50K Twitter Thoughts

So, hey, I am about to (or just have) passed 50,000 followers on Twitter, which makes it a nice moment to have a couple of thoughts about the service.

1. Yay, 50K followers, almost all of whom are real people and not spambots or a bunch of eyeball-hungry twitterfreaks engaging in a mutual SEO handjob. Basically, if you’re following me, you tend to be a real live person who wants to be following me. So, you know. Thank you.

2. I gained 40% of those followers in roughly the last year, since a year ago this month I was getting plastered in frosting on Neil Gaiman’s front lawn to mark the occasion of reaching 30,000 followers. I’ll be curious if this sort of accumulation continues .

3. Any time I feel smug about 50k Twitter followers, I just have to think about Wil and his two million plus followers. That takes care of that.

4. On the flip side of that, I am frequently amazed at the people who I think are awesome who have fewer Twitter followers than I do. That just seems wrong.

5. Obviously, I know only a very small fraction of the people who follow me. I suspect most of the people who follow me do so because they were fans of me and/or this blog and/or my books. However, I do suspect that a non-trivial portion of my Twitter followers found out about me on Twitter, through retweets or following conversations I have with other people they follow. They might not even know what else I do. I kind of like this.

In general, I expect most people follow me because they want me to amuse them. I think this is fine. I like being amusing on Twitter.

6. I follow (currently) 275 people, almost all of whom are people I know personally in one way or another. There are very few people on my follow list who I don’t know in some way (or at the very least, are not close friends of people on my list who are close friends with me). In fact, here are the only complete strangers to me on the list:  Mara Wilson, Daniel Lanois, Lee Newton, William Beckett, Hank Steuver, Vienna Teng, Sam Bisbee, Wesley Stace and Johnette Napolitano.

I follow these folks because, well, I’m a fan, basically. These people are great musicians and/or good writers and/or funny as hell. However, I feel a little weird following people I don’t know and even weirder when I tweet at them; I worry about coming across as, you know, creepy. Yes, I have Fan Tweet Anxiety. And then when they occasionally tweet back at me, and I’m all, like, oh kewl they’re totally my Twitter friends and we could have awesome adventures together! Which kind of validates my whole “I’m coming across creepy” concern, I think.

All of which is to say I am really no good at being a fan on Twitter. Yes, I suppose this is a little bit ironic.

7. As noted before, I think most people on Twitter follow me because they want to me to be amusing there. I follow people not because I want them to be amusing, per se, but because in general they are friends of mine and it’s a really cool way to feel connected to them during the day — and because my friends tend to be clever people, they are often amusing as well. Given the open nature of Twitter, that means we are often amusing together, to the delight of bystanders. Twitter, in other words, is finely tuned for garrulous exhibitionists.  I like that about it.

8. It’s also interesting to me how differently I use Twitter from Facebook. On Twitter, I am largely in performance mode, saying and doing (hopefully) funny and amusing things, with occasional side trips on my various hobby horses. I figure that most of the people on Twitter know me because of my public persona as an opinionated writer dude, and there’s no harm continuing that persona there, and anyway I don’t take it personally when people unfollow me.

With Facebook, on my personal, private account, I do almost none of those things. I am relatively quiet there, and have a personal rule not to post about any contentious topics, or to respond to any. The reason for that is that most of the people I friend on Facebook are family and old friends, many of whom have drastically different political and social views than I do, and many of whom I suspect have never been to this blog or read me on Twitter. I don’t want to argue with them about any damn thing. What I want to do on Facebook is see pictures of their kids and pets, not have the online equivalent of a permanent, awkward Thanksgiving dinner.

The difference between the two is why I like Twitter so much more than Facebook. I like what Facebook does for me — keeps me in contact with very old friends and family — but I like being on Twitter.

9. I won’t lie: I kinda wish Twitter would validate my account. It’s a pointless ego bauble, but it’s also a pointless ego bauble a lot of my friends already have and I want to too. There, I said it.

10. Hey, did I say thanks if you follow me on Twitter? I did? Well, let me say it again: Thanks.


Athena/Athena by Molly Crabapple

I’m a big fan of the artwork of Molly Crabapple, and so when I recently decided that I would like to commission a portrait of my daughter, she was the artist who immediately came to mind. Fortunately for me she had time on her schedule for the work, and was came up with something that I think is simply wonderful. Take a look at it (please note it’s still in its travel wrapping, so you’ll see bits where tape blurs things and/or there’s reflection from the mylar). I’m calling it “Athena/Athena” for reasons I think will be immediately obvious.

