School’s Out for Summer, 2015 Edition

Today was the last day of 10th grade for Athena, and per tradition here, she stood for portraiture marking this auspicious occasion. Those of you with excellent memories will note she is wearing the same ensemble as she did for the first day. This is not a coincidence.

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

The good news: In his novel Devil in the Wires, author Tim Lees has solved our energy crisis! The bad news… well, let’s just say that you’re the sort to blaspheme, your electricity might flicker a bit in protest. Here’s Lees to explain it further.


You don’t have to be religious to feel a sense of awe when you stand in some big temple or cathedral, especially if it’s old, or built on the site of a still older shrine, as many are. Places of worship can date back millennia, and through more than one faith. Sacred sites are sacred for a reason. Whatever they may now be, once upon a time, they were home to strange, inhuman forces – beings which, for want of a better term, we might call “gods.”

From the ancient, to the modern. We all know about the energy crisis. Fossil fuels are running out, alternative energy supplies – we’re told – will never match the shortfall.

It’s a grim scenario. But what if there was something else, a source of power till now almost untapped? What if you could mine the psychic energy stored in churches, shrines and other sacred places? Energy built up through years of worship, prayer and entreaty – what if you could take that and convert it into usable electric power?

Sound good?

Well, that’s the first Big Idea. Those gods are still there. They’re what gets turned into electric power. They’re what lights our cities, cooks our meals, powers our Playstations and TVs. Ancient gods: the latest source of fuel.

I love mash-ups. Genre-wise, ramming together two totally disparate elements (and making them work) is just about my favorite activity. Back when I still had musical ambitions, I was once asked for a keyboard solo on a reggae track. I looked at the range of sounds available and thought, Ah-ha! Church organ! Why not? Nothing, of course, could have been less appropriate, which was exactly why I chose it. To me, it sounded great. To everybody else… well. Let’s just say there was no subsequent boom in church organ reggae, and I am now a writer, not a musician.

So, with Devil in the Wires, I’ve taken an element from genre fantasy – the kind of gods that Conan or Elric were always running into – and kicked it into the present day. Needless to say, the gods have undergone some changes in the process. They are still genii loci – spirits of place – and repositories of immense power, but for the most part (and with one exception) they’re a lot less humanized, a lot more alien. To stand before them can be a bit like suffering a seriously bad acid trip. Simply to perceive them can be dangerous. As for actually collecting them, that’s the sort of job which requires a specialist. Not just for specialized equipment, but also for a special frame of mind.

Enter Big Idea number two: Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, already worried he’s been in the job too long, and his luck (much like those fossil fuels) might soon be running out.

Have you ever wondered how the guys in fantasy stories make their cash? How they pay the rent? Batman, supposedly, runs a multi-billion dollar business empire, and still stays out all night crime-fighting. (Really?) Indiana Jones works at a university which requires neither the grading of papers nor writing of research publications, nor, presumably, returning from the wilds in time for class. Great fun, but I wanted something I could actually believe, and a counterpoint to the massive, numinous forces at work throughout so much of the book.

I mentioned mash-ups. There’s the concept of burning gods for energy – pure fantasy. So to ground it all, I thought I’d put it in a context so familiar everyone can recognize it: the daily grind of company drudge work.

Chris works for the Registry. It’s a business. It’s secretive, but it’s not the secret service. It’s not some underground cabal. It’s the kind of place where you or I might work, though hopefully in a different capacity. And Chris is an employee. He has paperwork to file. He has bosses he doesn’t trust. Like most people on the ground floor of a business, he often has a better idea what’s going on than his managers do. And that’s the source of much of the humor in the book. Because humor is the way we survive, it’s the thing that gets us through our day-jobs, especially if our day-jobs might just threaten our health, our sanity, and our lives.

One final matter. I’m a Brit, now resident in the US. Devil in the Wires starts in Iraq, makes a couple of stops in Paris and London, then races on to Chicago, where I’ve lived the last few years. Here’s a thing about us SF/fantasy types: we never feel at home in a place until we’ve smashed it, shattered it, invaded it with aliens, sent monsters roaring through its streets and exposed its seedy, supernatural underbelly to the world. Now, at last, I give Chicago what it needs: an ancient god, a crazy scheme for powering a city, three or four assorted killers, and a hero who’s torn between earning a crust and doing the right thing (no prizes for guessing which side he comes down on).

Believe me: it’s an act of love.


Devil in the Wires: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

How You Should Vote for the Hugos This Year

(Warning: Hugo neepery follows. Ignore if bored with the topic.)

Now that the Hugo voter packet is out, I’m getting asked rather a lot, mostly with an air of confidentiality, how I plan to vote in this year, what with the actual democratic nature of the Hugo nomination balloting representing hundreds of individual viewpoints subverted by a couple of jerks who created interlocking slates (one prominently featuring work created by one of these jerks’ own publishing company) and encouraged people, either bluntly or with a wink and a nod, to vote a straight ticket rather than come up with their own independent choices. People are wondering whether I plan to put all the nominees pushed by the slates under the “No Award” option, or simply leave them off my final ballot altogether, after placing “No Award” below the works/people I feel are legitimate choices.

My short answer is no, I don’t plan to do that. I will detail my longer answer in a second. But before I do, some thoughts to the Hugo voters this year:

To the people planning to put everything/everyone on Puppy slates below “No Award” or leave them off your ballot altogether: This is a solid and totally legitimate choice to make, and don’t let anyone tell you any different. My understanding is that at least one of the head Puppies has been notably petulant on the subject recently, which is a matter of some irony. If you believe that slates are inimical to Hugo balloting, or wish to register your disapproval of the selections this year, or think that the Puppies are assholes who deserve to be smacked on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, or any other reason you choose to No Award them, it is your right, and some would argue, your responsibility, to vote them below “No Award” or leave them off the ballot entirely (after having placed “No Award” below your last actual choice). If this is your path, then rock on with yourself.

To the people planning to vote on the nominees as if it were a completely normal year: This is also a solid and totally legitimate choice to make, and you should also not let anyone tell you any different. Because you might not think slates matter much one way or another, or you might think the individual nominees, no matter how they arrived on the final ballot, deserve to be treated with courtesy and respect, or you might simply think “cool, stuff to read” and just get to it, or any other reason you might have to read and rate. Again: This is your path? Cool. Rock on.

To the people somewhere in the middle, for whatever reason: Hey, you know what? That’s fine too. It’s okay to be conflicted. After all, not everyone on a slate asked to be there, or there might be some people on a slate who you think should have been nominated regardless, or in your reading you might find something on a slate that blows you away and deserves a shot, or (again) whatever — it’s your ballot and your choice for voting. Rock on with your choices.

The short version of all of the above: If you vote your own conscience, there is no wrong way to vote for the Hugos. There is, simply, your vote. It’s your own choice. Think about it, take your vote seriously — and then vote. No one can or should ask you to do anything otherwise.

With that as preamble:

I think the slates are bullshit, and I think the people who created them (and at least some of the people on them) are acting like petulant, whiny crybabies and/or obnoxious, self-aggrandizing opportunists. I’m also aware some slate choices were not made aware they had been put on slates, or were placed on them under false pretenses. Some of those so slated chose to leave the ballot, which I think is impressive and well done them, but I can’t really fault those who chose to stay, not in the least because for some of them it would be politically or personally awkward to withdraw, for various reasons. And, on the principle that a stopped clock can be correct twice a day, it’s entirely possible something or someone that is a slate choice is genuinely deserving of consideration for the Hugo, and I am loath to discount that, particularly if the person to whom the award would be given was also an unwilling (or misinformed) draftee onto a slate.

So here is my plan:

1. I am going to look back on my own Hugo nomination ballot, and identify in each category the work/person I nominated that I judged to be my “last place” choice in the category.

2. When confronted with a nominee on the final ballot who was placed there by a slate, I will ask myself: “Is this work/person better than my own ‘last place’ nominee?”

