Wacky Database Madness

My WordPress seems to have momentarily not wanted to speak to my database. It seems to have corrected itself. Who knows if it’ll happen again. But if you suddenly can’t connect here, that’s what it is (naturally, if you can’t connect, you won’t see this message on the front page of Whatever. But I send it out, perchance to send it along the RSS grapevine).


Reader Request Week 2008 #4: Where I Am Now

Dan asks:

Cast yourself back to the Scalzi of twenty years ago.

Now, in your life, are you anywhere near where you thought you’d be?

Yeah, pretty much I am. Twenty years ago I was a first-year student in college, and I had a weekly column in the college newspaper and I had bluffed my way into upper-level creative writing course (in which the professor on the first day declared that there was to be no science fiction written for his class, the bastard!), and I pretty much figured I was going to be a writer in the future, because that’s what I was then, and what I knew I was good at (relatively speaking) and wanted to continue doing.

There are specifics that I wouldn’t have expected. For example, living in Ohio, which still occasionally comes as a shock to this southern California boy. Also, I didn’t anticipate the Internet in any way. When I was in college I assumed I would go on and be a columnist at a newspaper or a magazine. Well, I did — at 24, I was the youngest nationally syndicated newspaper columnist in America (and quality-wise, alas, it showed) — but I didn’t then expect that I would end up essentially writing a daily column online, on my personal site, which gets as many weekday visitors as the average American newspaper has in weekday circulation. I mean, come on, that’s a little wacky. It still surprises me. But it doesn’t surprise me I’m writing in this form.

And as for writing novels, not surprised there, either. I hoped I would be writing books, and let’s just say I’m not entirely surprised I ended up writing science fiction at this point, either. I suppose I could have made my debut in fiction by writing a sensitively-written novel about a young writer who goes back to his hometown and meets up with all the old friends he’s left behind (and the one girl who was always meant for him, and still is), filled with exquisitely observed moments leading to a small Moment of Realization™ near the end, but inasmuch as I just threw up a little in my mouth even writing that description, I’m glad I went the route of aliens and exploding space ships. Just more fun, you know?

So, yeah: I became what I wanted to be when I grew up. It’s nice. We should all be so lucky. But then I suppose if we were all so lucky, there’d be millions of astronauts and quarterbacks, and a substantial number of people who were both. I don’t think our economy could support that.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)


Reader Request Week 2008 #3: Sex and Video Games

Arachne Jericho wants to know my opinion on:

Sex and video games

Well, I’m a fan of each individually, that’s for sure.

As for sex in video games, I don’t have any major problem with it philosophically; the age of your average game player is the late 20s, so presumably they know about sex (at least in theory), and for those who aren’t quite there yet, the ESRB ratings should tell mom and dad about its presence, the occasional “hot coffee” slip-up notwithstanding. Yes, I know certain people are all het up about it, but, you know, certain people are all het up about a lot of things. It’s just video games’ turn.

But from a game play point of view, I don’t think too much of sex in video games; it seems rather silly at this point. It’s not even advanced enough to be creepy in an “uncanny valley” sort of way; anyone who saw the “hot coffee” minigame in “GTA: San Andreas” saw just how goofy it looked; the only way you could think of it as sexy or titillating was if you had the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old. I don’t doubt that there will eventually come a day when graphics on consoles will provide a sex scene realistic enough to be genuinely erotic, but it’ll be a while yet.

For now, gamers have to settle for “sexy” rather than simulated sex, although even then “sexy” in video games is a matter of some dispute. Lots of boys found early Lara Croft sexy because of her improbably polygonal breasts; likewise there are folks who play the Soul Caliber series just to watch Ivy jiggle about in her structurally-dubious costume, or to get a little bit of fan service when Sophitia did her little victory hop. My money for the sexiest (female) character in video games, however, is Alyx Vance, who features nary a jiggle or panty flash, but instead has a brain, some well-written empathy and is also handy with a pistol that she never has to reload. This you can file under the category of “different strokes for different folks”.

