Reader Request Week 2006 #3: Writers and Technology

Zhwj asks about where writers and technology intersect:

Where do you think writers should be, technology-wise? With your presence on this blog, and your forays into online distribution and publishing, you probably are in the upper .n% of technologically-capable writers. And we don’t tend to hear too much these days from writers who insist on pecking things out on an Underwood. What’s the minimum technical competence at present? e-mail? online research? regexp formulation? How much does technology help (or hinder) writing? Obviously this will depend subject matter and such, but is it still possible to buy envelopes and stamps and have that be your connection to the publishing world?

Well, strictly speaking, as the vast majority of magazines and book publishers out there in the world demand query/submissions to be mailed in with an SASE, and all but the most bleeding-edge technophile publishers at the very least still accept such queries/submissions, you can indeed still get along with envelopes, stamps and paper. And I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

Indeed, to some extent, rabidly technophile writers are at a disadvantage to more traditional writers. To use myself as an example, it’s been so long since I’ve conducted business using paper that I don’t even own a printer anymore, and haven’t for about two years now. When documents come that need to be printed out, I forward them to Krissy, who prints them out at work (I understand she pays her work for the cost of the printing) and brings them home. But what this means is that I don’t in fact query or send submissions to magazines/publishers who require paper submissions; in effect, I am cutting myself off from that 80% or so of publishing opportunities. Now, personally speaking this is not too much of a problem because at this point in my career work tends to come looking for me rather than the other way around, and people with whom I work are willing to tolerate my “paper is what happens to other people” ways. But a writer who was just starting out or who did not have a professional network akin to my current set of connections would be dumb to do what I do.

(And to be clear, just because this is how my career works today doesn’t mean that’s how it’ll work a year, five years or ten years from now; if it ever comes to a point where I have to get a printer or risk not being able to work as a writer — duh, I’m buying a printer. I like being on the tech edge of things, but I’m also not stupid about it.)

However, this is only talking about the submissions process. Can writers survive without recent technology in other ways — such as research, connecting with sources, working with editors and so on? Again the answer is yes… if you live in New York, London, Los Angeles or other places where the cultural infrastructure allows a writer real-world access to these things. If you wish to live somewhere $2000 a month gets you more than a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up, however, you really do need to be connected. To use myself again, I live in a small, rural community with one very small library, hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from the editors with whom I work on a regular basis, and an equal distance from most of the people whom I deal with for interviews, materials and so on. I could not do the non-fiction aspect of my writing career with any sort of facility, living where I do, without today’s technology. I could do the fiction aspect of it reasonably well, but even that would be more difficult. This is in fact technology’s gift to writers: Now we can live anywhere we wish and still have access to the tools and people that (and who) allow us to be able to do our jobs. Thank you, technology!

Technology does have its drawbacks as well, of course. As I noted at a panel at Boskone, thanks to the advent of the Internet, this is the first era in which a writer’s primary tool of output — the computer — is now also his primary tool of input. Which is to say the same machine you write your stories on is also the machine from which you get your news, correspondence and entertainment and also (for a growing number of far-flung writers) community. And it’s easy to switch between input and output modes — so easy it becomes a real problem. At one point writing The Ghost Brigades I had to switch off my broadband connection because I was checking e-mail every sixty seconds rather than thinking about what I was writing. Equally, I now make it a point to get up from my computer when I’m plotting story because if I stay in front of the computer, I’ll just ego-surf or read other people’s blogs. Which doesn’t actually help me tell my story. Now, writers have never had a problem procrastinating, ever, so one can’t blame technology for this. But one can recognize that technology makes it easier.

One also should recognize that technology shapes writing and writers; the tools one uses matter in one’s final product. I have no doubt that my writing is directly informed by the technology I use to write it. I can’t imagine trying to write a novel on a typewriter, for example; I realize other people did it — for a century! — but then people lived without antibiotics, too, and I don’t want that either.

Here’s an interesting fact: All my novels to date are first drafts that weren’t outlined in advance. Why? Because the computer makes that possible. I can edit on the fly as I write so many of the major tasks of additional drafts of a book (polishing of the text, sanding down plot lines, etc) occur as I go along. The rewriting I’ve been required to do for my novels (so far, at least) has been minimal because by the time I write “The End,” most re-writing has been done as I went along. I suspect it’s not accurate to call the draft I send to my editors a “first draft”; it’s more of a “fractal draft,” in that it incorporates several waves of on-the-fly editing, emanating backward from various points in the text, terminating at the point of completion.

