Big Idea

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Author Myke Cole is back with Javelin Rain, another admixture of modern military and magic. But writing fantasy doesn’t mean reality can’t come inform or come through in the writing. No, as you’ll read, Cole’s own experiences inform the worlds he’s creating.


This one’s a bit personal, so hang with me.

Relationships are tough.

Human beings are intensely complicated. We’re multifaceted bundles of nerves floating in bioactive soup, lightly salted with electro-chemical signals. The chemical bath and the intricate twists and turns of the human gestation process are beyond complex, and produces individuals as unique and diverse as the snowflakes in a driving blizzard. And that’s before you layer over everything that isn’t driven strictly by biology: culture, experience, society and upbringing.

When you consider how varied humans are, it’s amazing to think that any two of us ever find someone else so aligned, so fundamentally compatible, that we can imagine walking through the rest of our lives together. My best friend once described love as “When your crazy matches someone else’s.” Some search their entire lives and never find their opposite number, the person who matches their particular brand of crazy. When they do, it’s a thing worthy of recognition and celebration. Most societies have just such a custom, we call it a wedding, and while folks are doing it less and less these days, it’s still got a pretty solid grip on the popular imagination.

Marriage is ingrained in our folklore, and when we think of the fairy-tale term “Happily ever after,” a wedding and happy married life is usually the image conjured up.

But those of us who have been married know that it never quite works that way. Remember that soup of factors I just described? That whirling storm of DNA and cultural influences isn’t static. People change over time. Sometimes the changes drive them closer together, and sometimes the changes drive them farther apart.

And sometimes the changes are so drastic, so extreme, that nothing can ever be the same again.

And that’s the big idea behind Javelin Rain.

I lost the love of my life back in 2007 after my second tour in Iraq. It was nobody’s fault. She had signed up to be with an easy-natured, fun-loving sort, the man I was before the suck did its terrible work. Each time I came home, I was a little more serious, a little more vigilant, a little less likely to enjoy going out dancing or talking about nothing with acquaintances in a bar. My goals changed. Buying a house and maybe getting married and redoing the kitchen wouldn’t be enough anymore. I was restless and bored with the old goals, I had become someone with a desperate need to mark the world. Hours spent at a club were hours that could be spent working on a manuscript, or honing my body for service, or consuming media in the same way a prizefighter watches a tape of his upcoming opponent.

She had signed up for a comedy. She got a drama. When she accused me of no longer being the man she fell in love with, I could only nod and agree.

It’s a sad story. I’m long over her and have moved on with my life, but I still remember that sense of chasm, of unbridgeable distance that suddenly stood between us. I was different, and there was nothing to be done but watch the door swing slowly shut as she walked out.

The protagonist of Gemini Cell, James Schweitzer, is killed on an op-gone-wrong and brought back to life to continue serving his country. This new unlife gives him incredible, superhuman power, but even though he can run faster than a cheetah and punch through a cinderblock wall, Schweitzer is still dead, and the people he loves, the people he fought so hard to get back to are alive.

When I did my Big Idea post for Gemini Cell, I straight up owned the PTSD allegory. Schweitzer’s undead status kept him permanently apart from the living. He was among them, but not of them, anymore. The resultant isolation was pretty much the same thing many returning veterans feel.

In Javelin Rain, we see Schweitzer attempt to continue his relationship with his wife and son, to protect and nurture, to grapple with the this sudden shift that has made him different enough to be utterly alien, but similar enough to still kindle the feelings of love and loyalty that were always there. It is a scenario that many who return from war to their loved ones experience, struggling to find a new way forward in a relationship where all the goal posts have suddenly moved.

Will Schweitzer be able to do it? You’ll have to read to find out.

Life doesn’t like neat edges. The things that hurt us also buoy us up. Schweitzer’s heart doesn’t beat. His smile is little more than a rictus grin. He can’t share a meal, or warm a bed, or even share in the rigors of life that draw us closer to one another – aches and pains, aging, the need for sleep. Schweitzer’s new unlife has cost him dearly, that’s certain.

But I think about Schweitzer, about his magically enhanced strength and speed, his ability to hear a pin drop through a closed door, his unwavering core commitment to leaving the world better than he found it and putting these new abilities to serve in that glorious cause.

Schweitzer is changed, dramatically, irrevocably.

And so are we all.

Life won’t have it any other way.


Javelin Rain: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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



My New Writing Gig

So here’s a cool thing: I, along with nine other folks, am one of the Los Angeles Times’ book section’s “Critics at Large.” This means from time to time in the pages of the Times, I’ll be writing about books, the universe and everything. I’ll be joined in this endeavor by Marlon James, Laila Lalami, Susan Straight, Viet Thanh Nguyen, David Kipen, Alexander Chee, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Rebecca Carroll and Adriana Ramírez. They are deeply impressive writers and it’s an honor to be in their company.

I’m mildly geeking out about this gig because I grew up reading the LA Times and it remains one of my favorite newspapers. When I was a full-time journalist it was one of the three papers I hoped that I might one day write for (the other being the Washington Post and the NY Times). And now I get to! My younger, newspaper writer self is asquee. This will be fun, while it lasts.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sam Sykes

For the record: I don’t own that particular hat. Other than that, everything Sam Sykes says about me in this Big Idea piece for his new novel The Mortal Tally is 100% accurate. Especially the part about the ventilation shafts.


Aside from his immense popularity, staggering wealth and a super-cool hat that says “WORLD’S BEST CROATIAN GRANDDAD,” there’s been only one other thing that John Scalzi has that I really want.

The ability to be recognized as a threat to society.

So, I don’t know if you knew, but I have a new book coming out. It’s called The Mortal Tally, the second book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy. It’s also my second trilogy I ever wrote, the first one being The Aeons’ Gate. Back when I was first starting out, I pored over every review I got, agonized over every criticism they gave me, ruined my mood for days whenever someone was slightly mean to me on the internet.

Eventually, I learned to ignore it. I learned that whatever people might have to say about my particular work was irrelevant next to the story I wanted to tell. I learned that trying to reconcile different perspectives from different criticisms was a futile effort and that neither were as important as me going forward and pouring all my heart and soul into my next work and that reading reviews would be detrimental to that.

I still hold that reading reviews is a waste of time.

And for a long time, I was very content to take my own advice.

Until it started.

I think it began with Joe Abercrombie, when he linked a negative review where someone actually set his book on fire because he feared that it would infect the world with nihilism. It’s continued through the years with authors who are routinely accredited with far-reaching motives to ruin society via the inclusion of gay characters, progressive plots or the suffusion of too many emotions in their writing.

Few people seem to get as much hate as John Scalzi. I can’t figure out why, since he’s mostly nice except for the times when he goes rummaging around in my ventilation shafts hoarding cheese. But I’ve seen people accuse him of everything from trying to ruin science fiction to actually cannibalizing science fiction authors to trying to destroy marriage.

Now, don’t get me wrong, fellows. I’m not a political guy. I don’t want to get into big arguments, to have my twitter feed filled with people trying to fight me over politics (I made a joke about Chicken McNuggets and Bernie Sanders that haunts me to this day), so I get it will sound a little hypocritical when I say this, but…

I want in.

I started perusing my own reviews again recently in hopes that someone had come out and proclaimed me to have been the doom of America. I was hoping someone would accuse me either of trying to ruin the moral fiber of the world or of having a shadowy agenda (leftist or rightist, I’m not picky, so long as I can be a bogeyman).


What I got was a few people complaining that I write emotional characters.

Which is kind of hard to deny. Or get mad about.