(click on the picture to go to a larger version)

And now, a quick detail:

(click on the picture to go to a larger version)

Honestly, I don’t think it would be possible for me to be much happier about this portrait than I am. It really is gorgeous. And even better, my daughter loves it (it was a surprise to her).  Many thanks to Molly Crabapple for the work. I love that I know such talented people as she.


The Fatberg Saga, By John Scalzi and Paul Sabourin

It goes a little something like this.

I’m pretty sure this will be my next Hugo-nominated work.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

Codex Born, the latest book in Jim C. Hines’ “Magic Ex Libris”series, is out today. See the cover? Nice, right? Well, Jim wants to talk to you about it. Or more specifically, about the character on it — and what she means to the book, and to the fantasy genre, and for other things as well.


Lena Greenwood, the woman seen holding a wooden bokken on the cover of the U. S. edition of Codex Born, is problematic as hell.

In Libriomancer, Lena is introduced as our typical ass-kicking, vampire-slaying urban fantasy-type heroine. While not physically cloned from Buffy Summers stock—Lena is not white, blonde, or thin—she does toss quips and pound bad guys with the best of them. She’s strong, confident, attractive, and quite sexual. In chapter one, she saves geek-librarian-wizard Isaac Vainio’s butt from some sparkling vampires and begins flirting with him shortly thereafter.

For Isaac, it’s like a dream come true. Aside from the part where he got beat up by sparklers. But it’s a dream that requires a closer look.

This series is all about the love of reading and the magic of books, a world where libriomancers literally reach into the pages to create light-sabers and shrinking potions and invisibility cloaks and all manner of awesomeness. But loving something doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its faults.

Our genre doesn’t have the best record when it comes to our treatment of women as authors, as readers, and as characters. We’re slowly moving past the days of chain mail bikinis and semi-clad damsels draped at the hero’s feet, but we’re not there yet. Books by male authors are reviewed more often. Geek girls are challenged to prove their worthiness, as if geekiness is supposed to be an honor reserved for men alone. And female characters—even “strong” women—continue to be sexualized and fetishized, both on the covers and in the pages.

Lena Greenwood was born via libriomancy, pulled from the pages of a book called Nymphs of Neptune, a fictional title with sensibilities similar to John Norman’s Gor novels. Lena is a dryad, explicitly written as a sexual fantasy. Her personality and preferences are shaped by the desires of her lover.

You can see where this gets problematic?

Codex Born gave me the chance to tell more of Lena’s story, from her emergence into our world to her first “relationship” to her discovery of her true nature. It’s traumatic, to say the least:

“I’m not really a person, am I?” My hair, my skin, my favorite flavor of ice cream, everything about me was a reflection of someone else’s desires.

I sat amidst a circle of Nidhi’s comic books. Ridiculously clothed women stared up at me from the pages, bodies contorted into bone-bending poses that better displayed their exaggerated curves.

“When I was born, I looked for the other dryads of my grove. For my sisters.” I picked up a Red Sonja comic. “I’ve finally found them.”

Forcing women into narrow standards defined primarily by men’s desires is hardly a new idea. I wanted to make it explicit.

I like the badass heroine trope. I like well-written fight scenes spiced with smart banter. But we’ve taken that trope in some narrow and unhealthy directions. For one example, see author Seanan McGuire’s wonderful post Things I Will Not Do To My Characters. Ever.

Last night, I was asked—in so many words—when either Toby or one of the Price girls was finally going to be raped … it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.

Because it’s not enough to have strong heroines—they also need to be broken, generally in a sexual way. Part of the fetishized appeal is that these powerful women still aren’t as powerful as a man. That no matter how strong a woman is, I, the man, could still have her.

That’s where Lena Greenwood comes from, and it’s an ugly place. Ugly for her, ugly for Isaac, and hopefully ugly for the reader as well. In Nymphs of Neptune, Lena was created explicitly for the consumption of men. In Codex Born, she has to learn how to adapt, how to exist within the limits of her nature, and to seek out what freedom she can.

I won’t claim to have written her story perfectly. Easy answers would have been unrealistic. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the discomfort. I wanted readers to question not just the portrayal of Lena, but of so many other literary characters.

Of course, being me, I also wanted the book to have elements of fun and humor. Lena takes shameless advantage of her nature. Her physical body is defined by the description in Nymphs of Neptune. Since she can’t gain or lose weight, she routinely enjoys ice cream sundaes for dinner or ridiculously topped waffles. Her connection to her tree and other plants allows her to grow a garden both beautiful and dangerous. (Do not mess with her rosebushes!) Also, she can kill you with a toothpick.

