The Cat’s Going Through an “Arty” Phase

I knew we shouldn’t have let her take those correspondence courses from the Rhode Island School of Design. Now she’s ripping off Klaus Voorman! Shamelessly! Bad kitty! Bad!

More artiness (or lack thereof) here.

Athena’s Gothy Holiday Greetings!


Yeah, this one’s going to get pilfered for all the goth message boards for sure. And why not!

It’s a few days early for Halloween, but Athena just couldn’t wait. And can you blame her.  

The picture this was derived from, and other creepy delights, available behind the cut.

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What is Science Fiction Anyway?

Having the monstrous ego that I do, I’ve been watching the Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies Canon meme go through the blogosphere, and also reading comments people have been making about the selections for the Canon, and their own choices for addition to or subtraction from the Canon. One of the major complaints I see is the lack of the appearance of King Kong or of notice of any of special effect genius Ray Harryhausen’s films in the Canon itself (I will note Harryhausen is quite prominent in the book proper, in the "Icons of SF" chapter).

The reason for the lack of inclusion of these films, and several others that people feel passionate about, is simply that I don’t consider them to be science fiction films. One of the things I decided early on was to leave out films that were primarily fantasy films — and many of the films people are asking about are, to me, fantasy and not science fiction.

This naturally leads to the question of, well, what is "science fiction?" As it happens, I answer that on the first page of the first chapter of the book, when I map out three criteria for a film (or, indeed, any work) to be considered science fiction. I don’t think it compromises the book to share those with you here. So — Scalzi’s Three Criteria for Science Fiction are as follows:

1. The Work Takes Place in the Future — or what was the future when the work was completed. Alternate timelines may also qualify if they follow at least one of the other criteria.

2. The Work Uses Technology that Does Not Currently Exist — or (again) did not exist at the time the work was completed. Extrapolation from existing technology qualifies as well.

3. Events Are, By and Large, Rationally Based — I’ll quote myself here: "Though important events, situations and characters may in themselves be fantastical, science fiction assumes an explanation based on a logical universe. This is opposed to fantasy works, and some horror, in which such ideas are described through magic or the whims of the gods." This one gets stretchy, I’ll admit — there are plenty of science fiction films where the "rational" explanation for events is pretty damn stupid ("The creature was exposed to harmful Zeta Rays!!!"), but if those are the cards they want to play, you’ve got to play them.

One of these criteria is often sufficient to describe a work as SF, but it’s best when at least two of the criteria are in play. The Road Warrior, for example, takes place in future time and is rationally based, even if the technology in it is already known to us. Star Wars uses futuristic techonology and is largely rationally based, even if it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Matrix is future time and futuristic tech, but the computer universe in which the events take place has a rationality that is best described as malleable.

Employing these criteria eliminates a number of films that seem at least cursorially SFnial. King Kong fails all three (present time, present tech, no rational explanation for a 50 ft gorilla), as do many of the classic monster flicks. Harryhausen’s most significant films were mythologically based, so they’re out, too.

This is not to say these films don’t share an important heritage with SF films, both in terms of audience and in terms of production (particularly relating to special effects); they clearly do, and I address much of the "backstage" stuff like that in the book. Be that as it may, these films aren’t science fiction, at least as I defined it.

Let me also note that these three criteria do leave plenty of room for judgement calls. For example, Superman is an SF film to me, largely due to The Man of Steel’s origin story (from another planet, which involved future tech to get here, and also a rational (if silly) explanation for his superpowers), but Batman isn’t — he’s just a guy with many cool gizmos and the need for lots of therapy. I wouldn’t classify most James Bond movies as SF, even though he employs some future tech with his gadgets, but on the other hand Moonraker is total SF, and there’s no getting around that. 28 Days Later… qualifies as SF for its "rage virus," but Night of the Living Dead is fantasical horror.

There are a lot of movies (not to mention books and other media) that are on the bubble in terms of being science fiction or something else. You can get pretty Talmudic parsing which films qualify as SF and which don’t, and naturally I had to do some of that. Generally I think I made good calls, but again I don’t assume everyone will agree, and indeed am having a blast reading examples of where people don’t. But at least now you all know where I’m coming from when I say that I didn’t consider some of your favorite science fiction-like films to be science fiction.

Suffering the Idiots

You know, when Michael Behe, the star witness for Intelligent Design at the Pennsylvania evolution trial, admits on the stand that the only way that ID can be considered a scientific theory is to change the definition of "theory" to such a lax standard that even astrology would qualify as a scientific theory, isn’t it time to stop the trial, find for teaching actual science in biology classes, and then send a bill for the whole ridiculous affair to the idiots that changed the school policy to shoehorn ID into the classroom? Does this farce really need to go on any further?

The only value to this whole thing so far is that it got Behe to admit that in order to get ID to work, you have to cheat — you have to make words mean different things than what they mean. You know, the science community already has a word for the new, more lax definition of "theory" Behe wishes to promote: it’s called a hypothesis. Should Behe manage to get his way and change the definition of "theory," what becomes of the word "hypothesis"? Is it demoted? Discarded? Given a nice gold watch for its years of service to the scientific community and then taken behind the barn to be plugged with a shotgun? And if is merely demoted, then what will become of the phrase "drunken paranoid ramblings?" That phrase has nowhere else to go.