3. If the answer is ‘yes,” then I will rank that work/person above “No Award” on my final ballot, and otherwise rank them accordingly to my own preference.

4. If the answer is “no,” then I won’t put that work/person on my ballot at all, and I will put “No Award” below my choices in the category so it’s clear that I would prefer no award given than to offer the Hugo to anything/anyone I’ve left off the ballot.

This, for me, strikes the appropriate balance between fairness to the nominees on the slates, and registering disapproval for the concept of slating. This way, if the work is genuinely good in my own estimation, it gets a fair hearing. But if it’s not, out it goes — and not just out, but also suffering the existential ignominy of “No Award” being preferred over it or them.

As I think this is a decent plan, I naturally encourage people to adopt it for their own, or adapt it for their own purpose. For those Hugo voters who didn’t nominate this year, I would suggest either creating a mock nomination ballot to use as a guideline, or using another award final ballot as a substitute. Here’s this year’s Nebula ballot, and here’s this year’s Locus finalist list. Choose your least favorite work in each category and use that as the benchmark.

But remember: It’s your vote and your choice. With the Hugos, it’s a very good year to take both seriously. Don’t let anyone keep you from voting your own conscience.

The End of All Things: Starred Review at Kirkus

The first review of The End of All Things is in at Kirkus Reviews, and I’m very pleased to say that it’s received a star (i.e., notation for being especially good).

The full review has some spoilery content, so be warned; here’s the link to it. For those who just want the gist, here’s a relevant excerpt:

It’s classic crowd-pleasing Scalzi, offering thrilling adventure scenes (space battles, daring military actions, parachute jumps through a planet’s atmosphere), high-stakes politics, snarky commentary, and food for thought. Delightful, compulsively readable, and even somewhat nutritious brain candy.

Mmmmm…. brain candy.

Also, and because this is how my brain works, I’m relieved that no matter what else happens, review-wise, we have quote for the cover for the paperback release. One neurotic worry down! Many, many more to go.

Anyway, this is my good news for the day. Hope you’re having a good day, too.

The Big Idea: Wendy Suzuki

Science says: You have a hypothesis? Test it! And see if the results you get match your hypothesis? Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has a hypothesis about the brain, and how certain activities and thoughts can influence them, which she expands upon in her book (written with Billie Fitzpatrick) Healthy Brain, Happy Life. How did this hypothesis come about? From an interesting personal experience.


Can I use my thoughts, intentions and beliefs to change my brain and make myself smarter and happier? That’s the question I have been asking ever since I inadvertently did an experiment on myself and noticed how much aerobic exercise combined with positive intentions transformed not only my body, but my brain and ultimately, my life.

After years of neglecting my body and focusing too much of my energy on my work as a brain scientist, I finally decided to begin a regular exercise routine. I started with a personal trainer and focused on increasing my overall muscular and cardiovascular strength. As I got stronger, I felt great and much more energized.

And then I found a class at the gym that shifted my workout routine into high gear. The class combined physical movements from kickboxing, dance yoga and martial arts with positive spoken affirmations like “I am strong!” or “I believe I will succeed!”. It’s called intenSati. And it’s hard. You have to master the moves and the affirmations that go with them and change moves every four to eight counts or so. Shouting out the affirmations increases the cardio load of the workout and makes it much more challenging than just doing the moves on their own.

I was already in pretty good shape when I discovered this class at my gym. I always felt more energized after any workout. But intenSati was different. After each class, I was full of energy, in a great mood, and felt like I could take on the world. Not only that, when I left the gym after class, I was already looking forward to the next time I could do the workout.

Over time I noticed something even better. As I upped my workouts with intenSati, it became easier to write my scientific grants. I seemed to be able to focus my attention better while writing and make more and better associations or links between the journal articles that I read in support of my points. I realized I had just done an experiment on myself and the results were these striking brain changes.

In fact, the shift was so noticeable that I decided to find out what we knew about the effects of exercise on brain function. I found a vibrant scientific literature focused largely in rodents showing profound effects of exercise on the anatomy, physiology and function of brain areas important for attention, memory and mood. In humans, there was good evidence that exercise improved mood and attention, and promising indirect evidence that exercise improved memory function as well. In my book Healthy Brain, Happy Life, I write about my transformative experiences with exercise, and also about the what neuroscience understands about the dramatic impact of exercise on specific brain areas.

In myself, I noticed improved mood, attention and memory functions with increased levels of aerobic activity. But I realized that with intenSati, I wasn’t doing just exercise alone – I was combining it with positive affirmations. And I wondered if the exercise alone that was causing the brain effects I was experiencing? Or could it be the combination of exercise together with the positive affirmations that was doing the trick? As a scientist, I knew I could not answer this question simply by introspection. Instead I went to the scientific literature to see if there were any studies on the brain effects of combining of exercise and affirmations, something I started to call “intentional exercise”.

No study had ever examined the effects of exercise combined with affirmations, but I did find studies examining the effects of affirmations alone, which indicated that reciting positive affirmations improved mood. This is not so surprising. Perhaps the affirmations were just adding additional mood boosting power to the workout.

Somehow that didn’t seem quite right. Then, I stumbled upon the psychological studies of something called mindset, defined as the established set of attitudes held by somebody. This is a hot area of research because of exciting findings showing that shifting a person’s mindset by simply providing information can have significant changes on people’s sensory experiences and physiological responses.

What does this mean? My two favorite examples from this area of study were done by Professor Alia Crum of Stanford’s Psychology department. In one study, she showed that people who thought they were drinking an indulgent high calorie milkshake showed faster declines in a hunger-inducing hormone than when they thought the same exact milkshake was healthy and low calorie. In another study, she showed that when hotel room attendants were told that, according to the surgeon general, their workload of cleaning rooms and changing sheets was considered a good amount of exercise, the workers lost significant weight and had lower blood pressure compared to the control group of hotel room attendants who were not given that information.

These studies are examples of how adopted beliefs can significantly change physiological responses including hormone secretion and metabolism/weight loss. Maybe that’s what the affirmations were doing to me. Maybe the affirmations shifted my mindset to a positive one that included belief in myself and my success. Maybe the affirmations are adding the key ingredient of motivation to my workout. And maybe we could actually modulate the effects of the affirmations to focus on attention or memory or happiness depending on what we actually said.

We don’t know the answer to these questions right now. But my “big idea” is that we can test these hypotheses systematically and scientifically in the lab. It could be that adding positive intention to exercise (any kind of exercise), could be the secret sauce needed to boost the effects of exercise on both our bodies and our brains to their maximum levels. That’s exactly the question I’m starting to answer with the experiments I’m doing in my lab.


Healthy Brain, Happy Life: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

A Useful Moment From a Mentor

(Warning for those who need it: discussion of rape scenes in storytelling)

So, many years ago, when I was still a very young writer, I made the acquaintance of Pamela Wallace, and she and I became friends. At the time I was a film critic, and she was a screenwriter — and not just a screenwriter, but one who had won an Oscar, for her work on Witness. She also wrote novels, which were at the time something I was thinking about doing at some point. So she and I talked a lot about movies and stories and the writing life. She was a very cool mentor for a young writer to have.

One day I was over at her house and I was talking to her about a story idea I had; I can’t specifically remember what the story idea was, but I vaguely recall it being some sort Silence of the Lambs-esque thriller, in which an investigator and a serial killer matched wits, you know, as they do. And at some point, I dragged the investigator’s wife into the story, because, as I was, like, 24 years old and didn’t know a whole hell of a lot, I thought it would be an interesting character note for the investigator, and a good plot development for the book, for the serial killer to basically rape and torture the wife —

— at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.

Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device. Because, I don’t know. If you’re a 24-year-old wannabe fiction writer and an Oscar-winning storyteller is physically repelled by your casual insertion of rape and violence against women in your story, mightn’t that be a sign of something? That maybe you should pay attention to? Perhaps?