But in the end, Lena is problematic. So are some of the choices I make about her character and her interactions. I’ve had people ask why I would even attempt to write a character like that, and there are times when I’m struggling with the books that I ask myself the same question.

The answer is that my genre is already creating these characters. I’m simply trying, to the best of my ability, to challenge that trend.


Codex Born: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Pro Writing, Quizzes, Process and End Result

By way of my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj, I come across this list of questions which purports to tell you whether or not you are a professional writer. The author, Lisa Morton, writes, “Ideally, you should be answering ‘yes’ to all ten, but I’ll cut you a little slack and say you can get off with 80% and still call yourself professional.'”

Well, I’ve always wondered if I was a professional writer, so I decided to take the quiz. My answers:

1. No. My workplace is messy because I am lazy, period.
2. No. I don’t write in the evenings, and I like seeing friends.
3. No. I rarely watch TV anyway.
4. Yes.
5. No. Vacations mean I am not working. If I am working it’s not a vacation.
6. No. I like my friends and care about their lives and our friendship.
7. No. My day jobs have always involved writing.
8. No. I have a nice home because I devoted my time to a writing career.
9. No. Although I have been making money from writing for 23 years now.
10. No. My writing ambitions were largely achievable for someone willing to put in the time to devote to their craft.

So: One “yes” question out of ten.

I am apparently not a professional writer. By a substantial margin.

All those books published? A big lie. Those royalty checks? A laughing fiction. Writing awards and nominations? Well, one of them was for “fan writer.” So you got me there. Being president of an organization of professional writers for three years? Tra la la la, all a beautiful dream.

I wonder what I will tell my wife. We met when I was “working” on a “story” at a “newspaper,” you know. How do I let her know that our entire life together was a lie? Maybe if I offer a plush toy as a mitigating factor. It could work!

Okay, enough. Look, I’m sure Ms. Morton meant well and wished to imply that one cannot be a writer unless one is willing to put in time and effort and make sacrifices here and there. A fine point, which I have made myself. But this quiz? It’s crap. Here’s the actual quiz for knowing whether you are a pro writer or not:

1. Are you getting paid to write?

If the answer here is “yes,” then congratulations, you’re a professional writer! Well done you (if not, then “no.” Sorry). Mind you, professional writing organizations may place additional requirements out there in order to join them (which is not in itself a bad thing, but a discussion for another time). At the end of the day, however: Getting paid to write? If so, you’re a pro. Done.

(Strangely, this question is not on Ms. Morton’s quiz.)

Now, How you structure your life so that you are able to write pay copy is neither here nor there to this. Every writer is different; what works for one may not work for others. The only thing all pro writers have in common is that they get paid to write.

The problem with Ms. Morton’s quiz is that it confuses process for end result. Her quiz is about process, and presumably her process — what she thinks is necessary for one to do in order to produce the work that create the end result of making money as a writer. But process isn’t end result, otherwise in this case I wouldn’t be a professional writer, which I clearly and obviously am.

Confusing process and result here is not a good thing.  It confuses writers who are hungry to know what “being professional” means. The things Ms. Morton describes can lead to being a pro writer, but it’s not the only path, or a guaranteed one, not by a long shot.  In this respect this quiz defeats its own purpose — it offers no indication about whether one actually is a professional writer, only whether one has jumped through the process hoops that one single writer believes are important to become a pro.

And maybe those hoops are important for her. Good for her. They may not be for you. They certainly aren’t for me, or at least 90% of them aren’t. I know a substantial number of professional writers who would also fail this “pro writing quiz.” It doesn’t make them any less professional, except perhaps in Ms. Morton’s eyes. But with all due respect to Ms. Morton, as a professional writer, I will take my royalty checks over her personal approval.


A Creator’s Note to “Gatekeepers”

Which is to say, a note to those (mostly) dudes in geek circles, who decide it’s their job to determine who is geeky enough to enjoy the same entertainments and recreations that they do (hint: If you’re a woman, you start off with a failing grade). Yes, we’ve talked about this before, but they’re still doing it, because apparently some dudes just have a hard time learning.

So this time, let me talk to these dudes from the point of view of being a creator, i.e., one of the people who creates the stuff these (mostly) dudes spend their time defending from the horrible encroaching interest of others (mostly women).

Dudes: Cut that shit out. You’re fucking with my livelihood.

Let’s break this down a bit.

First: I didn’t ask you to be a gatekeeper. Did I, John Scalzi, come up to you and say, “Dude. I am so worried that the wrong people will like my stuff, and by ‘wrong,’ I mean ‘teh womans,’ so if you’re not too busy I totally want to deputize you into the Society of Dudes Keeping Scalzi’s Stuff Safe From Teh Womans”?