Be that as it may, I will be delighted to do without the potential cut scene in which Gordon Freeman and Alyx graphically do their part to repopulate the species in the wake of the fall of the Combine (or however it all ends), as exciting as such a prospect might be to certain furtive game players. These folks need to get their porn the old-fashioned way — off YouPorn and — and leave poor Alyx (and Gordon) alone.

What about games where you play having sex? Well, you know. I suppose they will happen (and have happened, lame as they have been), and for those of you who will have an interest in them, a friendly bit of advice: no matter how adept you become at button mashing, if you try “up, left, left, down, circle, square, square” on a real sex partner, you’ll either get slapped or laughed at. Trust me, sex is one interactive game play experience which is better co-op, and unplugged.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)


Reader Request Week 2008 #2: Technological Gifts

Daniel asks:

You are the the Great God Scalzi, but sadly you are not quite omnipotent. In fact you only have the ability to create five new technologies. Which 5 technologies will you bestow upon humanity in 2008?

Five seems a little much; if you choose the right five, humans won’t have to do a damn thing for themselves between now and when the race finally implodes from ennui. So, Daniel, allow me to limit myself even further and give humanity only a single technological advance, not just in 2008 but ever. That advance: Fusion.

Why fusion? Because at this point in our species’ history, we’re killing ourselves over energy; energy procurement and consumption is the driving force for pollution and climate change, and a significant factor in American and global economic and social inequality (not to mention our military involvement in the middle east). Basically, we get really really stupid in the presence of energy. Cheap, efficient and safe fusion technology won’t make us any less stupid overall, alas, but it might buy us some time to let some of the smarter and saner members of our species do a little cleanup and long-term planning before we find something else to get all stupid over. That’s worth spotting humanity a technological advance.

Note, please, that fusion doesn’t solve every problem and would create a few new ones: When petrodollars (or petroeuros these days) dry up, for example, the middle east is going to fall in on itself in really interesting and probably very scary ways. But overall I suspect cheap fusion technology would make life better for more people around the world than not, and open more doors for humanity than it would shut. On balance, it would be a nice gift. Everything else, I’d make ’em work for.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)


Reader Request Week 2008 #1: Homeschooling

For this year’s Reader Request Week, I’m going to try to do something a little different. Over the last five years I answered one (or occasionally two) of the questions a day, and then posted a follow-up entry with shorter answers to left-over questions. This year, I think I’ll try answering more questions, but writing shorter individual posts (mostly; there may be a couple I just blather on about). It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!

So let’s get to the first question, from Shiloh, about homeschooling:

A California appellate court has just ruled that homeschooling parents must have teaching credentials in order to homeschool their children, which is somewhat controversial; there are a lot of homeschooling parents in California, and many don’t have the necessary certification. I’m curious what you think, and if you have any opinions on homeschool in general, as an alternative form of education.

I don’t have any animus against homeschooling as a concept, although I probably wouldn’t do it myself, for several reasons, most notably that I don’t have the time (I have to work during the day) and I’m pretty sure I don’t have the patience. Also, you know. I pay taxes for my local public school — some of the highest in the state, in fact. I’m going to get my money’s worth out of that local school of mine. But if parents choose to teach their kids at home and can back up that choice by giving their kids a good, balanced education, more power to them.

As a practical matter I tend to be suspicious of the motivations of people who homeschool. While there are a number of parents who simply and strongly believe they can give their kids a better education and more attention than they can get in their local schools, I don’t think it’s any secret that a significant chunk of homeschooling parents do so because of religious convictions, i.e., they don’t want their spawn learning anything that contradicts the Bible, etc. This is easy to make fun of, but it does mean that some unsmall portion of homeschooled children are being kept actively ignorant (or alternately are coached to go through the motions of knowing science while having the idea reinforced in their heads that it’s just a pack of evil secular lies), and that’s just no good. Nor is it just an idle concern, since the homeschooling statutes here in Ohio, on the topics of subjects required, read:

5) Assurance that home education will include the following, except that home education shall not be required to include any concept, topic, or practice that is in conflict with the sincerely held religious beliefs of the parent: (a) Language, reading, spelling, and writing: (b) Geography, history of the United States and Ohio; and national, state, and local government; (c) Mathematics; (d) Science; (e) Health; (f) Physical education; (g) Fine arts, including music; and (h) First aid, safety, and fire prevention. (emphasis mine)

Which is just a nice legal way of saying parents can toss out evolution (or anything else) if they can make a case that it makes the Baby Jesus cry for their kids to learn it. Now, I recognize it’s unfair to lump all homeschoolers in with religious folks who are allergic to science; nevertheless it’s my default assumption unless noted otherwise.

Anecdotally, I have one other concern about homeschooling, which is I do wonder about the socialization of homeschooled kids — i.e., if they’re spending enough time with peers learning how to be, you know, regular humans. Part of this concern comes from watching those homeschooled spelling bee champions quiver and twitch and generally act like poorly socialized howler monkeys while they try to spell “chthonic” or whatever. Again, this is unfair (spelling bees are manifestly not the domain of the brilliantly socialized), but this is where one sees public displays of the homeschooled, and it’s something I worry about. I’d hate for these kids to go off to college and fall apart in the first semester because there’s never been a time where they haven’t spent most of their day with mom and/or dad.

As for the ruling in California, I’m of a split mind about it. I don’t think a teaching certification means that one is a competent teacher; I’ve suffered through enough piss-poor accredited teachers to know that’s the case. On the other hand, here in Ohio, all you need to homeschool your kid is a GED, and that seems a little shaky to me. And per my concern about parents homeschooling to make sure their kids don’t learn something, I think it’s in the interest of the state to be able to set some standards that every homeschooling parent must hit before they teach their own kids, which to my mind should include at least some training. As much training as California wants to require? I don’t think so. But more than a GED would be nice. Pedagogy is more than just plopping your kids down in front of a bunch of workbooks and hoping it works out for the best.

Now, left begging in all this is the question of whether education in a school setting is really a substantially better way for a kid to learn than at home, with the help of an engaged and motivated parent. But it’s another post, I suppose.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)


Fiddle Fiddle

To everyone who missed the “last post, next post” navigation on the single entry pages: I just put it back in. Now the site is ever so slightly easier to trundle through. You’re welcome.

I may do some additional fiddling tonight, so don’t be terribly surprised if the site suddenly spazzes out and then equally suddenly returns to normal.


Upgrading Tonight

Whatever may be offline for some amount of time this evening as I update WordPress to version 2.5. If you can’t reach it, don’t panic. Also, yes, I’ve backed up everything.

Update, 7:37: All updated. Damn, but upgrading is easy in WordPress.


Where Was I, Anyway?

Well, here’s a hint:

For those of you not up on these things, that’s a headcrab, featured in the games Half-Life and Half-Life 2, by the video game company Valve Software, which I visited on my trip.

What did I see there? I can’t tell you (I signed an NDA).

What did I do there? I can’t tell you (see above).

Did I have a good time? Oh, yeah.

Should you, as a video game fan, be immensely, immensely jealous? See above.

I can say this: If you’re a gamer, I think you’re going to like what’s coming down the pike from Valve. Even the stuff I saw in rough form was very cool.  I can also say that the folks at Valve were all very smart, very talented and building really interesting stuff. As I said, when you see it (eventually), you’ll probably agree.

In all, a very nice tour of the chocolate factory, if you know what I mean. I’m glad I went.


How I Avoid Speeding Tickets

Because, as it happens, I get out of speeding tickets nine out of ten times I pull over. Here’s how I do it: I admit I’m speeding and tell the cop to please go ahead and write me up. Usually the cop is so shocked that I’m not even trying to argue with him that he’ll let me off with a warning.

This morning, for example, after I was pulled over for zooming out of the airport:

Cop: Sir, you were doing 50 in a 35 mile per hour zone.

Me: I’m sure I was.

Cop: Can you tell me why?

