A Month of Writers, Day Twenty: Chris Roberson

Chris Roberson is a triple threat: He’s a writer, he’s an editor and he’s a publisher — and he’s good enough at each that he’s been nominated for a World Fantasy Award for each of these talent. He’s also been nominated for the Campbell and Sidewise awards, twice each, and won the latter in 2004. And he’s also a hell of a nice guy. Rumor is, he’s kind to babies and kittens, too.

He’s also a huge comics geek, as you’ll find out in today’s Month of Writers entry (and which you might know if you’re a fan of the X-Men novels, since he wrote one earlier this year). His most recent novel is Set the Seas on Fire, which is lots of swashbuckling fun, but for pimping purposes, Chris asked me to direct you to the nifty online serial novel he’s doing, called Three Unbroken, which is summarized thusly: “Three Unbroken is the story of a war between the Chinese and the Aztecs on the red planet, Fire Star.” Seriously, if your head hasn’t gone kablooey from that description alone, you’re doing it wrong. And it’s a free read! You can’t lose.

And now, without further ado, Chris introduces you to  his candidate for the title of “father of modern superhero comics.”

CHRIS ROBERSON: Mark Gruenwald, the father of modern superhero comics

The folks at RevolutionSF asked me to write a few words about Squadron Supreme for their ongoing Comics of 1986 series, having previously done a bit about Miracleman. I set aside a few hours before starting work on The Dragon’s Nine Sons to reread a few issues of the series and then type out my thoughts on the book and its creator, Mark Gruenwald. Well, it turns out I had more to say about Gruenwald than I thought I did. Too much, as it happens, as RevolutionSF had to cut the piece down to size a bit before posting it here.

What got left out? If you’re interested in just the meaty bits, read the RevSF article linked above, but if you want the director’s cut with all of the fat still in, read on…

Squadron Supreme

Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, and I can prove it.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking that it’s Alan Moore, right? Or Frank Miller? Or maybe you’re a bit more old school and point to Denny O’Neil, or maybe even Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. Heck, you might be such a neophile that you look to Geoff Johns and Brian Michael Bendis. But whatever you’re thinking, if it isn’t that Mark Gruenwald was the father of modern superhero comics, it’s wrong.

Mark Gruenwald was the ultimate fanboy-made-good success story. With a degree in Art and Literature from the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, Gruenwald moved to New York in the hopes of getting a job in comics. Working a day job at a bank, in his spare time Gruenwald clearly spent a lot of time thinking about comic books. He wrote “A Treatise on Reality in Comic Literature,” and with his father Myron Gruenwald cowrote “A Primer on Reality in Comic Books,” both of which attempted to systematize parallel dimensions and time travel in comic books. It was in these that Gruenwald introduced the concept of the “Omniverse,” which he described as the sum total of all universes. DC Comics had their Multiverse, Gruenwald said, and Marvel Comics had one of their own, but both were just subsets of the same overarching Omniverse (along with every other fictional reality). A short while later Gruenwald and Dean Mullaney (who later founded Eclipse Comics) copublished a fanzine entitled OMNIVERSE: The Journal of Fictional Reality, with contributions by notables such as Robert Rodi, Kim Thompson, Pete Gillis, and Rich Morrisey, and art by Pete Poplaski, Neal Pozner, and Jerry Ordway. In its brief run, OMNIVERSE examined weighty topics like where the dividing line between Earth-1 and Earth-2 could be divided (the simple answer was that there was no simple answer, and instead of a dividing line a whole separate reality was invented, Earth-E, in which all of the confusing stories that didn’t fit nicely into either world were consigned), whether Howard the Duck was from the same world as Donald Duck (or whether Howard’s reality was a parallel of Earth-Marvel or a Primary System of its own), and just how Doctor Doom, Rama-Tut, Kang the Conqueror, the Scarlet Centurion, and Immortus fit together, anyway (the answer: confusingly).

Gruenwald’s fan treatises and fanzines show the same level of ruthless attention to detail and desire for rationalization that were hallmarks of his later professional work. In the late seventies, it seemed that his fan writing had gained him some attention, as Gruenwald went to work for Marvel Comics, where he worked in one capacity or another for the rest of his tragically short life, starting as Assistant Editor to new Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter. In 1982, Gruenwald was involved in the launch of two projects which prefigured most of the current state of superhero comics: Contest of Champions and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The former, Contest of Champions, which Gruenwald helped plot with Steven Grant and Bill Mantlo (who provided the final scripts) was the first company-wide limited series crossover, the now-familiar beast. Everything from Secret Wars to Crisis on Infinite Earths, from Civil War to 52, owes its genesis to the success of Contest of Champions.

But it was nothing compared to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. In TOHOTMU, as it’s sometimes called, editor Gruenwald brought the fan’s obsessive eye for detail and rationalization to the forefront, provided detailed schematics of secret bases and flying cars and jetpacks and trick arrows; rating the relative strength and speeds of heroes and villains, gods and monsters; and slowly working out an entire detailed history of a fictional universe that included everything from Norse gods to teleporting dogs to blue-skinned mermaids to mutants to dark dimensions to WWII super-soldiers. For the obsessive fan, it isn’t enough for stories to be good; they have to make sense. And so when confronted with the question of how Scott Summers optiblasts work, it isn’t enough to say that his eyes shoot lasers; after all, they are concussive blasts, but don’t generate any heat. Naturally, then, his eyes are really miniature portals to another dimension. (Likewise anyone whose powers involve projecting darkness—since darkness is the absence of light, after all, and not a physical thing, involves tapping into another dimension. Likewise anyone who shrinks shunts their extra mass into another dimension, which may or may not be the same dimension from which anyone who grows pulls the extra mass to do so.) The tenor of both the DC and Marvel universes in recent years is owed in extremely large measure to the obsessive rationalization of TOHOTMU, and to editor Gruenwald. (And it can be argued that the Ultimate Marvel universe is the finest realization of this kind of rationalization to date, but more on that later.)

But what does any of this have to do with Squadron Supreme, anyway?

Well, in addition to editing and co-plotting while at Marvel, Gruenwald turned his hand at writing, as well. In addition to a long run as scripter on Captain America, he wrote Spider-Woman, Marvel Two-in-One, DP7, Hawkeye, and Quasar, among others. And while Quasar was probably the clearest example of Gruenwald’s notions of superheroics and fictional realities (including the titular hero traveling to other worlds of the Omniverse, even going so far as to encounter a hero from another company entirely in an unacknowledged crossover with DC Comics Flash), it was in his Squadron Supreme that Gruenwald had the biggest influence on later superhero comics.

The Squadron Supreme was a thinly-veiled Justice League of America homage/pastiche/parody that was introduced by Roy Thomas in the pages of The Avengers in the early seventies, and who turned up a time or two over the years in the pages of The Might Thor, The Defenders, and others. Instead of Superman, the last son of Krypton, the Squadron Supreme had Hyperion, explorer from the sub-atomic world of Yttrium. Instead of Batman, the dark knight detective, they had Nighthawk. Instead of Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash, they had Doctor Spectrum, Power Princess, and the Whizzer (yes, the Whizzer). The Squadron Supreme lived in an essentially Marvelized version of the DC Universe, with their own villains and supporting casts. Hyperion was secretly cartoonist Mark Milton, who was constantly bedeviled by his arch-nemesis the hirsute Emil Burbank, who hated Hyperion for accidentally causing his hormones to run wild, so that his hair would never stay cut. (Get it? Lex Luthor hated Superman for making him bald, and Burbank hated Hyperion for making him hairy. Isn’t that funny? Well, not really, I’ll admit, but you can see where they were coming from.)

In short, up until they fell into Gruenwald’s hands, not much interesting had been done with the Squadron Supreme. They were most often used to poke gentle fun at the Distinguished Competition, or to allow the creators to play with a new set of toys for a short while. When Gruenwald took over the characters in 1985, though, that was all set to change.

Gruenwald had always been a fan of the Justice League of America, apparently, but the fact that he was an editor at Marvel Comics meant that he wasn’t likely to get the chance to write them. In Squadron Supreme he was given the opportunity to write the JLA, or near enough to count; but better still, he was able to write them in a way that DC Comics would never allow. He was allowed to change them, and more than that, allow them to change the world around them.

A conceit of superhero comics, from the Golden Age onwards, is that the presence of beings with superpowers just doesn’t change the world all that much. Superman may have been flying in the skies over the DC Universe in the 1940s, but he wasn’t able to prevent World War II in that fictional reality anymore than the Flash was able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. The fictional worlds of the DC and Marvel universes map to the real world, the one that the readers inhabit, too closely for the worlds to diverge too much to be recognizable.