Doing this sort of “fractal draft” would not be impossible on a typewriter (or on a pad of paper), but it would be difficult to the point of distraction, which is why writers did have second, third and subsequent drafts of their work. Drafts are an artifact of the technology. Now, I’m aware that many writers still make two or more drafts even though they use computers, and I won’t gainsay them for doing so — the writing process that works for you is the writing process you should use. But I’m glad I don’t have to do that, and I’m glad I work on technology that allows me to write in a manner that is both comfortable and natural to me.

Back to the question of where writers should be with technology: I think if you have a recent computer and a decent Internet connection with e-mail, you’re fine — you’ve got output and input covered. Most everything else is ancilliary — possibly useful, possibly distracting, but in either case not absolutely necessary. For example, take blogging: I certainly find it useful, and in general I think it’s a great way for writers to stay connected to readers and to fellow writers. But is blogging necessary? No. You can still get along nicely without it, and ultimately, most writers today still do. Or cell phones: Handy little things, to be sure, but I went until a month ago without one and I never had any problems maintaining a writing career, and now that I have a cell phone I don’t find it doing much for me as a writer.

Despite all the neat new toys and gadgets, the last critical technology for a writer was the Internet; there may be a new killer app for writers on the horizon, but I’m blind to what it is if it’s there. For now, a computer and Internet connection with e-mail are mandatory for writers, technology-wise, and all else is elaboration.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)


Reader Request Week 2006 #2: 10 Childhood Nuggets

For the second entry in Reader Request Week 2006, Gabe, seconded by Claire, asks about my childhood. Rather than trying to bang out a coherent structure to this one, let me do a grab bag factoid nugget approach and see if it works.

* The very first memory I know I had was of being in a swimming pool when I was two. My mother tells me that when I was two I knew how to swim, but I lost that ability somewhere along the way and had to relearn it again when I was five. My second memory was of lying in bed in an apartment and watching a ghost go by the window. I suspect it was Halloween rather than it being a real ghost.

* As I think I’ve noted before here, I have no memory of not being able to read. I started reading when I was two. I was reading adult-level books by the time I was in first grade; I remember reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull and not quite getting what the fuss was about (I also read the parody, Jonathan Livingston Chicken, in which a chicken eventually joins the Israeli Air Force).

* I believe I also mentioned that when I was five and my sister Heather was six, our mother had a back operation and we were sent to live with our aunt Sharon for a year. It was a fun time; my aunt and her then-husband kept cattle and I remember carrying out a huge milk bottle for a calf who had lost its mom one way or another; the farm also abutted a Christmas tree farm in the back. One of my more vivid memories of that year was going with my uncle to slaughter a pig. He and another man had the pig in the back of a truck and they shot it, and I remember the thing falling to the bed of the truck and squealing while it bled out. I don’t remember thinking one way or another about it, although today I’m not entirely sure that’s how you’re supposed to kill a pig.

* I was a very precocious kid and like many precocious kids, could be more than a little annoying about it. There were some adults who would leave a room when I came in because they found me irritating. Looking back I couldn’t blame them although at the time I was puzzled.

* As many readers here discovered by way of the "Being Poor" entry, I was poor when I was a kid. However, it wasn’t constant poverty; we (like many people who are poor) alternated between periods of doing okay and then not. Mostly (but not always) this co-incided with when my mother was a single parent and when she was not. There were brief times when technically we were homeless — I say technically because at no time did we ever sleep in a car or a shelter, we just stayed at a friend’s place for a week (or three) — but by and large whatever our situation my mom kept us fed and with a roof over my head. It’s again one of those things where you don’t realize how much work that is for a single parent to do something like that until you become an adult yourself.

* My sister and I are eighteen months apart, which is close enough in age (particularly considering my being a precocious little twit as a kid) that we were basically in a constant state of warfare, except when we weren’t. Whether we were at war or not changed from minute to minute. It didn’t help that Heather was something of a troublemaker and I wasn’t, so I received apparently favorable treatment and she didn’t (this is a gross oversimplification of the situation, but it works for what I’ll tell you, the general public). This was a bone of contention between us until our adult years. We get along swimmingly now; carrying over your childhood issues into adulthood is generally silly.