Me: Because I just got off a plane eleven hours late and I just wanted to get home to my family.

(This was true, incidentally)

End result: Friendly warning.

Now you might think the “dude, I just want to get home to my family” hearttugger is what did it, but I’ve also had times when they asked me why I was speeding and I said “I have no excuse whatsoever. Go ahead and write me up if you need to,” and it’s worked pretty much the same.  Cops like it when you acknowledge that they are not stupid, and you were breaking the law, and that you recognize this is their job. I’m sure there are other things that help (in this case, I was driving a minivan, I was polite and friendly to the cop, and I didn’t look like I was on a meth bender, etc), but I think just admitting guilt is the kicker.

Now, this doesn’t work every single time, and I suppose that’s the risk; since you’re admitting you’re speeding, you’re going to have problems contesting the ticket in court later. But come on. It’s a speeding ticket, not murder. It’ll cost you points on your insurance at most. But like I said, it generally works for me, because I’m letting the cop know that I know he’s caught me fairly, and that it’s entirely his call to ticket me, and I’m not going to show up in traffic court with some articles I downloaded from the Internet proving his radar is totally borked or whatever. It’s refreshing to them, is what I’m saying.

Worth a try for you, in any event.


Yes, I Am In Chicago

Because, honestly. Where else would I be? Home? Madness!

Sleeping now. Hopefully will actually be home sometime tomorrow before noon. We shall see.



This time, I didn’t even have to get to Chicago before I was delayed! This time for four hours! At least! Go me!

At least I was first in line for rebooking.

How are you?


Oh, Look, Another Travel Day

I love being places. The getting there? Eh, not so much. But since teleportation is still science fiction (thanks so much, engineers), I still have to be shipped around in moving boxes and flying tubes. So, more travel for me today. I may pop in again if I am once again stranded in Chicago, as I fully expect to be.

Remember that there’s still time to get in questions for Reader Request Week; drop them here. Feel free to ask questions other than about writing, incidentally; I’ll probably answer one or two writing-related questions, but I really have more fun with the questions I’m not actually expecting on a regular basis.

And now, to eat some left over pad thai from last night. Mmmmm… pad thai.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Scott Sigler

While I’m off in Lots-of-Meetings Land, here’s a fun Big Idea for you, from author Scott Sigler. Sigler made quite a big splash being one of the the first and most successful authors to podcast his writing, garnering up to 30,000 listeners per book — which naturally enough, I think, convinced publishers to say, “hmmm, maybe he could sell a few books, too.” The latest of these, Infected, is officially released next week — but until March 31st, you can get a pdf of the book to sample it for your very own, for free (how? Buy clicking this link, that’s how). Check it out, and remember, if you like it, show your love at the bookstores.

Now here’s Sigler to explain how his book’s Big Idea involves lots of very tiny things, with some nasty ideas on their single-cellular minds.


The Big Idea, Short Version: What would it be like if a tiny, sentient creature could terraform the human body, hijacking natural processes to change our bodies into an environment more suited to them?

The Big Idea, Long version: Animals are basically biological machines, capable of growth, self-repair and design modification based on changing environmental stresses. All of the processes used for those things should be able to be controlled in the human body, if we had the technology. For Infected, that technology is there, but humans are not the ones using it. The story is taking the concept of a virus, hijacking the human body’s natural processes to make copies of a simple organism, and extending that to building highly complex organisms, organisms with a pre-programed purpose and an evil, evil plan. We are a walking planet to the bacteria and arachnids that cover our body in the billions — and if we can modify our planet, why can’t they modify us?

The initial concept drew off of nature and existing fiction, the idea of using a human as an incubator, but it went way beyond that. In Infected, the body isn’t just an incubator, it’s the factory that produces the organism. Our bodies natural processes create something that kills us … kind of like a controlled cancer. It was a bitch-and-a-half to identify the processes necessary to do this and wrap them in the context of a linear, compelling story. I had to read up on cell biology, artificial life, artificial intelligence, Von Neumann probes and — here’s a word I didn’t even know existed until I began — Neuropsychopharmacology.