Which is the first way that Squadron Supreme differed.

In the characters last appearance before Gruenwald took over, the world of the Squadron Supreme had just been liberated from the mental control of the Overmind. The world was in sad shape, and the Squadron, who had been the unwitting tools of the Overmind’s control, were distrusted by the populace.

In the first issue of the twelve-issue Squadron Supreme limited series, Gruenwald establishes the tone of the book right off the bat. The superheroes of the Squadron (all except Nighthawk, who had by this point retired in order to run for, and be elected to, the office of President) unmask at a press conference on the steps of the nation’s capital, and announce their intention to eliminate hunger, poverty, crime, disease, pollution, and oppression in exactly one year.

Nighthawk, of course, can already see where this will go terribly wrong, and only barely avoiding assassinating Hyperion on the spot with an argonite bullet (argonite being Hyperion’s, well, kryptonite).

The second issue picks up the baton and runs with it, and introduces the second way in which Squadron Supreme differed from other books. A month had passed since the first issue appeared on newsstands, out here in the real world, and exactly a month had passed in the fictional reality of the book, as well.

Squadron Supreme played out in real time. Twelve issues over twelve months, with a month gap in the story between each monthly issue. Readers of DC Comics’ recently concluded 52 weekly series will recognize this gimmick. And though it had been used in other media before (Gasoline Alley, most notably), this was the first time the trick had been employed in the pages of a superhero comic book.

As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the status quo had been left far behind. The characters’ aggressive campaign to end the world’s ills almost immediately brings them into conflict with segments of the population, when they round up all firearms in the world and destroyed them. Then, when one of the characters creates a behavior modification device that could brainwash a villain into abandoning their evil ways, it is immediately perverted by a lovelorn hero who uses it to make a fellow hero fall in love with him. Heroes die, heroes kill, and heroes compromise their principles. Meanwhile, as the Squadron increasingly sets itself up as the dictatorial rules of Earth (albeit with the best of intentions), their former colleague Nighthawk begins assembling a team of dissident heroes and villains to act as a counterrevolutionary force.

In the final issue, the dissidents led by Nighthawk face off against the heroes led by Hyperion (the thinly-veiled Batman waging war on the thinly-veiled Superman), and in the end neither side truly wins as both sides lose. With most of their colleagues dead, the heroes are forced to admit that their tactic of saving the world through domination is doomed to failure.

Until recently, the worlds of superhero comics were virtually identical to the real world, with the exception of the brightly-clad heroes and villains flying overhead. If Superman met the president, it would be the president readers could see on the evening news. And even if Captain America learned that the president was secretly the head of the Secret Empire, for all intents and purposes he was unmasking Nixon (though thinly veiled). But in the world of Squadron Supreme, the former Nighthawk is elected president, and then has to stand by as his fellow superheroes successfully take over the world.

In recent years, the United States of the DC Universe has elected Lex Luthor to the presidency, while in the Marvel Universe Tony Stark has abandoned superheroics to take command of SHIELD in the interest of identifying and controlling all of the world’s superheroes. Each year DC and Marvel restructure their fictional worlds in line-wide crossovers that owe their format to Contest of Champions, and in at least one case their structure to Squadron Supreme. And the sweeping changes to the status quo, which push these fictional realities farther and farther away from the real world familiar to the readers, resembles nothing so much as Gruenwald’s masterpiece, Squadron Supreme.

Mark Gruenwald passed away in 1996 at the tragically young age of 43. He left the request that his body be cremated and the ashes mixed in with the ink of a trade paperback collection of his landmark work, Squadron Supreme. The first edition of the trade, published in 1997, fulfilled this request.

The current state of superhero comics, with its obsessive attention to continuity and rationalization, line-wide crossovers, multiple realities, and increasing divergence from the real world, resembles nothing so much as a Mark Gruenwald comic writ large. Everything that Gruenwald pioneered, from the late seventies through the mid-nineties, has now become industry standard. And the mainstream superhero comics of today resemble Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme more than they resemble the mainstream comics of the day.

And that is why Mark Gruenwald is the father of modern superhero comics.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

My Christmas Suspicions

Here are mine:

1. I don’t believe that Jose Feliciano really wants to wish me a merry Christmas.

2. If you dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh, laughing all the way, you’d probably end up with a frozen windpipe.

3. If you asked the other reindeer, they’d tell you they didn’t let Rudolph in their games because they suspected steroids. Because, come on. A red glowy nose just ain’t natural.

4. If a kid started playing a drum near a newborn, the likely result would not be a smiling infant (or mother).

5. If the Grinch’s heart really grew three sizes in one day, the Whos down in Whoville would likely find his frozen body in the spring, the victim of sudden and fatal cardiomegaly.

These are my Christmas suspicions. What are yours?

(also: Merry Christmas. From the bottom of my heart.)

A Month of Writers Returns December 26

Because nothing goes better with Boxing Day than writers!

Whatever Best of 2007

2007 was a very messy year for the Whatever, thanks to various horrible technical difficulties that more or less wiped most of August and September off the map, in terms of entries. Be that as it may, I still managed to get off some pretty good pieces this year. Here are some of my favorites and/or most popular posts for 2007.

Incidentally, please note that if you try to comment on any entry dated before September 30, 2007, your comment will not go through. Remember those horrible technical difficulties? Right, then.

Not on Whatever, but worth reading anyway: Scabs and Peasants.

Have a great Christmas Eve.

Memories For Sale

Don’t ask me how I got there, because it’s not actually an interesting story, but I was on a site looking at California home values and as a curiosity I looked to see if one of the houses I grew up in might be listed. Sure enough it was: 1144 W. Edna Place in Covina, California, where I lived while I was in fourth through half of sixth grade, is currently up for sale for the bargain price of just $545,000! That’s up a bit from the last time it sold, in 1997, when it was nabbed for $164,000, and I expect it’s at least ten times what my mom and stepdad paid for it more than a quarter century ago. Given that the property has been on the market for almost six months, it doesn’t look like very many folks seem to think it’s a half-million dollar house, and while I was fond of the place, I would have to agree with that. Also, when we lived there, it was not this sickly color.

Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a house in Southern California and/or the depths of your Scalzi stalkery impel you to seek out one of my childhood homes to claim as your own, here you go.

A Month of Writers, Day Nineteen: David Lubar

In honor of Athena’s birthday, today’s Month of Writers contributor is one of her favorite writers, David Lubar, the author of the wildly popular “Weenies” series, of which The Curse of the Campfire Weenies is the latest addition. They’re collections of funny and spooky stories, which appeal to Athena because she’s got that gothy, attitudinous streak of hers. Longtime readers of Whatever may remember that mention of the Weenie series has come up before, when I wrote about a Tor publicist who dressed up in a weenie costume at BEA in oder to promote the series. I admit to being just a little envious, although to be fair, it wouldn’t make sense of a publicist to dress up in a weenie costume for any of my books. Even so.

A little bit of Scalzi trivia for you: of all the Month of Writers contributers, David is the one I’ve known the longest, because more than a decade ago, he was a regular contributor to an AOL humor area I edited (other contributors included James Lileks and Ted Rall — now there’s a combo). So having him contribute here is just like old times.

Today’s entry is short, I encourage you to pop over to his LiveJournal to read more. Today’s entry, on the difference between being a bad parent and being a bad person is particularly enlightening (it helps to know his daughter is a teacher).


Dear TV Guide,

Thank you for the broken clock. The unexpected gift provided a nice moment of mystery for my wife and me as we contemplated the package we found in our mail box, and enriched our day with a wonderful moment of amusement when we opened the box and discovered the assorted pieces of what was once a really crappy clock. I suspect it will probably tell time just as well in its current condition. To steal from the classic Lewis Carroll enigma, at least it will be right twice a day.

We were also amused by the card describing me as “one of our most valued subscribers.” I didn’t pay for the subscription. I got it from unused airline miles. Once a year, American Airlines reminds me that I have 4,700 unused miles. Once a year, I spend those miles on a variety of magazines. And once a year, the miles mysteriously replenish themselves. I guess there’s a leak somewhere.

As for your wish that I’ll be with you “for many season to come,” I have bad news. Four seasons, and we’re finished. Maybe sooner. I have fond childhood memories of your detailed descriptions of programs, and full coverage of all time periods. The current version of your magazine is about as useful as the clock.

So, anyhow, thanks again for the broken clock, and for making me feel welcome.