No? Then it’s not your job. Quit pretending that it is. When I want your help, I will ask for it. Directly to you. Until then, back off.

Second: I don’t need you to be a gatekeeper. You dudes understand this is my job, right? As in, this is what I do for a living. As in, if I don’t sell what I produce, I don’t pay my mortgage, my kid doesn’t go to college, and my pets start evaluating me for my protein content. Books, which are what I produce, aren’t terribly expensive, and I don’t get to keep every penny of their sale price — I get a percentage. So in order to make money from these books, I have to sell a lot of them. Some of them get sold to geeky dudes. But a lot of them get sold to other people, who aren’t necessarily geeky, or dudes.

When you attempt to gatekeep my work, you’re trying to wave off people I want to have buy my work. If you manage to do this, then congratulations, you’ve made it more difficult for me to be successful with my work, and thus, make more of the work which you also like. Well done you. I’m curious how you think I should feel about people who make it more difficult for me to make a living. Do you think I should feel grateful? Because of the many words I would use to describe how I would feel, “grateful” isn’t one of them.

I write books geek dudes like. But I don’t write books for only geek dudes to like. The difference there is subtle but real. Which brings me to my next point:

Third: Gatekeeping runs entirely counter to my intent as a writer. I’ve always been very clear that I write science fiction that’s meant to be readable to people who aren’t science fiction fans — or as I prefer to think of them, people who don’t know yet that they might like science fiction. Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation — all of these books were written with the intent of being readable to outsiders to the genre. To people who are willing to take a chance on trying something other than what they already know they like. I write gateway science fiction — science fiction designed to make the reader want to read more science fiction.

So, when I take the time and effort to create a gateway, to invite people into the genre, and then some dude shows up at that gateway, unasked, telling people they can’t come through unless they can name every Heinlein book in reverse chronological order (or whatever), I am, shall we say, less than pleased. One, demanding that people new to something be versed in all its trivia is stupid (it’s also stupid when they have liked it for some time). Two, assuming that one’s own interests are the only interests that define real geekdom is also stupid.

Three, get the fuck out of my gateway, asshole, I’m working here. Working to expand not only my audience, but the audience for written science fiction and science fiction in general. You are not helping. Go find someone one who really wants to you to gatekeep their work.

But here’s the thing about that:

Fourth: Almost no one wants you to be a gatekeeper. Geek dudes: Do you honestly think Marvel comics, owned by Disney, wants you to harass women away from enjoying the X-Men? Do you think DC Comics, owned by Time Warner, appreciates when you demand a woman present you with a list of every Green Lantern in order to be worthy of “true geekdom”? Do you think Paramount Pictures, owned by Viacom, is grateful that some dude has appointed himself Arbiter of Star Trek Fandom? Do you believe that Tor Books, owned by Macmillan, one of the world’s largest publishers, will pat you on the head for judging any potential customers of their books, including mine? Do you actually understand what it is these corporations do? They produce commercial art. To be widely enjoyed. By as many people as possible.

Moving away from corporations, do you think individual writers and creators really want you to wave away potential fans from their work? Almost all of them are in the same boat as I am, either directly or indirectly dependent on volume of sales for income. They are happy you like their stuff. They would be even happier if not only you liked their stuff. When you attack other people who like their stuff, you’re potentially cutting into their livelihood. You’re not making friends with the people whose work you’re making a centerpiece of your life. You’re hurting them.

Do you think the staff of the conventions you attend are in any way happy when you troll the other attendees? Those attendees go on Twitter and Facebook and blogs and talk about how unfriendly or even dangerous that convention is. Others pick up on that and amplify the complaints. The people who are trying to run the convention have to deal with it and have to apologize for the fact that you are being an asshole, because they are getting some of the blame for it. Who do you think the convention staff would prefer to have as an attendee? The cosplaying woman who is excited to be there and is enthusiastic about the convention, or the geek dude who spends his time shitting all over other people’s enjoyment of a convention, which the staff has invested so much time in to make work?

Nearly every creator wants you to enjoy what they create. Almost none of them want you to police it.

Now, bear in mind that I understand that when you’re off haranguing a woman (or anyone else) on the subject of geek worthiness, you’re not actually thinking of me or any other person or company who makes the work you enjoy and have made a focus of your life. You are effectively working under the assumption that all this stuff just magically appears out of nowhere, a golden store of treasure, of which there is a limited supply, and thus must be defended at all costs against the unworthy, which in this case are usually Teh Womans.