* I could be inexplicably emotional. When Muhammad Ali lost to Leon Spinks in 1978, for example, I just about lost my mind and cried up a storm. Not exactly sure why, since I had no interest in boxing nor was a huge fan of Ali (or Spinks, for that matter). No one else could figure it out either. But weird things would set me off. At some point the emotional tripwire thing settled down, which I suspect is a good thing.

* Major childhood injuries: Seven stitches in the foot, from stepping on a piece of glass; five stitches above my eye, where my sister (accidentally) whacked me in the head with a golf club; three stitches in my head from when a rock dropped on me during a camping trip; and a broken leg, from being hit by a car. My sister also fed me Dran-O when I was a toddler, but in her defense, she was three or four at the time and didn’t know any better (at least, I hope).

* When I was 12 I learned that I had an older brother who my mother gave up for adoption when she was 16; shortly thereafter he located us. In one of those weird twists his mother and my mother were in the same club and had recently been discussing their troubles with their kids, his mom with him and my mom with my sister (I was the good kid, remember). They both remarked how similar their troubles were.

* This "good kid" thing is not to suggest I wasn’t (and couldn’t get in) trouble from time to time, and indeed like a lot of kids I went through my minor thievery phase when I was about 12. That stopped when, after stuffing a Whatchamacallit candy bar down my underwear and then sneaking out of the local Ralph’s, a huge baldheaded man walking toward the Ralph’s came up to me and told me that God watches everything I do. Yeah, I got the message.

That’s enough childhood nuggetry for one post.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)


Reader Request Week 2006 #1: SF Novels and Films

All right, let’s take a second go at beginning the Reader Request Week here at the Whatever, as the first attempt yesterday went all explody on me. The question today (and yesterday, before the crash) was from Alex Holden, who asked:

Why are movie adaptations of SF novels generally so awful? Would you want to see movies from your novels? If yes, how would you prevent Hollywood from ruining them?

These questions — no offense Alex — start from what I think are erroneous premises, which are that movie adaptations of SF novels are generally awful, either considered as a class or relative to the performance of novels in other genres, and that novel authors not only can prevent Hollywood from ruining their works, but indeed are competent in the task of keeping Hollywood from ruining their novels. So let’s look at each of these.

First, are movie adaptations of SF novels (and other SF lit, including short stories) generally awful? Not necessarily. Here are some pretty good adaptations, in no particular order: Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Contact, The Thing From Another World, Frankenstein, Solaris, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, The Boys from Brazil and (yes) Jurassic Park. And this is without lumping in fantasy (which has rather quite a lot of excellent adaptations from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings) or comic book/graphic novel-derived movies (Men in Black, Superman, X-Men). To be sure, there are some spectacularly bad SF lit adaptations — Dune and Battlefield Earth spring immediately to mind — but taken as a class, SF lit turned into movies has a wide spectrum of success, from wildly successful to abysmal.

Relative to other lit genres, SF lit is no worse off either, as Hollywood’s record with other genres is equally scattershot. For every Battlefield Earth there’s a Bonfire of the Vanities; for every Blade Runner there’s a Godfather. If I had to pick a lit genre that has suffered the most in the hands of filmmakers, I would probably have to go with crime fiction, which is deeply abused by Hollywood and has been for decades. I mean, my God. Look what they did to Carl Hiaasen’s Striptease. SF is not doing so bad compared to that.

A better question here might be: Why can’t Hollywood consistently adapt novels into good movies? And there are a number of reasons for this.

1. Some novels suck. See: Battlefield Earth. If you’ve got garbage going in, you’re likely to get garbage going out.

2. Conversely (and perversely), some novels are too good. A couple of years ago I advanced the theory that great literature doesn’t make for great movies, because the written version is already the highest form of that particular story; there’s no film version of War and Peace that replaces the book, for example. Same with 1984 or The Great Gatsby. The best book-to-film adaptations are the ones where the book is, well, eh — and thus the movie is able to become the better and more definitive version: The Godfather is the quintessential version of this; Jaws is another excellent example.

Related to this: 

3. Some literature suffers from "step-down," which is what happens when a brilliant author is adapted for the screen by a less-than-brilliant screenwriter; if the screenwriter doesn’t actually get the book, naturally there are going to be problems. Now, the converse is also true: Some mediocre authors have their work improved by screenwriters who write better than they do. The screen version of The Bridges of Madison County is rather better than the book version because Richard LaGravenese, who wrote the script, is a substantially better writer than Robert James Waller, who wrote the book.