A Valued Subscriber

(the original entry, plus comments, is here)

A Month of Writers, Day Eighteen: Elizabeth Bear

I’ve been holding off on airing Elizabeth Bear’s contribution to the Month of Writers feature for the simple and practical fact that her latest book, Dust, officially comes out on December 26, and I wanted all y’all to be able to find it in your bookstores. However, on a recent trip to my local bookstore, I found that it had indeed shown up on the shelves, so: Goody! Now you get some eBear. Also, I get some eBear too, since I snatched one of the copies of Dust for my own. EBear for everyone! I haven’t read it yet, on account I have some of my own writing to finish (harrumph), but one of the nice things about Elizabeth Bear is that I don’t worry whether or not the writing is going to be good, I just wonder how it’s going to be good this time. Because eBear’s good at being good in lots of different ways. It would make me madly jealous if I thought about it.

(Booklist, however, has read it and more than likes it: it gave Dust a starred review and calls it “Extraordinary … exactly the kind of brilliantly detailed, tightly plotted, roller-coaster book she has led her readers to expect.” See, this is what I was saying.)

On her LiveJournal, eBear writes about writing quite a bit, which is why I often recommend her LJ to aspiring writers. For her contribution to A Month of Writers, eBear cracks the toughest literary walnut around: How to write a novel. Pay attention, now; what you learn here could save your life.

ELIZABETH BEAR: The Creative Process, or: How to write a novel.

Find something you would like to create with. This can be with plasticine, papier mache, words, pipe cleaners and sequins, colored pencils, construction paper, popsicle sticks, or other media.

Sit down and fidget with your materials. Build a little hut out of words and popsicle sticks. Call it “Abraham Lincoln’s Log Cabin, No Trademark Infringement Intended.”

Put it on your desk and be proud. Feel refreshed. Show it to your friends.

Six months later, notice it collecting dust. Think, huh, that could be better.

Take it apart. Put it together. Fix the roofline. Use some plasticine for stickum this time. Give it a styrofoam chimney.

Put it back on your desk.

Six months later, add some pipe clearer smoke to the chimney, with the cool wooly pipe cleaners. Call it “Abraham Lincoln’s Log Cabin V. 2.0, No Trademark Infringement Intended.”

Take the pipe cleaner smoke off again. Call it “Abraham Lincoln’s Boyfriend’s Log Cabin, No Trademark Infringement Intended.”

Make bricks for the chimney out of sequins. Pin them on with straight pins.

Color the popsicle sticks in with magic marker. Decide you don’t like it. Start over with fresh popsicle sticks. Call it “Not Your Daddy’s Lincoln Log Cabin, No Trademark Infringement Intended.”

Decide you don’t like that either.

Make little pipe cleaner people and animals and put them around. Act out their soap-opera daily dramas. (Oh, Momma, Billy’s in with the sheep again!) Call it: “When Laura Ingalls Wilder Went Down On The Farm, No Suggestion Of Libelous Intent Intended.”

Try tempera paint this time.

Hmm. Better.

Dab white glue on the chimney sequins with a q-tip because they are too shiny and don’t look like real bricks.

Color in the tempera-painted popsicle sticks with charcoal and chalk, to add shading and texture. Experiment with watercolor.

Collect spruce needles and pine cones. Start gluing the spruce needles around the base of the house as foundation plantings. Call it “My Farm In A Time Of Hard Drought, or: This Is Not The Tempest.” Snicker about it when people ask.

Notice a beetle infestation. Spray. Leave it outside until the smell comes off.

Start shingling the roof with pine cone scales.

Realize they clash with the sequins.

Unpin the sequins. Replace them with glued-on dried navy, kidney, black, and pinto beans. Hey, it’s a fieldstone fireplace. what?

Make a ragged door out of piece of bark. Realize you do not know how to hang it. Lean it up against the side of the house.

Steal the brass knob off the top of the pepper mill for a doorknob. Whistle when your husband asks you if you’ve seen the little bit that goes on top of the pepper thing. Turn the house around to face the wall for a week or two.

Finish shingling the back of the roof. Get some sphagnum moss and tiny silk roses, and go around under the eaves with it.

In the back.

Where nobody will ever see it.

Defend this by saying it was how your grandmother said one should finish a quilt, even the bits on the inside. Well, she didn’t say sphagnum moss, exactly.

Take off all the pine cone scales are try again with a different species.

Hmm. Maybe maple helicopters?

Figure out that you can hinge the door with bent sewing pins and scraps of leather shoelace. It hangs crooked. Put a hook-and-eye latch on the other side to straighten it out. Call it, “My Side Of The Mountain With A Builder’s Permit.”

Spend about a day and a half fiddling with your Real! Working! Door!, making the little pipecleaner people go in and out.

Borrow your brother’s skillsaw. Cut windows. Realize the tempera and charcoal detailing looks faker than fake.

Glaze the windows with hand-split flakes of mica. Put tiny christmas lights around the edges of the windows so they glow from within. Forget to make a hole for the plug.

Borrow the skillsaw again.

Go on vacation with your family. Spend the entire time sitting on the beach fiddling with sand and shells, thinking about patterns.

Come back and add a driftwood tree, and a sea-glass walkway border. Try to figure out how to glue down sand so it doesn’t look terrible.

Ask for a skillsaw for the holidays.

Realize that if you use a THIRD species of pine cone for the roof, you can make siding out of maple helicopter shakes. Spend about five weeks painstakingly applying these by hand.

Realize the result looks like ass, but you finally got the roof right this time.

Take all the maple helicopters off again and use them to make furniture instead, with rose-hip chair cushions.

Realize that you could have just used spray adhesive. Suffer a crisis of faith. Berate yourself as a stupid failure.

Play with the little people and the furniture until you calm down. Get some cat-tail stems. Split them painstakingly in half and cut them to size. Glue them over the popsicle sticks. Now, *that* looks like a cabin. And nobody will ever notice that bit in the back where the overlap is a little rough.

Tuck some sphagnum moss into it, just to be sure.

And a tiny silk rose.

Realize it’s done.

Look at it for a day or two, just to be sure.

Set up all the pipe cleaner people, give them tiny little acorn cap hats and flowerstem walking sticks. Give one a pair of dragonfly wings and another one a feather. Realize that no, the feather goes on this one, instead. Call it “Midnight In The Garden Of The Fairy Hut.”

The best pipe cleaner animal is always the pony. You don’t know why; you just have a knack for ponies.

Love all the little pipe cleaner people and animals so much it’s very hard to do what you have to do next.

Realize that the pine cone scales, in the cold of winter, have wept tiny golden droplets of sap all over the roof, where they catch the light and smell of summer. Realize you never could have got that effect on purpose in a thousand patient years.


Make a tiny, tiny lashed ladder from birch twigs and bark. Run it up under the eaves to the attic window. Secure it with a drop of Krazy Glue.

Hey, it dries clear. Nobody will ever know.


Finally, on a bright cool day in early June, take the whole thing outside, set it on the patio, douse it in lighter fluid and set it on fire. But make it look like an electrical fire, not arson.

Take pictures before and after, and all the while it burns.

Go through and pick out the best ones. Be surprised by the color of the flames. Call it, “Ladder in the woods.”

Hang the pictures in a gallery. Try to look uninterested as you listen to people exclaim, “I really think she should have used sequins for the chimney!” and “Hey, there’s a bit in the back here where the cat-tail stems are messed up” and “You know, the pony is much better than all the other animals,” and “Oh! Look! A tiny silk rose!!!”

Love that last person with all your heart. Love them so much you have to leave the room for a moment to compose yourself. Think, I knew I put that rose there for someone. I just didn’t know at the time that it was you.

Looking at the pictures, realize you have figured out how to do a better job on the chimney after all.

And the next one is going to have a barn. And a second story.

And maybe a pub next door, God willing.

Leave the pictures on the wall of the gallery. Walk away, thinking, “That doesn’t look a thing like the house, really, but I still kind of like it.” Endure a moment of intense melancholy while you think about the pony.

When you go home, rake the cool ashes for the bits of sea glass and the knob to the pepper mill, and save them–cracked and discolored–in an opaque jar on the corner of your desk.

When your husband wanders in and asks what smells like burning, sniff thoughtfully and pretend you don’t notice a thing.

