none of you will know. Strangely, a friend who has had the Internet drop on their head (for cause) might be more likely to listen to a friend talk to them about why the jackassed thing they did was an actual problem, if it is done privately and in the spirit of love and care, than if it takes the form of public castigation. How do I know that? Because I’ve done jackassed things, alas. When that happened, I was more open to criticism from friends I knew and trusted pointing out how I fucked up, than I was to the Internet falling on my head. Being someone’s friend means sometimes you get the privilege of telling them they screwed up. That’s often best done away from everyone and everything else.

5. If I do “come for my friend” privately, results are not guaranteed. People are going to do what they’re going to do. Sometimes they will listen, and sometimes they won’t. And sometimes if they do listen, they’ll decide I’m wrong, or it’s none of my business. That’s just the nature of the beast.

6. It’s entirely possible I might decide your concern/issue/demand is bullshit. In which case I am likely to mute/block/otherwise ignore you, although I might be snippy about it before I do so. This will more likely be the case when your own concern/issue/demand is obviously bound up in your own set of entitlements, i.e., what you seem to think you deserve from that friend of mine. And no, when you’re acting entitled it doesn’t matter if you put a winky emoji in there somewhere.

7. Generally speaking, friends mean more to me than strangers. This is kind of a non-controversial statement, or should be — if something bad is happening to a friend (or a friend has really stepped in it, for whatever reason), my thoughts are going to be on them more than on what people I don’t know think about whatever it is that’s happening. Addressing my friend’s needs (or deficiencies) will take priority over addressing the wants/needs/desires of strangers.

8. I try to keep friends. Which is to say that if I have decided to invest in caring about someone, it’s because there is something them about I think is valuable to me and will make my life better, not worse. Which means that when a friend does something jackassed, I try to deal with it with an eye toward staying friends with them. That’s not always possible; there are people I have let go because ultimately it was clear there was an unbridgeable gap, or because their actions showed I was wrong about them. That’s a grieving process of its own. But as someone who has done his own share of jackassed things and then tried to do better, I’m glad for friends who didn’t just toss me over the side.

9. My actions (or lack thereof) are open to criticism. You don’t have to like any of the above, and it’s entirely possible that you may find my action (or inaction) insufficient. That’s the nature of being on the Internet, and of being my own particular flavor of well-known. Criticize away. If you do it away from me, I’m unlikely to address it in any manner. If you direct it to me, my reaction will range from no response at all, to “I hadn’t considered that, you may be right” to “fuck off all the way to the moon,” depending on the nature of your criticism and how it’s presented to me. Mostly I’m not likely to respond, however.

10. If I do say something public about a friend, it will be at a time, place and manner of my own choosing, not anyone else’s. And it still might not be the statement you wanted or thought you needed from me. And that’s fine. Because I won’t be doing it for you. I’ll be doing it for me.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

Reader Request Week 2020 #8: What It Means to Be Dead

Juan Preciado asks:

What does it mean to be dead?

For the person who is dead, not much! Because they are dead. They are no longer thinking about anything or doing anything or being anything, other than dead. Dead is a state of not; there is very little meaning in not. When I am dead, it won’t mean anything to me, and I know that from experience, since I’ve been not alive before (see: the roughly 13.7 billion years before May 10, 1969, the day I was born), and it didn’t mean anything to me then, either. I understand lots of people believe in an afterlife, and I think that’s fine, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be an asshole to people in life; however, I don’t believe there’s an afterlife (or a different life, or reincarnation, etc). I could be wrong! Won’t I be surprised! But I’m pretty sure I won’t be — in fact, I won’t be anything, because I’m dead.

“Death” in itself is a concept that, aside from the mere and banal scientific concept of what it means to be “alive” or “dead,” relies on the living to apprehend it; you have to be of a certain level of cognizant to even recognize that things are alive or dead; you have to be of an even higher level of cognizant to attach meaning to it. You don’t have to be human — we have very good evidence that animals other than humans recognize what death is and mourn those who die — but certainly humans are of the set of creatures who understand what death is and attach meaning to it.

While we’re alive, that is. “Death” is a concept for the living, who are in a state to apprehend it, understand it, and in doing both, attempt to attach some meaning to it, because we are pattern-seeking creatures, and we want things to mean something: To happen for a reason, so we can explain to it to ourselves, and to others.

So, for me, a pattern-seeking creature, what does it mean to be dead?