4. Some lit, regardless of quality, is unfilmable as written. Film is a primarily visual medium; novels are a primarily intellectual medium. People like to talk about seeing a novel unfold in their heads like a private movie, but a written work also allows access to thoughts, emotions, internal states and narrative omniscience (or narrative direction, at the very least) that film generally doesn’t. This is not to suggest film is the lesser medium, as film can do things literature generally doesn’t, too. It does mean that some literature is so much in thrall to its medium that it’s difficult to make the jump. But that doesn’t means some filmmakers aren’t willing to try. And thus you get a not-great version of a great book.

This is why, incidentally, wildly reinventing a lit work for film is not always a bad thing. Blade Runner is I suspect a far better picture than a straight adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? could ever be. Given how enthusiastic Philip K. Dick was about Blade Runner, one suspects he may have thought so, too.

5. Novel writing is essentially a one-input proposition: The writer writes, and then an editor suggests changes if needed. In movies, the producers, directors, stars and studios all have input… and the poor schmuck writer has to listen to and accommodate them all (check out William Goldman’s classic book Adventures in the Screen Trade for confirmation on this). Given this it’s often a miracle a movie based on a book has anything to do with the book at all. Filmmaking, at least on the major studio level, is all about "collaboration" — which is to say a lot of the time everyone has to whip out their dick and piss in the stew until it has a flavor they claim to like. The problem is, outside of Hollywood, not everyone likes piss-flavored stew.

6. Sometimes the filmmakers don’t actually care about the work on which their film is based. They may simply need a property that works for a particular star; they may need something easily adapted into a low-dialogue, high-action film that sells to international markets; they might have bought a property to keep someone else from buying it; they might buy it because the genre the novel is in is hot today and they want to get a hand in before it cools down; they might buy it because some country has created a tax shelter involving films, and the filmmakers need a property — any property — to jam into production in order to launder their investors’ money (this is, incidentally, how the horrible, horrible director Uwe Boll made so many virulently bad movies based on video games over the last few years). There are lots of reasons to make a movie that actually have nothing to do with its story.

Now, on to the other thing, which is authors keeping filmmakers from ruining their work. There is only one sure-fire way to do this: Don’t sell your work. If no film is ever made of your work, then they can’t screw it up. Now, they can’t make a great film out of it either (or even one that’s just, you know, okay), and that is indeed a bit of a downside. But if your goal is to avoid having a bad film made of your work, that’s how you have to do it.

Why? Because typically speaking, once you sell the film rights to the work, that’s the end of your involvement. Oh, the filmmakers might let you come to the set sometime, and then the studio might fly you and your spouse out for the premiere, and you’ll walk down the red carpet to the vast indifference of fans and paparazzi alike. But, really, once you cash that check, you’ve been handed your hat and shuffled off to the door. Thanks for your story, we love it, see you later.

Nor are filmmakers entirely wrong to do so. The number of novel authors who have any sort of experience or competence in filmmaking is, well, low. Filmmakers take to novelists dictating the terms of the treatment of their books pretty much like authors would take to the lumberjack who chopped down the tree used to make the paper that the rough draft will be printed on coming over and suggesting that what the book really needs is a scene where a lumberjack has sex with Jessica Alba. See, you’ve been paid. You’re done. And now the filmmakers are going off to make their movie. Fact: When people think of who made Jaws, 99 times out 100, they think Steven Spielberg, not Peter Benchley.

Yes, some authors get to dictate certain things before movies get made of their books. And when you sell as many books as JK Rowling or John Grisham or Michael Crichton, maybe they’ll let you do that, too. Until then, alas, they’re pretty much going to ignore you once your agent seals the deal. Because they can; it’s in the contract.

Now, one way around this is to get involved in the production in some way, generally as the screenwriter (or at the very least, the screenwriter who takes the first stab at the script). But this doesn’t mean that one then saves one’s writing from grevious harm. For one thing, writing scripts and writing novels are two different writing skills, a fact which is indeed underappreciated. Someone who writes novels is no more necessarily competent to write a screenplay than a guy who makes a really great steak on a grill is competent to bake a delightfully light puff pastry. Maybe he can, but the one skill does not automatically suggest the other. To be sure, lots of writers can do both novel and scripts — Larry McMurtry, who took home an Oscar on Sunday (for adapting someone else’s work, no less) is a fine example here, as is the previously mentioned William Goldman — but it shouldn’t be an automatic assumption.