Well, surprise. It doesn’t come out of nowhere; we creators make it.  It isn’t a limited resource; we can make enough for anyone who wants it. It doesn’t need to be defended from anybody; we like it when it’s shared as widely as possible, including to Teh Womans.

And as for who is unworthy of it: Well. It’s not the women or anyone else who wants to try it, or who has tried it, liked it, and wants in to get more. It’s the people who are trying their hardest to keep them out.


The “I Fully Expect Abuse” Gambit

Noting this here as an addition to comment moderation policy:

If during the writing of a comment here, you add the line of “Now, I know what I am saying is going to get me abused,” or some close version of the same, I consider your comment immediate fair game for deletion. Why?

1. Because you are signaling that your comment will prompt other commenters, acting rationally on the basis of what you’ve written, to heap abuse on you, in which case you’re probably trolling, in which case I should delete your comment to avoid the inevitable derail;


2. Because you are signaling that you do not believe other commenters here are capable of rational discourse, in which case I’ll delete your comment to protect you from the onslaught of terrible people being terrible to you terribly, because of course as a gracious host I cannot allow such a horrible thing as abuse of a guest to happen. That would be wrong.

Now, there is an alternate version of events in which the reason that you put in such a line is as a cheap rhetorical ploy to suggest that your comment posits the only logical version of the discussion, and that any alternate view of events or rebuttal to your argument is mere abuse, as an attempt to put other commenters on the defensive and/or to give yourself permission not to take other people or their responses to your comment seriously. But I see no possible way that someone who would comment here would stoop to such abject silliness. So I will, properly, disregard this as a possibility.

On a related note, if you choose to write some version of “I expect this comment to be deleted” in your comment, I’ll take that as a sign that you would be in some manner disappointed if I did not delete your comment, as opposed to, say, merely employing the phrase as a magical talisman against the comment being deleted. And I, as a gracious host, would hate to disappoint you.

No, no. You don’t have to thank me, as your host, for such kind and tender thoughtfulness. I am merely acting as you, my guest, deserve.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

Ladies and gentlemen, Chuck Wendig has an unusual answer for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as it relates to his novel Under the Empyrean Sky. Do you dare learn its terrible secrets? Sure, you dare. That’s why you’re here.


Everyone always asks where you get your ideas or where the idea for a particular book came from and honestly, this one? Under the Empyrean Sky?

It started as a joke.

I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.

One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”

I wrote:

The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!

See, right there, even in the post, I started to think, Maybe there’s something here. I opened up the giant time-eater that is Google and on a lark did some research on corn. And what I found there was both pretty cool and pretty scary. For instance:

Corn is in 75% of the processed food products in the grocery store. You look at the ingredients on the back of the box and some of them are the Corn you know (corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal), but many are the Corn you jolly well didn’t know (dextrose, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, calcum citrate, white vinegar, vanilla extract, and a couple other dozen unusual suspects).

We also feed it to most of our factory-farm livestock. It’s not what cows like to eat, but we make ‘em eat it anyway, and then they get sick, and then we pump ‘em full of antiobiotics, and then they create superbugs, and then we give them new antibiotics and, well.

We’re starting to feed corn to salmon. Because if there’s one thing the salmon have always wanted, it’s buttery corn on the cob. (Now they just need teeth!)

Corn yields are up 500% in the last century. The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world. AND PROBABLY THE GALAXY.

In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of cornfields. Which yielded over $60 billion in cash receipts from sales.

Corn can make fuel (ethanol). It can be used to make plastic.

Corn has almost double the number of genes that humans have.

In the documentary King Corn, the filmmakers learn that their own human DNA actually has a little bit of corn DNA in it.

Regardless of whether this leans more toward pretty cool or more toward pretty scary, it paints a fascinating picture—and suddenly, a corn-fed agricultural dystopia starts to make sense.

Looking into corn means looking into genetically-modified food—which is itself not a demon, but the behaviors of a GMO company like Monsanto certainly (to quote Grosse Pointe Blank) “reads like a demon’s resume.” Then you start to realize that prices for real fruits and vegetables have gone up 20-30% while corn-based processed food products like soda have gone down in price by 20-30%. Even if GMOs themselves aren’t directly contributing to health problems the overabundance of corn remains freaky.

This all started as a joke, but suddenly I wasn’t laughing.

All of this research was happening at an interesting time, too—we hadn’t yet gotten to Occupy Wall Street yet, but we were hip-deep in an economic recession and heard rumblings about class inequality. Marriage was a big issue, too—we had the party of small government ostensibly disproving that thesis and trying to force government to define marriage in a very narrow, very troubling way.