For one thing, when someone (or something, but for the purposes of this piece, I’m mostly going to stick with humans) is dead, it means that all your agency is done. You can no longer do anything, and you can no longer cause anything to happen. Yes, you can leave instructions for things to happen and you can even, while you are living, employ the levers of law/tradition/social conditioning to try to ensure those things happen after you’re gone. But once you’re gone, it’s up to others to decide whether to honor those instructions. Think of all the dead writers who left instructions for their writing to be destroyed by a spouse or friend, only to have that spouse or friend go “Yeeeeeeah, not only won’t I burn this manuscript, I’ll have it published instead!” Look up Franz Kafka and Max Brod, just for funsies.

This doesn’t mean that the repercussions of what one did in life end once one is dead; simply that one’s ability to meaningfully control them directly in one’s self is gone. Now one must rely on children, or acolytes, or lawyers, or whomever, to try to approximate one’s intent, to the extent that they will bother at all — if, frankly, one’s life and acts merit such consideration. Most of us do not leave charitable foundations, or social organizations or religions behind to be tended and cultivated. Most of us can barely remember to do estate planning. For most of us, what is required by the living once we are dead, in terms of our wishes — the very last suggestion of our agency — is to honor them, or let a probate judge sort them out if we didn’t leave behind a will. After that, whatever agency we had is done, and what is left is memory.

For a while, anyway, because one other thing it means to be dead is to be eventually forgotten. There’s a nice sentiment out there (well, nice to extent you like the person in question) that suggests no one is really dead if there is someone who still remembers them. For the vast majority of us that means family and friends. Their memory of us lasts only as long as they do, and in some cases, less time than that, after which point we are at best names on a family tree.

Most of us do not leave much in the way of tangible expressions of who we were — letters, articles, creative works — and if we do the things we leave behind are often banal, and of little interest beyond those who are in our immediate circle of confidants. Yes, your Facebook wall will remain after you die (well, maybe; social media companies have a way of disappearing and taking user accounts with them when they do), but very few people even now go back to read what’s there once people die. They are the unvisited testimonies of (usually) fairly ordinary lives.

Which does not mean that they — or the lives they represented — did not have value. Everyone has lost people they love, and cherish them in their memory. But just because you loved your uncle, doesn’t mean that your great-great-granddaughter will, or indeed should have any memory or thought of him other than a name and perhaps a picture or two. Your uncle will be forgotten. In time you will too. And so will your great-great-granddaughter. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. The living can keep only so many people in their heads; they are understandably going to prioritize the living.

Famous or notable people get to be remembered longer, but let’s be clear that the quality of that memory doesn’t tend to be all that great; in almost every case even the greatest and most powerful people of their time are collapsed down to one or two things that they did, not who they are. I can, for example, name you (probably) all the presidents of the United States, but with the exception of the very early, and the most recent, ones, I can’t tell you much of what they did or who they are as people. Literally the only thing I can tell you of Millard Fillmore off the top of my head, aside from his name, are his last words: “The nourishment is palatable.” Creators tend to be remembered for one or two works; in the memory of our culture, we all eventually become one hit wonders. And then we slip off the radar entirely.

(If you don’t think I think this will happen to me — ha! If I were to die tomorrow, I will be written up as “The author of Old Man’s War and Hugo winner for Redshirts;” 50 years from now I’ll be the author of Old Man’s War and other works; 100 years from now no one will read me except people doing degree work and maybe some family members. Prove me wrong, history! Prove me wrong.)

Which brings us to the final thing I’ll address in this particular piece: What it means to be dead is to be assessed. When one is dead, one is at the end of everything — there are no longer things you are going to do, or things you are doing, only the things you’ve done. Other people, pattern seekers that we are, will then look at the whole of that life to assess it and to sum it up. For some people that will be a short process — “beloved husband and father” — and for others it will take years (I suspect they will still be finding previously unknown material in Prince’s musical vaults 20 years from now, for example).

If you’re a regular person, it’s family and friends who do this assessing; if you’re a famous person and/or leave behind a notable body of work, it’ll be other people as well. With the latter, it goes into the cultural memory bank of you, and will often supplant who you were as a person — which is not a bad thing for you if who you were as a person was a real asshole or an otherwise terrible human. What is bad — and good — about a creative or historical person often is diminished because the work they leave behind is easier to apprehend and to deal with (and often, bluntly, more interesting, too).

Again, all of this is about the living, not the dead themselves, because, again, they are dead. They don’t care. They can’t care. The meaning of being dead is for the living, who will themselves be relieved of agency, assessed and remembered, and then forgotten, in turn, and so on and so on, until there is no one left who cares to assess or remember, and then to forget.