Now, as I got older and became a more accomplished storyteller (and human), there turned out to be many other reasons for me to decide not to put those sorts of scenes willy-nilly into my books aside from “dude, you just disgusted your successful writer friend with your plot twist.” But I’m not going to lie and pretend that this very significant clue, dropped by my friend, did not in fact make a long-lasting impression.

Which continues to this day. I’ve written eleven novels now, most with lots of action, adventure, peril and danger to characters of several genders, and lots of tough scenes that show loss and violence (see: most of The Ghost Brigades). No rape scenes. They weren’t necessary for the narrative — and more concretely, as narratives to stories don’t just magically happen but are the result of the author’s intention, I chose not to make circumstances in my novels where they would be necessary.

Sadly, not every young male novice storyteller has a woman friend who is also an Oscar winner to set him straight on the errors of his shallow narrative ways. Would that they did! So for everyone else I would just say (and here I tip my hat to Robert Jackson Bennett, who wrote in more detail about this today) that while you can put these sorts of scenes into your work, maybe before you do, you should ask yourself why. Ask yourself what actual value they will bring to your work. Ask yourself if you are entirely sure about that value.

And while you’re asking yourself that, keep my friend Pamela’s reaction to my proposed rape scene in your head. She’s not alone in that reaction these scenes, nor was she wrong to have it. Neither are other people.

My Funny Internet Life, Part 9,744

What’s the moral to this story? Two morals: One, the Internet is awesome because, sometimes, if you ask, you will get pictures of squirrels playing polo on the backs of Pomeranians. And two:

But mostly: Squirrels on Pomeranians, playing polo.

Update: 1:48pm: The opposing team has now taken the field:

What a glorious day for Squirrel Polo.

Update, 5pm:

And now we have a league!

The Big Idea: Naomi Novik

Memory is sometimes a tricky beast, but is that always a bad thing? Naomi Novik has some thoughts on this, and how memories, hazy or otherwise, relate to her latest novel Uprooted.


Here’s a test. Two scenes from movies. Tell me if you remember either of these. (The test is unfairly skewed towards people who were conscious in the eighties, sorry.)

In his underground lair beneath Metropolis, Lex Luthor keeps a nest of monstrous pet lion-alligator things. They mostly sound like lions, but he is living in the sewers of metaphorical New York City, so they clearly should have been alligators. Let’s call them alligators. At the end, he feeds Ms. Teschmacher to the alligators for having betrayed him (Superman rescues her, as comic book movies were not yet inhospitable to ten year olds).

Scene two: in Jabba’s stronghold, after Luke Skywalker has been dropped into the Rancor’s pit, he leaps straight up into the air and catches the grating above that just dumped him down. He dangles from the iron bars as Jabba’s courtiers bash his fingers with weapons, and then drops again to continue fighting.

For years, whenever I attempted to describe the alligators to people, they thought I was out of my mind, but they really do exist, in a pair of deleted scenes edited out of the theatrical release of the movie and included only in a later TV release (for it must be admitted very obscure reasons).

When I describe the scene of Luke jumping for the grating, mostly people have a vague feeling of familiarity. But it doesn’t exist. The moment was described in the novelization but never released, never filmed. I remember it as clearly and vividly as the alligators. I even remember clearly a page out of a photo storybook I had showing the scene, which also doesn’t exist. I spent a long frustrated time trying to track it down before I finally accepted that my brain had just put that scene together and quietly tucked it into my memory like a small deceitful landmine.

I have also forgotten and falsely remembered many other things — stories I myself have written, what my child was like a year ago, the names and faces of good friends. People have told me too often that’s not what happened! how could you forget? I’ve never doubted all those studies about the unreliability of witnesses, because I’ve been made palpably aware of my own unreliability over and over.

But the gift of a strangely terrible memory is to be set free from the tyranny of the correct. I’ve spent a lot of time with young children in the last few years, seen how their brains are still working out the most useful things to hold on to, the lines between the real and the false. “Is Hillary Clinton really alive?” my four year old asks me doubtfully as we watch her declaration of candidacy on the iPad, the same way we watch episodes of Star Trek and Wonder Woman. (A few days later she confidently explains to a group of our friends that a woman named Hillary, who is alive, is going to be president after Barack Obama dies, cheerfully discarding layers of metaphor between U.S. politics and the Hunger Games.)

She has not yet reconciled herself to the frustrating, repeated failures of magic. Neither have I. Making sense of things that don’t quite make sense, we fill in the missing pieces, retelling our own stories and accumulating embellishment along the way. And magic is in those missing pieces. When to remember is to create, to imagine is to make true. Why shouldn’t Mr. Spock be a real person when Hillary Clinton is? Why shouldn’t there be magic, if the past can change out from under us?

Uprooted takes place in a Poland that exists only in my own mind. It grew out of the fairy tales my mother read to me in Polish when I was a child, not older than my own daughter, before I was too old to really believe in forest fairies and mountains of glass. After I was five we stopped speaking the language at home, and I didn’t learn to read it until I was much older. Even now I’m not fluent enough to read the stories by myself without help, but when I plug uncertain words into translation sites, the meanings that come out aren’t the ones I am looking for. The word olbrzymi means enormous, but not to me; in my head it means monstrously overgrown, tangled, terrifying.

But I reject the dictionary entries: they are correct but untrue. I am not just making things up when I tell you a story about a valley of living water and tangled forests, a castle of many towers. I am telling you about a place that I have been. There are many dangers in the unreliability of memory, but in the realm of fiction it opens the possibility for the reader to believe in magic too, to feel it creeping up on them, the faint uneasiness of could that have happened? There’s magic in accepting the gap between physical reality and the shifting electrical sands of our brain cells, and allowing ourselves to visit a real and impossible place.


Uprooted: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 5/18/15

I’m guessing you will find something to like in this stack of new books and ARCs. Am I right? Let me know in the comments!

Why Yes, Locus Magazine Does, In Fact, Publish MilSF/Space Opera Reviews

In a discussion about the current Hugo nonsense taking place elsewhere online, a writer trotted out a variation of the now-utterly-stale opinion that Robert Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo if he were writing today, this new variation being that not only couldn’t Heinlein win a Hugo, he wouldn’t even be reviewed in Locus, the Science Fiction and Fantasy trade magazine. When challenged on this assertion, the writer said that Locus does not review military SF/space opera, period, so he was comfortable making that assertion.

I’ve punted the “Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today” nonsense before, so there’s no point going over that again. But the assertion that Locus doesn’t review milSF/space opera struck me as an odd one to make. As a writer of both military science fiction and space opera — The End of All Things will be both, sometimes simultaneously — I know my books in these subgenres have been reviewed in Locus. One of my favorite reviews of Old Man’s War (by Russell Letson) was in the magazine, and the magazine published a review of The Human Division, the most recent book in the OMW series as well.

But I grant I might be a special case, for various reasons, some more specious than others. Fortunately, I’m a subscriber to Locus (it’s super-useful in keeping up with SF/F publishing, subscribe now!), so this is something I could easily check. So I opened up the latest edition of the magazine, May 2015, and scanned the reviews. And on page 49:

It’s not a long review, but it certainly is a review, complete with a useful pull quote from a publisher PR point of view (“‘Good old-fashioned military science fiction’ — Locus”). So strictly from the point of view of actual fact, the assertion that Locus does not review milSF/space opera is invalidated as recently as the most current issue.