I consider myself a plot guy, a character guy, a guy that puts in the wrench time to build suspense in an invisible fashion so when you get to the cliff of improbability you gleefully jump off. All of this “science stuff” put me through my paces. In the process, I came to realize that no one was really doing this kind of brutal horror meshed with hard science, save for Lincoln Child & Douglas Preston’s Relic and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (but do keep in mind I’m not the most well-read guy around, so there are probably many more hard-science writers up to their elbows in blood and entrails). By “hard-science horror” I mean the bloody mess of creating believable characters and then whacking them, combined with something that’s scientifically plausible and is explained to the reader as opposed to just telling the reader something like “Dr. Scalzi’s genius was so vast, no one could ever comprehend how he made the Killer Whatnots.” What’s fun about Infected is you get to see the monster’s construction process, from single cell right up to mean-ass beastie. It’s like a Lego kit with sharp teeth and a bad attitude.

I really fell in love with that style of storytelling, of using the monster’s physiology as a slow-reveal plot device. It greatly impacted my other novels Ancestor, Earthcore and Nocturnal, the one I’m working on now. Using actual science to write monster stories also nails down a realistic feel for the reader. It brings home that this is a modern-day story, and the environment around the characters is the same environment the readers see every day. There is something about sharing a cultural element with a fictional character that makes them more real, more tangible.

This style also gives the reader a fixed rule-set by which to guess the plot. There are no magic wands, no random wormholes, no ghostly teleportation and no history-altering time travel — my stories are the same world you live in every day, which means characters and monsters will obey the laws of physics (for the most part, anyway). And if you read up on pop science or you remember your biology classes, you’re bound to run into things in my books that you already know. Again, there is something about incorporating knowledge that’s already around us that grips the reader, and helps build up the illusion of reality within the story.

So I think I’ve found my niche, and the fans seem to dig knowing they can look up all that science stuff on Wikipedia or in a book and see that I’m using the real stuff … just nudged a bit beyond our current levels of tech. My world involves making characters that are original and detailed (I’m a student of the Stephen King School of Character Creation), make you care about them, then put them into a nasty-old meat grinder filled with biological nightmares. Guessing who’s going to come out alive (and not necessarily in one piece) is the fun of the book. Plus, you might just learn something … at least, that’s what I’m telling the people who buy books for school libraries.


Visit the official site for Infected here. See video of Sigler speaking about his book here (scroll down a little). Listen to podcasts of the novel here.



And only five hours late!

I wish I could be more interesting about it, but it’s late and the hotel bed is calling to me, muffled though its voice may be under a vasty mountain of pillows.

More later, although posting Friday will be scarce because I will mostly be in meetings. Yes, I am doing vaguely grown-up stuff. But only vaguely.


Now That I Think About It

Has a flight ever left Chicago O’Hare on time? Like, ever?  I’m sure one has. I just don’t think I’ve ever been on one.

(Guess where I am. Guess whose flight is delayed.)

Well, I might have been on one that left on time, if the flight I had into O’Hare hadn’t been delayed (due to traffic snarls at O’Hare), causing me to be reassigned to a flight that is delayed.

Despite that everything is fine, thanks. Since I’ve never known a flight departing from O’Hare to leave on time, as soon as I saw that I was heading there, I framed my brain for acceptance that I would not arrive where I was supposed to be any time close to when I was supposed to get there. My meetings aren’t until tomorrow morning, however. As long as I get to where I’m going before, oh, 8am, I’m fine. And I charged all my portable devices last night. And I brought four books, like I always do. I’ll be fine.

That said, I hope your day has not been as delay-tastic as mine.


Another Travel Day

This time I’m traveling through Saturday; pretty sure I’ll be checking in on a semi-regular basis, however. I’ll be posting a Big Idea piece either later today or tomorrow, as well (and then, I think, more than one next week — I have a lot of early April releases to highlight).

In the meantime, get your requests in for Reader Request Week! Because how can I dance like a monkey for you if you won’t throw me peanuts?