In the meantime, what it means to be dead is: Someone is still alive to give death meaning.

Reader Request Week 2020 #7: Cover Songs

Let’s get musical! Keith asks:

Cover songs: The deity’s gift to humanity or an abomination unto said deity? What makes a good one? Any that you particularly love or hate?

I personally love a good cover song, and there are cases where I prefer the cover to the original, either because it’s the version I heard first (and therefore, to my ears, the “original”), or because the person performing it brings something to it that I thought the original lacked, for whatever reason — often this has to do with production but equally can be about performance.

Also, I think it should be understood that “covers” are a relatively recent concept, tied in inherently to the idea of the “singer-songwriter.” No one thinks of someone “covering” a song written by Gilbert & Sullivan, or Rogers & Hammerstein, or by Tin Pan Alley songwriters; they were just performed. There are in fact a whole lot of politics about musicians covering songs by other musicians — particularly, in the early era of Rock n’ Roll, white musicians covering the songs of black musicians and getting them onto the charts while the originals languished. I’m not going to get into that now, but just be aware it exists and is a real thing. “Covering” was not (and still sometimes isn’t) always a great thing.

As for what makes a great cover: Mostly, empathy and understanding on the part of the covering artist, of the original artist, or the original work, or both. It means that the covering artist gets where the song was coming from, and so when they make their version, can add to it in ways that build on the original, rather than detract from it. It’s not entirely surprising that so many great covers come from artists who are singer-songwriters themselves.

A bad cover, in my opinion, just lies there — a rote performance, or one where it’s clear the performer is not engaged with and/or does not understand the song. A bad cover makes you miss the original, or even worse, makes you wonder why anyone would have covered that song at all.

(There’s another category for me, which are songs that I don’t think are especially well covered but that I like anyway, often either because I have some personal affinity for the performer covering it, or because it’s so incongruous a cover, such an out-of-left-field choice, that I have to admire it even if I as a listener would not have ever considered it in the realm of possibility. Points for effort, basically.)

And now, because this would be the place for it, some of my favorite covers over the years. BE WARNED — remember how I said some covers I enjoyed even if I didn’t find them particularly great? Yeaaaah, there will be some of them here. This is not an exhaustive list of covers I like, and also, if in the comments you say something like “you forgot [insert cover here]” the answer is no I didn’t, this is just not an exhaustive list, okay, and also, that’s probably on your list, not mine.

(Also, I’m not putting in “Sweet Thing” covered by The Waterboys here, because it was featured in another recent compilation of other songs I assembled. But know it is one of my favorites.)

Krissy and Me, 5/14/20

Yup, pretty much sums us up at the moment.

I think this might be my favorite picture of the two of us in a while.

I’m This Week’s “By The Book” Feature in the New York Times

And I’m talking about which books I’m reading, which books I think fit the current moment, whether books should be consider guilty pleasures, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Curious? Of course you are! Here’s the link to the piece. Enjoy!

Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism

Troy Gordon asks:

Do you ever hold back in your criticism of other artistic endeavors (movies for instance) out of fear or apprehension that it will open your own work to hostile/non constructive criticism and exclude you from future opportunities? You are successful and obviously intelligent enough to know how story and character arcs work, and how to bring a story to life, but sometimes your reviews on things can come across as… muted. I find this interesting, given how outspoken you can be on some topics, but very careful in your criticism of other’s work. Is it because as an artist, you appreciate the effort that went into that other piece of art, is it a political consideration, or a combination of both?

This answer is complicated! Strap in!

First: I mean, I was a professional critic for years, primarily in film but also in music and video games, so in fact there’s a long and rich history of me going deeply negative on things when I thought it was necessary. I even have some stories I can tell about creators getting pissed at me for doing so — if we’re ever in the same room at the same time, get me to tell my story of Ian Astbury of the Cult sending me an all-caps email after I gave his band’s (then) new release a less-than-entirely-shining review. I don’t feel like the argument that I’m overly muted in reviews is supported in the text, running across all of my career.

Also, if sometimes my criticism of something comes across as muted, it might be because I’m writing about something I didn’t feel all that strongly about. For example, last December when I wrote up a piece on The Rise of Skywalker, the tone of the piece reflected how I felt about the movie: I was reasonably entertained, but it felt rushed and there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional range in the film. I didn’t hate the film, and didn’t feel the need to be performatively angry with it or the filmmakers for not providing a certain level of catharsis; likewise, I didn’t love the film or desire to defend it, or the people who made it, from the criticism of others. It was just fine. The review’s tone reflected that.