Behe also compared ID to the Big Bang theory, suggesting that, like the Big Bang theory, all ID needed to do was wait until the intractable old scientists died off, leaving a new generation of scientists who welcomed ID with open arms — giving the illusion that acceptance of ID is inevitable. What Behe of course neglects to mention (and which someone cross-examining him ought to bring up), is that the reason the Big Bang theory gained acceptance was that the theory explained the observational data we collected about the universe better than any other theory. ID, on the other hand, fits absolutely none of the observational data, except to a very lax "I can’t explain this personally, therefore it must intelligently designed" negative standard, which, oddly enough, doesn’t actually raise to the level of science. Behe likes to wave off scientific hostility to ID as "politically motivated," but there’s nothing political about noting that a hypothesis doesn’t fit the observational data. That’s what scientists are supposed to do.

The reason ID isn’t like the Big Bang theory is that ID starts off broken and goes downhill from there. Indeed, the hypothesis for Intelligent Design is the best possible refutation of the concept, because it’s so entirely lacking in either quality described in the phrase. The only way it will achieve the sort of scientific acceptance the Big Bang has is if we lower the quality of scientists we produce. Mind you, if ID is allowed to be passed off as "science," this will be precisely what will happen. Instead of scientists who will honestly explore the physical world and hold their work to a rigorous intellectual standard, you’ll get more "scientists" like Behe, whose solution to promulgating an untenable "theory" is not to discard the idea but simply to change the definition of words to get them to mean what he wants them to.

It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Behe, who claims to be a scientist. It’s embarrassing for Behe’s employers (who have been forced to acknowledge the embarrassment Behe causes them on a regular basis by posting a disclaimer on their web site), and it’s embarrassing for anyone who likes to imagine that science should actually be about science, and not about comforting people twitchy about the fact they share a common ancestor with whatever animal it is they like the least. It’s not embarrassing for those people, of course, but the fact it’s not makes me embarrassed for them. I think it would be ashamed to go through life so afraid of ideas that I’d be willing to force ignorance on others to make myself feel happy and safe. Seems a little selfish, and a lot sad.

When the Wind Blows

So, let’s recap: This year, two major hurricanes that with barometric pressures that put them in the top five of recorded major hurricanes, and a third one that is — from initial readings anyway — the all-time most intense storm in the Atlantic. I think this is a perfect time to break out the "what the hell?" face. Also note that we’re already on "W" in the naming scheme for hurricanes, and there’s still six weeks to go until the end of the 2005 hurricane season. We go to the Greek alphabet from here; I’m putting money on hitting a storm named Gamma before I clear off the dishes at Thanksgiving dinner.

This new storm seems to be targeting Florida, which makes it the fourth or fifth time in the last year or so that it’s been whacked by hurricanes, and for that they have my sympathy. I do wonder, if we are indeed entering an era of increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic, if we’ll reach some sort of bend in the curve, where there’s a net drain of people leaving Florida and other Gulf states because they’ve gotten tired of rebuilding after getting flattened twice or three times in a decade. I suppose that might be good news for Kansas and other plains states, who could use a few new warm bodies.

"Kansas: Hurricane free or your money back!" They do have tornadoes, mind you. But the destruction cone there is so much smaller. The odds are in one’s favor, really.

All this disaster stuff does make me increasingly glad I live in Ohio, where the major natural catastrophe one has to worry about is boredom. And you never hear about massive storms of boredom knocking houses off their foundation. At least not since the advent of cable TV and the Internet, anyway.

Meme-statizing the Canon

This is cool — people are taking The Canon list from The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and doing the whole "bold the ones you’ve seen" meme thing; it appears to have gotten its start here and moved out into the world. So thanks, Jaquandor! You’ve done me a solid.

Along with bolding the ones they have seen, folks are also adding their commentary with the selections and wondering why some movies are in there and other ones are not (28 Days Later… and The Incredibles are the two people seem to be having the most problems with), which is of course as it should be. Here’s a pretty amusing broadside on the whole list, however, from this fellow:

At points, this list looks like a projection calendar for MST3K. I would agree with many of his selections, but he gives too much weight to both contemporary and American movies. On the latter count, he did include a few British movies, a couple of French ones, and one Russian and one German film, but these are the exception, not the rule, and they have only been added to the list because of their heavy influence on American science fiction. On the former count, though, this guy does himself in. Obviously, a *canon* is not really supposed to be an up to the minute index of what’s good but a list of works that have had a large influence on the genre as it stands today. Scalzi apparently forgot his dictionary when he decided to include The Stepford Wives, which, as a poorly written pastiche, will presumably influence no one, and The Incredibles. Mr. Scalzi, don’t quit your day job, unless of course your day job involves writing, in which case you should quit.

Ha! Awesome.

(Mind you, The Stepford Wives did influence at least one set of filmmakers — which is to say, the ones that remade it last year — but I put it on the list for other reasons, which naturally I think are quite valid. As for The Incredibles, well, just you wait. The selection will be vindicated. In any event, my dictionary definition of "canon" has it as "a group of works that are generally accepted as representing a field," which can certainly accomodate The Incredibles and Stepford. But as noted, I don’t expect everyone to accept all my choices. This is the fun part — seeing how and why people disagree.)

Aside from the occasional crankiness, people do seem to be having fun with it, and that’s a good thing. I would post the meme myself, but I’m not entirely sure what that would prove; I would certainly hope I’d seen all the films in The Canon, after all.

The Cynical Writer

Pyr Books editorial director Lou Anders has some kind things to say about Old Man’s War here, which is very nice of him. Anders’ stewardship of Pyr has resulted in the imprint publishing some fine books, so for him to give OMW a thumbs-up makes me feel shiny and happy. He also says I’m a genuinely nice guy, and that my breath is fresh and minty! Okay, he didn’t actually write the last part. Although I am chewing peppermint gum right now. I am entirely mintilated.