Even when an author is involved it does not necessarily follow he or she is the best steward of the work in film. John Varley, a writer whose work I enjoy immensely, was actively involved with Millennium, based on one of his stories. The movie is pretty bad. HG Wells wrote the screenplay for Things to Come, and it’s indeed a significant film in the SF Canon, but it’s not a patch on other adaptations of his work. Moving outside the SF genre just a little bit, Stephen King’s work is a film genre unto itself, and while there are many highs (Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me), one has to admit that one of the lows would be Maximum Overdrive, which King adapted for the screen and directed himself (I suspect that King — who seems a good judge of his own stuff — might agree to this assessment, although I further suspect he had a lot of fun doing it anyway).

On to me. Would I want Hollywood to make films of my books? Sure I would. That would be one less mortgage I would have to worry about. Would I expect that the books would make it to the screen as they are written? No. I say that with confidence because I know that if I were adapting my books as films, there are moderate-to-significant changes I would make, so I can’t imagine that actual filmmakers wouldn’t want some as well. Would I want to be actively involved in the production? I haven’t the slightest idea. If they actually want my ideas toward adapting the books I would be happy to give them (and to take an associate producer credit!), but if they just want to give me a big fat check and send me on my way, I suppose I wouldn’t complain all that much.

Which is not to say I’m interested in being indiscriminate about who I sell my movie rights to. Being a film critic for 15 years gives me some knowledge of who makes good films and who doesn’t (and having just written a book on SF film, even more so). Let’s just say that the only serious demand I would make to a producer who wants to buy the rights to my books would be to attach a rider on the contract that specifies that if Paul WS Anderson is picked to write and/or direct, I get an additional and instant $2 million payout; if it’s Uwe Boll, $10 million. Given what would inevitably happen to the story in their hands, I think that’s reasonable compensation.

(Have a question for Reader Request Week? Submit it here)


Gaaaaaah, or, Please Stand By

I wrote up this huge piece for the Reader Request Week 2006, and then my browser locked up and I lost it all. In my resulting fury, I managed not to destroy my computer with an aluminum baseball bat, but only barely. I’ll try to reconstruct what I was writing in slightly briefer form and post it soon, but in the meantime, allow me to share a little bit of book news which is making me happy.

The Ghost Brigades is going into a second printing after two weeks, which makes me squee in a very unmanly way, and also serves notice to those of you who have a thing for first editions to get to the stores quickly. The book was also #23 on Ingram’s Hardcover Fiction list last week, Ingram being one of the largest book distributors in North America. So that’s a nicely w00table moment.

Incidentally, one of my favorite quotes about TGB, from a blog review: “When it comes to writing science fiction novels, John Scalzi is proving to be Shaker furniture.” Just as long as I don’t have to be celibate.

One other quick note: I am informed by Subterranean Press that the number of available copies of Agent to the Stars is now down into the double digits. Neat.

Okay, enough self-pimpage for one day. A reader request post is coming soon.


An Excursion Into Short Story Land, Plus a TGB Review

The Scalzi family has been awash in illness and irritability over the weekend; nevertheless I managed to finish a short story I’d been fiddling with off and on for a while now, as (sort of) part of the cliche issue of Subterranean magazine, called “How I Proposed to My Wife: An Alien Sex Story.” You can guess what the cliche is here. I say it’s “sort of” part of the magazine because the short story is being printed up in a chapbook that will go out as a premium for the folks who purchase the special hardcover limited edition of the magazine.

Why isn’t it included in the magazine proper? Well, aside from being turned in horrendously late for the purposes of the magazine (which is of course well into pre-production), I’d’ve been loath to take space in the magazine for myself that could have been used for someone else. An editor making space for his own stuff at the expense of other work seems a little cheesy. But as an add-on? Hey, why not.

In any event, it’s an interesting short story in a technical sense, because it’s almost entirely dialogue. Which would make it an interesting audio short, I think; I suspect I might try my hand at doing an audio version at some point in the near future. Until then, the only way you’ll see it is if you get the limited edition hardcover version of Subterranean #4. Of course, I’ll let you all know as soon as that and the regular version of the magazine are available for pre-order. It shouldn’t be too long now.