“Just fine,” incidentally, is where the vast majority of films (and, honestly, most creative output) reside, particularly if they’re put out by large entertainment companies who know how to spot, hire and support technically proficient people who are competent at their jobs. With very few exceptions, Disney and Warner Bros and Universal and Netflix and so on are not all that interested in turning out immortal works of cinema that will shine through the years; they want to create something you’ll spend money on to watch. The “I’ll watch that” line for most people is not “immortal cinema,” it’s “entertaining enough for two hours.” If it turns out a film is immortal cinema as well as being entertaining for two hours, so much the better; none of them are opposed to that. But if they had to choose between “entertaining for two hours” and “immortal cinema,” they’ll go for the first. They understand the first. They can market it. Immortal cinema is much trickier, and hardly ever as commercially reliable.

When I was a professional film critic, I would say that 10% of my reviews were of amazing films and 10% were of genuinely terrible films, and in both cases writing a review was not difficult because there was so much to say either way. 80% of my reviews were of films that were some level of mediocre: Nothing wrong with them but nothing great about them either. Those were the challenging ones to write, because how do you approach “meh, it’s fine?” over and over again? One solution is to basically go to war with every film you don’t think ranks as immortal cinema, and, well. That’s a choice. It’s not the choice I usually go for.

So I don’t disagree that my reviews might come across as muted to some folks. But if they do, because that’s mostly how I feel about the film I watched. Meh, it’s fine! If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like! And so on.

What’s often more interesting than straight review at this point is meta-commentary: What the film means in a larger context. So for example, my thoughts on Wonder Woman, which I thought was fine (specifically, I said, “a solid film with some genuinely great moments, cheapened a bit by the generic boss fight at the end”), but about which the most interesting thing was — to me — the perception of it being much larger success than its sibling films Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, when globally it made just about the same amount, financially, as either of those two films.

Here on Whatever, where my commentary on film does not have to be straightforward “should you pay money for this or not” reviewing, I tend to do a lot of meta-commentary; for example, my observations of the last Star Wars trilogy are as much about the role of Disney taking over the franchise from George Lucas as it is about the individual films themselves, because I think that’s interesting. At some point I’ll probably write up something on how the Disney trilogy was about what happens when a major corporation loses its nerve and plays it safe (as opposed to the prequel trilogy, which was all about an auteur doing things exactly how he wanted to, even if what he wanted to do frankly sucked). But for now I will acknowledge that this sort of inside pool may not be as interesting to other people. So it goes.

Yes, yes, Scalzi, but do you pull your punches because you’re trying to do business in Hollywood? Answer the question!

UGH, fine.

The answer is: Not really? At least, not as it relates to doing business in film and television. First, bluntly, no one in Hollywood gives a shit what I write about film (or anything else) here on my blog because this blog doesn’t matter to them. It’s not Variety or The Hollywood Reporter or the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, and it’s also not the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score, so, really, who the fuck cares? I’m literally off their radar, and nothing I could say here has an impact on what they do.

Which is a sentiment, incidentally, I get, since as a writer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal serve the same function in my industry: They’re the trades, they’re what everyone in publishing (and also library and bookstore acquisition people) read. Because of this, we writers remember when, say, Kirkus gives one of our books a pan (and boy, have they!).

So I could write whatever I wanted here, secure in the knowledge that literally the only person who cares, vis-a-vis doing business, is me. I know this because, despite writing a piece where I saidStar Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot,” I’ve been offered work in the Star Wars universe more than once. When I pointed out to the people offering me work that I actually wrote those words, they more or less shrugged. Because no one gives a shit, except me.

With that said, it is entirely accurate to say I don’t post very many negative reviews here in film, music, TV and so on, especially in the last several years. This is because:

1. Since I’m generally no longer being paid to write criticism, I mostly don’t bother to write about the things I don’t like; I think it’s better and more useful to point out the things I do like.

2. Over the course of time I have becomes friends or friendly acquaintances with all sorts of writers/musicians/filmmakers/artists/etc, and I’m sensitive to publicly criticizing in a negative way the creative output of people I like (and sometimes, especially in film/TV, their participation is not always immediately evident; one might be surprised by an IMDb listing).

3. In the one field where my public opinion does have weight — science fiction and fantasy publishing — I am very sensitive to the fact that if I thoughtlessly crap on someone else’s work, it could have a negative impact on them and me, since I will look like a real dick punching down on others. Generally speaking I don’t want to be that guy. So even if I have public beef with someone in the community, and at this point it’s been years since I have had, by and large I leave their work out of it. There have been exceptions to this, but very few, and I don’t think any of them were actual in-depth reviews.