Things in the world were shaking up.

Plus, on a personal level, holy shit, my wife was pregnant.

And suddenly that put a lot of things in focus. I became more concerned about what was in our food (because I was going to be feeding it to a tiny human who probably needed something better than a corn-based diet). I became troubled by the world and the inequality in it. I became interested too in writing a book my son could one day read (I won’t let him read Blackbirds until he’s 37.)

The story bloomed fully-formed in my brain. And in the month prior to his birth and just after, I wrote my ass off and produced a manuscript I initially called Popcorn—it was meant to be a fun young adult action-adventure that also had a subversive twist because it was set in a sunny dustbowl agricultural dystopia where corn was everything and all corn was a (literally) bloodthirsty breed called Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The hyper-rich (the Empyrean) lived in big floating flotillas in the sky while the rest of the world toiled away in the rainless, pollen-caked Heartland below. (Author John Hornor Jacobs calls it The Grapes of Wrath meets Star Wars, which isn’t inaccurate.)

Cancer was everywhere. Animals were few and far between. Vegetables were practically non-existent and the food they ate was industrially produced (though hey, they sometimes eat shuck rats, too). Some humans had begun to demonstrate signs of the Blight—where they manifested actual plant matter growing over their existing limbs (leafy fingers, thorny teeth, vines for arms).

Marriage was forced in a ceremony called an Obligation—at the age of 17, the Empyrean decided which boys would marry which girls and that was that. If you were gay, too damn bad. If you wanted to remain unmarried, hey, as they are wont to say in the first book: That’s life in the Heartland.

But it couldn’t just be life in the Heartland. Fiction is about change. About subverting and destroying the status quo. A story isn’t a straight line. It’s about the jagged peaks and vertiginous valleys and all the complicated kinks and hooks.

And so this book is about seeing a world well past the point of no return and finding the hope both in their world and ours. It’s about being angry and making a change. The teens in the book—part of a scavenging crew from a town called Boxelder—discover a secret garden of real vegetables, and the discovery of that garden leads them on a journey through the blood-hungry corn, to dead-towns and subterranean places where they have to deal with Blighted Heartlanders and broken hearts, with hobo armies and oppressive Empyreans, and with the dark secrets their own families and fellow townsfolk possess…

What began as a joke became a book.

Fiction is funny that way, I guess.


Under the Empyrean Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s page. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


There Shall Your Heart Be Also

Lately I’ve been thinking about Matthew, chapter six, and how it applies to me and my life.

Matthew, chapter six, for those of you who do not know, has Jesus midstream in the Sermon of the Mount, talking about giving to the poor, and praying and being pious. The text is here (I point you to the King James version, because its language is pretty, but you can select more modern versions), and the gist of it is simple: if you do good things in order to be seen by other people doing good things, then that is your only compensation; God will reward you no further. But if you do them quietly and without any fuss, then God will indeed reward you in full, in heaven. The summation of this line of thinking is in verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” In other words: You are what you value.

I am an agnostic of the “I’m almost certain God does not exist, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I just don’t know” stripe, so in a obvious, literal sense Matthew 6 can’t do much for me. I don’t pray, and for the good works I do here in this world, I don’t expect compensation in the next, because I don’t believe there is a next world. Here and now is all we have.

But I know wisdom when I see it, and the underlying wisdom of Matthew 6 is universally applicable. It asks why one does good works: Is it to be seen doing good works, or because good works are in themselves are worth doing, regardless of public reward? Is it more important to be a good person or to be seen as a good person? The answers to these questions point to who you are.

I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were. In the science fiction and fantasy community, for example, I am a “big name.” My actions can be multiplicative. By being seen doing good, I can sometimes cause more good to happen. It’s a cool thing to be able to do.

But it’s a rationalization that avoids the actual question of why I choose to do good things. Am I doing it because I am doing what I feel is correct moral action? Am I doing it because I enjoy people telling me I am a good guy, and the one sure way to do that is to be seen being a “good guy”? At the end of the day, what is at the root of my drive to do good?

It’s easy to argue that in one sense it doesn’t matter. The homeless guy you give new shoes to doesn’t care whether you’re doing it to look good to others, to God or to yourself. What he cares about is the new shoes. And that’s a solid point to make. Actions matter in themselves. Good can result from actions undertaken for selfish reasons, or through vanity.