I note Anders’ write-up for OMW, however, not for the praise but because he notes that he was initially not interested in the book:

Not only is it "not the sort of thing I normally read," but initially, I quite deliberately held off checking it out. First, because I had heard that Scalzi admitted to (cynically?) seeking out what sells (military SF) and then writing same, and second because Scalzi put me off on his blog by quoting my most hated cliché, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I read for entertainment, yes, but part of what is entertaining to me is the act of learning, of bettering myself, and I have always held the occupation of writer as something laudable on the level of that of teacher or scientist and expect writers to be somewhat smarter than average. I read to learn, and when a writer tells me upfront they have nothing deep to say, I take them at face value and go elsewhere.

Both of these objections make me smile, not in the least because they are objections absolutely based in fact: I did use the "Western Union" quote (although not at the Whatever, but in an interview for Strange Horizons) and I did quite intentionally write a military SF novel after a trip to the bookstore to see what kind of SF was selling. It’s all true! And with your indulgence, I’ll chat a little about both.

Let’s start with the "Western Union" comment, which is in response to this question:

DB: You note that Agent to the Stars was not a story "near and dear to [your] heart." Was Old Man’s War that story, or do we get to look forward to another great story yet to come?

JS: Well, to be clear, I like Agent’s story very much—it was a lot of fun to think about and to write. But I think a lot of beginning writers try to write about something really important to them right out of the box, and to be successful in doing so, which I think is a little like expecting to hit a hole-in-one your first time at a golf tee. With my first novel (which, remember, I had no intention to sell), I just wanted to hit one on the fairway. So I chose a story about space aliens and Hollywood, which seemed to me a doable enterprise. And if I had mangled Agent beyond all recognition, it wouldn’t have killed me or my desire to write.

I’m a little wary about consciously trying to sit down to write a "great story." There’s that old saying: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." I want to write a good story, one that keeps a reader wanting to read. I think that within the confines of a good story one can write some fairly significant things, so long as they are in service to that story. In Old Man’s War, I think I touch on a number of significant topics, but the operative word there is "touch." If you start calling attention to what you’re doing, your story is likely to grind to a halt and you’ve pulled your reader out of the world you’ve created to go "Look! A significant point is being made!" I mean, it’s better to assume your reader isn’t stupid and can handle some subtlety.

In other words, the moment I say to someone, "I will now sit down to write My Great Story," I hope they will do me the courtesy of braining me with a shovel. For now, I’ll stick to trying to write good stories, and see where that gets me.

I don’t think Anders and I are in disagreement in terms of what writers can offer as entertainment and as entertainers. I’m certainly happy when writers offer more than mere plotting, and many of my favorite writers do. Entertainment doesn’t have be vacuous, even when it is light. But as a reader, I live in fear of what I call the "John Galt Maneuver," in which a character stands in one place over an entire signature of pages, barfing up the author’s political rhetoric like a bulemic Mary Sue. Science fiction’s history is not exactly devoid of such blatant Galtery, which I think is to its detriment; as a writer of science fiction, I want to be more facile than that when and if I have a point to make.

Old Man’s War is an interesting case for political/rhetorical messaging because its universe is so extreme: Everyone is at war with nearly everyone else. Also, the political implications of this are only lightly touched on in OMW, in no small part because it’s a "grunt’s eye view" of that universe, and our hero has other things on his mind than social-political structure of the Colonial Union. His exposure to it is limited in any event, due to being a soldier and focusing on combat. But I think astute readers will have no doubt formulated some thoughts on what sort of government and society the Colonial Union actually is. In The Ghost Brigades, that story thread is explored rather more significantly, and should there be a third book, I think many of the consequences of what the Colonial Union is and how it is constructed will come to a head.

Certainly there is some authorial messaging going on in all this; I do have a point of view, after all, and anyway someone has to make decisions as to what’s going on in this universe. It might as well be me, being that I am the author and all. But as noted, the goal is to have any messaging come through in the story, not in some character expounding at length (I do have characters expounding, mind you, both in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. But I try to keep the expounding to a couple of paragraphs at most, and also try to let other characters get a word in edgewise). Also, as I writer, I want to make sure I put the story first, because that’s what people have come to the book for. Any messaging has to fit the story, not the other way around. The OMW universe is a fictional and extreme sort of universe — any messaging has to play by the rules that the universe is constructed by.

(Indeed, that’s one of the things that differentiates science fiction from "mainstream" fiction: Moral, political and philosophical choices are in the context of a created universe, not necessarily the one we live in. Some messaging won’t map perfectly (or at all) into this universe, which (among other things) bugs people who don’t want to have to stretch their smug little minds to accomodate a new set of rules — you can tell who these people are when they say things like "Science Fiction isn’t real literature." Just smile, pity their tiny inflexible brains, and move on.)

One thing to point out (and which I suspect that Anders probably wouldn’t take issue with) is that while entertainment can have a message, a message is not always required: Sometimes something can just be kiss kiss bang bang (and in the case of science fiction, also rocket rocket). The Android’s Dream, the book I keep mentioning but which almost none of you have seen — it’ll be out late ’06 from Tor — is, as far as I can tell, almost entirely message free. Indeed, the first chapter is just one extended fart joke, and believe me you, other than in an intestinal sense, there’s nothing deep about that. Having said that, I think that chapter is one of the best things I’ve written — certainly one of the most fun, in any event.

Moving on to the "I wrote military SF because military SF was what I saw selling," I’ll first note that Anders’ reaction to this has not been unique: I know of several other people who were at least initially put off by this admission of mine, either because they’ve told me personally or because I’ve read it in their blogs (yes, I ego surf. This should not be news).