4. Finally, philosophically speaking, creating is hard, and outside of some vanishingly rare examples of people trying to simultaneously sabotage a contract while still fulfilling it to the specific letter of the law, no one starts creating with the intent to make something bad. At this point in my life, unless I have a really good reason to do otherwise, when I see creative output I think is bad, I try to remember someone at least tried to give someone else joy with their work. And, sure, they fucked it up, but I can honor the attempt, and not call out the failure — which, among other things, might be a failure only to me; someone else might love it.

None of this is really about worrying about curtailing my business opportunities; it’s more about trying to be a decent person to other creative people.

Now, nothing here should be understood to suggest that negative criticism a) shouldn’t be allowed, b) isn’t useful, c) is put out by shitty people just to be shitty. As noted above, over the course of time I’ve written plenty of negative criticism. Negative criticism can be useful and is often necessary, and importantly, it’s almost never for the creators themselves. I’ve written about this in full elsewhere, so you can go look at that if you like. All that I’m saying is that unless I personally have a truly compelling reason to write a negative review, these days, I don’t.

(Also, and almost as an aside, I am entirely unconcerned about whether, if I write a negative critique of something, I will get a negative critique back. It almost never works that way, and also, dude, I get so many negative reviews anyway. I’m not worried about negative reviews in a general sense, because I was a pro critic and I understand better than most that negative reviews are just the cost of doing business. Also, and this may just me, I enjoy a good negative review and kind of always have. It’s nice someone cared enough to really hate something I did.)

So, no. I don’t pull punches in reviews or critiques because I worry about repercussions. But I won’t punch something if a small tap will do, and most of the time, these days, I won’t bother to punch at all.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

The Big Idea: Tone Milazzo

Get out your comic books: Author Tone Milazzo is thinking about the super humans that populate our popular culture, and how they relate to the themes of his new book, The Faith Machine.

TONE MILAZZO:

It took me decades realize some pretty obvious things about superheroes.

For example: Batman will never stop the Joker from killing, not for good. When Bats takes the Joker back to Arkham Asylum at the end of a comic, it’s a carpool. Just a guy giving the Joker a ride home after work. For all his struggles, the best Batman can do is maintain the status quo. He has to if there’s going to be more Batman vs. Joker stories. Batman wins the battles, but he’ll never win the war, and the Joker gets away.

I think a lot (too much) about what if superpowers were real. How would the criminal justice system, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military accommodate even bottom-tier superheroes and villains? Superheroes are in their own printed world, but aren’t a part of their world. Heroes want to fix their world’s problems. But the publishers won’t let them. If you drop someone like Superman or Spider-man into a world like ours, they start changing things, and that world spins off into something unrecognizable (and, from a publisher’s point-of-view, unmarketable).

That hasn’t stopped superheroes from lurching toward realism since Marvel’s initial line up was set in New York instead of Fictional City, USA. A decade later, Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams challenged Green Lantern/Green Arrow with the real problems of drugs and racism. They brought Batman down to earth as well, abandoning the last traces of his TV persona and redefining him as The Dark Knight. A few years after that, Chris Claremont and John Byrne would bring complex, human relationships into The Uncanny X-Men at Marvel. Each of these legendary creative teams brought superheroes a step away from the simple, pulp origins of the 40s.

Come 1986, and two titles, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns dragged superheroes as far as they could into the real world, and dragged me, as a reader, along with them. I wanted stories that brought my childhood heroes into adulthood with me, a thick layer of nostalgia to protect me from the real world, but without the corniness. Any comic that professed, “This is what real life superheroes would be like,” had my money. Thus began the Dark Age of comics. The age of gritty anti-heroes whose imperfections outweighed their virtues. That’s what I thought I wanted. Until ten years ago, when two grassroots political movements emerged and were destroyed.

Occupy Wall Street was oppressed as law enforcement persecuted its members and leadership. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was exploited by Republicans for their votes and funds while giving nothing back. I saw new powers destroyed or manipulated by the existing powers. If this is how upstart political powers were treated in the real world, why not superpowers?

In this context, I finally realized this reality informed both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The Comedian and Dr Manhattan worked for the government, while the rest of the Watchmen were outlawed. Superman worked for the President, while law enforcement hunted The Dark Knight. I hadn’t seen this message about power under the Dark Age’s thick layer of grim and gritty.