But — it’s possible this was a mistake, that somehow this one slipped past the gatekeepers! Fortunately, there is another way to check this. Locus has helpfully posted an index of its book reviews online; every review from January 1984 through May 2015 (the latter date, I expect, being constantly updated), from the magazine and its associated Web site, which sometimes runs its own reviews. I put the numbers “2014” and “2015” into my browser’s “find” function and then clicked off titles I was pretty confident could be classified as military science fiction and/or space opera. Here’s my (almost certainly incomplete) list after about fifteen minutes of perusal, for books reviewed in the last eighteen months:

Dark Intelligence, Neal Asher
Fortune’s Pawn, Rachel Bach
War Dogs, Greg Bear
Shipstar, Benford/Niven
Cibola Burn, James SA Corey
Willful Child, Steven Erikson
The Abyss Beyond Dreams, Peter F. Hamilton
Space Opera, Rich Horton, ed
War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, Jaym Gates & Andrew Liptak, eds
Ancilliary Sword, Ann Leckie
Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu
Starhawk, Jack McDevitt
The Greatship, Robert Reed
On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds
Lockstep, Karl Schroeder
The Chaplain’s War, Brad R. Torgersen
Dark Lightning, John Varley

And yes, I suppose we could quibble about what actually constitutes “space opera” — as an example, whether Willful Child, meant as an affectionate parody of Star Trek, counts (despite the fact that Star Trek itself is unambiguously space opera). But at the end of the day, it’s difficult to deny that Locus, in fact, does review both space opera and military science fiction. And if you look at the author index, you’ll find no lack of reviews of either subgenre, either in the last few years or indeed in the more than three decades of reviews indexed therein.

Is space opera or milSF reviewed less than other subgenres of science fiction or fantasy? Possibly; someone with more interest and time than I could do the work to find out. From my own cursory glance, and depending how finely you chop the subgenre onion, however, it doesn’t look as if milSF/space opera is notably underrepresented. There is quite a lot of SF/F that gets published, in a lot of increasingly fined-grained subgenres. Locus (or any genre publication, for that matter), has an impossible task in representing the scope of the genre as it exists today. It can’t review everything.

Regardless, the assertion was not that Locus doesn’t publish enough milSF/space opera reviews; it was that it doesn’t publish any. That’s definitively and provably wrong, and easy to disprove.

This is a relatively innocuous example of People Believing Things That Are Manifestly Not True, but it bothers me. If the Puppies (with whom, I wish to be clear, I am not suggesting this particular author belongs or identifies) have taught us anything, it’s that there is a not entirely small group of people out there in science fiction with a rich and deep persecution complex that is unbounded by actual fact. If you’re a writer or reader upset by a lack of representation of your particular subgenre or type of writer, well, fine, but if you’re basing that upset on false premises — for example, that Locus doesn’t review milSF or space opera — then a) you’re getting yourself worked up over nothing, b) should you continue to feel aggrieved after your misapprehension has been pointed out, there are some serious discussions you need to have with yourself.

There’s also c), which is that if you use a false sense of persecution to be resentful and unhappy with other people who you believe to be getting advantages you are not, and then act on that resentment, people will notice. It’s very likely you will be judged accordingly.

All of which is to say: Assertions! Please back them up. Particularly the ones you believe are affecting you. It’s often not difficult, and you may learn something. Whether learning that thing will make you happy is another discussion entirely. But better to know, yes?

Reader Request Week 2015 Recap

And now, for your convenience, all this year’s Reader Request pieces in one place. If you missed some and want to catch up, there you go.

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not

Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux

Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women

Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me

Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John

Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans

Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement

Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass

Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits

Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

Thanks again to everyone who asked questions. We’ll do this again. Probably in 2016!


Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

And now, quick answers to non-writing-related questions:

Anguadelphine: “My question is how do scientists effectively communicate facts to the general public without being discounted by people who don’t have the knowledge or patience to distill scientific evidence (or just don’t want to because of ‘belief’). I would appreciate any thoughts on this because frankly, it baffles me how people can discount science (as imperfect it is, it is still better than ignorance) because of their ‘belief’ mostly based on things they read on the internet or in literal readings of holy documents.”

With regard to ‘belief’ I think it’s important to remember that ‘belief’ is not monolithic — for example there are some evangelical Christian sects that believe in the universe was literally created in six days, but the largest Christian sect of all, Catholicism, is totally down with both cosmology and evolution. It’s worth pointing that out, and pointing it out to “literal” believers.

The best thing to do, honestly, is to hook people young: Get them used to the idea of science as early as possible. So this is a thing that requires planning, alas. As for the rest of it, my own thought is that people are perfectly good with science until and unless it conflicts with a political agenda — see climate change. I don’t know what the fix is there, because humans are political animals before they are scientific animals.

Pixlaw: “As a fellow Ohioan, I’m curious about your take on our very own Governor John Kasich’s various feints towards a presidential run. Frankly, I don’t like him or his politics very much, but my son, a budding Republican (…shudder…) thinks he would be fabulous.”

Kasich is in fact kind of a best case scenario for a GOP candidate for president, for anyone who is not a member of the GOP’s base. But I don’t think he’s strident enough for the base at the moment, and he’s not exactly charismatic enough to charm anyone else. I don’t really see him getting that far in a presidential run.

Sam: “Bruce Jenner coming out as a transgender person (even though it appears many people have known for years) and his desire to have gender reassignment but still be exclusively sexually attracted to women, does that make him a lesbian? The confussion, for me, lays in the fact that his brain is female but his DNA is male even if he changes his male bits to female bits. Or is he a heterosexual male that just had a sex change?”

I don’t know that it makes Jenner any one particular thing, nor am I personally in a huge rush to shift Jenner into one category or another simply for my own mental convenience. At the end of the day Jenner should be who Jenner wants to be, and love who Jenner wants to love, and everything else is fiddly bits. When Jenner wants to clarify or categorize and announce that to the public, great. Until then, I’ll just wish Jenner happiness and not concern myself about it.

PacoQ: “Do you agree with current copyright term lengths? Your daughter and her children will probably own the copyright for probably much longer than you will. Does it seem fair to you that your works will not enter the public domain until 70 years after you pass away?”

I’m on record in several places noting that copyright lengths are too long, and suggest their term be 75 years, in terms of corporations, and 75 years or life of the creator plus 25 (whichever is longer) in terms of individual creators. I think it’s fine for my wife to continue to benefit from my work, and to a lesser extent my child. My grandchildren can go work for a living.

Kore: “If an arbitrary stranger saved your life, what would you do? In particular, how would you deal with that person? Likewise, if you saved someone else’s life, what, if anything, would you expect of them or of yourself?”

Second answer first: I wouldn’t expect anything from them. I don’t imagine I would be saving their life for any other reason than that life is worth saving. If someone saved my life, I would be grateful and would let them know I owed them a debt. What that debt would be in many ways would be down to the person who saved my life.

Skippy: “How do you balance justifiable outrage at social injustice without becoming bitter or letting it color everything and make everything sad and angry.”

I don’t think about social injustice twenty four hours a day, in large part because I don’t have to. So the fact I have the luxury of not having to means the balance is easy to find. Of course, it is worth meditating on that fact of my life and what it means.

Noblehunter: “What are your thoughts on bad actors in anarchic/unorganized social movements? From looters hi-jacking civil rights protests to gamergate (some people seem to actually believe it’s about ethics in video game journalism) and Puppies (likewise), the stated goals of the group are undermined or by those calling themselves members of the group while acting in counter-productive ways. Can these groups police themselves despite a lack of central authority? Do you have any suggestions for people who are genuinely concerned about ethics in videogame journalism or other populist causes?”

Well, I’d first note that in the cases of Gamergate and the Puppies, the “stated goals” of the group were tacked on as afterthoughts/justifications for the precipitating action (harassment of women — and of a specific woman — in the case of Gamergate, personal desire for a bauble in the case of the Puppies). That’s not an insignificant thing, and it’s not something the fig leaf of a “stated goal” is going to cover up. This is a different situation, obviously, than looters attaching themselves to a protest movement already underway.

If I were truly interested in ethics in video game journalism — which is a laudable goal — or in seeing more representation of the sort of SF/F subgenres I liked in awards — less concretely laudable, but sure, why not — or whatever, I would probably start fresh, far away from those already tainted movements.

Maltsoda: “Advice for a beginner learning the ukelele?”

Practice and have fun with it. That’s what I do.