Though, in a way, it does strike me as kind of subversive to have characters that are overly emotional, angsty or even whiny. In the same way that I’m starting to view a lot of my work as kind of subversive for having slow pacing, not the greatest worldbuilding, and other stuff that we routinely grumble about in fantasy.

I’m not trying to slam on people who like quick pacing, fleshy worldbuilding and grim characters who don’t say a lot. Nor am I trying to suggest that fantasy is plagued with faux machismo and overly emotional characters are seen as an allergen to be purged.

Rather, I’m trying to say that we, somewhere along the line (probably around the time it became cool to accuse each other of trying to destroy things we love), lost our love of subversion.

Not the mechanical subversion that comes from such things as, say, subverting a trope so that dragons all run juice bars instead of hoards. We still love that. But rather, we started seeing subversion of mechanics as the only form of subversion. We support those subversions that occur in places that we are expecting subversion (that is, reimaginings on things we’ve already seen before), but become hesitant in subversions of things we weren’t expecting.

Sex in fantasy is pretty subversive. Not rape, there’s a lot of talk about that. But consensual, emotional, meaningful sex is pretty rare. The emotions that go into it and the way it raises the stakes of a relationship are often met with scoffing. Don’t believe me? Go look for reviews of popular fantasy books and see how many times the phrase “is the sex scene really necessary” comes up.

Mystery in fantasy is pretty subversive. Having things not totally planned out in advance, having things that can’t be explained by a mechanic, having problems that don’t have a clear solution are all met with some consternation from readers. I’ve read enough criticisms of an underdeveloped magic system to know.

And emotions are pretty subversive. We like motivations—the rage at seeing a loved one die, the sense of duty that comes from a long lineage—but emotions give us pause. We don’t like seeing characters who make bad decisions based on their emotions. We don’t like agonizing on emotions like whether our lovers are true or lying or whether we’re actually just lying to ourselves when we say we can do better. We like decisive action and possibly two lines afterward to reflect on the tragedy of it all.

Which is a shame, because The Mortal Tally has all those things and I’m super proud of them.

Now, I’m sure someone out there is gearing up to angrily refute all of this and offer a billion different examples of how it’s done—not you, though, gentle reader, you are precious and cuddly—and I welcome those.

And it might be thinking too highly of myself to be ascribing all these things I’ve done to subversion. It could just be that people don’t like these things at all and I’m putting out a conflict where none exists. It could just be that I like pushing at things and making things obnoxious and like to bust out grandiose explanations for them to explain away my own abrasiveness.

Or perhaps it could be that these things really do bring down societies and that’s why we don’t write about them as much.

In which case, I eagerly look forward to your review.


The Mortal Tally: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Sunset, 3/29/16

Looks like we’re on a moon of Jupiter again.


My Review of Batman v Superman, and Its Reviews

Note: This piece will have minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it, be aware.

First, I had a good time at Batman v Superman, a fact which is probably seated in the fact that a) I don’t appear to care much about whether either Batman or Superman occasionally kill the people who are actively trying to kill them, b) I’ve already built into my worldview that Zack Snyder films are pretty but empty, and undernourished in the script department. That BvS is all of these things is, well, unsurprising to me. There’s something about Snyder’s visual aesthetic that I enjoy enough that I’m willing to deal with his films’ generally hypoxic storytelling and other flaws; I mean, Jesus, I enjoy Sucker Punch, and that film’s pretty much a shitshow from top to bottom. But it also gives me images like this:

And my brain goes coooooooooool.

It’s not (just) because Emily Browning is in a creepy babydoll get-up, although that does point directly to the key to Snyder’s aesthetic: He’s tuned into what a 13-year-old, newly-pubescent, white male comic book and video game geek wants to see — or thinks he wants to see, anyway. He wants to see Spartans kick-ass, shot-for-shot recreations of graphic novels and sexy-child killbots in a boss fight. He also wants to see Batman and Superman punch the shit out of each other, and then team up for a boss fight, too. That’s who Zack Snyder is as a filmmaker; that’s the baseline you work with. Everything else is incidental; anything else you get is kind of a bonus.

Apparently I’m okay with that. And yes, we can argue about whether we should be entitled to expect more from Zack Snyder when he’s put in charge of a beloved franchise of cultural icons (or what the fact that I’m apparently perfectly okay with the Zack Snyder aesthetic as described above says about me). But at the end of the day, I think Snyder is who he is as a filmmaker. The dude’s 50 years old and has been massively rewarded for this particular aesthetic and workflow of his. The idea that he would change it at this point is a little much. He would, correctly, ask you why, when it’s all working out so well for him. I get what Zack Snyder is about; he is an utterly known quantity to me. I found BvS to be standard-issue Snyder, and it turns out I like standard-issue Snyder just fine.

Which is not to say much of the criticism of BvS is wrong. The story telling is a mess and the motivations for everyone in this film are thin as the pages of a comic book. The characterizations are all pretty good, I’ll note, which is what happens when you get good actors and you let them act (say what you will about Zack Snyder, he’s hugely better with actors than, say, George Lucas ever was). But you know that thing people say? About how they could watch their favorite actor read a phone book? Well, they come very close to getting their chance here.

For all that, I didn’t find it difficult to follow why people were doing what they were doing; the storytelling is messy but it has a throughline. Bruce Wayne feels protective about his Wayne Industries workers and then they die when Superman fights Zod, triggering Wayne’s PTSD about his parents’ death, so he decides to protect the Earth from Superman. Superman can’t help himself from protecting Lois Lane at any cost and begins to see that this makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Lex Luthor wants to take over the world, realizes Superman is a hindrance and creates a scheme to get rid of him, with plans B and C if things don’t work the way he wants. Wonder Woman is here to set up her film.

Which is the other thing: BvS is clearly Act II of a multi-act epic, of which Man of Steel was the first act. BvS assumes you saw MoS — if you didn’t none of this makes sense (or, if you like, makes even less sense) — and it clearly assumes you know, because you’re a citizen of the real world and read many entertainment web sites and magazines, that several more films in the DC universe are coming. That being the case, the film doesn’t even attempt to tie up several loose ends, or explain things which (probably) Snyder and the rest of the Warner/DC brain trust know will be addressed in other films. This film sets up films for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash (these aren’t really spoilers, these films have already been announced and are on a schedule), as well as an overall Justice League film (two, actually).

Does this work? Maybe a little. Other people have noted that thanks to this film, Man of Steel makes a hell of a lot more sense, which is to say, Superman and Zod wrecking Metropolis in that film has concrete consequences in this one, not the least of which is whether Superman can actually be trusted. So perhaps the things that don’t make a whole lot of sense in this one will be explained later. The question here is whether a person paying their money now should have to wait for another film, years down the road, for things in this film to make sense. There is the idea that films should generally be self-contained.

But then again, Snyder and company are also aware that you’re already in it for the long haul, no matter how much you whine and moan. For all the griping about the film, it made $420 million worldwide in its opening weekend. While people, including me, are having fun playing the backend calculus about whether the film was really all that successful, given its production and marketing costs, and whether it make it into the black in theatrical release (my prediction: Yup, it sure will, or come close enough not to matter in the grand scheme of things), you’re already ensnared. You already want to see the Wonder Woman film (justly, as she was pretty cool in this film, and Gal Gadot does a fine job with her), and you’re already hoping Snyder will just goddamn lighten up, already, for the Justice League film (he won’t. You’ll see it anyway). Warner Bros will make the same amount of money whether you hatewatch or not, so long as you watch, one way or another, and you will. Nerds always watch.