The only way I could come to terms with superhero fiction was to write my own. Superheroes whose actions change and improve their world, but with a tension between superpowers and the established powers. My own lurch toward realism. For that, I needed a setting.

That came to me while reading The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book on Cold War psychic warfare programs. According to first-hand accounts by the participants, members of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion were capable of clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. They were superhuman and part of the intelligence community under the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). What if these “agents of the mind” existed, operating among us? Striking in secret with subtle powers, but still servants to greater, mundane powers?

Psychic espionage became the framework for exploring these themes of power in the The Faith Machine. A clandestine world where power doesn’t flex along a strict line between flashy good guys and bad guys. It’s hundreds of factions aligned to nations, criminal justice systems, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military, all at each other’s throats, usually for selfish reasons. When nascent powers manifest in this world the extant power structures move in to destroy or employ them to maintain the status quo. A story about one of those nascent powers learning to fight back, and to win once and for all.

—-

The Faith Machine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter|Facebook|Instagram

Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports

A “Hilketa” player, ready to bash another player. Art by Tim Paul.

Go, team! Kevin Sims asks:

What are your views on professional and amateur sports? Do you have a favorite sport/team? You’ve created a fictitious sport in the Locked-In universe and one of the characters from those books was a legendary basketball player, but I’ve never read a blog or a tweet from you about sports in general.

Here’s a fun fact: In the late 90s/early 00s, I wrote several weekly newsletters for AOL, which they used as member retention tools, i.e. reasons for people to stay subscribed to the service when by that time one could just go out on the Internet. One of the newsletters I wrote was on sports, in which I, in the guise of a sports fan named “Bucky Blast,” would opine of the sports news of the day and solicit reader comment for the newsgroup forum.

It was, far and away, the most popular of the newsletters I wrote, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the feedback I would get from them was that they really appreciated how knowledgeable and passionate “Bucky” was about sports. And truth to tell, it was also my favorite of the newsletters to write — it was fun, and it was nice to write something that a lot of people enjoyed and engaged with on a regular basis. I was sad to stop writing it when AOL eventually quit the newsletter business — or at least, quit wanting to pay me for them.

People who knew me were surprised both that I was writing a sports newsletter and that I enjoyed it, because, like Kevin here, as far as they knew I had never expressed much particular interest in sports, either as a fan or as an athlete. Likewise, Krissy is occasionally dumbfounded when at family gatherings or the company functions she brings me to as a spouse, I can fluently speak sports to cousins and coworkers even though she never ever sees me evince even the slightest interest in the activity at all.

So what gives?

Simply: I’m not actually a fan of sports — which is, I don’t passionately care about a particular sport or team, or the world of sports in general — but I find the phenomena of sports fascinating: How it functions in our society, how people respond to its structure and celebrities, and how we talk about it — and also, the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not be interested in that?

Also, and I think this is important, I never really subscribed to the nerd/jock division that was prevalent in the culture when I was growing up, and still exists to a greater or lesser extent. I played sports in high school — I ran track and cross country and played soccer — and I went to a small enough high school that nearly everyone played sports of one sort or another. And so a lot of our nerds were jocks, and a lot of our jocks also did theater and so on. Then I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a nerd, even the jocks, and we were Division III in any event, i.e., the NCAA division where college sports were an affectation, not a revenue generator. All this was and is useful because it means I don’t have any deep-seated resentment of sports or the people who love them passionately. They’re not my tribe, but they’re not my enemy, either.

Anecdotally, that seems to be more often the case these days. It’s not a new or particularly interesting statement to make that there’s not all that much of a difference between sports fans and “nerd” fans. One wears their favorite team jerseys while the other wears t-shirts with their favorite media characters; one cosplays and the other paints themselves up in team colors; and so on. This is even more the case with the immense commercial rise of nerds in the last two decades: San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon (and all the other immense media conventions) fill up hotels and restaurants as effectively as a Super Bowl and have just as many celebrities showing up to be part of the proceedings, albeit different celebrities. And in these COVID times, both groups are feeling the same uncertainty of wondering when, if ever, they are going to gather again in their tens of thousands to celebrate their thing. The similarities are enough that to also note that there is these days a non-trivial overlap between sports fans and nerds — that people are entirely comfortable expressing their love for both the Cubs and Firefly — seems anticlimactic.

(And even more anticlimactic when you factor in the rise of eSports, which these days is the only sports anyone is getting at the moment! But that’s a subject that would require its own whole piece.)

Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.