(original entry, plus comments, is here)

All Hail Michael Z Williamson: A Last-Minute Christmas Pimping Thread

You know, twice in the last week Michael Z Williamson has sent me stuff to use to promote his latest book Better to Beg Forgiveness in the “Big Idea” feature over at Ficlets, and twice I’ve apparently seem to have lost that information out of my e-mail queue. Which leads me to two conclusions:

1. What the hell? Do I have MZW-loving gremlins who steal his e-mail the moment it arrives? Can they not bear the thought of me being in possession of a note from him? Are they jealous of my correspondence? Is it just a MZW thing, or would they do the same thing if it were John Ringo or David Drake? This is the sort of thing that could keep me up nights.

2. Given that MZW has made two good faith attempts to provide me material and I’ve twice managed to lose it, I now unilaterally escalate him and his book into the realm of complete and blatant pimpery, just in time for Christmas. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200, but if you enjoy fast-moving, action-packed military science fiction — or are doing last minute Christmas shopping for someone who does — do check out this book. It will make you/them happy, and then Christmas will be saved! By space-traveling mercenaries with really big guns. Which is how Christmas should always be saved, if you ask me.

Now, having provided MZW with a big, fat and well-deserved pimp, I hereby declare this an open pimp thread, in which all and sundry are encouraged to pimp their work and the work of others they admire, with an eye toward assisting other folks in their last-minute panic-induced shopping sprees this weekend. That’s right: Pimp what’s out there in the stores — your favorite books, CDs, games and DVDs for the year, or indeed anything else that caught your eye in 2007, that’s generally available to buy.

Oh, and authors: If you’re not pimping yourself in this thread, you’re doing it wrong.

(note: Comments with more than three links are likely to get punted into the moderating queue temporarily. Don’t worry, I’ll release them presently.)

Pimp away!

To Head it Off at the Pass

Yes, I’ve seen this. Also this.

And to repeat, while I surely appreciate the enthusiasm, it’s not necessary to e-mail me about every thing on the Internet involving bacon. I think the idea that I respond to bacon as Sonny the Cuckoo Bird responds to Coco Puffs is one I’d like to move away from.

A Month of Writers, Day Seventeen: Jay Lake

If you laughed uproariously and pointed when I wore the Campbell Tiara a year and a half ago, one of the people to blame (or praise, since it was a lovely tiara) for that is Jay Lake, who with fellow Campbell Award alum Elizabeth Bear decided the Campbell awardees needed something more than the cheeseboard-like plaque we get at the moment. That’s just how Jay Lake’s mind works. Suffice to say it works differently than most people’s. Which is good by me, because then we get super-nifty world-building exercises like the one in Mainspring, Jay’s latest, in which he builds out the idea of a clockwork universe and takes it to a logical and fascinating conclusion.

Here’s another example of Jay’s brain going in a different direction: His Month of Writers contribution is trip to a place there the beginning of the end of the world could have happened — but thankfully, didn’t.

JAY LAKE: They build machines that they can’t control, And bury the waste in a great big hole

Yesterday tillyjane, the_child and I went missile silo hunting. I’d pulled some map references to the old silo complexes at the long-abandoned Larson Air Force Base in Adams County, WA, near the town of Moses Lake. These are Titan I silos from the early days of ballistic deterrence, long since decommisioned, and now on private land.

The first site we wanted to check out was just north of Bruce, WA, right at the line between Adams County and Grant County. We made a pretty direct drive there, four and half hours to go up the Gorge, through the Tri-Cities, across the Pasco Basin and onto the Palouse. (For those of you who don’t spend time in the Pacific Northwest, that’s quite a stunning trip, with views of heavily forested hills, catastrophically flood carved cliffs, several major volcanoes, arid high desert, and loess hills.) The leaves were in, where leaves could be in, and the weather was gorgeous. We stopped for a Chinese lunch in Othello, WA, then headed up toward the site, guided by Christian, our South African-accented Nokia GPS.

Nearing the site, we did get briefly distracted by a Pullman car. After that, Christian announced, “We are here. Your cell phone hopes you had a good trip,” and delivered us to an empty stretch of gravel road.


The only thing visible besides crops was a berm perhaps a hundred yards north of us. You can see it past tillyjane‘s head in the above photo. We figured perhaps the site had been decommissioned and filled in or scraped over. (All I’d pulled from the Internet was locations, not descriptions, so we were running on minimal data here.) We’d determined in advance that we wouldn’t cross a fence line or violate posted no trespassing sign, but this was just open land, so we felt it worth our trouble to see what could be seen. We sorted ourselves out and walked up the boundary between two fields, hoping to learn more at the site of the berm.

The walk itself was pretty strange. Loess under stable ground cover is soft but will hold weight. Plowed loess is like walking in white flour. It’s even looser and slippery than beach sand. Every footfall kicked up dust clouds, every step was laborious because of the sliding.

The berm was overgrown with thistles and several kinds of weeds sporting prickly seedpods at this time of year. Casting about the base, we found bits of metal and concrete that lent support to our theory that the site had been plowed under. When I climbed the berm, things turned out to be a bit different.


From that distance, the complex looked like a run down equipment yard. I didn’t realize what I was seeing yet, and interpreted the open blast doors from the silos as either machine sheds or agricultural trailers. My scale was completely wrong, of course, but that was difficult to assess while still a quarter mile or so away.

While tillyjane and the_child messed around on the berm, I made for a vaguely military looking piece of junk.


On inspection, it was pretty obviously a Big Heavy Object that had been placed there to block a hole in the ground. Evidence!

Then I looked up at the equipment yard again, and realized that I had not been seeing trailers.


I realized about then that I was seeing a telephone pole to the right of that open set of blast doors. I turned, waved tillyjane and the_child forward, and headed onward.

The first thing I came to was a large silo with the doors dismounted. (There are three large silos and one small one at this complex.) It took me a minute to realize that’s what I was seeing.

It’s been capped with a large sheet of metal, and some minimal railing installed to keep people from just wandering over the edge. Given that these are almost 200 feet deep, that’s probably a good idea.

I think this is the flame duct. There are two of these by each silo.

I was struck by one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard in my life as I approached the silo. It was if something large were weeping deep beneath the earth. It took me a few moments to sort out I was hearing a large number of pigeons cooing in their roosts down inside the flame duct and the silo itself, their noises magnified by the incredible echo chamber in which they lived. By the time I realized I could record this with my camera, I’d made too much racket and the pigeons had either fallen silent or flown away.

There’s something profoundly poetic about that image — the birds which fill the very cities these missiles were meant to destroy were now nesting in the abandoned cradle of nuclear fire. The wind was capricious as well, whipping and whining around the silos like the ghosts of lost missilemen still carrying their twin launch keys, reaching out across the span of two arms wondering if this time it was not a drill.

tillyjane and the_child caught up with me at this point. We had a discussion about safety and etiquette — no touching or climbing, don’t take anything, don’t go near any holes without close adult supervision. All the usual sorts of things one covers when trolling abandoned nuclear sites with a ten year old.

Drawn by the blast doors, I moved on.


While the first silo we came to had the doors dismounted, the other two were intact and gaping open. They were possessed of a brutal, industrial beauty. This is weapons-grade Big Science, with all the shiny optimism abraded by half a century of dusty high plains wind and the shifting realpolitik of the world beyond those lonely horizons.

As we approached the second silo, tillyjane pointed out pigeons flying down into the earth. Their flame duct had no safety rail, so we approached only closely enough to peer within.


We then poked around that silo a bit.

The decking visible isn’t part of the original silo — it covers the hole and provides an upper support for the rebar railing blocking the drop at the edge.

The third silo was uphill a bit. the_child and I lagged behind tillyjane a bit so I get some photos to indicate the scale of these things.


At this silo, I got up close and personal with some detailed photography.

The lit square is a reflection of the cap on the surface of the water filling the bottom of the silo. I was sticking the camera through the rail, pointed down, after messing with the setting to photograph in very low light. To the naked eye, that was almost impenetrable shadow.

Looking carefully at the blast doors, it’s obvious the original lifting hardware was salvaged when they were decommissioned. You can see where the anchors were torn out of the concrete of the door. I’m a little more puzzled why anyone bothered to run electric lines out to the decommissioned doors, but there are poles and junction boxes present, long since abandoned themselves. I also think the roughly six foot square metal-and-concrete weights which are scattered all over the site may well have been the counterweights for the blast door lifting hardware.

the_child and I got up on the door’s embrasure for some of these photos. The presence of the 200 foot drop right next to us sparked tillyjane‘s not very latent fear of heights, and she asked us to please come down.

Unable to record the eerie sounds of pigeons in their hypogeal nests, I messed a little with the audio qualities of these spaces myself, with an able assist from the_child.