In a real sense I can sympathize. I think most people who experience art above the level of mere consumption want the art to be authentic, and to have that art created from a genuine place within the artist (bear in mind I’m using "art" and "artist" in very encompassing definitions of the words). You could very well argue that Old Man’s War comes from a non-authentic place, creatively. I entirely admit I had no real love for military SF prior to writing Old Man’s War — I didn’t dislike or disdain it (which I think is important), it just wan’t something that resonated with me in any significant way. I liked some books that could be classified as military SF but was neutral or disliked others. If I had gone into the bookstore that day and seen another subgenre of SF taking up most of the shelf space, it’s entirely possible (and likely!) that I would have attempted a book in that subgenre instead. For someone approaching my book, knowledge of the novel’s backstory of blatant calculation doesn’t do much for its credibility, or mine. Granted and noted.

But the book is what it is, and I am who I am. Hi, I’m John Scalzi, and I write books to make money. I also write books to enjoy myself and to amuse others. When the conditions are right, these latter reasons take precedence over the former — but I don’t worry about it too much if it’s the other way around. What matters is whether what I write is any damned good. I’m very concerned about that, for both business and creative reasons. I want to write good books so readers feel like the books have been worth their time and money, and I want to write good books so that publishers feel like they’re going to do well by publishing me.

This is why I’m not in the least concerned about sharing Old Man’s War’s publication history. Yes, I decided to write military SF because it’s what I saw selling, and as an unpublished fiction author, I wanted to maximize my chances of selling a book and having it do well in the market. Having made that decision, I wrote a story in that subgenre that I would want to read, and generally speaking, I don’t appreciate reading crap. So there was the motivation to write something that would sell, and also the motivation to write something good to read. The former motivation can reasonably be described as cynical, to the extent jumping through any set of hoops can be defined as cynical; the latter motivation, I would argue, is genuine and authentic.

One of the great and interesting debates regarding art of any sort is to what extent intent is part of the evaulative process of the work — whatever a work stands independent of its creator’s motivation for creating, or whether it has to be considered in that context. I’m a creator, but for more than a decade before I was a creator I was a critic, and that time as a critic has made me wary of factoring motivation when considering a work. More accurately, I think one can factor in motivation only after one has examined whether the work works; an artist may pour his heart and soul into a book or album or painting or whatever, but you know, if that book or album or painting sucks, it really doesn’t matter if the intent was pure; it’s still a bad book (or album, or painting or whatever). A really excellent work of art, on the other hand, may be enhanced by knowing the motivation behind it, but it has to be an excellent work of art on its own merits first.

Readers don’t read process, they read finished books. Music listeners don’t hear process, they hear the finished symphony. Moviegoers don’t watch process, they watch the final cut of the film (until the director’s cut DVD, anyway). Process is opaque and largely irrelevant; results are transparent and open to evaluation. Now, as it happens, people do often judge on process, if they know the process. But the funny thing about process is that it doesn’t last — the work does. Sooner or later the work itself will stand alone.

I’m open about the process of writing Old Man’s War because I think it’s interesting (whether or not I think process is artistically relevant, I think it’s fun to know about), and also because I’m comfortable with how the work came out. I think it’s a good book, and it stands on its own in terms of being a good read. Will how the book came to be made affect how people see it? In some cases, sure; it already has. These things happen. But when it comes to cracking the cover and reading what’s inside, people eventually deal with the book and the story. One hopes for a happy outcome when and if that happens.



Athena’s new plush toys: Giant Microbes! Obsessive that I am, I got the whole set: Shigella dysenteriae, Strptococcus pyogenes, Bordetella pertussis, Rhinovirus, Orthomyxoviridus and Streptococcus pneumoniae, all one million times size, plush, and with totally non-accurate eyes. As you can see, Athena is entirely thrilled. I do sometimes wonder if 20 years from now my daughter will presenting me with very expensive therapy bills. Hopefully she’ll have her own insurance by then. Until then, pure comedy gold!

Athena says: "My bugs are sleeping right now, until the evening when they’ll wake up and find people to infect!" That’s the spirit. 

Oh, My.

I do believe this is my favorite Penny Arcade strip of all time. And that’s saying something. It helps to have been a nervous new dad at some point, however. Also, don’t click through if you don’t want to be mildly disturbed for the rest of the day.

Clouds and Sun

Normally I don’t suggest pointing one’s camera at the sun. But in this case the resulting picture was worth it.


Mmmm… lens flare.  

The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies — Officially Out!

The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies is now officially available for purchase here in the US (it’s been out in the UK for a couple of weeks now), and naturally, I encourage each and every one of you to enter through the doors of your nearest bookseller and proclaim in a loud, clear and confident voice that you are there to purchase this very book, and in doing so make a better world for yourself, the book sellers, and all your various and sundry children. Alternately, here’s the link to snag it off Amazon.

As you might expect from the title, the book is a guide to science fiction film, from the very first SF film in 1902, to this summer’s biggest science fiction extravaganzas. That’s 103 years of science fiction film in 325 pages, including the index (lovingly indexed, I’ll note, by the super-competent and generally awesome Susan Marie Groppi). But — of course — it does some scene setting as well, putting SF films into context. The book is arranged in the following chapters:

The Origins: The history of science fiction and other speculative fiction, reaching back to ancient Greece and then following through with written science fiction through the 21st Century.

The History: A quick jaunt through the eras of science fiction film from 1902 to 2005, not only in the US but worldwide.

The Canon: Reviews and commentary on the 50 science fiction films you have to see before you die (more on this in a minute)

The Icons: The people and characters of enduring significance in science fiction film.

Crossovers: Film genres that mix and match with science fiction, including fantasy, thrillers, horror and animation.

The Science: A look at the science (or lack thereof) in science fiction films.

The Locations: Significant studios and locations where science fiction is filmed, and places (real and otherwise) made famous by science fiction.