Add this all up and it means that I have an interest in, and knowledge of, sports, even if at the end of the day it’s not “my thing.” It’s not! But it’s cool if it’s your thing, so long as you’re not a dick about it to others. Please note that “Enjoy your thing, but don’t be a dick about it” is a general mantra, not one relating directly to sports fans.

Now as relates to me directly: I don’t really have favorite sports teams, excepting some vague residual affection for the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings because they were the local teams when I was growing up. I don’t watch sports on TV although I enjoy going to live sports events with friends, because, you know, friends. I think Division I college football and basketball are a racket, but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating. I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing names.

I play in a fantasy football league every year with friends and let the computer pick my team, a fact which everyone else in the league knows, so when my team beats theirs (occasionally) or wins the season (much rarer, but has happened) it annoys the fuck out of them, because they all made an effort. I like the sports movies of Ron Shelton, particularly Bull Durham, which I think is probably the best movie about baseball ever made. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

Finally: Hilketa, which is the sport I created in Head On, was an immense amount of fun to create and put together and I would absolutely love to make a video game or table top game based on it, I think it would be absolutely huge — the perfect eSport, in fact. Game makers, talk to my people about it.

I think that covers me and sports! Bucky Blast, heading to the showers.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

We are all searchers of truth — some more than others. Dan Moren is thinking about the truthseekers in this Big Idea piece for his new novel, The Aleph Extraction.

DAN MOREN:

Truth is a binary concept: either something is true, or it isn’t.

Or is it?

As a certain Jedi Knight—and questionable teacher—once said, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

When writing any story, truth becomes a much more slippery concept for the characters, the reader, and even the writer. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with the shady realms of spies, criminals, and legends, as in my latest novel, The Aleph Extraction,

As Aleph opens, Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team are sent after the Aleph Tablet, a legendary artifact that’s believed to contain secrets which could tip the balance of the ongoing Galactic Cold War. Are those secrets real? Is the artifact they’re searching for actually the genuine article? Does the “real” artifact even exist, or is it all just a myth?

The idea for the Aleph Tablet stemmed from my fascination with the Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone that’s one of the oldest pieces of archaeological evidence mentioning events from the Bible. I first came across the Mesha Stele in one of my Near Eastern Studies courses in college and, as someone raised by a pair of parents who were not particularly religious—one a mostly secular Jew, the other a lapsed Catholic—I was captivated by discovering the “truth” of religion. With the customary self-assuredness of a twenty-year-old, I figured that hard evidence must lead in a direct line towards capital-T, universal Truth.

A year or so after I learned about the Mesha Stele, I was traveling abroad in France and turned a corner in the Louvre only to come face-to-face with the stone itself. But as amazed and awed as I was to see it with my own eyes, what didn’t happen was an Indiana Jones moment, where I was confronted by the incontrovertible truth, beams of energy shooting forth as from the Ark of the Covenant—probably a good thing, since ouch.

Maybe it was because the stone was smaller in person, maybe it was because it was just tucked away in some random alcove in a museum, but for me, the truth of it in that moment was less earth-shattering than I’d hoped. Ultimately, the Mesha Stele is a window into historical events, but it neither confirmed nor denied truth.

That was a milestone in a lifelong journey, where I’ve learned that “truth” isn’t always synonymous with “fact.” Truth can be far more personal, such as one’s belief in a higher power. It’s something that one needs to search out for oneself, and it can take a long time—for some, their whole lives. Others might never find it.

All of the main characters in The Aleph Extraction are searching for truth in one way or another. Kovalic wants to know if the suspicions about his boss’s ulterior motives are true; daredevil pilot Eli Brody wants the truth of what happened between Kovalic and their former team member Aaron Page; and new recruit Addy Sayers, well, she wants to know if the future that Kovalic and his team promise can truly live up to her expectations.

As an author, you have to know the truth of your story, even if your characters don’t. Keeping track of what different characters know—and, more to the point, what they think they know—can be a tricky proposition. As the omniscient force behind the scenes, you can see the whole picture, but you want to be careful about how you dole out that information to the characters and to the reader—especially, if you’re building for a big reveal.

Every story depends at least in part on withholding the truth, whether it’s your classic whodunnit or a mainstream literary novel. Fundamentally, if your readers know everything that’s going to happen, then there’s not much reason for them to keep reading.

Character’s points of view are a lens through which you can present the reader with a facet of the truth. Those characters may have doubts and questions, or they may be convinced that they—and perhaps only they—know the real truth. They may even avoid confronting truths that are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

By the time The Aleph Extraction comes to a close, all the characters have had to grapple with truth and decide whether they can live with it.