Finally, we wandered around the rest of the complex, wondering where the launch control and underground quarters had been. We did find a smaller tube or silo which didn’t match the three big ones. I don’t know enough about ICBM launch complexes to understand what that might been used for. It had been almost completely blocked off by those counterweights, so I slipped my camera in through a crack to photograph within. We also spotted the fuel pump, and a some other odd miscellany.

That last photo may be of a hunk of metal covering the accessway to the control room and crew quarters.

Eventually we hiked back out to the Genre car, then drove around the front of the complex to see what might be visible from the public road. Not much, basically, and you’d be hard pressed to know any of this was on the site if you didn’t come looking for it right at that spot.

The gateway to the property is formed by two of those counterweights, though the casual passerby would not know this. Note the blast door visible along the fenceline, though from this distance it would be easily mistaken for part of a tiltwall construction effort.

Driving up the access road to the enclosing fence, the blast doors are more visible, but still not the least bit obvious in their function.

We never did cross a fence line coming the back way, but if we’d come at it from the front, we would not have gotten in. I assume this is why the GPS coordinates I pulled off the Internet were so apparently inaccurate — to get us to the accessible side of the property, off the main road.

We drove home via the Hanford Reach, and down US-97 through the Yakama Indian Reservation. It’s a pretty, lonely drive that gave us different scenery and a number of empty miles to think on what we’d seen.

The site was terrifically sobering to both me and tillyjane. My mother grew up in the days of duck-and-cover drills, and basements stocked with government cheese and canned water with which to rebuild the American dream after the cleansing fire had washed over the land. This place featured in that nightmare which lies at the center of the house of memory of any thoughtful survivor of the Cold War.

For me, it was perhaps most akin, albeit distantly, to the time that my family visited Dachau, shortly after my 18th birthday. The bizarre, wrenching history of the Holocaust was given a soul-twisting reality for me in that camp, a memory that has remained sharp for a quarter century since. This missile site was one of the bullets in the gun on the mantle of a second, truly final holocaust; a gun which was thankfully never fired. The rustling weeds and muttering pigeons and open-mouthed blast doors memorialize the darkest side of a superpower’s dreams. The place touched a small, cold scar on my heart.

What will this mean to the_child? I can’t say. For now, she remembers thirteen hours in the car as much as anything. We talked about the missiles, what they were for, how the United States and the Russians had promised each other that if either fought, both would lose. I introduced my ten year old to the idea that people really could kill cities, with a big enough bomb. She wanted to know where the missiles had gone, why the concrete and steel on the site hadn’t been recycled, why anyone would build a bomb so big.

I don’t believe I frightened her. That was certainly not my intent. I know I made her think. I did tell her this:

“When you grow up, and talk about your childhood, I want you to remember you had the kind of dad who took you to see abandoned nuclear missile silos.”

As usual, more at the Flickr set. Lots more, in this case.
(original entry, with comments, here)

Suggestion Box

As most of you know (because I told you), 2008 for me will be mostly given over to writing books, because one must make hay while the sun shines, mustn’t one. This means among other things that my almost ridiculously spread-out online footprint will contract down to this single site. Which suggests to me that I should think about what I want to do here in the next year.

While I am thinking about it, I thought I would also open up the question to you folks: If you have thoughts or suggestions about what you’d like to see on Whatever starting in 2008 and moving forward, here’s a place to leave those suggestions. Quite frankly, you may think of something very cool that I haven’t thought of yet, because, you know. I’ve been kind of busy. I can’t promise I’ll use any suggestions (I can’t even promise I’ll use my own suggestions), but I am interested in knowing what you guys would like to see more or, or less of, or added.

So if you’re so inclined, leave your thoughts. Thanks.

A Month of Writers, Day Sixteen: Sarah Monette

Sarah Monette and I were nominated for the Campbell Award at the same time, which is why one day we ended up having a sack race down the hall of one of the better hotels in Madison, Wisconsin. Oh, don’t look at me like that. It made perfect sense at the time. And we tied, which I think means we are equally fabulous. Certainly Sarah’s writing is fabulous; her trilogy of fantasy novels, which began with Melusine, went through The Virtu and now concludes with The Mirador, has been getting praise like “extraordinary,” “wonderful” and “fantastic,” with “virtuoso narratives of theatrical, political and magical intrigues.” Which are pretty nice reviews to get.

In addition to writing virtuoso fantasy, Sarah can also break it down on the academic tip: she’s got a PhD in English Literature, and some of that analytic nature comes through in her contribution to A Month of Writers, in which she looks at sex and gender in science fiction, and the importance of defining one’s terms.

SARAH MONETTE: Groundwork for discussions of sexual politics

This past weekend at Penguicon 5.0, I was on a panel called “Limited Female Roles In Fantasy, Comics, and SF” with Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, The Ferret, and M. Keaton. It was a good panel–don’t get me wrong about that–but I felt, and I think perhaps other panelists did, too, a certain amount of frustration in trying to define what it was we were talking about.

I know why this is. It’s because sexual politics is incredibly complicated and full of nebulous and subjective ideas. And because in trying to talk about sexual roles we are inevitably stuck in the position of fish trying to talk about water. It’s hard to step back from something so immersive, hard to define things that we’ve been shaped by since we were born.

I’ve had this experience before, at a variety of cons (and, yes, that does include WisCon), and it occurred to me this morning that maybe it would be worthwhile to try to lay out some of the fundamentals in a blog post, just to get all this definitional nonsense in one place.


“Sex” vs. “Gender”

Sex is biology. Gender is culture.

But wait! It’s not that simple. (Of course it isn’t that simple. Nothing about sexual politics is simple.)

“Sex” is talking about the equipment a person is born with. Male. Female.

… Intersexed.

Sex isn’t a binary any more than gender is, although American culture traditionally wants to make it a binary goddammit, thus causing all sorts of problems for those who happen to be born in-between.

But wait! It isn’t even that simple.

Transsexual people, people who choose to go through SRS, are making choices on the level of sex, not gender. Biology is not destiny; sex is neither binary nor immutable.

“Essentialism” in the context of sexual politics refers to the idea that there is some essential, irreducible difference between men and women. As will be obvious from the foregoing, I consider this a deeply problematic stance.

So if “sex” is biology–and all its complications–what is “gender”?

“Gender” is what human societies do with “sex,” how expectations of behavior are influenced by perceptions of biology. Hence the term “gender roles.”

Gender isn’t a binary either. There’s a kind of loose, largely unexamined consensus in middle-class white American society about how men and women behave. (Men are from Mars, remember, and women are from Venus.) And cultural hegemony means that that consensus gets applied widely.

But that doesn’t make the consensus true.

I think it’s misia who pointed out that for an increasing minority of the population, the proper gender tag is “geek” first and “male” or “female” second. I am one of those people myself. There are other sub-cultures in which performance of gender likewise does not map onto the (spurious) binary of sex–hence the terms “butch” and “femme,” just for one example. So when you say men communicate in a particular way, or women are drawn to a particular type of story, my immediate instinct is to make you specify. Which men? Which women? Because generalizations leave a heck of a lot of people out in the cold.

We’re all created equal, but that doesn’t mean we’re created alike.

The Vicious Circle

Women have limited roles in sf (print and media) because:
(a.) That’s what audiences want.
(b.) Women aren’t as interesting as men.
(c.) Artists are products of their culture, and have difficulty thinking outside the box.
(d.) Men are doing it on purpose to keep women oppressed.
(e.) The genre is traditionally male-dominated, and its conventions and tropes leave very little room for telling women’s stories.
(f.) SF is always social allegory, and this trend is an accurate reflection of reality.

All of these answers are wrong.

Some are less wrong than others; b. and d. are both pernicious nonsense; f. is a cop-out, as is a.; c. and e. are partially true, but ignore the work already being done, by both artists and audience members of all genders, to change that.

You’ll also notice that cause and effect are hopelessly jumbled. Individual artistic expressions cannot be separated from the culture at large; artists are influenced by culture, and the culture is in turn influenced by artists. It’s complicated and messy, and it’s impossible, past a certain point, to disentangle the synergistic feedback loop between artists and their culture. Again, generalizations just get you in trouble.

And My Point Is …

If you’re in this kind of discussion, whether on a panel, on the internet, or at the dinner table, do your damnedest to define your terms. (If you’re on a panel, I’d even recommend trying to do this ahead of time.) Try to use words that say what you mean as precisely as possible. Specify what you’re talking about, what you mean by particular overdetermined words. This ensures that everyone’s talking about the same thing and has the happy side-effect of focusing the discussion.