Global: Snapshots of science fiction films from all over the world, from Canada to South Korea.

Information: Past and present science fiction in other media.

All of this is designed to be both interesting and informative, but the part of the book that’s going to get most people’s attention — and raise hackles — is The Canon, which features the 50 science fiction films I have deemed to be the most significant in the history of film. Note that "most significant" does not mean "best" or "most popular" or even "most influential." Some of the films may be all three of these, but not all of them are — indeed, some films in The Canon aren’t objectively very good, weren’t blockbusters and may not have influenced other filmmakers to any significant degree. Be that as it may, I think they matter — in one way or another, they are uniquely representative of some aspect of the science fiction film experience.

You ask: Why do I get to choose what films are in the canon? Well, you know: 15 years of film reviewing and following the business of cinema, and a lifelong interest in science fiction, gives me some amount of credibility. Being a published science fiction author doesn’t hurt, either. Now, I didn’t start this project thinking I knew it all — some of you may recall I made an open call for people to suggest their thoughts on the most significant SF films — but by the time I got down to the writing, I felt comfortable with the list I drew up, and in saying that these were the most significant SF films of all time.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t expect everyone to agree with my selections for the Science Fiction Film Canon. Indeed, what fun would it be if everyone did? I hope that people use The Canon list as a springboard for starting a wide-ranging debate about what science fiction films truly matter. So if you think my list is crap, bully for you. Do better. Be aware I’m willing to fight to the death for this list; otherwise, bring it on.

So, what films are in The Canon? Here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!
Back to the Future
Blade Runner
Bride of Frankenstein
Brother From Another Planet
A Clockwork Orange
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Damned
Destination Moon
The Day The Earth Stood Still
Escape From New York
ET: The Extraterrestrial
Flash Gordon: Space Soldiers (serial)
The Fly (1985 version)
Forbidden Planet
Ghost in the Shell
The Incredibles
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version)
Jurassic Park
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior
The Matrix
On the Beach
Planet of the Apes (1968 version)
Solaris (1972 version)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The Stepford Wives
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
The Thing From Another World
Things to Come
12 Monkeys
28 Days Later
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
2001: A Space Odyssey
La Voyage Dans la Lune
War of the Worlds (1953 version)

No, Serenity didn’t make the list. Deal with it (it is in the book, though. Page 24. Big shout-out to Joss Whedon there, too, although I don’t have very nice things to say about his Alien Resurrection script when I review that movie on page 59. Please don’t hurt me, Whedon fans).

This list only notes the films I selected; for the reasons and rationales behind their selection, you’ll need to pick of the book and read the reviews of each of these films. There is some excellent writing in those reviews, if I do say so myself; if any of you were worried I might tone down the snark, well, let me just say your worries are unfounded (you’ll particularly want to check out the Star Wars and Matrix reviews, which are chock full of snarky goodness). I will note that this list is very substantially informed by suggestions from people who responded to my August 2004 call for input, so if you were one of the folks who pitched in for that, many thanks. You helped quite a bit.

I’m very proud of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies; it was a lot of work to put this book together, and I think it works on a lot of levels — it’s a fun overview for people who don’t know much about the history of science fiction film, but even those with deep knowledge of the field will find interesting stuff in here (I’ll note I found a few typos here and there — well, a few more than a few. Welcome to first editions! We’ll get them for the second printing; in the meantime it doesn’t affect the reading in any significant way). The book gives folks lots to argue about, which makes me happy.

I hope you’ll check this book out and find it as interesting to read as it was for me to write — and that you end up checking out some science fiction films you might not otherwise have seen. That would make me happiest of all.  

Update, 6:06pm — The Amazon ranking for RG2SFM is 1,800 at the moment, up from 105,000 or so yesterday. w00t! That’s really excellent for a pop reference book. You’ve made my publisher’s day. I’m also pleased. Thank you very much for checking it out.

What Writing Online is Good For, October 2005 Edition

This line in this entry over at TechRepublic Site made me twitch a little:

Apparently, the trendy new way to get noticed by book publishers is to serialize your novel online and let the editors find you.

Well, okay, if one defines "trend" as this maneuver working for three speculative fiction authors over three years (actually two-and-a-half, as one of the authors noted was an odd-duck combination, in that portions of her novel were spotted online, and the physical manuscript of her novel was also rescued from the slush pile). Meanwhile, probably more than a thousand books were sold in the spec fic arena in the same timespan by the traditional method of submitting work for editorial consideration. If you’re an aspiring first-time author, I would, you know, look at at the odds involved before making a decision.

The author of the linked article does thankfully note the long odds involved:

every one of the authors discourages people from relying on the tactic as a way to get discovered (sound advice, by my analysis), but do recommend it as a way of getting your writing before an audience and working the kinks out.

To be entirely honest about it, however, if you are going to take the time and effort to put your writing online, I think it’s far less useful to put your fiction online than it is to spend some time creating an interesting blog and cultivating an audience for it. This is not an "either/or" situation, of course, as I have done both. But I will say that one of these you should do first, and that’s to work on your blog.

The reason why should be reasonably obvious if you look at your blog in strict marketing terms (which you shouldn’t do in real life, because no one likes reading a site that is obviously tacked up for marketing purposes. I’ll get to that later). Blogs are fabulous marketing tools because what they’re good for is getting people involved with you as a writer; they’re tuning in to read what’s going on in your head and in your life, and to a very real extent are sharing your life with you. They commiserate when you suffer a setback, and congratulate when you get ahead, and otherwise view you as part of their circle of acquaintances — not just some writer, but someone they know and (provided you have comments and/or answer e-mail) interact with. In other words, at some point some percentage of them stop being merely readers and become fans.