I can relate: the older I get, the more I come to grips with everything I don’t know—and may never know. Having recently turned 40, the idea of ever getting to some sort of universal Truth seems further away than ever, especially given the world we live in, where the very idea of truth has become a weapon to be wielded in the service of opinion.

Ultimately, I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that some truths are unknowable, destined to forever remain a mystery. Is the Aleph Tablet one of those? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

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The Aleph Extraction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Apple Books

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Reader Request Week 2020 #4: What It’s Like To Be a Cis Straight Man

Allison asks:

What is it like being a cisgender straight man?

I ask because I’m a trans woman who spent 50+ years living (or at least trying to live) according to the assumption that I was a man, but could never make any sense of the men around me. I couldn’t figure out why they did what they did, nor how they they related to one another. I just never “got it.”

By contrast, women have always made sense to me (even when I thought they were being cuckoo), and I find I can even relate to most trans men reasonably well.

I don’t know if you can do anything with my question, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

I can’t speak for all cis straight dudes, but I can tell you my experience of it, which is:

Being a cisgender straight man is thoughtless.

By which I don’t (necessarily) mean that being a cisgender straight man is about being “thoughtless” (i.e., a heedless jerk, unintentionally or intentionally), or that it means we cisgender straight men are all thoughtless in that manner. What I mean is that because being cisgender, and straight, and a man, are all cultural defaults, I don’t have to expend any sort of thought on being them or relating to world as those, if I choose not to.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to not think about these particular things. I just… don’t think about them. I don’t think about my gender expression or my sexuality or my maleness pretty much the same way I don’t think about geese, or garden hoses, or Nepal. They’re not things I have think about on a regular basis, and I don’t have a particular interest in any of them, so, yeah. What’s it like to not think about Nepal? If you can imagine that, you can imagine me not thinking about my gender expression, or sexuality, or maleness.

I mean, I can think about my cisness, and my straightness, and my maleness, just like I can think about Nepal. I could concern myself very passionately about Nepal if I wanted to, learn all about it beyond what I know now, which is mostly that it’s the place where we keep the Himalayas and Kathmandu, something something Doctor Strange and Marian Ravenswood, aaaaaand that’s about it (Oh! And it has a pennant for a national flag). If I do think about Nepal in a more than cursory manner, I might learn something, and appreciate more about the world and my place in it, and possibly become a better person with a larger understanding of others. It might behoove me to learn more about Nepal.

But, and this is the thing, there is no actual penalty for me if I don’t. I live in the US! I have no business with Nepal at all! If I don’t think about Nepal, my life does not materially or significantly change. Thinking about Nepal is optional for me. Just like thinking about my cisness, straightness and maleness. I can think about these things, or not.

So frequently I don’t! I don’t have to give much thought to my gender presentation, because my gender presentation largely follows the norm, and as a result, when I’m out in the world no one thinks of that presentation as remarkable or objectionable, and I don’t feel any internal conflict between who I am and how I present.

I don’t have to give much thought to my sexual identity, because my sexual identity also largely follows the norm, and there is, almost without exception, no penalty for being straight in our culture. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it or defend it. It just is.

As for being a man: Well. No one’s telling me what to do with my body, or making me uncomfortable being in the world, and again with very rare exceptions I don’t have to worry about going from one place to another, or being anywhere, or how to dress or how to exist, etc. I don’t have to think about much of anything about being a dude.

When you don’t have to think about these things all the time, guess what? You don’t! I can expend my brain cycles on other things, not relating to existing in the world. Which makes existing in the world, and this life, less difficult for me than for a lot of other people. I may have touched on this before, a time or two.

In our society, the highest privilege is being able to have the option not to have to think on your privilege, or lack thereof. As a cis straight man (who is also white, and also able-bodied, and also well-off), all my privilege checking is allowed to be optional and conditional. I do check in on my privilege, and try to understand it, and try to be a decent person in navigating it. But most of the time, I’m just getting on with my life, in a world that’s designed to be largely frictionless for who I am.

What’s that like? It’s pretty great, if I think about it, which I suspect I do more than many cis straight dudes, but still not nearly as much as people who aren’t cis, or straight, or men. Most of the time, I simply take it for granted, because I can, and because I have other things I want to think about.

It would be nice if everyone had the luxury I do, to be thoughtless about who they are because there’s no reason not to be, and they won’t be materially penalized by the culture, and by other people, for who they are and how they choose to be in the world. And that, at least, is something I should be thoughtful about, and try to work toward, as I move through this life.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)