Thoughts On Selling Out

Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders meditates on what it means to “sell out,” inspired by a Twitter conversation between (among others) Paolo Bacigalupi, Tim Pratt and myself. I put in a comment over there, but I have a couple more thoughts about selling out, through the prism of my own experience, so let me run them out to you guys here. These thoughts are in no particular order and a bit rambly.

First, I don’t think the sell out comes when you do things for money/fame, or mostly because of the money/fame, or even solely for the money/fame. If the desire for money/fame is intentionally and actively part of your career calculus, then the criticism or worry that you’re doing something for money/fame is a little stupid. Because, duh, that was always part of the plan, and thus always an option.

Occasionally I’ve had people gripe that my books are explicitly commercial, which they don’t like, and that’s fine. But I’ve also had people gripe that I’m a sell out because of that aspect of the books. Those people I look at like they’ve turned into a farting fungus. Dudes: I intentionally write approachable books designed to sell in large numbers, constructed to make that goal as easy to achieve as possible. That’s not selling out, that’s the actual plan. Intentionality is an affirmative defense. I’m open to accusations of being a hack, which is fair enough (I would disagree, but then I would, wouldn’t I). Sell out? I’m more dubious.

I think a major part of selling out has to do with fear. Specifically the fear that if you don’t take a particular action (write a particular book, record a particular song, do a particular role, take on a particular gig, etc), your career will suffer, and you along with it. It can also have to do with desperation and exhaustion — the idea that despite all your efforts, other options are closed, and the sell out option is the only option left. That’s another fear. Finally it has something to do with desire; not usually for the work you do but for what the work can bring: Money, fame, respect, opportunities and so on. Selling out is what you do when you’re afraid. Sometimes — not always, but more often than it appears from the outside — it’s not unreasonable to be afraid.

This is why, I will note, that I find it difficult to hold “selling out” against artists one way or another. I have been astoundingly fortunate in my career so far; I have never been in a position where I had to choose between what I thought was the integrity of my work, and the future of my career and (in a larger sense) my personal happiness. But I know people who have, and I know how much they’ve beaten themselves up about it.

What gets missed is the fact that work is work, and that we as humans live in the real world, and sometimes we have to make less than optimal choices in order to keep going. It’s easy enough for someone on the outside to mock a musician for doing the state fair circuit, or an actor for showing up in an appallingly terrible film, or an author for writing yet another book featuring a protagonist you think is past her prime — or whatever. But people have to work and eat and keep moving, looking for their chances. I’m not going to dump on them or judge them for that.

It’s also worth noting that what looks like a sell out to an artist and what looks like a sell out to a fan or other observer can be two entirely separate things. Artists, if they have any sort of success, often have opportunities fall into their laps they might not otherwise have gotten. The upside of these opportunities can be high. From their point of view they’d be foolish not to take them. From the point of view of a fan, however, the choice can be puzzling — a deviation from the thing that made that person a fan, and therefore (from their point of view) a waste of time and something to be resented. Cue “selling out.” Alternately, popularity breeds contempt in some quarters.

Over on the io9 comment thread, there’s some (perfectly civil and readable) discussion on whether — and under what circumstances — my selling the motion picture rights to Old Man’s War could be considered a sell out. I find it interesting because my standard as to what constitutes a “sell out” is vastly removed from that of the conversation there, in part based on my own knowledge of the movie industry and my own pull relative to those who would make a film. For me, for a film, a sell out would have come from grabbing at option money from anyone, just to have it and just to say we did it. We waited instead for the right people to come along — people with good commercial and/or artistic track records, who could actually get a film made — worked out the best deal possible and then got out of their way to let them do what they do. I’m here when they need me, and they keep me in the loop, and that’s pretty much how we work with each other and everyone’s happy with that. So perspectives are different depending on where you stand.

I don’t consider myself a sell out, and I think the logic behind the suggestion that I am is probably flawed — but at the same time I recognize that I give people lots of opportunities to label me as one. Old Man’s War has four sequels now, which (fairly) opens me up to questions as to whether I’m just grinding out the books. Fuzzy Nation was a reboot of someone else’s story, which can (and has been) seen as cynical appropriation for the cash. Redshirts — well, come on: Star Trek much, Scalzi? And so on. Add these to my public and enthusiastic embrace of the idea that writing to make money is not a bad thing, and I’m a fairly ripe target. And again: Fair enough. I would disagree but I wouldn’t deny the argument is there, nor that it could be defensible.

On my end, however, I know what projects I’ve turned down despite the money, and what projects I’ve walked away from because I felt the other party was trying to trade on my fear of what would happen if I walked away from the table. I know what I won’t do. In my mind, at least, it keeps me from worrying about whether I am a sell out. You can think as you like, of course.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: James Smythe

Space is vast, and dark, and deep. How does that make you feel? Because, as you are about to find out, it makes author James Smythe feel a very specific way, a way that he examines, at depth in his new novel The Explorer.