Mitchell Hundred: “Superheroes: Inspirational force for good or fascistic power fantasy?”

Why is this an either/or?

Ariane: “What’s your take on NASA’s new kind of engine, called electromagnetic propulsion drive, which brings us nearer to the vision of warp drive?”

I’ve trained myself not to get too excited. I’ll save my excitement for after a successful test zooms a spaceship, to, say, Jupiter. Or Alpha Centauri!

Allison: “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our growing tendency to store personal artifacts (photos, communications, and various writings) digitally. Specifically, I think about how historians rely on those kinds of artifacts to understand past cultures. The ephemeral nature of many aspects of digital culture makes me wonder what will be left to inform future historians of the daily lives of 21st century humans. Any thoughts on that?”

Here in the early parts of the 21st Century we are still generating an immense amount of physical personal artifacts. The vast majority of my photos are digital and yet I still print out the occasional physical copy. I very rarely give digital objects as gifts, but give physical objects all the time. There are still physical books and magazines and so on. Hell, vinyl has made a comeback. It seems very likely to me the issues for future archaeologists will not be lack of physical data, but trying to make sense of the immense amount of physical data we are leaving behind.

Christina Wodke: “Adventures in being an ally, including dumb mistakes, wins, and perhaps the seduction of mansplaining (I do it too and I’m not a man.) Guy friends of mine chicken out on being an ally sometime because they are afraid of being scolded. They might like to hear some of your experiences and realize it’s survivable.”

Well, I think the simplest thing to do is think of being an ally like you’re learning a skill, like a guitar or woodworking. You know you have an interest, but you lack experience, and as you work on it you’ll make mistakes and people with more expertise in the area will correct you and occasionally offer advice, which may work for you or may not. And over time you learn and you get better at it — but there will always be something new to learn. If you think about it that way, it becomes less ego-bruising to be called out, and when you are called out it becomes more productive. I think that’s a good way to picture it.

Dana: “You’ve heard of ‘speed dating’ where you spend 5 minutes with each of several potential partners trying to determine if you are compatible. How about ‘super speed dating’ where you’re allowed just three questions? What 3 questions would give you a sense of go/no-go?”

Ooooooh, I wouldn’t make any relationship decisions based on only three questions. But if I had to, I would ask three questions that required lengthy, complex answers and I would watch how the person answered them as much as paying attention to what the answer was. Because all of that would be just as important as the answer itself. No idea what those particular questions would be. I’d probably make them up at the time.

Neil W: “You live in Ohio. Ohio has a swallow-tail shaped flag. Do you have an opinion on the eccentricity of it, or any other thoughts on flag design or on flags in general? For example what would you like to see on a Scalzi flag?”

I’m not a huge fan of the Ohio flag, but at the same time I can’t muster any particularly negative feeling about either, so — meh? I don’t know what I would do to change it and I suspect that changing it wouldn’t be for the better, so it might as well stay as it is. With regard to a Scalzi flag, in fact, this is something I thought about a long time ago but unfortunately at the moment I can’t find the file for it. If I unearth it I’ll show it. It does include a phoenix.

Peripatetic Entrepreneur: “Money is a fiction. Opine.”

Uhhhh, yes, it is? But we all seem to agree to pretend it exists for our own purposes so I guess it’s okay?

Megpie71: “How do you feel about the sort of uncritical patriotism pushed by statements like ‘love it or leave it’? Do you think the best way to love one’s country, fandom, or whatever is to refrain from criticising it at all, or do you feel criticism has a useful function?”

I think uncritical patriotism is stupid in part because any patriotism I would feel is based on the idea that my nation is worth supporting, and that knowledge comes only from critical examination. So, yeah, if someone were to tell me to “love it or leave it,” I’d mark them down as not exactly a deep thinker. And yes, this also goes for other groups with which I feel some identity toward.

Mearsk: “Is your social media presence worth it? Jos Whedon quitting Twitter the other day because he was tired of the constant stream of ‘you suck,’ made me wonder if it is worth all the exposure to negativity and small-minded people. I know you’re very active on Twitter, but you frequently comment about ‘muting’ people, so that means you have to deal with it, so is the benefit worth the cost?”

I’m on social media because I enjoy it, and if I stop enjoying it then I’ll leave it. But I will note there are all sorts of ways to tailor one’s social media intake. So for example, if on Twitter I don’t want to see responses from random people, I don’t have to; likewise if I want to limit my conversations to only people who I like I can do that too. People can be negative (or not) all they like — but I don’t have to see it. In Whedon’s case, he left primarily because he found it a timesuck, which is a thing I can appreciate. That’d be a more likely reason for me to leave it than negativity, to be honest.

Cavyherd: “What I want to know is: Did you ever go through a period of being the Angry Young Man?”

Not really. I think the circumstances of my life could have given me ample reason to be angry, for various reasons, but I just… wasn’t. It’s not the direction my personality seems to default toward. I have been angry, but it’s situational, rather than a baseline emotion. And after a certain point in time — somewhere in college — my life started on the general upswing that continues to this day. It’s difficult for me to be angry because honestly what do I have to be angry about? My life’s kind of amazing, and I know it. I know this doesn’t stop other people, but it stops me. I don’t think you need to be angry to be passionate, or committed or whatever. Mostly, I’m happy. And when I think about it, grateful.

Thanks, everyone, for all your questions this week!

Today’s New Books and ARCs, 5/15/15

As we head off into the weekend, please enjoy this fantastic stack of new books and ARCs, all coming to bookstores soon(ish). See anything here that might rock your world? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Wildflowers, by Sascha Long Petyarre

Before I headed off to Australia, a friend of mine who has worked in the fine art industry advised me to keep an eye for aboriginal art on the basis that there is some very excellent work out there. To which my response was, yeah, okay, but that’s not going to happen because it’s not like I’m going to bother to jump through all the hoops I’d need to jump through to bring a substantial piece of art back with me.

And then I went into an aboriginal art gallery in Perth and saw this piece, by Sascha Long Petyarre, and couldn’t stop looking at it. Nor was I the only one; there was a couple in the gallery as well and I saw them doing the same thing I was doing, which was looking at it, wandering off to look at other pieces and then coming back to it. I came back to it enough that eventually I figured out that if I didn’t buy it I was going to eventually regret not having done so. So I did — and had to jump through a bunch of aggravating hoops to get it back home, exacerbated by the fact I was also injured at the time, so schlepping a really large Tube O’ Art was that much more annoying.

But: Totally worth it. The painting, roughly six feet by three, looks great in this picture but it looks frankly amazing live and in person. It now resides in my daughter’s room, not only because it fits the decor there but because I hope she finds Ms. Long Patyarre’s door into dreamtime a creatively inspiring one (also, before any of you fine art folks ask, the painting is on a northern wall, away from direct sunlight).

I wasn’t expecting to get art when I was in Australia, but I’m happy I did anyway. Life is funny that way.

Incidentally, if you do like the image above, it appears Sascha Long Petyarre has done a lot of work that is thematically similar, much of which is for sale. Here’s the Google listing of her name, which features links to several galleries and other places that have her work for sale. Check out her work; it’s pretty great.

Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits

And now, quick answers to questions related to writing, publishing, and such-like topics:

Standback: “What’s your take on the state of short fiction in the genre? Print magazines, anthologies, e-zines, and anything else? Is the form viable and sustainable? And how much of an audience does it actually have?”

I suspect short fiction in the genre is healthier than it’s been in years, because there are so many outlets for it, and both e-pub and self-pub have expanded the ability for authors to distribute. I see a lot of Kickstarted anthologies that previously would have had to wait for a publisher to greenlight them that now directly appeal to a niche audience, and I see a lot of authors taking their shorter work and putting it up for sale electronically, creating a nice second market for that work. I personally do very well selling short fiction online, via Subterranean and Tor. So, yes, I’m bullish on it.