Or if you don’t, that’s fine too, because, again, this is a multi-stage, multi-year project, and theatrical release grosses are just one factor. Just as Disney/Pixar keeps making Cars sequels and spinoffs not because they make a lot of money theatrically (they don’t) but because the merchandising of the Cars universe is ridiculously large, so too does this iteration of the DC universe offer Warner Bros all sorts of other ways to make money. Hollywood accounting doesn’t just run in one direction, you know. It doesn’t just try to amortize the costs of its failures on the backs of its hits. It also spreads the economic benefit of its hits across all its divisions. BvS will make $800 million to $1 billion worldwide — or won’t — but it will help bring billions into WB though merchandising and licensing and ancillary markets for the films (as well as helping to prop up and drive interest to WB/DC’s junior league of properties on television).

But they could have made so much more money if the film was good! I hear you say, and you know what, in theory, I’m with you. If BvS were a better film, which is to say, one where the story was tighter and hung together better, there’s a chance it might make more money in the long haul than the “merely” $800 million to $1 billion I expect it to settle in with when all is said and done. But then again it might not. There’s not a huge correlation between great story and massive grosses. Avatar is a punching bag for its story and it’s the highest grossing film of all time with $2.7 billion worldwide. Other billion-grossing movies include two Transformers films, two of the terrible Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, and the grossly underwhelming first Hobbit film. Oh, and The Phantom Menace. BvS might have made more money with a better story, or less — no one knows, and it’s hard to say. And in any event, as noted one paragraph above, the money from the box office is not the only money under consideration here.

Much of the tsuris about BvS comes from the fact that a certain segment of fans just don’t like the Zack Snyder interpretation of the DC universe, which is fine, but the specifics of their complaints I sometimes find a little odd. For example, there’s the complaint about the fact that in Man of Steel Superman kills Zod, who is actively trying to murder some people with his laser eyes, by breaking his neck:

Superman doesn’t kill people! is the refrain here. Well, but he does. In fact, he’s killed Zod before:

And if you ask me, that time Superman didn’t look particularly anguished about it. Sure, Superman didn’t snap his neck, he just shoved him into an icy chasm and let him fall to a splattery death tastefully obscured by fog. But dead is dead. And Zod wasn’t even trying to murder people at that moment!

Likewise, the complaint that Batman doesn’t kill people, especially with guns and bullets —

Oh. Uh, well.

But later on in the same story he breaks a gun and says guns are not the Bat Way! So, what you’re saying that Batman and his writers are kinda inconsistent on their whole stance about guns, and killing people, depending on the situation at hand? Tell me more.

Both Superman and Batman have been around for coming up on 80 years, and in that time have been rebooted so many different times and in so many different incarnations it’s difficult to count them all. The current Snyderverse iterations of these characters aren’t extreme in their portrayal, they’re just desaturated and fairly humorless. Because that’s kind of where Zach Snyder is at, basically. I’m not sure I want to see Zach Snyder attempt comedy or sustained humor. In fact, I’m vaguely terrified at the idea.

All of which is to say that I think it’s perfectly legit to dislike the Snyder take on Batman and Superman and the DC universe in general, but I don’t find the arguments that Snyder is somehow subverting the characters in his underlit-yet-still-somehow-very-teal-and-orange version particularly compelling. The good news for such complaints is that as far as comic book properties are concerned, nothing lasts forever. Hell, next year there’s gonna be a LEGO Batman movie, which, by this trailer at least, looks pretty damn amusing. Not to mention that DC itself is rebooting its entire universe, again, like, this very week or something. Who can keep track?

Personally, and again, I think the Snyderverse iteration is just fine — not amazing, but perfectly serviceable with some great visual moments and an underlying (if not especially well-developed) ethos about the responsibilities that those with great power have to those who look to them for salvation, or fear their wrath. It’s good enough, in other words, to keep me interested in what comes next. I’m not hatewatching these films. I’m just watching them, happily enough.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kate Forsyth

Fairy tales have the power to amaze and entrance, not only for the fantastical elements they carry, but for what of ourselves we can see within them. Author Kate Forsyth has an attachment a particular fairy tale, as the title of her non-fiction book The Rebirth of Rapunzel suggests, and it’s an attachment that has its roots in something that happened well before she could read the tale itself.


Fairy tales have been with us for a very long time.

Ever since humans invented language, we have used those sounds laden with meaning to create stories – to teach, to warn, to entertain, and to effect change upon the world.

Those stories have been handed down through many generations – changing with each retelling, but still carrying within them the same wisdom and transformative power that has helped shape the human psyche.

And there’s no sign of fairy tales falling out of favour any time soon. They are everywhere in popular culture, inspiring TV shows and art installations, poems and advertising campaigns, fashion shows and ballets and comics and, most successfully of all, films.

I have been fascinated with fairy tales ever since I was first given a red leather-bound copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was just seven years old. Of all the stories of beauty and peril and adventure within its pages, it was the story of ‘Rapunzel’ that resonated with me most powerfully.

To understand why, I need to take you far back into my own childhood.

When I was just two years old, a large black dog savagely attacked me. My delicate baby skull was pierced through, part of my ear was torn away, and my left tear-duct was destroyed. I survived meningitis and encephalitis, only to suffer a series of life-threatening infections and fevers brought about by the damage to my tear-duct.

I spent most of my childhood in and out of hospital, unable to stop my left eye from weeping, and unable to keep dirt and germs away from the delicate tissues of the eye and brain.

‘Rapunzel’ is a story of a girl locked away from the world against her will, who somehow finds the strength to escape and whose tears somehow have the power to heal the thorn-blinded eyes of her lover.

I have come to realise that the reason why ‘Rapunzel’ spoke to me so powerfully is because it gave me hope. I wanted to escape my metaphorical tower, I wanted my wounded eye to be healed.

This is what fairy tales do. They give us hope that we can somehow be saved, rescued, healed. Transformed in some way for the better. As we travel with the fairy tale protagonist through the dark and dangerous forest, as we suffer with them and triumph with them, we follow them back into the brightness of a world renewed. Fairy tales are an instruction manual for psychological healing.

As a child, I only knew the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale troubled me with questions. I first tried to answer some of those questions by retelling the tale when I was twelve (I didn’t get very far). I kept on trying, in one form or another, for a long time. Many of the dozens of books I have written have been crucially concerned with themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and healing, sacrifice and redemption.

As I grew older, I began to study the history and meaning of fairy tales and my fascination became a fixation.

I decided two things.

The first was to retell the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale in the truest and most powerful way I could.

The second was to delve much deeper into fairy tale lore than ever before.

So I wrote a novel called Bitter Greens, a retelling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale that draws upon the dramatic true-life story of the woman who told the tale as it is best known – the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. It moves from the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century France to Venice in the 16th century, braiding together the life stories of three women – the maiden, the witch, and the teller of the tale.  Bitter Greens hit a chord. It has sold more than a quarter of a million copies worldwide and won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Novel.

I wrote Bitter Greens as the creative component of a Doctorate of Creative Arts. For my theoretical component, I researched and wrote a mythic biography of the Maiden in the Tower tale, tracing the story’s changing history as far back as we have recorded history of myths and legends and folk tales and – perhaps – even further, back to the very beginning of human storytelling. I also looked at the life of the tale beyond the stories of De La Force and the Grimms, through the poetry of William Morris and Anne Sexton, the stories and novels of Edith Nesbit, Donna Jo Napoli, and Shannon Hale, all the way through to Disney and Tangled.

What I sought to discover is why fairy tales like ‘Rapunzel’ have survived for so long, and why we still need them.

What I discovered is that fairy tales are not just for children. They are for all humans, having the power to help us change not only ourselves but, indeed, the whole world.


The Rebirth of Rapunzel: Amazon|Book Repository|Indiebound

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


Reader Request Week 2016 Wrapup

If you missed any of last week’s Reader Request Week entries, here they are in one handy spot. Just click the link to go to the specific entry.