For those of you desiring The Ghost Brigades review goodness, there’s a review of the book up on Science Fiction Weekly, from Paul Di Filippo. He gives the book an “A-” and says: “In our current world, where rival civilizations seem doomed to continually clash, Scalzi’s novels stand as intriguing thought experiments on the nature of war, peace and the uneasy states between those extremes.” I’m deep, damn it!


Post-Oscar Thoughts

Observations on the Oscars:

The Academy pulled a “Shakespeare in Love” maneuver by giving Crash the Best Picture award over Brokeback Mountain, which is to say that the Best Picture Award went to the inferior film, while the manifestly better picture has to make do with the Best Director award — which is what happened to Saving Private Ryan, which got the Best Director but should have gotten Best Picture over Shakespeare. I don’t think Crash is a bad film, mind you (neither was Shakespeare), it’s just clearly not the best film of the year. Hell, it’s not even the second-best Best Picture nominee. In fact, were I to rank the nominees, it’d go Brokeback, Munich, Capote, Good Night and then Crash. But then I don’t vote in the Academy.

What you saw here tonight was the Academy going out of its way to make political statements with its votes, and simultaneously performing some interesting Oscar-swapping calculus. Crash won best picture in part because voters felt like Brokeback would be sufficiently honored with a Best Director win, and the Academy members felt like they wanted to make a statement about racism too, and not just stand tall with the gay cowboys. Crash director Paul Haggis made it easy for the Academy not to give him the Best Director award by co-writing his movie’s script; he got the screenwriting award instead.

George Clooney’s award for Syriana was a general acknowledgment of his body of work this year, including Good Night and Good Luck, which had no chance of winning anything, but for which Clooney was nominated for in the directing and screenwriting categories — and it also allowed the Academy to award a politically-charged flick for being politically-charged (if not particularly coherent to most viewers). Rachel Weisz’s win was also for a politically-charged film. The Best Actor and Best Actress awards were pretty much politics-free, however; Hoffman was a case of a good actor being recognized and Witherspoon was a case of a pretty young actress playing a beloved icon in a weak nominee field.

(Bear in mind that all this suggests that “the Academy” is some sort of monolithic hive mind that votes in concert; it’s not. But the voters certainly trend in certain ways; this year, they were trending toward making political statements.)

I may be mis-reading the tallies, but I don’t think any film won more than three awards: Brokeback, Crash and King Kong each got that number. You have to go back 29 years to find another Best Picture which won as few awards as Crash did — Rocky, which also got three (but not the same three), and which was manifestly not the best Best Picture nominee of its year either (other nominees that year included Network, All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver).

What is true is that Crash, whatever its quality as a film, is the least financially successful Best Picture in decades, if not ever. I took in $53 million domestically, and of the Best Pictures of the last 20 years, only The Last Emperor took in less with $44 million. But that was in 1987 dollars; adjusted for inflation Emperor took in more than $75 million, which kicks Crash’s ass (it also won 8 awards; Rocky, the last Best Picture with just 3 awards; grossed $117 million in 1976 dollars). This was a bad year for Best Picture economics no matter who would have won, of course; even so this win confirms this year’s disconnect between “art” and mass culture come movie awards time (although — and this should not be neglected — Crash cost but $6.5 million to make, meaning that even without being a big hit it was almost certainly profitable).

I think over the course of time the selection of Crash as Best Picture will be one of those head scratchers for film historians, and will simply be chalked up as being the result of a certain combination of political and social off-stage influences in Hollywood rather than for the inherent quality of the film itself. Like I said, it’s not a bad film; in fact, it’s a rather good film. But it’s not a great film, nor the best film of 2005, or even the best film of the nominees. It is, however, a very lucky film, and this year that’s good enough.


Going to the Chapel

Congratulations to Cherie Priest and her new husband Jaymes Annear, who were married today. I hope their marriage is at least as happy as mine, which is the best wish I can think of for a newly-married couple.


Shortly Before The Explosion

A young child with a soda and a packet of pop rocks! What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, yes, well. There is that.

What happened next startled the cats and required a bucket and several sponges. Several.


Oscars, Campbells, Claire Light, Joe Hill, Amnesty International, Shenandoah

This seems to be the week for aggregate entries, doesn’t it?