Angua: “What is your stand on fan fiction and other transformative works? I’m not merely asking if you are ok with your characters and worlds to be interpreted by fans, but also what intrinsic value do you see in such works, if any?”

My stance on fanfic is the same as it’s been for years: I’m cool with it, and if people are writing it about my stuff, it’s a positive thing because it speaks to how invested they are in the world I’ve created. The intrinsic value? I think it varies from fanfic writer to fanfic writer. The one thing I particularly see fanfic having value in is letting newer writers have a low-pressure space to explore their own writing skills, as some of the creative work (characters, situations, etc) is already done and they can focus on other aspects. Many excellent pro writers have now come out of fanfic space. It’s not to say that’s the only value to it (or that all fanfic writers want to be pro writers), but that’s an advantage I see.

Beej: “The word ‘brand’ gets a lot of mockery, but I think you’ve established a brand for yourself: snarky, ‘light’ SF, often with an element of mystery. How much of that is deliberate? How much is a function of your own personality and tastes?”

Well, it’s definitely deliberate, and it’s definitely a function of who I am. I write what I like to read, by and large, on the adage that one’s first and best audience is always one’s self. The sort of writing I do isn’t the only sort I like, nor the only sort I can do (see The God Engines as evidence of the latter), but it’s a reflection of my general tastes. Also, as a practical matter relating to sales, at this point when people think “Scalzi” they often do have a particular style in mind, and it does behoove me to continue in this vein, commercially. Fortunately I still like this vein, and I have opportunities to do other things when I want to change things up. So it’s all good.

Caroline: “What was the title of the first science fiction book you read? Was that book what drew you to science fiction?”

The first science fiction novel I can remember reading (which may be different from the first I ever read) was Farmer in the Sky by Robert Heinlein. I liked it so I started reading more Heinlein and also more SF, so I guess you could say it drew me to the genre, yes.

Devnull: “If I recall, you attended your first SF con after you sold a novel. Do you think your relationship with con-going SF fandom is different than it would be if you had attended them before becoming an SF pro?”

Oh, probably, although obviously it’s difficult for me to quantify how. I suppose honestly it’s the difference between coming into any well-established subculture as an adult rather than as a younger person (or being born into it, as many of my friends in fandom were). I’m a citizen of SF/F fandom, but I’m a naturalized citizen. It doesn’t mean I don’t love it (or find it exasperating) any less, just that I started from somewhere else before coming into it. I like to think I still hold dual citizenship, with my other “country” being journalism.

Samantha Bryant: “Thinking back to the beginning of your career (first book). What do you wish you had known?”

Not really, because my first book was published when I was 32 and my first novel at 36, and in both cases I had been a professional writer long enough that there were no real surprises, and I was well-positioned to handle whatever came next — which was good because my first non-fiction book was a big failure, and the first novel a big hit, so they were definitely contrasting experiences. In both cases I handled them pretty well, I think.

Cat Amesbury: “If you could have a roundtable conversation with Heinlein, Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Octavia Butler, what would you discuss?”

Almost certainly what a pain in the ass publishers and editors can be. It’s a staple of writer conversation.

A. Sebastian: “Is the publishing industry, and by extension, Hollywood, ready to invest real dollars on fantasy books featuring girls?”

I think the publishing industry already does invest lots of real dollars in fantasy books featuring girls (a quick check of both the YA and SF/F shelves in your local bookstore will confirm this). I would also be wary of taking the “and by extension, Hollywood” argument as a given. My experience, which is not entirely insignificant, is that they really are different beasts.

Rherdman1953: “If you were offered a cameo role in a movie/tv adaptation of any one of your books, what would your favorite one be?”

I could see myself being John Perry’s son at the opening of Old Man’s War. But I’ll note I’m not hugely interested in having a cameo. If I were going to be on screen I’d want something that would qualify me for SAG membership.

Dapeck: “Tom Bombadil: Important to the world-building of Middle Earth, or just needlessly weird?”

I’m not a Bombadil fan, and it’s one of the reasons why I think the Peter Jackson version of LoTR is many ways a superior telling of the story of Lord of the Rings than the books are (this is a very contentious position).

Just Good Sense: “What is the likelihood of you finding another publisher for—and updating—the Guide to the Universe and the Guide to Sci-Fi Movies? (They’re great, but could use a little refresh.)”

The rights to both have reverted back to me so it’s possible it could happen but as with anything the question is time and scheduling. Of the two I am mostly likely to update the Movies book, although if I do I would probably recast the book rather a bit while updating. We’ll see. But don’t wait up.

George William Herbert: “You wrote one book in another (now-deceased) author’s universe, more or less. If you could chose any still living author’s universe to write another book in, who and what setting?”

None, because I did that “write in another author’s universe” thing once and doing it again doesn’t interest me. I did recently write a short story in another writer’s universe for an upcoming anthology (more details later, I’m not the one in charge of these announcements), and I did that mostly for fun. But again it’s not something I’m actively looking to do more than once.

Rene Quebec:Lock In in its bare bones, is actually a pretty good crime thriller. Have you given thought to writing outside of the genre?”

Yes, although as Lock In shows I can write any number of things and still be inside the genre, which is a nice thing, too. SF is a pretty flexible genre in that regard. As for writing outside the genre, as a practical matter the issue isn’t interest or opportunity (preeeeety sure I could sell a contemporary mystery, for example) but, once again, time.

Andrew: “What do you think about Eric Flint’s idea of changing the Hugo and Nebula categories to differentiate between novels, short novels, multi-volume, and series?

I think it would be a lot of work and if someone wants to try it, I wish them joy. The only lit-related Hugo I’d personally be interested in adding at this point is a Young Adult Hugo; I think its absence is notable and a bit ridiculous given how huge YA is as a science fiction and fantasy market these days.

Anne: “When you write here on controversial topics, you are clear, direct, your prose builds, you include links that are interesting and to the point, and there’s humor. Do you have to do rewrites and research, then let them sit, and go back for re-reading? Or is what I read frequently off-the-cuff?”

Mostly off the cuff, but occasionally researched. And sometimes inbetween. Note as a former journalist, current freelance writer and as a grad of the University of Chicago, research is not something I find particularly onerous, especially in the current era of All the Information At Your Fingertips. You can find a lot of information, of good quality, pretty quickly these days.

Docrocketscience: “Being an ‘expert’: So, you hold a BA in Philosophy, but have been paid to write as an expert on various topics, such as film, finance, and astronomy. I understand that film criticism is mostly just expressing an opinion, and that you likely did significant research when writing the ‘Guide’ books. I’m also familiar with (read: have heard of) the adage ‘Fake it till you make it’. But, has the notion of presenting yourself (or being presented) as an expert in a subject in which you lack more traditional bona fides ever given you pause? If so, how do you reconcile? If not, why not?”

It doesn’t particularly bother me because I find that the more time you work/write in a field, the more your backlog of work — if it is of good quality — answers the question of your expertise for you. It also helps to, you know, not overstate your bona fides. I’ve written science books but I’m not a scientist, and I’m happy to note that. Likewise, my experience with finance is as writer and consultant, not as, say, an accountant. I’m perfectly happy with letting people know of my experience and then letting them decide, based on that and on the writing at hand, what they think of the information I bring to the table.

Tim: “What are your thoughts (if any) on the new Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman, scheduled for release later this year, as well as the controversy and questions regarding her condition and wishes for the novel?”

My own personal gut feeling about this, unsupported by anything else, is that if Harper Lee had wanted the book out there in the world, it would have been out there already. Other than that, no opinion.

Yoyogod: “As a science fiction writer (and occasional ukelele player), what are your thoughts on filk music?”

If it makes people happy, then filk on.

Knightwork: “Since you’ve recently made another lap around the sun, would you reflect on the advance of writing technology in your life? Would you still be a writer if you were stuck with using an old Olvetti typewriter, white out, and carbon paper?”