Reader Request Week 2016 #1: Living Where I Do

Reader Request Week 2016 #2: Will Humans Survive?

Reader Request Week 2016 #3: How, and If, I Will Be Remembered

Reader Request Week 2016 #4: Autonomous Cars

Reader Request Week 2016 #5: Pronouns

Reader Request Week 2016 #6: Why I Don’t Drink or Use Drugs

Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego

Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM

Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing

Reader Request Week 2016 #10: Small Bits

Thanks again, everyone, for great topics and questions!


How to Take Four Pretty Cool Shots of Lightning

It’s simple!

1. Point your camera in the direction of an active thunderstorm.

2. Take five hundred pictures in a row.

3. Sort through them to find the ones that have lightning in them.

4. Of those sixteen, pick the four best.

5. You’re done!

Next up for me: Learning how to take long exposure pictures on this camera. Might, uh, make this process simpler next time around.


Life, Resurrected

For those who celebrate it, happy Easter. For those who don’t, may your day be joyous and full of the celebration of life. It’s a good day here. I hope it’s a good day for you wherever you are.


Reader Request Week 2016 #10: Small Bits

And now we’ve come to the end of another Reader Request Week! Let me scroll through the questions quickly and see what topics I can answer briefly:

Steve C: Has there ever been an artistic field you wish you could pursue if you had time enough? Have there been things you tried and then realized that as attractive as it may have seemed, it really wasn’t for you?

Mostly no, because the artistic stuff that’s attractive to me I keep doing as hobbies; currently that’s photography and music. Now, with those two things, if I spent more time with them I suspect I could get better with them, although the learning curves on each are different — music is harder for me, and I’m at a point where the time investment to improve substantially is much greater than it is for photography. Will I have the time? It’s a good question. The answer right now is: not now.

Mythopoeia: I recently was reading your “Waiting for Athena” chapbook, where you wrote that you expected during Athena’s teenage years, you would have “world’s most embarrassing dad” status.” You then noted that real life was probably going to be quite different from your expectations. Now that Athena is a teenager, how is your relationship with her different from what you once thought having a teenaged daughter would be like? How is it not so different?

I don’t think I’m the world’s most embarrassing dad, mostly because on a day to day basis I’m not constantly cluelessly goofy, and because my daughter, strangely enough, seems to enjoy who I am as a person (I could be getting this wrong and you’d have to ask her for total confirmation, but I think it’s accurate). We do play at me being clueless and embarrassing on social media when I talk to her there, mostly for the comedy value for people reading along. But honestly, I just really like my kid and who she is now, and I think she feels the same way about me, and I think we both just respect and trust and love each other. Those are things I’m pretty sure I always wanted, so in that respect our relationship is what I always hoped it would be.

Berimon: What percentage of Trump voters just want to watch the world burn? How many want a revolution, and how many just want off the merry-go-round?

I suspect that the largest percentage of Trump supporters are (very reductively put) people who feel the system has failed them and who want to change and/or punish it, and see Trump as the person who has the best chance of doing that. Hardly any of them actually want everything burned to the ground, or want a real revolution. In both cases, if they knew what that would mean, they would be horrified. It wouldn’t fix the problems that made them gravitate toward Trump in any event.

Kendersrule: Raisins. Glorified rat poo, or succulent grape-nuggets?

I like raisins in oatmeal (either the cookie or the breakfast food) and in some other strategic deployments. The operative phrase here is “strategic deployment.” But then I feel that way about most dried fruits. You gotta know how to use ’em.

Marc Moskowitz: What needs to change in the world of entertainment contracts to keep a situation like Kesha’s from happening again?

Good entertainment lawyers who understand the implications of the contracts, and the willingness on the part of artists not to sign contracts that put them at a substantial disadvantage to a corporation that has the willingness to let them hang. Entertainment companies are not (necessarily) evil but they will by nature and by fiduciary duty do everything they can to take every single advantage possible in a deal. You get what you negotiate for. Now, are you asking if there should be laws that prohibit something like what’s happening to Kesha? In fact there are all sorts of laws pertaining to personal services contracts; whether these apply to Kesha is something I don’t know. I suspect they do. I also suspect that the contracts were then written in such a way to minimize the impact of the law(s) that pertain to personal service. Which again means good entertainment lawyers are needed, as well as a willingness on the part of the artist to walk away from a deal.

GiantPanda: Share a few things on your bucket list please. Preferably things that are unlikely to happen?

I don’t actually keep a bucket list, and in any event I’ve done most of the things I want to do in my life that would be considered “bucket list” material. Rather than keep a bucket list, I prefer to keep myself open to experiences and to appreciate them when they happen. That way, when I look back on them, I realize they are things I’m glad I got to do in my life.

Gary Tyson: What do you think of the upcoming wave of consumer VR (Vive, Rift) and are you planning on buying one to try out?

I think they’ll be fun toys, and I like fun toys, so, yes, I will probably try one out, although I don’t know which one yet. I’m not entirely sure I want to walk about with a ViewMaster strapped to my head on a constant basis, however. I do hope they figure out the aesthetics of these things sooner than later.

Matthewcaffrey: Do you think Anonymous is a legitimate anti-institutional force that can help keep individuals in line who are able to escape prosecution through traditional means, or do you think they are a bunch of 13 year olds who spend most of their days playing MMORPGs and watching porn?

I’m not sure why this is an either/or.

rbgibbons: In light of the rise of automation, the concept of a universal basic income seems to be becoming a topic of conversation. Do you think a universal basic income is feasible? Is it desirable?

I think right now for most discussions on universal basic income have a bright and shiny “here’s how we get to utopia/stave off dystopia” feel to it which makes me wary. Is UBI feasible? Sure; “money” is at this point a construct wholly made up of candyfloss and Tinkerbell clapping, so if we wanted to give everyone, say, a base rate of $30k or so just for existing, there’s no reason why we couldn’t. Is it desirable? Not without a huge amount of modeling and preparation. I mean, shit. Off the top of my head I can think of five potential horrible consequences of UBI, the first being unspeakable runaway inflation. And of course there’s the point that the reason we’re thinking of something like UBI at all is because we take as read the idea that capitalism is best economic model for humans to live under. I love me some capitalism –it’s worked out great for me! — but I would want to at least question the premise. In short: It makes me wary, and I would want to know a lot more.

Erica: You and your wife obviously adore your beautiful confident daughter. Why did you choose (or did you? that’s probably way too personal) to only have one child? Do you and Krissy have siblings?

We both have siblings, yes. And we both like our siblings, which is even better. As for why we have one child, well, we were open to more than one but it didn’t take, and after a certain point it wasn’t an issue anymore for us. I should note that we never had a target number in terms of children; one was good, more would have been fine, and none would have been okay too, if it had gone that direction. Our life as a family has been a pretty good one, so I’m pleased with what we have and don’t worry about how it might have been different, one way or another.

Mary Baumgarner: How does one hold a peaceful, yet thought provoking conversation about a subject, with a person who holds the opposite view? How can one learn about another’s ideas, or explain one’s own, without generating anger or hurt feelings that snuff out the joy and possibility of learning?

If such a conversation is indeed your goal, start off by just listening and maybe asking questions, I’d say, rather than waiting for your turn to speak and make points. Likewise, don’t go into the conversation with the idea that you are going to change minds or that the conversation is meant to be, or must be, adversarial. Note well that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with adversarial discussions, nor do I think I (or anyone else) needs to politely listen to every bullshit idea out there, particularly if you’ve heard the bullshit and all its variations before. But sometimes you don’t want that, and sometimes it’s not useful. Sometimes conversation is better. And when it is: Actually listen.