But I do think it matters, or at least it matters to me. There’s a line out there that says “Character is who you are when no one else is watching.” You are who you decide to be and how you choose to act, even when there is no penalty or reward outside of your own sense of self. I am vain; I like being seen doing good things. Separately, I have pride that when I choose to do good out loud, that it can make a difference in my community. But I also want to be the person who would do good things even if only I ever knew what I had done. I want to be the person who can choose to make life better for others even if those people never know. I want to have the moral courage to do right action for itself. I want to know that, stripped of vanity and pride, I will still choose to do good, and thus be good. I want to believe that I can be the better image of myself I hold in my head.

And that’s why Matthew chapter six turns over and over in my mind. It speaks to me because it speaks to how I live my life and who I want to be. It reminds me that it is difficult to strip away the ego and see right action as its own reward. It reminds me that even when I do good work out loud that the focus should be what I am doing, not that I am doing it. It reminds me that it’s fair when people question my motives. It reminds me how much work I have left to do on myself.

And I do have work to do. I am a flawed human being. I am vain. I am proud. I seek approval. I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always. It is the treasure, wherein hopefully one day I may find my heart.


For Those of You Who Were Waiting For Me to Say Something About Anthony Weiner and/or Bob Filner

It’s simple: They’re both idiots. Weiner needs to quit his mayoral race; Filner needs to resign his mayoral position.

I suspect some people might have thought I wasn’t commenting on them here because they are both Democrats. But, guys, come on. One, I’m not a Democrat, as I have to remind people ad infinitum. Two, stupidity is non-partisan, and sexual harassment is odious whether you have an (R) or a (D) or any other letter after your name on the news chyron.

In the case of Weiner: you know, if sexting is consensual, whatever. I don’t especially care if people Snapchat their junk to each other. Not my thing, but fine. But Weiner should have figured out from the last time that this was the sort of activity that people didn’t want out of their politicians. That he didn’t — or that he couldn’t stop himself despite the damage he caused to his career, and by all public indications, to his marriage — is sad and doesn’t speak well regarding his impulse control. Dude, just look at amateur porn like everyone else. Stop making it. And if in fact his wife didn’t know he was still at it — well. That’s the thing for me that puts him on the list of people who deserve a good kick.

(If she did know and tolerated it because she didn’t really care, or preferred it to him actually practicing infidelity or any other reason, then that’s their own thing, although I still wish he’d stop doing it because I don’t really want to hear about his junk any more.)

Basically Weiner needs to get a job in the private sector; he’s peed in the public sector well one time too many. It’s sad he hasn’t figured it out yet.

In the case of Filner: Fuck that dude. He’s clearly scum. Not just for the alleged sexual harassment, which is bad enough, but also for his recent maneuvers trying to blame anyone but himself for his bad behavior. San Diego: Punt this loser. Punt him hard.

I think my positions on these two are now sufficiently clear.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jason M. Hough

We steadily march into the future — but is the march actually as steady as it looks, or even as steady as we wish it were? It’s a thought Jason M. Hough has considered, particularly in relation to his “Dire Earth” series, of which The Darwin Elevator is the first installment. He’s here to give some perspective on the parade of progress.


My Big Idea grew out of a friend’s offhand remark: “Sci-fi often gets the technology right and the date wrong.”

Examples are legion: Blade Runner (and the novel it’s based on) takes place in 2019, just a few years from now. Skynet becomes self-aware in 1997, already sixteen years behind us. 2001 takes place in… well, you get the idea. The point is science fiction often dreams big and dates optimistically. This nagged at me like a persistent fly for years after my friend’s original comment.

As I started worldbuilding for the Dire Earth series, my first thought was to simply move the dates out. Add a little breathing room. With one keystroke I changed 2083 to 2283 and it felt… right. And yet, also wrong. Certainly by then we’d have some amazing stuff, wouldn’t we? I immediately wanted to rework all my plans and ramp up the tech accordingly. But that would just put me back in the trap my friend had warned of, and besides, I started to see a different angle to the wisdom of his observation. I began to wonder what would happen if our current breakneck pace of technological advancement slowed to a crawl, or even backtracked in some areas. A low-tech vision of the future, if you will.

This might be a tough sell to some sci-fi readers, but it’s not so hard to believe. We’re already seeing the erosion of Moore’s Law (the “law” that transistor density in microchips will double every two years). Breakthroughs in energy and medicine never seem to make it to market. Today roughly half of this country holds a rather pessimistic view of science and technology, and they elect public officials that share this perspective. I started to explore what would happen if that mentality continued to grow. In other words, what if politics and culture advanced but science and technology stagnated for a while? Maybe even a long while?