I’ve always made it clear how delighted I am I came of age when computers started being the primary way to put down words, as the ease of editing it affords is hugely congenial to my personal work flow. I don’t want to say I wouldn’t be a writer if I had had to work on a typewriter, but I can say I imagine I would be a lot crankier about the writing and editing process, and also that the first thing I would have done when I became successful as a writer would have been to hire a typist to rekey everything after edits, because honestly, retyping is a bunch of bullshit, right there.

Lanternhues: “How would the discovery of (or the being discovered by) an intelligent alien species change the science fiction genre?”

Well, a lot of first contact stories would go right out the window, that’s for sure.

Road Work

Here’s a needed bit of infrastructure work coming to pass — these dudes repaving our rural road. Now as far as the eye can see we have nothing but flat black asphalt. It’s lovely. Also, watching the repavement was strangely hypnotic; Krissy and I gawked at it for several minutes. There was something almost Zen about it, not counting the asphalt smell.

Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass

MRAL asks:

There are a lot of people who consider you an egotistical jackass. In your opinion, is this accurate?


Some thoughts on this, in no specific order.

* I certainly have an ego, in the common usage of the term, and don’t believe I’ve ever tried to hide that aspect of my personality. I had an ego well before it was adequately warranted on the basis of my work, and now that I have a track record of work behind me that speaks for itself, it continues well apace. I’m good at what I do, I’m successful at what I do, and I don’t have much fake humility about either of those two facts.

So: Ego? You betcha. Egotistical? I think I am less egotistical than I was when I was younger, because I have a better understanding of myself and the context of my ego, but I would also cop to still having occasional moments where my self-regard outpaces a healthy understanding of my talents, ability and self. So yes, sure. From time to time I am egotistical. I think whether you see me as overbearingly so depends on what you think about a number of things, including whether you dislike obvious displays of ego and/or dislike me for other reasons as well. I don’t think it’s difficult to see me as egotistical.

* Likewise, I certainly have been a jackass, and am likely to be so again in the future, because none of us are our best selves every single moment of our lives, and from time to time I can be seen not being my best self out in public. Sorry about that. And again, if you are inclined to think less than charitably of me on a regular basis, then, quite obviously, my moments of public jackassery will stand out for you.

* Have I combined the two and been a public egotistical jackass? Oh, almost certainly. Am I an egotistical jackass all the goddamned time? I hope not, and try not to be, but it’s not really up to me to decide. You have to decide that one for yourself. In your own estimation (or in the estimation of others) the answer might be “Hells yeah, he is, all the time.”

* Which is fine.

* But doesn’t necessarily mean I should care, which, trust me, is a statement that I understand will only confirm my egotistical jackassery to those inclined to see me in that mode. Do understand, however, that I am freely allowed to assess other people, just as they are allowed to freely assess me. A large number of the people who think I am an egotistical jackass I assess to be in the “And I Give a Shit What You Think About This or Anything Else Exactly Why Now” category — which again, only confirms their opinion, since if I had any sense I would be passionately interested in their assessment. But I’m not! And probably won’t ever be! Which just makes them more annoyed still.

* But, I don’t know. If you’re annoyed that I don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, what does that make you?

* The above should be tempered with the realization that your life would be better if there were some people whose opinion you listen to, as regards your behavior and presentation, and that sometimes even someone you don’t know might accurately assess when you’re being an egotistical jackass in a specific instance. Closing yourself off from any opinion that is critical of you or your actions is indeed a very fine way of actually ending up being an egotistical jackass all the time. It helps to be self-aware enough to know that you are fallible, both in your actions and in your self-assessment, and it helps to have people you trust who feel comfortable enough with you to call you out when you show your ass (and it helps if your ego can get out of the way enough for you to listen).

* Obviously, I don’t think having an ego is a problem — a healthy self-assessment of skills and abilities is a good thing, in my book, and I don’t think you should have to minimize those skills or apologize for them just because someone somewhere might have issues with you for it, for whatever reason. The problem is them, not you. Likewise, I don’t think being appropriately rude or dismissive of someone else is a problem, either. It’s not usually what I would suggest leading with, when you meet people or interact with them, but sometimes, when all is said and done, there are some people for whom the best response to them or their antics is “You’re an asshole. Fuck right off,” or some appropriate variation. Sometimes, on the Internet, these folks let you know very quickly when they’re not worth your time. Sometimes it takes a little bit more work.

* Related to this, there are some people who really are egotistical jackasses all the time, at least in terms of how they deal with other people publicly, and think that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s okay to feel sorry for them and avoid them whenever possible. There are others who are making jackasses of themselves, whose egos preclude the possibility of them seeing such a thing, despite the worried intervention of friends. It’s okay to feel sorry for them, and to avoid them too. There are still others whose egotistical feelings have made them act like jackasses. Once again, okay to be sorry for them, and not to bother with them unless you have to. In the latter two circumstances, you can hope that one day soon they pull their heads out and recognize the errors of their ways. In the former case there’s not much to be done, unless you decide you have nothing better with the startlingly few moments of your lifespan than to engage with an unrepentant shitheel of a human being. In which case I wish you happiness in your entertainment choices.

* But overall, again, it’s worth remembering that none of us — and certainly not I — are always our best selves. We have our egotistical moments, our moments of jackassery, our moments of weakness, or neuroticism, or envy, or anger, or pettiness or what have you. They happen and you deal with them. Owning up to them, acknowledging them and trying to do better the next time is a good thing to try to do. If you can work on that, even if you have been an egotistical jackass (or whatever) at some point, then there’s hope that you won’t be that all the time. And that’s a good thing to move toward.

Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement

Tim H asks:

What’s your dream retirement scenario? Will you carry on writing as long as you can?

I think asking a middle-aged adult what their dream retirement scenario is, is a bit like asking a kid what she wants to be when she grows up: She may have an idea, but that idea is based on her current circumstance and view of the world, which may not apply when she actually grows up. When I was eight, I wanted to be an astronomer. Then at about 13 I realized that math was nothing but confusion to me. Fortunately at 14 I discovered I could write. And what I wanted to do when I grew up changed.

Which is to say that at 46 I don’t know what I will want to do when I’m 70, which seems to me to be my most likely “retirement” age, to the extent that a writer retires at all. I mean, that’s 24 years away, which is a longer amount of time than between the age of 14, when I wrote my first short story — the story that convinced me I should be a writer — and 36, which is when my first novel was published. No offense to the 14 year old, but he couldn’t have possibly imagined what his life would be like at 36. He literally had no idea.

By the same token, I have no idea who I will be at 70 or so, or what my life circumstances will be, so it’s hard to say what will be ideal then. I would like to say I’d be happily on the downslope of a long and prosperous career as a writer, but two and a half decades is a long time from now. Maybe by then they’ll have figured out how to halt aging, I’ll look and feel like I’m 35 and the idea of retiring would just be stupid. I wouldn’t mind that! But who knows? We will see.

That said: The 46 year old me sees the ideal retirement scenario as, simply, one that lets me do what I want to do without worrying about starving. At 46, my needs for “doing anything I want” are relatively simple: I want to see people I like, and write. As I get older I have the urge to travel maybe a bit more than I do, so maybe that will be added onto the schedule. But honestly: Write, see people, maybe travel. That seems doable. What it will require is prudent saving, staying as healthy as possible, and (this is largely not up to me) humanity not destroying itself in a spasm of stupidity. We’ll see what happens in each of these cases.

I don’t really see me retiring from writing, since it’s a thing I like to do even when I’m not getting paid for it. Will I write on the “book a year” schedule I currently hold? I sort of doubt it, but there are a ton of writers at the age of 70 and beyond who crank out books on that schedule, or even faster than that. So, again, who knows? But honestly, the only thing I see keeping me from writing well into my eighth decade and beyond is substantial mental deterioration. I’m hoping that writing on a regular basis will keep that from happening.