Renee: The more I read about climate change, the more I wonder if humanity (as a species) is doomed. Our governments seem incapable of meaningful action and I doubt that my small personal efforts (recycling, taking public transportation, using less energy) are going to save the world. The pace of change has become frightening. My questions for you are: Do you ever worry that humanity is doomed? If so, how do you cope with those feelings?

I don’t think humanity is doomed, no. I think it’s unlikely but possible civilization, at least as we’re used to it, might be doomed, but that’s an entirely different thing. But in the unlikely case civilization is in fact doomed, I don’t think it will be doomed over the span of time I will be alive, or probably over the span of time anyone I know will be alive. That being the case, meh. In the time I’m alive I’ll support shrinking the amount of damage humans make to planet. When I’m gone, I suspect strongly I won’t worry about it anymore.

Theyis: Every election you hear people saying “If Barack Obama/Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton/etc becomes president, I’ll move to Canada.” What would make you leave the US and move to Canada (or any other country)?

If my personal safety or the safety of family members was under active threat by the government, basically. Short of that, I suspect I’ll be fine; the scales are generally tipped in my favor even when they suck for everyone else. If I did move anywhere, I imagine it would be Canada, although New Zealand or Australia is a possibility.

JZS: Clearly there are great benefits to your success (cons/cruises/a comfortable life) and you’ve hit the family lottery in a loving home but how do they feel the feel about the public exposure? As someone who was a very shy teen and still prefers solitude, I’m amazed by Athena’s confidence and Krissy’s nonchalance. Are they naturally confident, gregarious people? Do they ever find the spotlight uncomfortable? Do they ever worry about it? And how do they deal with it all? Of course answers to these questions are a further intrusion in their lives, so…

I think people overestimate the intrusion of fame into our world, actually. I have a (relatively speaking) small measure of fame, which is not enough that it becomes onerous on a daily basis, nor particularly onerous to Krissy or Athena. If it did become a problem I’m pretty certain they’d let me know and then we’d work on fixing it.

Bettie Pager: I’ve often wondered about Krissy’s career choices and how the two of you have worked together in this arena given that writing as a career can be uneven (to say the least) in terms of income. Has Krissy ever taken or kept a job she might not otherwise have done to support you as a writer? Have you ever put off a freelance goal and held onto a “regular” job to ease career transitions for her? Now that you have achieved moderate success in your field (ahem), is Krissy now exploring any projects or activities she may have deferred earlier on?

We’ve been fortunate in that there’s never been a point where I was not gainfully employed as a writer, and not contributing the majority of income to the family, so, no, Krissy was never in a position of taking a job she didn’t want on my account. Neither have I had to take a job I didn’t want for her sake. So, yes. We’ve been lucky. The question at this juncture is at what point does Krissy retire, and what she does with her retirement, because unlike one of us in our relationship, she’s not of the “sit around all day and fart about on the Internet” disposition.

Mitchell Hundred: The Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges?

Marx Brothers, and it’s not even close. Which is not to say Three Stooges fans are wrong. They just like what they like.

Beatrice: A few years ago you signed a petition about not attending any convention that did not have a harassment policy. A couple of months ago I heard about a convention, Conquest, where one of the guests of honor was harrassed. After two years of nothing happening, the guy had to publicly shame the convention to get any traction on his … case…. or whatever you call a report of harassment. Since you signed that petition, how do you, as a potential guest of honor at Conquest reply if they ask you to be at their convention? Also, have you and the other singatories of that earlier petition have an idea of how to deal with a convention that has a harassment policy but doesn’t enforce it?

I didn’t just sign that harassment pledge, I made it! I was a guest of honor at ConQuest several years ago and had a simply wonderful time, and made a number of friends I plan to keep with me for the rest of my life. That said, by all indications ConQuest really fucked up this particular incident, nor is it clear to me future incidents will be addressed in a timely, committed manner. I can’t speak for anyone else, of course, but for me ConQuest is off my list of conventions to visit for a while, until I get a sense they’re actually going to stand by the policies they say they’re going to stand by. Anyone else signing the pledge has to decide for themselves what their response is, if any. But for me, it’s not enough to have a policy. You have to take it seriously, too.

Nikitta: I have come to the conclusion that all of USA is either 1) A cleverly made and very convincing fictive world or 2) An elaborate, well made piece of performance art. Which one is it?

Again, I’m not sure why this is an either/or scenario.

Thank you everyone for your questions this year! They were pretty excellent. Let’s do this again in 2017, shall we?


Two Views of the Same Daughter

She’s a photogenic kid, if I do say so myself.


Two Views of the Same Tree

In other news, I’m still having fun with my new toy.


Reader Request Week 2016 #9: Short Bits on Writing

This is the part of Reader Request Week where I quickly blast through a bunch of questions on writing. Ready? Strap in.

Marc Criley: If you had J.K. Rowlings’ money in the bank, so complete freedom to write whatever and however you wanted, would go off in new writing directions? Experiment with topics and styles?

Well, you know. I already have complete freedom to write whatever and however I want. I mean, generally speaking I can write a novel in three to six months, and I only have to put out a novel a year. So that leaves me a lot of free time to do whatever I want, writing-wise. Apparently what I want to do at this point when I’m not writing novels is write on this blog and on Twitter. So, you’re looking at it.

Nicoleandmaggie: Whatever happened to 101 Ways to Use a Goat? (Was that the title?)

It’s 101 Uses For a Spare Goat, and it’s still in process, although I make no promises as to when it shows up. It happens when it happens.

John Hattan: What do you consider to be your worst book, and why?

I don’t consider any of my books to be bad, because if they were bad, I wouldn’t publish them. That said, I think probably the least of my books is my first one, The Rough Guide to Money Online. It was a non-fiction book about how to do various financial things online, back at the turn of the century. It could have been written by anyone, not only me, so there’s that, and also, of course, sixteen years later there’s almost nothing in it that’s accurate. It’s out of print and justly so. For all that, it being published made it easier for my next book to be published, and so on. It made me an author.

Logophage: What would be the characteristics of the ideal book tour stop? Any details you care to include, from time of plane arrival to venue floorplan to host behavior…

All I really need is a lectern or table, a bottle of water for if my throat gets dry, possibly a microphone if it’s a large audience, and people showing up. Everything else is fairly negotiable. I’m not notably picky.

Listhertel: There’s an adage not to judge a book by its cover, but we all know people do. I know authors get little to no say in the cover art, but do you have any preferences? Painting versus digital, people versus objects, a consistent look versus variety? Are there any of your covers you particularly love or hate (including foreign editions)?

The book cover of mine I like least is the one on The Book of the Dumb, but inasmuch as BotD sold over 150,000 copies, meaning that the cover art worked for the book, this might tell you why authors are not generally given refusal rights on their covers. Cover art is advertising, both to booksellers and to readers, and that has to be understood. I’m at a point where if I really hate a cover, I’ll be listened to, but I also know what I don’t know, so I rarely complain. But it also helps that, particularly with Tor, the art director knows her gig, and they do great covers. I would probably complain about oversexualized covers, or characters not looking on the cover they way they’re described in the book, but in neither case has this happened to me.

Heather: What do you think will happen to the literary and Sci-fi ‘canon’ as readership and population diversity is increasingly acknowledged by the publishing industry and enabled by self-publishing. As a woman, there are a lot of writers in the ‘canon’ that I’ve found very un-relatable to unreadable. I don’t think that’s uncommon.

I think canons can change depending on who the readership is, and also over time. I also think that readers make their own canon and share those with other readers. This is why for example Octavia Butler has become canonical in science fiction over the last decade; she was never not a great writer, but the number of readers and writers for whom she was formative has increased and they haven’t been shy about sharing their love of her work. So anyone who tells you a literary or genre canon is immutable is wrong. It’s not. And also, I’m happy Butler is canonical.