Never trust a generalization you can’t see the back of.

(Original entry, with comments, is here)

Because CNN Asked

CNN.com’s lead story at the moment is demanding to know how I would talk to my child about Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy. This is how: I raced down the stairs, confronted my child as she was consuming a bagel dog, and uttered the following words:

“Young’n! That there Jamie Lynn Spears from Zoey 101 done got herself all pregnified!”

To which Athena responded with the following look:

And then went back to having her dinner. Because you know what? She doesn’t care. And you know why? It’s not her business.

Funny that my eight-year-old is so clear on this when CNN, presumably jam-packed with adults, is not.

If you really feel the need to talk to your children about Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy, here’s a simple test: Are you or they a member of Miss Spears’ immediate family? If the answer is no, please talk to your children about something else. Possibly something actually pertaining to them. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind that refreshing change. It’s just a thought.

A Month of Writers, Day Fifteen: David Louis Edelman

I have a funny story about meeting David Louis Edelman. Before I met him, I interviewed him for my AOL site, as he did his first round of interview for his then newly-released (and eventually Campbell Award-nominated) book Infoquake, and as a matter of course was sent both an image of the book and a picture of David. A short time later, I was on my way to the Readercon convention in Boston, and my flight itinerary had me making a connecting flight at Dulles International, outside DC. As I’m waiting to make my connecting flight, the guy sitting a couple seats down from me looks vaguely familiar, and I can’t quite place him. But I look at what he’s reading — a China Mieville book — and figure he’s got to be going to Readercon, because China was the guest of honor that year. And then it hits me — hey, I just interviewed that dude. It was one of those small world things.

Before I could say anything to David, he notices that I’m looking at his book, and starts a conversation with me… and it’s clear he has no clue who I am. And because, you know, I’m a jerk, we have a whole conversation without me telling him who I am, because I want to see how he’ll react when he finally figures it out (his reaction: vague embarrassment at the time; now he just berates me for having been a bit of a dick, which I accept and celebrate. Hey, I already said I was a jerk). In any event, it was an amusing way to have met.

David writes a number of long think pieces on his blog, on a more than irregular basis; his Month of Writers contribution is a prime example of this, and looks at what a popular series of films tells us about our national psyche. And it’s not even a science fiction or fantasy series — at least, not in the ways we usually define them.

DAVID LOUIS EDELMAN: The Bourne Paranoia

Here are a few things that every American knows.

  • The world is a vile and dangerous place.
  • America is blindly and irrationally hated by just about everybody outside of our borders.
  • If we left our security up to the peaceniks, bureaucrats, and Boy Scouts we elect to national office, the United States would be a smoldering ruin in a matter of months.
  • Therefore it’s necessary that we fund a zillion intelligence agencies and black ops teams who routinely conduct secret assassinations in the name of defending our country.
  • Nevertheless, despite our massive economic and military power, the United States is drastically outnumbered and constantly on the verge of apocalypse.

imageAt least, these are the assumptions behind just about every spy thriller ever made. Now I find myself wondering: When the hell did these assumptions become so ingrained in our psyche? When did we blithely start accepting this worldview? Who says the United States should behave this way — and, for that matter, when did we all decide that the United States actually does behave this way? What the fuck happened to my country?

These assumptions are also the ones that underline 2002’s The Bourne Identity. It’s a nice little popcorn flick with a plot so familiar you can slip into it like an old bathrobe. Matt Damon plays Matt Damon, playing a CIA-funded black ops assassin who has a change of heart because the agency has Gone Too Far. Now after a bout of amnesia, he finds himself on the run from the very organization that funded him. Car chases and dead bodies ensue. Spoiler alert: the heroic Matt Damon gets the girl, and the villainous Chris Cooper gets shot in the head. (Oh, and FYI, there are more spoilers below.)

And then someone had the inspired idea of hiring Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) to take over the franchise. To call The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum better films than their predecessor is kind of like calling a fine aged pinot grigio better than a Zima. They’re among the most intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful thrillers about American paranoia that I’ve ever seen. (And holy crap, did you realize Matt Damon could act?)

Suddenly our protagonist is no longer just a youthful maverick spy fleeing across Europe with a spunky German chick in tow. Jason Bourne is not so much a character in Supremacy and Ultimatum as he is a manifestation of the American subconscious. He’s an unstoppable force who never tires, who never gives up, who can never be killed. Imagine a cross between Batman and Patrick Henry who knows how to kill people with a plastic pen.

Richard Corliss clearly noticed the transformation in his Time magazine review of The Bourne Ultimatum:

That’s the secret of this character, and Bond and John McClane and all the other action-movie studs. They are a projection of American power — or a memory of it, and the poignant wish it could somehow return. In real life, as a nation these days, we can achieve next to nothing. But in the Bourne movies just one of us, grim, muscular and photogenic, can take on all villains, all at once, and leave them outwitted, dead, disgraced. That’s a macho fantasy of the highest, purest, most lunatic order.

Corliss is on to something here, but I think he’s got it exactly backwards. Jason Bourne isn’t just an action stud in the James Bond mold; Bourne is, in fact, a calculated response to James Bond, or more than that, he’s the anti-James Bond. James Bond on the Bizarro planet. Is it an accident that Jason Bourne and James Bond have the same initials? (Well, actually it probably is. But you’d have to ask Robert Ludlum, who created the character, and he’s dead. But apparently Greengrass didn’t read the Ludlum novels anyway.)

James Bond uses an assortment of high-tech gadgets helpfully provided to him by the British government. Sleek guns, high-tech cars, gizmos that are notable mainly for the way they’re camouflaged inside ordinary objects. Over the years, Bond has used:

  • A remote-controlled BMW with rocket launcher
  • A tricked-out surfboard with a hidden compartment for guns and explosives
  • A ballpoint pen grenade
  • A wristwatch with a built-in laser cutter
  • An escape pod concealed in a ski jacket

Jason Bourne, by contrast, uses such glamorous weapons as:

  • A cheap rotating fan
  • A rolled-up newspaper
  • Laundry pulled from a clothesline
  • A beat-up Cooper Mini
  • A plastic pen
  • A hardback book

But even more interesting than the contrast of weapons is the contrast of attitudes towards government. James Bond is, in many ways, a manifestation of how the British would like to see themselves: debonair and worldly; as technologically adept as the Americans, without sacrificing class and gentility; dangerous when crossed. In the world of James Bond, the British government might be stodgy, but its heart is in the right place.

imageJason Bourne, on the other hand, is a maverick who was once broken by his own government and is now on the run from it. In the world of Jason Bourne, the United States government is composed of equal parts corrupt slimeball and impotent douchebag, with a small contingent of do-gooders skulking around the fringes.

We can discuss Great Britain and James Bond another day. As for America: how did we get to this point? When did we get to the point that the assumptions outlined at the top of this article became commonplace?

I imagine it began in the aftermath of World War II as we ramped up to fight the Communists in their quest for world domination. It was fertilized by the suspicious assassination of John F. Kennedy, watered by Nixon’s dirty tricks in Watergate, nurtured by Reagan’s Iran/Contra hijinks, and ripened by George W. Bush’s global war on terror. And no, it wasn’t just the province of Republican administrations; Johnson was as manipulative a son-of-a-bitch as they come, Clinton did very little to stop or reverse the trend, and Carter played right into the paranoids’ hands by letting a bunch of religious maniacs hold Americans hostage in Iran without consequence.

The end result is that we the people don’t believe in the United States anymore.

Oh, sure, we believe in the people of the United States. We believe that our neighbors here in this country are largely honest, decent, hard-working citizens. But all the things the United States is supposed to stand for — the idea that free and open societies work better than closed ones, the idea that we can work out our differences through courts and legislation, the idea that we should live by principles of law and reason rather than mere tribalism — we don’t have faith in those things anymore. The courts are rigged against us, the government is laced with corruption and undue lobbying influence, the police are either too hampered by bureaucracy or too brutal and bloodthirsty to trust.

No, we need maverick heroes like Jason Bourne (and John McClane, and James Bond, and Indiana Jones, and Batman, and Jack Bauer, and every character that Arnold Schwarzenegger ever played) who can skirt the law, who can actually break the law when they deem fit and not be held accountable for their actions because we know they’re really good, just, honorable people acting in our best interests. And every situation we face is a 24 situation. Al Qaeda has agents infiltrating your living room, they’re going to blow up the Sears Tower at any minute, there’s a ticking bomb about to go off! What, you want to trust the police at a time like this? You want to follow stupid laws hammered out by some ignorant yahoos in Washington who spend all their time in bed with lobbyists? Are you crazy? We’ve got to do anything we can to prevent this! Law and order be damned, we’ve got to act now now now!