*Today is usually the day when I usually write a follow-up entry about my Oscar predictions, to make any adjustments to the predictions I made when the nominations came out. However, this year I find I have nothing new to add: the Oscar landscape hasn’t changed in any appreciable way since nomination day. So, in case you missed it: My predictions.

*For those of you who will be voting on Hugos and Campbell nominations (there’s about a week left to get in your votes), here’s a handy site to let you know who is eligible for the Campbell this year. The Campbell, just to remind all y’all, is the award for the best new SF writer. Yes, I am eligible, as are Merrie Haskell, Justine Larbalestier, David Moles, Sarah Monette, Cherie Priest, Chris Roberson and other worthies. We all rule.

*Claire Light uses a review of The Ghost Brigades as a springboard to discuss war and literature and how one can read military SF such as I’ve written and still have deep-seated philosophical issues with war: “You should simply be letting yourself enjoy the action, oohing and aahing over how cool the guns are, and then walk-of-shaming back to your public debate with a broken bra-strap, realizing that the seductiveness of war isn’t so much evil as human.”

I think this is an interesting point to make; my take on it (which may not be Claire’s) is that needing to philosophically examine the issue of war every time you take in a military SF book would be like needing to have a philosophical examination of alcoholism every time you drank a beer. You could, but then you’d probably end up drinking alone.

*Incidentally, if any of the librarians who read the Whatever would be so kind as to send me the review of The Ghost Brigades that’s apparently in the 3/1 edition of Booklist, you would be my new best friend. Thanks.

*I was recently given a copy of 20th Century Ghosts, which is a collection of short stories by writer Joe Hill (no relation, one imagines, to the controverisal Wobblie activist, nor, I suspect, to the kid I went to high school with who had the same name, because although I’m sure he grew to fine manhood, at the time it was doubtful he was literate in any meaningful sense). These stories are largely in the horror genre, and I’m happy to say they’re spooking the holy living crap out of me, in that “read a story and then set the book down and wiggle your fingers to get the creepy out of them” sort of way. Which is naturally what you want in this particular genre. I’m not a huge horror reader, but I know good horror when I read it (and also, good writing), and this would be that. If you’re ready to be deeply creeped, I would recommend this. Also, I have to salute any writer sneaky enough to slip a story into the book in an unexpected place as a way to reward the people who read oft-ignored portions (as I do).

The one drawback here is that this collection’s publisher, PS Publishing, is based out of the UK, so finding the book in the usual online channels is a little more difficult than it should be: It’s not on Amazon or However, it looks like Clarkesworld Books has it in trade paperback and in signed hardcover. Both appear to be limited editions, so you know the drill on that (you can also find it at Shocklines and Camelot Books). Check it out and enjoy.

* Note to Amnesty International: One really good way not to get a contribution from the Scalzi family this year is to have your telemarketing firm call four times a day trying to reach us. Yes, I realize human rights are important, but so is my ability to look at my call waiting during my work day and not see your telemarketer’s number more than once, especially as I’ve told your donation monkeys to call after 6pm to talk to my wife, who coordinates all our charitable giving. I tell other non-profits this and they seem to get the concept. I’m not sure why you don’t.

One more day of your drones calling multiple times and I’m making a contribution to the Pinochet defense fund. Thank you. That is all.

*One of the nice things about subscribing to Rhapsody is that it is easy to call up a song and hear a dozen versions of it all at once — which is a really informative way to get to know a song. I’m currently listening to two dozen versions of the traditional song “Shenandoah,” sung by everyone from Bob Dylan to Leontyne Price. It seems that, sadly, most of the people who want to sing the song actually can’t sing the song — it really is designed for people with truly magnificent voices (for example, Ms. Price and also Paul Robeson) who also have some concept of phrasing. And you say “duh, aren’t all songs?” Well, yes, but some songs can tolerate bad singing and phrasing better than others, while others reward truly good singing. This song falls in the latter category.

One of my favorite versions of the song, incidentally, is the version by the Yale Spizzwinks acapella group: I think the guy in front is over-emoting a bit, but the song really lends itself to an acapella rendition, enough so that I think any other instruments sort of distract from it, which is not a good thing as so many versions feature plinky-plink “Americana”-style banjo/mandolin/guitar/whatever. Other versions feature that sort of overbearing orchestration that I associate with classic Disney animation, and that’s no good, either. The human voice: Good. Everything else: Not so much. Not that anyone listens to me.