Ceciia: Currently Paramount has a copyright infringement lawsuit against a fan film Star Trek project Anaxar. I know that you want to be paid for your work.  Where do you think the payment line or quality control line or flatly ban is on an author’s stories presented in another author’s universe? A story created for profit is certainly different than a self published work and the original author should be paid accordingly, but non profit work?

In point of fact, if I own a copyright on a work, it doesn’t matter whether someone infringing on my copyright (i.e., beyond the bounds of fair use) is doing it for love or for money; it’s still an infringement and as copyright holder, it’s my option to tell them to quit it. My own line for this stuff is well-established: If you’re making fan work in my universes but not making any money off of it (nor allowing anyone else to do so), then groovy; the moment you or anyone else starts making money off my universes, you’ve crossed the line I care about. While I don’t care to go into detail about the Anaxar project, I suspect that the makers asking for a couple million in crowdfunding was what made Paramount say hold the phone.

Floored by Scalzi’s Awesomeness: Any chance we can see a collaboration between you and Brandon Sanderson?

Probably not. He’s busy, I’m busy, and while I did recently co-write a short story with my friend Dave Klecha, and that was fun, collaboration isn’t something I see myself doing a lot of. I’m frankly not of the temperament to do it, and I worry that I’d end up being an asshole to my collaborator. Certainly Brandon, with his slate of successful projects, wouldn’t have to put up with that; I’m not sure I’d want to make anyone else live through it either.

Daniel: Do you have any plans to continue Shadow War of The Night Dragons? Perhaps with an epilogue?

No plans at the moment, but you never know. If I did it, I wouldn’t tell people about it. It would just… show up.

MarkO: What do you make of Robert A. Heinlein?

I’m a fan! Will be all the rest of my life, too. I also recognize he’s in the process of slipping out of the day-to-day conversation of the genre, and becoming someone we discuss like we discuss Jules Verne and H.G. Welles. All things considered, this is not a bad thing for Heinlein, although I suspect it distresses some of his fans.

Araj: Do you plan on writing a full book based on The God Engines?

No. It’s already the right length.

Jordan Gray: What science fiction have you enjoyed recently? As a Person of Notoriety in science fiction, is that something you can answer?

I don’t have a problem telling people about the things I enjoy in the genre. I’m generally more circumspect about talking publicly about the things I don’t like because, yes, me slagging someone’s work could be seen as bigfooting them. I don’t need to do that.

JSto: John, I’d simply like to hear you expound on the often romanticized condition of a writer writing while falling in love, and what your experiences have been.

I’m not sure I wrote anything of note while falling in love, personally. I have three incidences of falling in love: I fell in love with my high school crush; I fell in love with my college girlfriend; I fell in love with my wife. In none of those cases is there any notable writing attached to it. As a pro writer, the fact of being in love with my life and being married is an obvious influence — it’s in Old Man’s War and Redshirts very clearly. But I think that’s different than what you’re asking. I’d have to fall in love again in order to answer your question. I’m not sure that would be great for my marriage.

Gray Othic: Would you ever consider writing a self-consciously ‘literary’ work?

Probably not, because I imagine I would get bored with it. Now, would I try writing in a style notably different than my usual one? Sure; I did it with The God Engines and “The Sagan Diary.” I think both of them are probably more “literary” than my usual output. The other possible answer to your question is whether I would write a novel or story set in contemporary time without genre themes, and the answer is, sure, if there was a story in that setting I wanted to tell. Right now there’s not.

David Karger: Do you believe that your writing can influence society for the better? Does the possibility of doing that influence your writing?

I think it’s possible that what I write can have influence, sure — I think my personal harassment policy for conventions played a significant role in getting conventions to develop and air those policies. But note that when I wrote about my personal policy, I wasn’t doing it to influence society, or even to force conventions to change their policies. I was just letting people know what my own standards were, and what I needed in order to attend a convention. I’m not ignorant that my words can have influence, but I also don’t sit down and say and now to mold the world in my image, either. Basically, I say what I want to say. If people want to sign on to that, great. If they don’t, that’s fine, too.


New Books and ARCs, 3/25/16

To send us off into the Easter weekend, please see this fine stack of new books and ARCs that have arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Do you see anything you’d like to have the Easter Bunny deliver to you? Let us know in the comments!


Nikon D750 First Impressions

I’ve had my new Nikon D750 for a couple of days now, which is enough time to offer up my first impressions of it for those of you who have an interest in such things.

Not entirely surprisingly, I like it a lot. It’s a definite improvement over my previous DSLR, the Nikon 5100, which, to be clear, is a perfectly capable camera, which is why I gifted it to Athena. But the D750 offers a larger and more sensitive sensor and also 50% more resolution, among other improvements including wider effective ISO range and a faster shutter. What I notice mostly after a few days with the camera is that it’s more responsive in low light than the 5100, which is great because I hate using flash, and that the sensor picks up more data so its easier to tease out a useful picture. As an example, see the pictures above; the first one was the picture as it came out of the camera; the second was what what I was able to pull out of it using Photoshop on the RAW format file. That’s not bad!

I noted that I decided against the “kit” lens for the D750 and instead bought a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, as well as a 28-300mm f/3.5 – 5.6 zoom lens with vibration control. Of the two the zoom lens is the easier one for me to use so far because it’s operable like the kit lens on the 5100 and also offers a lot of flexibility, in terms of being able to zoom in on a subject, and the vibration control means somewhat fewer fuzzy pictures. The prime lens is a little bit tricker for me, at least right now — you pretty much have to take it on its own terms. The photos I’m getting from it are great, but I’m also having to take a lot more pictures to get to that one great one. This is not a complaint, just a recognition there’s a learning curve going on with that lens.

And with the camera generally, I have to say. The D750 is more camera than I necessarily know what to do with yet, which is, mind you, one of the reasons I bought it; I want to be able to explore its capabilities. That said, most of the time what I end up doing with DSLRs is setting them to take pictures in RAW format and then use Photoshop and other software to do what other photographers do in camera, through settings. I don’t think this is a problem — the camera doesn’t care, and I’m not worried about impressing other photographers — but I am constantly reminded that the camera offers more than I use, and it’s up to me to follow up on that.

All told, however, I’m very pleased with my purchase. I’ll probably take it along with me to the next couple of conventions I’m at, so if I see you there, come over and take a look.


Reader Request Week 2016 #8: STEM and STEAM

Andy Farke asks:

For decades now, various think-pieces have commented on a divide between sciences and humanities. “The Two Cultures” by C.P. Snow is an early version of this, but it is manifested today in discussions about STEM and STEAM, the value of liberal arts, and discussions on the purpose of a college education. To some extent, science fiction writers inhabit multiple worlds. Do you think that a science/humanities divide is real, and if it is, how could it it be bridged? Or is it necessarily something that needs to be bridged? I’ve often seen the issue framed as how scientists can learn something from those in the humanities, and would be interested in your thoughts on that; but what about the reverse situation?

I don’t think it would come as a surprise to anyone that I am a proponent of the classical idea of a liberal education, in which the aim of the education is to create independently acting and thinking human beings who are well educated on a broad number of subjects, so these people are able to meaningfully contribute to the development, maintenance and governance of their nation and world.

To that end, a broad education for everyone includes not only science but humanities; not just humanities but science. A scientist should through her education be able to understand and appreciate a sonnet or a symphony or a painting; a writer should be able through education to understand paleontology or astronomy or physics.