To my mind, the best moments in SF are the quietest ones. They’re the ones before the chaos starts: before the astronauts land wherever they are going to land, or meet the aliens that they’re going to meet or discover the MacGuffin at the heart of their journey. They’re the moments where the characters look out at space and they revel in it: in how lonely it is, and how isolating, and how empty.

My favorite true story about space exploration concerns Michael Collins, one of the crew members on Apollo 11. When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon and made their own history, Collins did something even stranger: he was in space by himself. For 48 minutes, he was out of contact with the Earth. He was totally alone, on the far side of the moon. In interviews, he says that he wasn’t lonely or scared: that he was excited, enjoying the mission. But he’s an astronaut. They’re made of sterner stuff. In his position, I would have been terrified: at being able to look out and see the nothingness, the void going on and on and on, into the infinite. Every time I have loved a work of space-set SF, truly loved it, it’s dealt with that emptiness as well. The Stars My Destination, Solaris, Alien, Moon: they all busy themselves with how it feels to be alone. In space, there’s nothing scarier.

So, my big idea, and the big idea that runs through my novel The Explorer: that space is a) empty, b) isolating and c) really very lonely indeed. I know, right? Crazy. Nobody’s ever thought that before.

I wrote a novel a few years ago called The Testimony, which had twenty-six different narrators, presented almost as talking heads. They were from all over world, telling a very big story about god and lies and terrorism, and it took a lot to write. Post-it notes on the walls, headaches, long walks to clear said headaches before returning to sort out the post-its, all that crazy stuff. When I was done, I decided that I had to write something completely different. Something that was, by necessity, a lot smaller. Self-contained. One narrator. Only a handful of characters, in fact, in the whole thing. And, I thought, lets start the book when they’re all dead, or most of them. Let’s start with my narrator, alone and horrifically lonely, and beginning to lose the plot. He can piece together the story – and himself – from there.

So I began with the freshly-named Cormac talking about how the people that he had been with had died; and how he was the only one left alive. It wasn’t until the third paragraph that I called them his crew; and it wasn’t until a few paragraphs after that that I realised he was talking from a spaceship. The isolation came first, and then the logical leap that it had to be set in the most horrifyingly isolated place I can conceive of: deep space. It was freeing, to write only the void of nothingness as the setting; to just write the character and let the story come from him. With The Testimony, I had worried over every little detail from the very start, trying to knot all of these narratives and sub-plots together. Now, writing what would later become called The Explorer, I only had to write loneliness. As soon as I realised I was writing an SF novel set on a tiny spaceship in the near future, everything else started slotting into place. The story had to be about what happened to the crew; how five people could die when there was nothing there to kill them. It had to be about Cormac, and how he had become stranded. And it had to be about space itself: the emptiness, the isolation, the incomprehensibility.

As I wrote myself further and further into the novel, I wanted Cormac’s sense of personal isolation to grow. As he looks back on what happened, and he is no longer alone – at least, in his memories – and as the various twists of the narrative reveal themselves, I wanted him to feel as if what he lusted for (normality, his old life, some sort of stability) was far enough out of his reach that he needed to find a new solution. I think about Michael Collins, and he must have wondered, even if he claims that he didn’t. He must have thought, What if I something goes wrong? What if I’m round here, on the far side of the moon, and I’m by myself; in the dark, out of contact, drifting. I try and imagine it now, and it terrifies me.

I love it when a novel imparts some of the emotional impact to the reader itself. With The Explorer, as Cormac discovers exactly what happened, and where he is, and makes a discovery about the nature of the mission that he and his crew were undertaking that changes his entire perception of what it is to be truly alone, I hope that the reader feels somewhat as he does, and that it reflects that initial inspirational concept for the novel: that space is lonely, isolating, and so very, very empty.


The Explorer: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


The Human Division Read-Along at Begins

The official release of The Human Division begins next week, with “The B-Team” being sent to the public — but if you’re one of the folks who signed up for Tor’s special promotion of the series several months ago, you’re getting that first installment today. Congrats and enjoy! Everyone else: Dudes, it’s only a week. You’ll be fine.

Also, if you want to chat about it, is running a “read along” series on The Human Division, hosted by Ron Hogan and featuring insights into the writing and production by me, editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and others. The first installment, delving into “The B-Team,” is up today. You can catch up, read-along, and discuss plot points and opinions with other folks.

WARNING: The read-along will contain spoilers. Don’t check it out unless a) you’ve already read the episode and/or b) you’re willing to have the episode spoiled for you. There, that’s your official spoiler alert.


Some Days You Wake Up and There’s a New David Bowie Video in the World

It’s over here on his site. And it’s Bowie being suitably Bowie, which is nice. Apparently there will be an entire album to go with it in March. You’re welcome.

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