Fans — and again, we’re talking in strict marketing terms — are useful. They’re useful because they’re likely to be proactive not only in buying any non-blog-related writing output you might create, but because they’ll also help you sell your work to others, just like fans of other creative people help those folks as well. They (probably) won’t be able to help you sell a book to a publisher, but once you sell the book, they can be there to help give the book a decent send-off. That in turn will be useful to your publisher.

Indeed, I think as more time goes on, more and more publishers will be looking at first-time authors and asking what sort of "fandom" they already have. If I were an editor and I was presented with two first-time authors, one of whom was not online, and another who was and had a couple thousand people visiting their blog on a daily basis, all other things being equal, I’d go with the writer who is already online. That’s a couple thousand people I don’t have to introduce this writer to, and possibly a couple thousand people who can help me sell that writer as an author. First-time author unit sales are usually low enough that a couple thousand blog readers can make a real and significant impact to a first time author’s sell numbers. 

I don’t expect such considerations will trump competent writing — given the choice between an exquisitely-written novel by a nobody and a crap novel by someone with a popular blog, I would hope an editor and publisher would decide the exquisitely-writing author was worth cultivating. But when the two writers are of equal competence, why wouldn’t an editor go for the one that brings readers to the party? I certainly know the relatively large readership of the Whatever is a selling point in my publishers’ eyes.

Having said all that, I think it’s also true that the moment you start treating your site readership like monkeys to be marketed to, you run the very real risk of losing them. I think one’s readers are happy to celebrate one’s achievements, but they know the difference between you celebrating with them, and you marketing to them. Not every reader wants to be treated as a consumer, and this is even more of the case in the online world. If you’re a writer and you’ve spent the time cultivating a relationship with people (and they with you), they’re going to feel betrayed if the tone of your site devolves purely to "and here’s another thing of mine to buy!" I don’t think people mind when an author says such things — authors write books with the hopes of selling them, and most people get that — as long as it’s not the only thing an author says. Such things need to be part of the conversational and narrative flow of a blog or journal, not a disjointed break from it.

To hammer this point one final time: Yes, a blog is a great way to market yourself. And the minute you think of your blog primarily in marketing terms is the minute you kill its usefulness. People aren’t coming to your site to be marketed to; they’re coming to be entertained and to catch up with you. Be real, or you’re going to lose them.

Now, if you do want to post creative work online, I strongly suspect it helps to have already been engaged in the online world in other means. I posted Old Man’s War on the Whatever after I’d been online for more than four years; by that time I had a couple thousand people a day coming by to see what I was up to. The reaction to OMW was stronger and more immediate than the reaction to Agent to the Stars, which I posted in March of 1999, when I only had a couple hundred people visiting every day (see what I mean about it taking time to cultivate an audience?). No matter how you slice it, if you want whatever fiction you post online to be appreciated and noticed, you need to develop an online presence first.

If you don’t want to bother generating an online presence before posting creative work online, here are some of the problems you can expect: Posting creative writing out of the blue just means you have this big mass of verbiage online; no one knows its provenance, which means they’re less willing to take the time with it, because, after all, who are you? Creative writing is also more difficult to produce on a constant basis (particularly if you’re aiming for quality), meaning that you can’t update on a daily or near-daily basis, which is the most desirable frequency for writing online. Finally, creative writing is something akin to a performance, while blog writing is closer to a conversation. By and large I’ve found people want to talk back when they’re reading online.  Upshot here: If you expect simply posting creative stuff online is going to open doors, you’re probably delusional. It takes time — lots of time.

The good news is that it’s now easier to develop an online presence than it was before. There are more options to do it simply,and  the communities are significantly more developed (particularly in places like LiveJournal and AOL Journals (nb: I work for the latter)). There are also indeed a number of editors and agents online, particularly those focused in genre like SF/F, Horror and Romance, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that you might get to know them and they might see your writing. You might even be asked to send in some writing, even if you haven’t put your fiction online (ask Jo Walton about that). But the real advantage will be that people get to know you, and get to like what you have to say. And that might have useful carryover into the rest of your writing life.

Can you plan on it? No. But you can work with it, if it does happen. And in the meantime, you might just simply enjoy writing online, which is a reward in itself.

What Passes For an Online Literary Feud These Days

This entry at Galleycat about my and Cherie Priest’s recent observations about writers (entitled "Sci-Fi Writers Saner & Nicer, Probably Better Looking," — well, we’re nicer, anyway), clued me in to the fact there’s some recent online literary-esque unpleasantness involving writers Steve Almond and Mark Sarvas. The throughline here is that Sarvas apparently bags on Almond’s writing all the time in his blog, and yet when the two of them were in the same room at the same time during a recent LA literary gathering, neither of them physically beat on the other, or even simply immolated in some sort of bizarre literary matter/anti-matter event that would have taken out the entire of Los Angeles’ literati, a tragedy from which it would have taken the US literary scene at least fifteen minutes to recover (Aw, shut your hole. I’m from LA, damn you. I can make these jokes).

Almond wrote about the event, or lack thereof, in an astonishingly awful piece that could only have run in that miasmic hole of self-regard known as Salon; Sarvas batted back in his literary blog. Of the two of them, Sarvas comes off better, as he’s internalized the blog world response of cool and bemused indifference to character assassination, including the delight in showing off some of the invective of the person attacking them. As I’m no stranger to such maneuvers myself, I appreciate the performance of the form. But neither comes off covered in glory. In this sort of thing, one rarely does.