Bear in mind that my current retirement scenario — writing, seeing friends, a little travel — bears quite a lot in common with my current life, which in which I write, I am fortunate to see friends, and a travel rather a bit. Which I guess is to say that right now I’d like my retirement life to be like my life. The good news there is, I suspect it’s achievable. I should just keep doing what I’m doing. And, uh, save some money prudently. And maybe take a walk every now and then.

In any event, let’s see what I think when I’m 70.

The Big Idea: Karina Sumner-Smith

We all wish for that big break, whatever that “big break” might mean — but will that big break cause more problems than it solves? It’s a question that Karina Sumner-Smith considers in Defiant. Here she is to explain how it manifests in the world she’s created.


Imagine you won the lottery.

At one time or another, most of us have imagined what we’d do with that money. Debts eliminated, bills paid without a thought. Buying a house or a car, a bigger house or a better car, a yacht or a new wing for the family mansion with a secret library, a trapdoor, and a bouncy castle. (Or am I alone in that last bit?)

Yet despite the odds against our tickets coming up the big winner, we still dream—because it is, however unlikely, possible. It’s that possibility that keeps people clamoring. It’s hope.

But what if money wasn’t something that you have or earn, but a part of something that you are? What if affluence is as much a biological trait as your skin or hair, the shape of your face or the color of your eyes?

That’s the big idea behind the Towers Trilogy. In this far-future society, magic is everything. A power naturally generated by the human body, magic is used as money and fuel. It heals illness and prolongs life, powers machinery and keeps the lights on, and is a critical part of countless everyday tasks, big and small. The magic-rich reside in living, floating Towers that play out an unending political dance for position and altitude. Yet the people without enough magic end up in the Lower City—a rough, dangerous society that exists in the ruined skyscrapers on the ground.

The first book of the trilogy, Radiant, tells the story of Xhea, a homeless girl in the Lower City who has no magic at all. She can’t buy food or clothing, can’t open doors; she can’t even work the simplest of spells. Then she meets the ghost of a girl who has not died, and everything changes. That ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a person who generates so much magical energy that her body and soul are used as a power plant—even in death. Despite being very different young women from disparate ends of their society, the two form a bond and fight to free Shai from her fate.

The second novel, Defiant, sees the Lower City’s social structure begin to break down. Because in saving Shai, Xhea brings a source of untold wealth to the poorest of the poor. In effect, the people of the Lower City win the lottery—and that sudden influx of power creates more problems than it solves.

I thought, when I started, that I was writing a fun little cross-genre tale about magic, ghosts, and a friendship between two very different young women caught in strange circumstances. It was only when I was neck-deep in story and paused to look around that I realized that I was, of course, writing about inequality and economic disparity.

Because if affluence is a biological trait, a direct result of your ability to generate magic, then so by extension is poverty. “The value of a person” has a very literal meaning—and cascading consequences for concepts of social class and economic mobility within this constructed world.

Dark concepts, all. Yet I’m also just trying to write a fun, different fantasy with ghosts and magic, war and politics and friendship, bounty hunters and sentient buildings, and strange creatures that stalk the ruined streets when night falls.

These books are also, in the end, about hope. Because when we dream about winning the lottery, we’re looking for a huge, outside force to change our lives for the good—to save us from our circumstances and create possibilities that didn’t exist before. Yet that change can come from the  inside, too. There are a myriad ways to defy the fates that biology and money and societal structures create; and people, working together despite terrible odds, can find ways to save themselves.

Defiant: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans

G.B. Miller asks:

From what I’ve read, you seem to be progressive Democrat with a distaste for Republicans. Has there/will there be a time where a Republican, on any level, will do something that might momentarily soften your distaste for the Republican party?


One, I’m not a Democrat. I’ve been registered as an independent for as long as I’ve been a voter. Two, I’ve voted for Republicans as recently as the last election, for local offices where I believed they were the best-qualified candidates. Three, the last actual politician I donated money to was Jon Huntsman, in the belief that even if I was not a Republican, as a citizen of the US, it behooved me to encourage the Republicans to nominate for president someone who was not ridiculously out there. It didn’t do him much good, alas, nor the Republicans.

Four, I’m not at all sure I qualify as a genuine “progressive.” I will certainly allow that to folks on the right, I look like a progressive, but then, for a lot of folks on the right, Obama looks like dyed-in-the-wool socialist, rather than what he is, which is a technocratic centrist with just a little lean to the left. Obama being called a socialist causes actual socialists a nasty case of hives, as I understand. With the exception that I was for same-sex marriage well before he was, overall I’m probably a smidge to the right of Obama. As I am fond of saying to people, in the days of yore, the politics I have today would have qualified me to be a “Rockefeller Republican.” Which is to say I didn’t leave the GOP; the GOP left me. When I was, like, eleven.

(If you want another perspective on my politics, ask lefties from outside the United States, i.e., where there is still a genuine political left, if I seem like a lefty to them. I suspect most of them would position me as center-to-center-right; in other words, the guy who is wrong in a lot of his politics but doesn’t make an ass of himself about it at family gatherings.)

What marks me as a “progressive” these days is the fact I’m for same-sex marriage and am pro-choice, which are positions that could be equally “libertarian,” if “libertarian” hadn’t somehow transmuted itself into “reactionary conservative” here in the US lately, and the fact that I am both for having the United States have a slightly better social net and infrastructure than it does (which is a “liberal” position) and that it should actually pay for those services/infrastructure rather than deficit finance them (which is a “conservative” position), and that probably the best way to do that is punt up the marginal rate a bit on the high end because those of us on the high end (Hi! I’m the 1%!) can afford it. There are other fiddly details but that’s the gist of it.

Bluntly: if that’s a “progressive” viewpoint, there’s something very wrong with the definition of “progressive.” In a world where the politics of the moment weren’t ridiculously skewed, these positions would be “moderate” at best. Equally bluntly: I’m a well-off, white, middle-aged dude who likes being comfortable and likes his country genially middle-class. I should not be seen as anywhere near the vanguard of leftist politics in this country. That I am seen to be so really is a problem, both for the left and for the right.

The county I live in is overwhelmingly Republican and/or conservative; I get along with nearly everyone here on a day-to-day basis, even if I vote differently than many of them do. I have Republicans and/or conservative friends and family members and business associates; I get along well with them too. By and large they don’t have to do anything to make me think better of them; I think well of them as it is.

That said, and to be blunt again, there’s very little chance I’ll be voting for GOP candidates for jobs above the local level anytime soon, because at the state and national party level, I don’t see a lot of rationality when it comes either to individual rights or the proper role of the government with regard to services/infrastructure or taxes. I also think the party’s been blinded by frankly incomprehensible hatred of Obama, which almost certainly does have a racial element to it, thanks for asking, added on top of a general howling outrage that a Democrat is in the White House at all. I like many Republicans but I actively dislike the policies and strategies (such as they are) of the Republican Party on the state and national levels.

If the GOP ever wants me to vote for it above the local level — and who knows? Maybe they don’t! — then they will need to ditch the Gingrich/Atwater philosophy of painting anyone of differing politics as heretics to be burned and never to be negotiated with, and they’ll have to have a serious rethink of how they approach taxation and services. I think it’s possible to believe in low(ish) taxation and constrained government coupled with a robust private sector while still recognizing that some things really do need to be handled by government, and paid for. I’d also like to see evidence they believe civil rights are indeed for everyone, not just the straight, white and/or embryonic.

But — and this is significant — there is no reason for the GOP to change its current strategy. If you’ve not noticed, it holds both the House and Senate at the national level, and a whole lot of state executive and legislative branches. What it’s doing is pretty successful, and when it’s not (2008, 2012), the strategy simply to double down and do it harder has not been a bad one for them (2010, 2014). So I don’t see the GOP doing anything it needs to do to win my vote — or even to lessen my overall dislike of it — on the state or national level anytime soon.

Which I’m sure they think it fine. They don’t, in fact, need my vote. By the time they ever do, I suspect it might be too late for them.