* Remember to get your suggestions in Reader Request Week 2006. Leave your requests in the linked thread, not here. There are some good requests in there already, but there are always room for more. Thanks.


Reader Request Week 2006: Get Your Requests In

Once a year — usually when I find myself running out of things to say myself — I throw open the floor to Whatever readers to offer topics for a Reader Request Week, in which (as the name suggests) I write on subjects readers want to know what I think about. I’ve done this for the last three years and have gotten some great topic ideas. Because Whatever readers totally rock, man.

So: Want me to write on a particular topic? Suggest it in the comment thread. I’ll start putting up entries based on reader suggestions on Monday. I usually do one a day, but if I get a bunch of really excellent topics (and so far, I usually do), who knows.

What topics can you suggest? Why, any topic you like, of course. Nothing’s out of bounds to ask (I just won’t answer it if I don’t want to. See? Easy). And as you all know, it’s not like I have a problem writing about controversial or questionable topics. Look, I never plan on holding elected office, and if I ever do, it’s not like I don’t already have a paper trail as wide as the mighty Mississippi. So it really doesn’t matter. Ask away, folks.

So you don’t repeat subjects, allow me here to link to previous reader request topics:

From 2003:

Reader Request #1: The Middle East
Reader Request #2: Life Online
Reader Request #3: TV
Reader Request #4: Testing Preschoolers
Reader Request #5: Jealousy
Reader Request #6: Immigration
Reader Request #7: Ohio
Reader Request #8: Writing
Reader Request Wrapup

From 2004:

Reader Request Week 2004 #1: Boys and Girls
Reader Request 2004 #2: The Meaning of Life
Reader Request 2004 #3: Can Writing Be Taught?
Reader Request 2004 #4: Fatherhood and Pie
Reader Request 2004 #5: Objective Newspeople
Reader Request Week 2004 Wrapup

From 2005:

Reader Request Week 2005: Creative Commons and FanFic
Reader Request Week 2005: Peak Oil
Reader Request 2005: Beatles, Batman and They
Reader Request 2005: Pot!
Reader Request 2005: Odds and Ends

And there you have it.

Get your requests in, and we’ll start getting busy on Monday!


Yawncat Is Not Pleased.

No, I’m not pulling her tail. She really is just yawning.

Question for a y’all, at least those of all y’all who are cat owners. Ghlaghghee here, being a longhair cat as she is, has developed some truly gnarly mats of hair while we weren’t paying attention — I mean, massive mats. Proto-dreadlock mats. Is there any way of getting rid of these mats short of shaving off huge sections of her fur, thereby making her look as if she had mange — which, while it would be amusing, seems a little drastic? I’m trying to avoid doing that but right now I’m coming up blank for other ideas. So I throw this out to the crowd.

Also, telling me that if I had a shorthair cat (or some other shorthair animal) I wouldn’t be having this problem is not helpful. Please avoid “helpiness” — comments that aren’t actually helpful because the’re predicated on perameters that are not relevant to the problem — and embrace helpfulness. The alternative is a shaved, naked cat. And then Yawncat here really won’t be pleased.


Three Quick Book-Related Notes

They are:

1. The Ghost Brigades just spent a full week in the Amazon bestselling SF list’s top 10 (#9 as I wrote this). I am agog and almost unspeakably appreciative. Thank you.

2. Just sent the final revised text of The Android’s Dream to Tor. The book as been done for quite some time, but there were a couple of cosmetic touch-ups that needed to be undertaken (requiring a change of about 20 words in the text — but 20 significant words). I think I’ve mentioned before that I am very happy with this book, and I remain so; it was sold to Tor with the premise that it would be heavy on action scenes and snappy dialogue, and I think it delivers both. It’s also almost entirely message-free; if a science fiction novel could be described as a “popcorn book” — i.e., designed to make you cram handfuls of salty snacks into your mouth as you tear through the pages to see what happens next, this would be that book. And also — and let’s never lose sight of this — sheep play a truly significant role in his book. Which is as it should be. Frankly, sheep have long been underrepresented in SF. That’s gonna change, baby. That’s gonna change.

3. Today also marks the official start of writing The Last Colony. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. Wish me luck.

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