However, the true bad actor here, if you ask me, is Salon. It actually paid Almond to write his unholy example of congratulatory literary fartsmelling. If the piece is genuinely indicative of Almond’s personality, it’s no wonder Sarvas didn’t bother to seek him out, since he makes himself seem terribly unpleasant to be with or even near. Salon’s editors should have taken Almond aside and said to him, "now, you know this makes you look an ass, right?" Because if they didn’t, they did the poor man a disservice. This is what editors are supposed to do: Correct your grammar and keep you from making an ass of yourself in public (the two are not mutually exclusive).

But then Salon seems to make a business out of giving writers enough rope to hang themselves with. The seven most damaging words in the English language for the reputation of any novelist might very well be "I just wrote an article for Salon." If it weren’t for the fact Salon’s book section is serialing Cory Doctorow’s latest novella, it would be almost entirely useless. Seriously, people: Salon’s book section. It’s death, in online magazine form. Enough said. 

Authors, if you must write a piece in which you assassinate the character of some other writer, don’t take money for it. That’s just icky; there’s something unspeakably unseemly about Almond having taken money for suggesting that some other writer might spooge in his pants just through the act of meeting him. It certainly doesn’t make you want to handle any change that Almond might give you.

Really, now: do it on your blog. Unmediated, ill-advised gouts of ego-salving literary otherhating are what blogs are for. And then you get the fun of actually conducting a writer’s feud in your comment thread, because the chances of the other writer not finding out you’ve written horrible things about them (via their daily egosurf through Google and Technorati) are slim approaching none. You get all of the dubious thrill of slapping down some other wordsmith, with none of the reputational taint of taking filthy lucre for what is essentially an exercise in degrading yourself.

Mind you, you shouldn’t be initiating an online literary badmouthing in the first place. Other than cheap thrills, it doesn’t do anybody any good, and you develop a reputation for being something of a twit (responding to a literary badmouthing is fine, although remember the key to success is bemused indifference, at least in the initial response. Wait to bring out the knives until the inevitable comment thread to follow). Better than debasing yourself online is to save that sort of thing for bar talk, where it can eventually settle into the sediment of literary gossip. It’s more fun that way. In any event, I suspect it would lead to a higher chance of a physical altercation, which is what Almond seems to have been hoping for, anyway. Although, honestly, watching authors fistfight is like watching geese play Jeopardy. There’s a lot of honking and squawking but no one ever gets to what they’re supposed to be doing.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that no one knows how to conduct a real literary feud anymore, online or otherwise. It’s a shame, that.  

Questions for a Soldier — an Old Man’s War Tale Addendum

In the earlier post about "Questions for a Soldier," the limited-edition chapbook set in the Old Man’s War universe, I mentioned that one of the selling points for collectors would likely be a very cool illustrator for the chapbook. Well, now I can tell you who it is: Bob Eggleton, who has won more Hugo and Chesley awards for his artwork than some people have fingers and toes. He’ll be providing three illustrations for the chapbook, including the cover art. My thoughts on this: Groovy.

Writers on Writers, And It’s Not What You Think

Nor would you want it to be. Writers tend to be lumpy. Two of them together? Yeeeech.

Cherie Priest (who, for the record, does not appear to be inappropriately lumpy) notes an inherent wariness about meeting writers:

I tend to get along poorly with other writers until I know them well enough to know that they are not the sort of writers who piss me off. This may sound unfair and I’m sure that it is, but I automatically assume that other writers are assholes and that I don’t want to meet them. The safest way to introduce me to other writers is to pretend that I’m a cat, being introduced to another cat in close quarters. Stand back. Get the water hose ready in case of emergency. Do not expect the introduction to go very well, and furthermore, be delighted if the encounter ends without blood loss.

I find this amusing (aside from the fact it’s amusingly written) because my experience is the opposite; by and large I find I get along just fine with other writers. But I also readily admit that I’ve spent almost no substantial time in the presence of writers who were not either already professional writers, or writing in a manner that subsumes individual neuroses underneath a need to get something in on a deadline (i.e., college newspaper stuff). Prior to selling a novel, none of the people I would deem as good friends were aspiring authors, and most of the people I know on a day-to-day basis aren’t writers either. I’ve never been a workshopper or writer’s circle type, so I never regularly crossed paths with other aspiring authors while I was one myself. The closest I came to any of this was the single fiction writing class I took when I was a freshman at the U of C, which served largely to establish that I’m not a "writing class" sort of person. Once I left college, I knew plenty of writers, but they were all journalists, which means (by and large) that they approach writing as a job, with daily performance expectations — i.e., deadlines and what have you.

In short, for the vast majority of my working life I’ve been isolated from the type of "writer" who sees writing as a holy calling, and have instead been exposed to the type of writer who sees it as their job, either as a journalist or as a working writer who relies on pay copy to pay the rent. These people — regardless of the type or style of writing they may engage in — tend to be fairly practical people when it comes to the "art" of writing; they talk shop the way mechanics talk shop, not the way theologians do (or are imagined to, anyway). Allowing for the general variation of human personalities (which is to say, some people are just assholes no matter what they do for living), I have to say that on average I’ve liked the working writers I’ve met. Even if we don’t share exactly the same worldview, we have a commonality of practical experience that gives us something to work with, at least until we all decide we’re bored with talking about writing and go off from there.

I don’t think I’ve met a working writer who does vomit on endlessly about the holy mission of writing and how it is an expression of their soul and so on, possibly because that sort of thing eventually takes a back seat to paying the electric bill, and possibly because if a writer is doing the "show don’t tell" thing like they’re supposed to do in the first place, they don’t need to blather on about it; it’s there in the writing, or should be. I don’t know what I would do if someone was blathering on to me about the holy mission of writing, actually. I guess to amuse myself I’d picture them in their underwear, covered in blood-sucking leeches, turning powder blue as they slowly deoxygenate. Yes, yes. That is an image which will do quite nicely.