Indeed, I think what probably needs to be chucked entirely is the idea that science and humanities are on either side of the fence from each other. Music is based in science, as an example; acoustics, mathematics, psychology and biology all play a role in how music is made and appreciated. The musician who knows about these topics (among others) has potentially better control of their instrument — not just the one they play, but the one in their head. Blocking yourself off from any knowledge because you perceive it as being on “the other side of the fence” is intentionally hobbling yourself and your creativity. The more complete your knowledge, and the better your education prepares you to synthesize knowledge from disparate sources, the more you can do with the talents you have.

Here’s a fun fact about me: when I was a kid, I wanted to be scientist. In point of fact, I wanted to be an astronomer. That was what I wanted to be until I got into junior high and then all of a sudden math became something that was really difficult for me. Fortunately around that time I started to realize that writing was something I was good at, and so my ambitions shifted. But when I decided to write instead of going into science, I didn’t throw away my love for astronomy or other branches of science. It was still great stuff even if I bumped up against the limits of my mathematical talent. My education in science continued, commensurate to my level of understanding.

Decades later that education keeps paying off, and not just in the sense of my job. Although it has in that, certainly — I’m a science fiction writer who uses the contemporary understanding of science as the springboard for fictional speculation about the universe. I’ve also written about science as well, in newspaper and magazine articles over the years as well as in books, including my own astronomy book, which was widely-praised and which went through two editions. Science has been good for my mortgage.

But as I noted above, I don’t think you get an education for your job (or just for a job). That science education also keeps paying off in how I’m able to understand what’s going on in the world in general, which matters for how I think and how I live and (importantly, especially these days) how I vote. Knowing science in addition to all the things I know about the humanities makes me a more engaged citizen and human.

Of course, not everyone is interested in science, or literature, or math, or whatever, and that’s totally fair. But here’s a thing I believe: 80% of every possible subject is understandable to the average human being — it’s that end 20% where you start getting into specialized knowledge which requires real commitment to the subject. I’m not worried about that last 20%; I’m more interested in that 80% most people can follow. If we can manage educating people on that part, we’re good.

This thinking is also, not entirely surprisingly, why I decided to go to the University of Chicago, which had (and has) a “core curriculum” which every student has to take. The core curriculum of the school has expanded a bit since I was there — it is not so insistent on the dead white guys, as I understand it — but what remains is the important part of a liberal education: The idea of a broad-based, wide-ranging education across disciplines, designed to impart knowledge but also designed to teach one how to learn, and how to cross-pollinate concepts and ideas across many different fields.

Mind you, there are a lot of people who don’t feel this sort of education is important, i.e., “shut up I’m just here to learn how to code/write/diagnose/whatever” and ask why, especially on the college level, they should spend tens of thousands of dollars to learn things that they don’t find important. Well, again, it depends on what you think education is for. If it’s just for a job, fair enough. But if it’s for more than a job — and I think it is — then you’re doing yourself a disservice not getting a wide education, and you’re doing the rest of us a disservice while you’re at it. These days in particular we have enough of people who only know a little and don’t care to know anything else.

So, yes: The division between science and humanities is more artificial than not, and everyone could stand having a wide-ranging education on a number of subjects, no matter what they currently do or what they want to be when they grow up. What I want everyone to be when they grow up is well-educated and able to reason adequately. It’s not guaranteed that this will make for a better world, but again, going in the other direction doesn’t seem to be doing us any favors these days.


Reader Request Week 2016 #7: Writers and Ego

Patricia Ruggles asks:

You’ve confessed before to being at least somewhat egotistical. Do you think it’s possible to be a successful writer if you don’t have a pretty big ego? Writing is notoriously solitary, and requires long periods of continuous performance without a lot of positive reinforcement. Doesn’t take a pretty good opinion of yourself to stay convinced that somebody will want to read your stuff when you are finally finished with it?

Well, I’ve admitted to having an ego, yes, and can be seen as being egotistical. I think there’s a difference between those two things.

Also, no, I don’t know that you have to have a big ego in order to be a successful writer.

Part of that is that it depends what you mean when you say “successful writer.” What is the definition of success? Material wealth? Excellent writing? Reputation that exceeds one’s own mortality? The thing is, none of these in itself requires a large ego, or outsized egotism. Particularly in regard to the latter two, I have in mind Emily Dickinson, who was certainly an excellent writer and whose reputation in death is far greater than it was in her life, in no small part because her first published collection was in 1890, four years after her death. During life, she lived an eccentric and secluded life — not generally the hallmarks of someone with what’s generally understood to have a pretty big ego.

Is Dickinson a successful writer? I think absolutely: I strongly suspect her work will be remembered long after mine is forgotten. Did she have a big ego? If I had to guess, I would say no, at least in terms of how I think “big ego” is being referred to here.

Ego can be part of the reason people write. It is for me: I rarely write just for myself, since I already know what I’m thinking and I’m too lazy to write down my own thoughts just for me. I write so I can be read by other people; I like that other people like what I write. But there are also people who only write for themselves, who never have the desire to show others their work — at least, not until well after they are dead. Another historical example: Samuel Pepys, widely considered the English language’s greatest diarist, whose diaries, while bound by the author for preservation, were not published until 150 years after his death. Pepys is another successful writer by any account, but save for binding the loose pages of his diary into volumes, where is the evidence of a big ego? I don’t know that Pepys ever dreamed his diary (which among other more significant things includes ample evidence of his various adulteries) would ever see wide circulation.

The thing is, people write for a lot of different reasons, not all of them tied to ego. Some people write for other people to read them. Some people write because they want to express themselves. Some people write for just a few people, and to please them, not to please themselves. Some people write simply because they are good at it and people are willing to pay them for it. Sometimes it’s a combination of factors. I write for others, but I also write because people pay me for it, and occasionally I’ll write something just for one or two people, meant for them alone. And at the end of the day, I write what I would want to read — which is to say that although I write for others I also write for myself. I like reading my own books!

(Also, and independently, as far as writing being solitary: It can be but doesn’t have to be. I know writers who band together and take writing retreats with each other — they spent their work day in front of their words but they take breaks to chat with each other about how things are going. Others write in coffeeshops so they can be around people when they work. Writers frequently show works in progress to friends or confidantes — I myself will give my wife chapters to read when I’m done writing them. And writers also splash themselves all over social media and blogs as a way to visit with fans and other writers.)

I think having an ego can be helpful for a certain type of writer, and I’m willing to say that I’m one of those writers. I like writing to an audience and I like interacting with an audience beyond the confines of my books (hello!). My ego helps when it comes time to market books too; I’m usually happy to be interviewed and go do public events and interact with fans and readers. That willingness to be open and accessible, which is in part fueled by my own ego-driven desire for attention and approval, has been beneficial. And finally my ego means that I feel less of the self-doubt and “impostor syndrome” that other writers have been known to have. My attitude about writing as my gig is, yeah, I got this. Which is why I could sign that stupid long book contract I did and not freak out about owing a dozen books over a decade.

But that’s me, and how I do writing is not the only way, or the best way, or even a good way for any other writer who is not me. In my own personal experience I know many writers who I would not characterize as being particularly egotistical or ego-driven; they just like to write and write well enough to sell. Some of them are plagued with self-doubt and the belief that no one really wants to read what they write, and sometimes their work basically has to be dragged out of their hands by an exasperated editor or agent. At least a couple of these authors sell at least as well as I do, as far as I can tell. They just do their thing differently than I do. Which is great! There is no one true path to being a successful writer, in no small part because, again, there’s no one definition of what “successful” means, when it comes to being a writer.

So, a pretty ego can be useful when it comes to being a writer. But I think you can be a writer — a good writer, a successful writer — without one. All you really have to do to be a writer is write.