Reader Request Week 2008: Get Your Requests In!

Every year, right around this time, I put away my imbecilic obsessions here at Whatever and turn the spotlight onto your imbecilic obsessions instead. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time once again for Reader Request Week, in which you call the shots — you choose the topics I write about — you make me dance like the proverbial monkey. No topic is off limits, no request too serious or ridiculous, no query left unconsidered! It’s my way of thanking you for your readership, and also, a way to rest my brain and not have to think up what damn fool thing to write about next.

Here’s how it works: You think up of a topic you want me to expound upon, and put it into the comment thread. Starting next Monday (3/31/08), I’ll start picking subjects to write about from the suggestions left by all y’all. It’s just that simple.

This will be the sixth year we do Reader Request Week, so to avoid repeats, here’s what’s been asked and answered from the previous years:

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

From 2005:

Reader Request #1: Creative Commons and FanFic
Reader Request #2: Peak Oil
Reader Request #3: Beatles, Batman and They
Reader Request #4: Pot!
Reader Request #5: Odds and Ends

From 2006:

Reader Request #1: SF Novels and Films
Reader Request #2: 10 Childhood Nuggets
Reader Request #3: Writers and Technology
Reader Request #4: The Nintendo Revolution
Reader Request #5: A Political Judiciary
Reader Request #6: Paranoid Parents
Reader Request #7: Writing About Writing

From 2007:

Reader Request #1: Justifying My Life
Reader Request #2: Coffee, or Lack Thereof
Reader Request #3: BaconCat Fame
Reader Request #4: The Inevitable Blackness That Will Engulf Us All
Reader Request #5: Out of Poverty
Reader Request #6: Short Bits
Reader Request #7: Short Bits II: Electric Boogaloo
And there you have it.

Okay, so: What do you want me to write about? Put it in the comment thread, and beginning Monday, we’ll get this party started.


Feeling Spammy

Small technical note:

More comments than usual seem to be getting caught by the spam filter over the last couple of days. I’m hoping this gets trained out of its behavior, but if you find your comment not showing up immediately, this is probably why. And if one never shows up, uh, sorry. Not intentional. Try again. Thanks.


The “I’m Writing This to Totally Make You Jealous” Post

In which I tell you about some of the ARCs I’ve received recently that mean I get to read all the books you want to read before you do. Bwa ha ha ha hah ha! Hi, I’m evil.

Let’s see what we got:

* Saturn’s Children, by Charlie Stross — It’s Stross does late-period Heinlein! Now there’s an image that will haunt your sleep for decades. Charlie actually gave me a peek at this a while ago, and I immensely enjoyed what I read, but then a computer implosion basically took that file away from me. Yes, we pause to shed a tear here. But now I have it! In ARC form! And lo, there was much happiness. It comes out in July, friends. Suffer until then.

* Ink and Steel, by Elizabeth Bear — “Queen Elizabeth rules by wit and by will, but magic keeps her on the throne…” reads the cutline. Well, yeah. I thought everyone knew that. Bear’s output makes me feel like a slacker, and there aren’t that many writers who can make me feel like that. The next time I see Bear, I’ll have to tell her that: “You make me feel like no other writer!” And then, the tasering will commence, I suppose. This also hits in July.

* The Edge of Reason, by Melinda Snodgrass — Patrick Nielsen Hayden described to me thusly: “a contemporary metaphysical thriller about the secret battle between the forces of rationality and the Old Ones From Beyond Time, the latter of whom are using superstition and religion as the means by which to knock over the barriers that prevent them from breaking through and eating our brains.” Really, he and Snodgrass had me at the brain-eating. I’m very excited about this one, and for the rest of you, you have until May to put your brains under lock and key.

* The Prefect, by Alastair Reynolds — This book was already nominated for the BSFA Best Novel award this year, so you could say it comes with a recommendation to you from all of British fandom. Which, you know. Is nice. And it’s set in Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, so fans of that have something to look forward to. In June. Which is when you’ll read it. After me. Ha!

* Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar — As Publishers Weekly blithely summarizes: “Young werewolf skulks around London and struggles with anxiety and eating disorders while scores of subplots merrily explode around her.” Well, and isn’t that always the way, when you’re a young werewolf? That’s the way it was for me. Hmmm. I suspect I may have said too much right there. The publication date here is April 20, but Amazon says it has it in stock. So I can’t hold my ability to read it before you over you this time. Curse you, Amazon, for denying my cheap and tawdy attempts at literary superiority! We hates Amazonzes, Precious! We hates them forever!

Go on, admit you’re jealous. I’ll still respect you. Really.


Cover This

Tor art director Irene Gallo, prompted by a blog post by Pyr publisher Lou Anders, talks a bit about cover art and what “works” and why when it comes to sf/f fantasy books, and notes a point that many people who gripe about covers miss:

… as much as I’d like it to be otherwise, I am not really hired for my personal preferences on cover art, but rather to get books past book buyers. If the books don’t make it into the stores in the first place, readers can’t buy them in the second place.

Which is to say that cover art is explicitly commercial art; it’s designed first to convince shopkeepers that this book will move, and second to convince readers in a glance what the book is about and that it’s worth their time. In a book series there’s a third dimension as well, which is maintaining a consistency in feel across a series. There’s a reason that the cover to Zoe’s Tale is by John Harris and features spaceships: Because every other cover in the OMW series is by John Harris and features spaceships. If there’s a fifth book in the OMW universe, it very likely to have a John Harris cover, and feature, yes, spaceships. The cover to Jay Lake’s Escapement is by Stephan Martiniere and features an airship because the cover to the first book in the series… well, you get the idea.

Would people buy Zoe’s Tale or Escapement without a cover consistent to their series? I like to think they would, but you might lose that sort of single-reflex, automatically-familiar snatch-and-grab motion that this pattern of familiarity (hopefully) engenders. Tor (and the booksellers) want you to be able to recognize on OMW-series book across a crowded bookstore and home in on it like a heat-seeking missile. And for matter, you know, so do I. So I’m glad I like my OMW series covers, and hope nothing bad ever happens to John Harris, as long as I’m writing in that universe.

What’s interesting to me is how the cover dynamic changes, depending on the audience. For example, here are two covers for two different editions of Old Man’s War:

The first is the Tor trade paperback edition. It’s designed to speak to booksellers, as in “Look! John Harris spaceships! John Harris covers are on lots of successful science fiction books! Like Ender’s Game! You sell a lot of Ender’s Game! You’ll sell a lot of this, too! And look! Sci Fi says it’s essential! Essential books must sell! And look! Here’s a quote comparing the author to Heinlein, who, while dead, still sells! Lots! Sell! Sell! Sell!”

Note that I am not mocking Tor for doing this. We did, in fact, sell tons of the trade paperback of OMW, and the cover went a long way in selling to book to the booksellers. This cover did its job, and is a pretty cool cover at that. I’m deeply appreciative to Tor (and to John Harris, and Irene Gallo) for the work.

The second cover is the Subterranean Press limited hardcover edition of OMW. It’s not aimed at booksellers, because most of Subterranean’s business is direct to readers — and not just readers, but collectors, many if not most of whom have read the books they will now buy in this limited edition. This is what this cover says to them: “Hey, remember that time in Old Man’s War where the human soldiers totally squished those inch high aliens with their boots? Yeah, that was cool.” It’s still commercial art; it’s just commercial in another direction, and to another audience. This cover did its job, too, and is also a cool cover. So thanks here to Bill Schafer and artist Vincent Chong.

One of the interesting questions that writers and publishers will face in the presumed ascendency of electronic books, whenever it will happen, is whether “cover art” will survive the translation into an electronic medium. My suspicion is that it will because of its function — it’s advertising for the book. Whether it’s packaged with the text, or part of a Web page promoting the work or whatever, it’ll still be around, as long as it does the job of getting people to take a look at the text inside.

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