It would be one thing if this was just the exaggerated attitude of the movies. But it’s not.

When a handful of jihadist fanatics murdered three thousand people in 2001, we didn’t trust that we could resolve this through the international cooperation of law enforcement agencies. No, we needed to lash out, we needed to send a disproportionate response, we needed to punish those states who were sympathetic to our enemies. Osama bin Laden isn’t just some robed lunatic with a gun in a cave; he’s evil incarnate. He’s Adolf Hitler! And when you’re facing Adolf Hitler, you can’t resort to ordinary tactics. Extremism in the defense of liberty tain’t no vice.

When Barack Obama recently suggested that even bin Laden should be given due process and his day in court, the nation scoffed. Due process? Man, due process doesn’t work! If we capture that son-of-a-bitch, we need to string him up but good. If you put him in a courtroom with F. Lee Bailey as his attorney, he’ll argue his way out of a conviction and be walking by sundown! Nope, only a secret military trial and execution will do.

(It’s the same mentality that’s at work with the Bush Administration’s runaround of the FISA limits on wiretapping. This just astounds me. FISA allows secret, anonymous, unaccountable intelligence agents to stretch the bounds of the Constitution by conducting wiretaps on U.S. citizens simply by getting rubber-stamp permission from a secret, anonymous, unaccountable judge — and the Bush Administration doesn’t think that’s enough?)

imageI just don’t believe this paranoid worldview is sustainable. And director Paul Greengrass doesn’t either. Like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart or Irving’s Headless Horseman, these things come back to haunt us. And for Greengrass, in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, that Headless Horseman is Jason Bourne.

Notice the look of fear in the eyes of the various intelligence impresarios that Bourne runs across (played ably by Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, and David Straitharn). Bourne isn’t just a renegade spy; he’s the twitch of conscience that you feel in the middle of the night, he’s the thing that haunts you after you’ve just violated international law in the name of the United States of America. Soil the Constitution, and Jason Bourne will get you.

Interestingly enough, the manifestation of the American subconscious isn’t a bloodthirsty killer. Time and again in these films, we’re subjected to the image of Bourne approaching a target with gun in hand, only to turn away at the last moment and not shoot. Bruce Willis’s John McClane gives a cheerful “Yippeekayay, motherfucker” before he kills; James Bond’s whole signature move is to turn towards the camera, strike a pose, and fire a gun until cartoony blood flows over the lens. I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but from what I remember every single villain meets some kind of nasty demise in the end. I can think of at least six distinct scenes in the Bourne films where the hero has the villain in his sights, unarmed, gun in hand, and he fails to pull the trigger.

But if Damon’s character isn’t a killer at heart, he isn’t a do-gooder either. He’s not on a righteous crusade to bring America back to lily-white purity. In fact, he’s almost completely self-absorbed; he doesn’t particularly seem to care about America or the government or international law. Sure, he cares for the various mousy white women who get into trouble because of him, but only insomuch as they intersect his path and get in trouble on his behalf.

All of this culminates in what is, to me, one of the most stunning, jaw-dropping, unforgettable scenes in the past decade of film. At the end of Supremacy, Jason Bourne drops in on the teenaged daughter of two of his early assassination targets. And he apologizes.

There’s something incredibly primal about the scene. Bourne is exhausted, gruff, half in shadow; he seems immense alongside the poor girl, who mistakes him at first for a burglar. But Bourne quickly calms her down. He tells her that, contrary to what she’s been told, her parents didn’t die in a murder/suicide. They were gunned down by him, on assignment from the CIA. “It changes things, that knowledge, doesn’t it?” says Bourne. The terrified girl nods. And then Bourne gets up, mumbles “I’m sorry,” and walks out of the room.

It reminded me of that grass-roots campaign that went around the web in the wake of John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential elections. Remember that? It featured thousands of Americans taking pictures of themselves holding up signs for the world to read expressing how sorry we are that we couldn’t stop George W. Bush from taking office for another four years. (Update 10/4/07: The name of the campaign was “Sorry Everybody,” and you can see the photos at www.sorryeverybody.com.)

When does the American paranoia end? And who will stand up and apologize once it’s over?

(Original entry, with comments, here)

Mail Hole

Just as a head’s up to folks: I’m getting quite a bit of mail in the last several days, much of which I’m not responding to immediately (or sometimes at all) simply because I’m grinding through work. Suffice to say if you’ve sent me mail in the last few days, I’ve gotten it even if I’ve not gotten back to you.

Also, I expect that this highly sporadic returning of mail will continue through the end of the year/completion of the book I’m working on. I’m sure you understand.

This isn’t a hint for you not to send me mail. I like mail. Just be tolerant if I don’t get back to you. Thanks.

The Sound of a Million Elves Celebrating

To my surprise, I find I’m on New Line Cinema’s PR list, so let me pass on this bit of news: Peter Jackson’s gonna make two films from The Hobbitt:

Los Angeles, CA (Tuesday, December 18, 2007) Academy Award®-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson; Harry Sloan, Chairman and CEO, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. (MGM); Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, Co-Chairmen and Co-CEOs of New Line Cinema have jointly announced today that they have entered into the following series of agreements:

* MGM and New Line will co-finance and co-distribute two films, “The Hobbit” and a sequel to “The Hobbit.” New Line will distribute in North America and MGM will distribute internationally.

* Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh will serve as Executive Producers of two films based on “The Hobbit.” New Line will manage the production of the films, which will be shot simultaneously.

* Peter Jackson and New Line have settled all litigation relating to the “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) Trilogy.

Said Peter Jackson, “I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to put our differences behind us, so that we may begin a new chapter with our old friends at New Line. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a legacy we proudly share with Bob and Michael, and together, we share that legacy with millions of loyal fans all over the world. We are delighted to continue our journey through Middle Earth. I also want to thank Harry Sloan and our new friends at MGM for helping us find the common ground necessary to continue that journey.”

Why did this happen now, after many years of bitterness between Jackson and New Line over the Lord of the Rings payouts? I suppose there are many reasons, but I would suppose one very relevant proximate cause would be Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne trying to save their asses in the wake of the very expensive The Golden Compass cratering very badly at the box office ($40 million in two weeks, with a nearly 66% dropoff in the second weekend — not good news when your production budget is $180 million and you’ve sold off the foreign rights). My guess: it’ll work. Well done, Mr. Shaye and Mr. Lynne! And I can’t imagine that Mr. Jackson and friends will not profit handsomely from this either, so well done to him indeed. And all he had to do was wait until New Line needed him more than he needed New Line. Sneaky.

And for all you Tolkien geeks: Congrats, you get another trip to Middle Earth. Mind the dragons.

Oh, and look: The Hobbit Blog. Because it’s never too early for a Hobbit movie blog.

Update, 6pm: The New York Times suggests Jackson’s getting an extra $40 million to settle his differences with New Line. Well, Christmas is coming up. Gotta have spending money. I’ve also heard bruited about that only one of the films will be based on The Hobbit; the other will in some way cover the 60 or so years between the end of The Hobbit and the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. If so, one hopes that the second film won’t in fact be two hours of Bilbo drinking himself silly and toking down on his favorite leaf. Which, while in character for a hobbit, would not make for gripping cinema.

Also, Jackson won’t be directing, just producing. For director, I nominate Guillermo Del Toro.

A Month of Writers, Day Fourteen: Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne Valente is having a pretty good year: Her novel The Orphan’s Tales Vol I: In the Night Garden was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and its follow on, The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is getting rapturous praise as well (“a thought-provoking storytelling tour de force” — Publishers Weekly). It’s nice to do well. She’s a lovely person as well, so that’s a bonus.

But as Ms. Valente’s Month of Writers contribution shows, even writers who produce thought-provoking storytelling tours de force are sometimes surprised at their own stories, and how they have unfolded. All I have to say to this, from my home in snow-blanketed rural Ohio, far away from my suburban southern California roots, is: I hear you, sister. But as for the rest of you, pay attention now to what she has to say.


I was linked to this article by Vernor Vinge the other day, which involves some (rather arbitrary) comments on what might happen if the “singularity” does not occur. For those who do not live in our house and therefore do not have conversations involving said term at least once a month, the singularity refers to the technological revolution beyond which we cannot really imagine the state of our anything: daily life, rate of change, social patterns. Usually this means functional AI, and the resulting technologies: nanotech, FTL, etc. In short, it is the point at which “now” becomes that nebulous THE FUTURE.