Ultimately my Big Idea was to imagine our technological advancement into the future not as an ever-increasing curve, but more like a pendulum with the weight initially held back by these factors. In the novel’s hinted-at backstory there are references to the unfulfilled promises of technology, and the societal backlash that came with that. Despite taking place over 200 years from now, tech has only made modest advancements beyond where we are now.

Then comes the spark that finally lets the pendulum swing toward major progress. An extraterrestrial ship, entirely automated, constructs a space elevator that makes landfall in Darwin, Australia. This event triggers an almost overnight resurgence in interest for technology, space exploration, and of course the deeper implications of alien life. We start to exploit the device once our initial shock wears off, building space stations along its length and the infrastructure needed to support such efforts on the ground around it. I’d always had this moment in the backstory, but foisting it upon a world so jaded actually served to amplify the change it unleashes upon the book’s main setting. The sleepy beach town of Darwin is suddenly the equivalent of Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Silicon Valley all rolled into one. Things are, quite literally, looking up.

Back swings the pendulum. Now that I’d given the world a wake-up call, I wanted to knock them back the other direction (I’m mean like that). Just twelve years later a pandemic disease, designed by the same aliens that gave us the Elevator, renders most of the planet uninhabitable. In fact, the aliens only left us with this tiny patch of land around the Darwin Elevator upon which to survive. The bulk of our already-meager brain trust dies out, and most of the world’s critical infrastructure and manufacturing capability languishes unattended outside the safe zone. In our culture of throwaway devices and planned obsolescence, things get dire pretty damn quick. For me it was both challenging and exhilarating to write this world. It’s one thing to tackle an apocalyptic event, but to thrust something like that upon a populace that had just tasted hope and wonder… such a psyche was difficult to put myself into, and yet I loved the characters this pendulum scenario produced.

The main character Skyler, for example, embodies a certain amount of “fool me twice” apathy. Born into a world of technological malaise, he becomes an adult around the same time the alien space elevator arrives. Everything changes at a dizzying pace while he himself is earning his wings to fly in the Dutch Air Force.

Then the disease hits, sending humanity to the mat like a haymaker, down for the count. Only Darwin is safe, but Skyler… Skyler is an ultra-rare immune. Once he reaches Darwin he realizes he’s one of the few people who can leave.

And so the Elevator becomes a metaphor for society’s reliance on technology, seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t need it at all. Skyler can’t bring himself to just walk away, though. I loved writing his chapters, and this was a big reason why. The conflict within him, masked by his apathy and—let’s be honest—poor leadership skills, made him a great lens through which to filter the story. Deep down he knows that humanity cannot survive simply by maintaining the status quo. His generation is the first in a long time that has tasted an explosion of progress, and that lies at the heart of what drives him. The year is 2283, and he wants our species to live up to that no matter what our mysterious visitors have in store.


The Darwin Elevator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Welcome to August, Worldcon Notes, Etc

I took a semi-hiatus in July in order to get a substantial start on the next novel, and the plan worked pretty well: I’m seven chapters into Lock In (which is the current name of the novel) and I’m pretty pleased with the progress so far. So, go me.

August should see Whatever resuming a more or less normal schedule, with the caveat that I usually write on the novel in the mornings, so unless I’ve written something up in advance and scheduled it for the morning, or am just writing up something very short, I may not be updating Whatever until the afternoon. You have the rest of the Internet out there; you should be fine.

LoneStarCon 3, this year’s Worldcon, is at the end of the month, and a number of you have asked me whether I will be attending, as I am not on the convention’s list of featured attendees. The answer is yes, I will be there, although with the exception of a reading and a kaffeklatch on Sunday of Worldcon, I won’t be doing programming. The reason for this is simple: I’m really really burnt out and the idea of doing panels right now makes me want to kill things with fire. What I want to do with my Worldcon is relax, see friends and spend time with them, and maybe win a Hugo if the voters have decided that’s what I should do.

So that’s the plan. Which is not to say that if you see me at Worldcon you shouldn’t come up and say or hello, or that I won’t sign a book for you or whatever (I don’t have any official signing time set yet, before you ask; I’ll note here if one opens up). But do know that I intend to be mostly off the clock for the Worldcon and enjoying it primarily as a fan. I’ve never done that at a Worldcon before. It might be fun to do.

As a related piece of information, Krissy has warned me that if anyone at LoneStarCon 3 tries to talk to me about past or current SFWA business, she will punch them hard in the throat. It’s Texas, throat-punching is allowed. I heartily endorse this plan of action because, remember, I will be off the clock, and will look askance at people attempting to put me back on it. So, don’t. I and your trachea thank you in advance.

Anyway: August. Here we are. Here we go.

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