I think it also helps to meet the right writers, frankly. At my first science fiction convention, I knew not a damn person, so Patrick Nielsen Hayden basically appointed Cory Doctorow as my "con buddy" and Cory did me a mitzvah by introducing me to a bunch of swell folks who also happened to be writers, many of whom have since become good friends. These writers are simply good people — they’re happy for their friends’ success, they’re generous in their friendship, and they tend also to be amusing as hell. Good role models for any budding writer. Next time you see me, have me introduce you to some of them. You’ll like them. Or there’s something wrong with you. Yeah, sorry about that.

Tech Geekery Which Promises Not to Be Of Interest to Anyone But Me

First off, my recent Web site invoice informs me that I used 70GB of bandwidth last month. Actually I used very little of it; it’s the rest of all y’all who have done the honors. Which makes me think, damn, that’s a lot of bandwidth, and it’s not like I’m swapping warez here, it’s just text and pictures. However my host provider is apparently under the impression that 70GB is well within my monthly pipeline tolerances and as long as they’re not going to complain, neither am I. So, please, feel free to visit anytime. I’ve got the smorgasbord bandwidth plan, it seems.

Second, Sprint, my connectivity provider, as recently decided that my little rural burgh deserves a boost to its DSL speeds, and a cut in the cost of those services, so now I have a DSL connection with 3Mbps throughput downstream and 512kbps upstream — and get this, now when I download I actually get download speeds that approximate what I’m paying for! Which is a genuine improvement from what it was before. And it costs less, as I mentioned, although getting it to cost less involved some interesting reshuffling of my phone services (which are also provided by Sprint. See, here in rural Ohio, you can have any communication provider you want, so long as it’s Sprint). So now in addition to faster download speeds, I have a whole bunch of phone trickery I will never use, such as "Repeat Dial," "3-Way Calling" and "Nuke Vladivostok," which I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to have access to. Also, now I get billed for my Dish Network through Sprint instead of Dish Network. Whatever. Net, it all costs less, so I’m wondering how anyone’s making any money any more. But what do I care? I’m drinking from the firehose, baby!

Actually, the thing I notice the most at this point is the vastly improved upload speed, which is something on the order of four times faster than it was before, which means all those pictures I’m foisting onto the net upload lickety split, and also I can no longer ever blame net lag for the fact that 15-year-old boys totally pwnzor my 36-year-old ass in Half-Life2 Deathmatch. Damn kids.

A Pop (well, bluegrass) Quiz

Statement: Man, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the Dolly Parton version of John Lennon’s "Imagine."

Question: Do you think I’m being sarcastic or genuine in the statement above?

Extra Credit: Does your answer change if in the statement above I replace the words "John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’" with "Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven?’"

Remember to show your work.  

Work Wonkery

Despite living a phlegm-based existence today, I have been reasonably productive; aside from my AOL Journal duties I wrote up and/or discussed with with editors or agents no less than five possible future book projects, fiction and non-fiction both. At least two of these, I think, have immediate short-term potential (I also discussed a sixth book project, which is unofficially official, which means that it’s very likely to go through but I can’t talk about it now — don’t worry, I’ll let you know when it happens).

Those of you who keep track of these things will note it’s now roughly a month after I completed The Ghost Brigades, which is the amount of time I suggested last month that I would be comfortable not having another book project lined up, but after which I would start getting twitchy and wondering how I would feed my precious family. So this orgy of book proposery is right on time. Now all I have to do is have all these proposals get accepted, and I’ll be good to go through 2008 at least. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Also, without going into any sort of detail, I passed on a potential book project that was offered to me; I thought it was a very good proposal and I suspect strongly it’s going to do well for the publisher, but I didn’t know how I was going to fit it in. I imagine the publisher won’t have any difficulties finding someone for it, though, and best of luck to them. I note this passed project to you primarily because it’s the first time I’ve been able to pass on a book project that’s been offered to me without first engaging in a long, drawn-out self-examination as to whether passing on this project means I’ll never sell another book again, and I feel pretty good about that.

Bear in mind I could be entirely delusional on this score, and may, in fact never sell another book again. But I don’t feel like that’s the case, and it was nice to be able to look at the project, think "wow, cool idea, wish I could do it but can’t" and then move on. I do have enough going on.

One of the things I feel best about these various book ideas and proposals I’ve been working with today is that there’s a nice range in them; as the poster child for the easily bored, I like the idea of having entirely different types of projects to keep me amused. I think this has been borne out in the books so far; I’ve had books on finance, astronomy, film and stupidity, and then I have fiction on top of that. I won’t leave this world without having established that my interests are all over the damn board, and I also feel good about that. Hopefully this new batch of ideas and proposals will keep that streak going.

Unless I never sell another book again. We’ll just have to see, won’t we.


The entire Scalzi clan is home ill. Yes, even the cats. See you all tomorrow. In the meantime, consider this an open thread.

NaNoWriMo Revisited

I was asked in e-mail to air my thoughts regarding the upcoming National Novel Writing Month, which happens in November: The idea is to start and complete an entire novel in a single month (that month, clearly, being November). As it happens, I already wrote about my thoughts on NaNoWriMo two years ago, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll just link to it here.

Also, no, I don’t expect to participate: I’ll likely start my next novel — whatever it may be — in January. Before then I’ll be doing editorial wrangling on Subterranean Magazine, updating The Rough Guide to the Universe for its second edition, getting out some book proposals, and hopefully banging out a couple of short stories I’ve promised to people. All of which will keep me busy enough, thanks. But by all means, don’t let me stop you.