I don’t have all that much to say about the tech singularity, because by definition we can’t really extrapolate–sure, we can talk about what the singularity might be, but to imagine life beyond it you need SF lit, and even there, one is always cautioned to Remember Leningrad–in Star Trek IV Starfleet headquarters reports the loss of power and plummeting temperatures in Leningrad as a result of the whalesongs (OMG SPOILERS). Of course, Leningrad was re-re-named St. Petersburg just a few years later, and is thus a nice shorthand for how the things which seem today like they will safely last forever can be gone by the next sequel.

So Vinge’s singularity–and he coined the term–will most likely occur, and I’m not really convinced by the article, where he says that if AI doesn’t develop, people will eventually more or less give up on computers. The singularity does not actually have to take the form of AI, much as we, raised on Data and HAL, might like to think it must. Our world as it exists today would be unimaginable to even someone from 300 years or so ago. Computers themselves comprised a singularity, as did flight and electricity. As did the breakup of the Soviet Union. There is no one singularity, and I believe that if AI doesn’t wake up one day and rub its cyber-eyes and ask for coffee, humankind will still manage new and to-us-unfathomable technologies if we don’t blow ourselves to shit first. I’m not really worried about it.

But because of the article I started thinking about the word “singularity” and what that has come to mean. While sitting at the breakfast table discussing the Big Scary S-word, I poked at my eggs-in-a-basket (which we, because we are dorks, generally call V-eggs or Vendetta in a Basket) and said:

“The thing is, I’m living in my own personal singularity, a point beyond which I, even right now, cannot imagine. I am post-marriage, post-publication, post-Navy, post-post. I don’t know how to live my life right now, I’m past the edges of my own maps.”

And that’s true. I did not have any tools with which to build a mental model of a life which did not include being married, which did not involve being moved around by the Navy, or returning to graduate school. Which rested heavily on writing and publishing for my bread and board and a rather unorthodox living arrangement in the American Midwest. All these things were well beyond the threshold of imagining for my 23-year old self, which was not all that long ago.

I think everyone has these personal singularities. When you’re a kid, it’s that nebulous state of being GROWN UP, at which point everything will be more or less awesome and make sense, and you will not have to deal with the issues you have to deal with being eight and grounded. Marriage is another one–we are taught that everything will somehow evolve into kids and a house and grandparenthood after that, though the process is vague and involves a lot of handwaving. Some of us are still struggling to live in that singularity of adulthood in their twenties, thirties, forties. Probably in their fifties, too, but to my spring-chicken mind, that age is as unimaginable as driving used to be, or being able to buy any toy I wanted, so I can’t testify. I realize, oh post-50 friends of mine, that that makes me suck. I accept this.

When you grow up, they often have to do with work: the site launch, the book, the promotion, tenure, going into business for oneself. Or children, the biggest singularity for most people.

What were yours? What are yours? What is the part of your life you cannot imagine yourself living beyond?

But the real nature of singularities is that they can’t even be predicted. In some sense AI is such an easy answer to what the singularity will be. In actuality it will probably be some advance we can’t even think about right now, as incomprehensible as the internet to a potato farmer in 17th century Ireland. He would not even have the tools to begin to understand what it was, let alone, and maybe more importantly, what use anyone could have for it, and why anyone would care. There are potatoes to pull, goddammit, leave me alone with that shit.

And it’s like that in fleshy, messy singularities, too. In 2002, when I stood in front of a minister and had a ring put on my hand, I fully expected that by 2007, I’d be living in Greece, still married, still in the Navy. Maybe pregnant. If I was very lucky, I could almost imagine the slim possibility of having a book published by a very, very small press. Maybe self-published. And maybe in 2009 I could go back to grad school. I was comfortable with that timeline, I knew it very well. It was Life, and maybe I didn’t like it so much, but you can’t really change it, right?

Didn’t happen. The books were the first singularity, Ohio was the second. And here I am, divorced before 30. I’m happy in my singularity, happier than in the analog, pre-quantum theory universe I inhabited before. But it does mean that I can’t even project what my life will be next month. I have no maps here. Part of my late depression and existential crises are the growing pains, I think, of trying to form an accurate model of my life trajectory, and jettisoning the old one. That process is no joke, not for the weak of heart. Remember Leningrad.

The word singularity is a lie, both in SF and in life. There is no one singularity. You keep pushing through them, and it’s fucking terrifying, and fucking amazing. You wake up and one day the USSR is gone and the tech boom crashed and you’re divorced and you sell tires instead of playing professional soccer and your toaster wants to talk to you about pork futures and the size of your penis and your sofa wants to have a serious conversation about the works of Vernor Vinge. You wake up and you’re making independent movies instead of selling tires and Europe up and got themselves a common currency and you had twin girls when you thought your birth control was top notch and the Supreme Court threw an election and gay marriage is so old-fashioned when there are four sexes and flights to Saturn leave daily.

You just keep moving. And in the middle of the night the blue glow of your intelligent sofa tells you it’ll be okay, eventually. Singularities exist to be lived in, to be lived beyond. Embrace them. Embrace love in the midwest. Embrace AI. Embrace Vernor Vinge. Face down the new world–and don’t flinch first.

(original entry, with comments, is here)

A Month of Writers, Day Thirteen: Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas wrote one of my favorite young adult novels this year, called Under My Roof, because how can you not like a story about a family that becomes its own micronation when it straps a nuclear device to garden gnome? I mean, that’s every boy’s dream (since Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, I’m gratified to see I’m not alone in this opinion). That it’s funny is a bonus; that it’s sarcastic is not in the least surprising to anyone who’s ever read Nick’s LiveJournal and seen him go to town on one damn fool thing or another. Which is why, you know, I keep reading his LiveJournal.

In this episode of A Month of Writers, Nick goes to visit an English class to answer questions about his novel. Hilarious hijinx, as they say, ensue.

NICK MAMATAS: My sister’s class, or Triumph Of The Swill

Well, I attended my sister’s English class (your basic frosh composition class) and answered questions about Under My Roof.

The class was absolutely scandalized by my work. Indeed, about half the questions asked had, as a subtext, “How dare you write this book!”

Explicitly, I was asked several times if I didn’t think that a kid might read the book and build a bomb or become a racist or anti-American. Often, I was asked questions structured like this: “In the book you call poor people sad fuckers. Isn’t that anti-poor?” And I’d explain that in the book a character calls some poor people he encounters sad fuckers, and that is different from me saying that of all poor people. Then the next question would be, “In the book, you say that Muslims are terrorists…” and then “In your book, you say that soldiers are dumb…”

But make no mistake, this wasn’t some uber-PC crowd. Indeed, one woman went off on a long tangent about making English the official language of the United States — this was of course prefaced with “I’m totally not racist, but” (you know, racist throat-clearing) and then her friend said that yeah, she’d read a study that predicted that in a few years New York would be 75% Spanish and that “we’ll be the minority.” And I said “We who?” and she said “We, you know, us, normal people.” (I shared an eye-roll with the Nigerian and Pakistani students in front of me at that point.)

There were also aesthetic complaints. For example, the book “wasn’t even in order.” “Are kids supposed to understand this?”the “we” woman asked. I said “Well, advanced kids” and she really got upset at that. (Hee hee!) The character of the mother was wrong because as “a New York woman” she would have just beaten up her husband. Also, this book “isn’t in the majority; I want to know how many books you sold, and what people have been saying about it! Did anyone like it??!?” I mentioned the starred Publishers Weekly review and the raves from the LA Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and The Believer, then I was told that Harry Potter outsold me. Well yeah, he did.

Finally, someone said, “Well, what were we supposed to learn from this book!” and I said “Nothing.” Later I was able to explain that good novels ask questions; they don’t provide answers. Someone complained,”If a kid reads this, he may start thinking.” (I should say that that last was from an ESL student; he may not have meant to express his comment as an eventuality to be dreaded.)

Then someone asked “Well, what if I was really into shooting men! Should I write a book about that?” I said “Sure, go ahead” and the classroom erupted. Then someone boiled the last hour down to, “What do you think a writer’s responsibility to society is?” and I said “None,” and the class erupted again as, apparently, my sister had spent the past fifteen weeks filling their heads with this vile lie.

But the best was when someone asked me about research and telepathy and I explained that I didn’t research telepathy as it doesn’t exist, so I just made the powers up and one woman finally blurted out, “So…this book is a FANTASY!!”

(original entry, with comments, is here)