Reader Request Week 2016 #6: Why I Don’t Drink or Use Drugs

There are a couple of people in the thread who asked this, so I’ll just use Thomas Hewlett’s question to represent them:

You’ve mentioned several times that you don’t drink alcohol. I do a lot of work with addiction/recovery and I’m wondering about your relationship to alcohol and drugs and what led to your decision to not drink. Or is this simply a case of “that stuff doesn’t taste good”?

It’s true: I don’t drink alcohol except in very rare circumstances (like, half a glass of champagne at my wedding), I’ve never smoked cigarettes, I’ve never taken an illegal drug, and outside of Novocaine at the dentist’s office, I’m generally reluctant to take legal drugs either; my wife always expresses surprise if I go to the medicine cabinet for ibuprofen, for example.  So what’s the story there?

Well, to begin, and initially the reason I avoided the stuff, my family has really bad addiction issues. I’m a child of alcoholics and drug users, and I’ve seen first hand what the stuff can do to people whose brains are wired to leap out of their seats when drugs are around, not only in family members but in the people who were around my family. Many of the people I knew growing up were either struggling with addiction, or trying to get clean, or dealing with the shitshow of a life that is crawling out of the hole that addiction puts you in. All of which reinforced the idea for me early on that this was not what I wanted for my life, or in my life.

This did mean when I was younger I could be pretty humorless about alcohol and drugs. When I was a little kid I was convinced a single beer or puff from a joint would put you on the fast track to being (in the words of South Park) homeless on the streets giving handjobs for crack, and I would sometimes freak out about it. I got better about this as I got older and learned that not everyone had the same addiction problems as I saw in the people around me (this is where I note that for a large part of my childhood my mother was active in the Alcoholics Anonymous community, so I really was surrounded by addicts, albeit ones trying to get and stay clean). But, yeah, as a kid I was definitely not cool with a beer and a joint. I figured it meant you were doomed. Dooooooooomed.

On a personal level, the residual effect of that childhood paranoia manifests itself with a continued personal lack of interest in alcohol or drugs. I’m no longer paranoid that a single shot of hard liquor or a toke would turn me into an uncontrollable gibbering addict, but on the other hand given my family’s inarguable problems with the stuff I don’t feel the need to play the odds, either. I’m not foolish enough to think I don’t have all the features of an addictive personality, nor am I foolish enough to believe that age and understanding will have much compensatory effect against my body’s physical desire for addictive stuff. All in all, best to leave the stuff alone. There are other things to keep me occupied.

When I was younger, there were some people who were amazed that I didn’t drink or do drugs. “Aren’t you curious?” was a question I got a lot (answer: No, because I’d seen enough of it in my life, thanks), sometimes followed by the person, almost always a dude, who would be all “Dude, I’m totally getting you drunk tonight!” because he thought he was doing me a favor my making me relax through alcohol. It didn’t work since someone trying to get me drunk made rather more tense (this sort of thing was almost always about alcohol, I’d note. People smoking pot would offer you the joint, but if you didn’t want it, they were always “cool, whatever” and off it would go to the next person).

Occasionally when I was younger someone would get offended that I didn’t drink, because they thought I was judging them for drinking. Well, when I was a kid, sure, I’d do that. By the time I was drinking age, I didn’t care what other people were doing with their bodies, unless it was directly affecting me. Which is the way I feel today. I don’t drink; I’m fine if you do.

Nowadays, at age 46, no one is in the least offended that, or usually even curious about why, I don’t drink or do drugs. At this age, everyone knows people who stopped drinking or doing drugs, because they are in recovery. No one blames them for it, because everyone knows someone whose life got righteously screwed up because of substance abuse issues. If not drinking or doing drugs is what it takes for you not to have a messed-up life, good on ya. I do assume at this point that most people who notice that I don’t drink or do drugs assume I have some substance abuse history. Well, it’s true, I do; just not mine. I also don’t mind if people assume I’m in recovery. It’s not correct, but it’s not an insult, and if someone is judgey about people in recovery, then they’re the asshole.

(This is the point where I will note that I know a lot of contemporaries in recovery from drugs and alcohol, and they have nothing but my respect and admiration. Recovery is hard, man. Admitting you have a problem is hard. Quitting a thing your body is crying for is hard. Making amends to the people you hurt is hard. Staying on the recovery path each day, every day, is hard. Part of the reason I never started drugs or alcohol is that I saw close up at an early age how fucking hard recovery is. I’m not entirely sure I could do it. Given what the alternative to recovery is, that’s not good. So, yes: People in recovery? You rock, I salute you. Keep on keeping on.)

At this age there are other reasons I don’t drink or do drugs. In the subject of alcohol, first off, I’m cheap, and alcohol is expensive and I don’t understand how people just throw their money down that particular hole (to be fair, I feel this way about Starbucks, too). Second, alcohol has calories and as a middle-aged dude who already weighs more than he likes, I don’t see why I should add to my woes in this regard. Third, given what I know about myself in terms of where I make conscious efforts to inhibit my behavior, I’m pretty sure I’d be a raging asshole when I’m drunk. You know that thing I wrote once, about how the failure mode of clever is asshole? It’s not just a pithy statement. It’s a reminder to me of my own failings. I expect that were I drunk, I’d try to be clever all the time, and would fail.

With drugs, well. I’ve never been a fan of the recreational use of pot, since that shit stinks like wet dogfarts and causes jam bands, neither of which fill me with joy. Pretty much all the other recreational drugs that exist out there just seem like a fast track to either being an asshole and/or losing a bunch of your teeth in one terrible fashion or another. The exception here seems to be psychedelics, which I worry that if I took would cause me to freak out more than I would like, which means that such a freakout would likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally with both drugs and alcohol, at the end of the day I like being in control of my own self, as much as I can be, because I’m responsible for my actions and my self. Given what I know of myself and my likely addiction issues, drugs and alcohol would make it harder for me to be in control of myself. This would make me very unhappy, and that in itself would have a number of unpleasant knock-on effects.

All told: Drugs and alcohol are not for me, thanks.

But if they’re for you — and you’re not swimming in addiction issues (in which case please seek help), and you’re not bothering anyone else with your fun (and if you are, stop being an asshole) — then that’s great, and enjoy yourself. Anyone who’s seen me at a convention knows my natural habitat there is in the bar, hanging out and laughing with people. I wouldn’t be there if I was spending my time pursing my lips in disapproval at people loosening up through judicious use of booze. I am a lifetime designated driver, and I’m cool with that, too; I like making sure people get home safe.

I’m not a pot enthusiast, but generally speaking I’m for its legalization, and while I’m less sure about blanket legalization for other currently not legal drugs, the more I look at the mess that is the US response to drugs, the more I lean toward the general libertarian idea of “legalize it all, tax the shit out of it,” with a substantial chunk of that tax earmarked for treatment of addiction (rather than, say, incarceration, which is what we have now and which isn’t working particularly well as far as I can see). My personal prohibition against any of this stuff should not imply one for everyone else.

But yeah, for me, prohibition it is. The good news is, so far, my life has done okay without drugs and alcohol. They’re not things I feel a lack of.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

His was one of the first intelligences behind the concept of artificial intelligence, and yet Alan Turing is defined not only by what he said on the topic, but also by what he never got the chance to say. Jim Ottaviani, author of the graphic novel The Imitation Game (Leland Purvis, illustrator), graces this site today to share more.


Elon Musk calls it “our greatest existential threat.” Bill Gates says “I agree with Elon…and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” And Stephen Hawking, who cosigned a letter about it with Musk, Gates, and others said this in a Reddit AMA: “We should shift the goal of AI from creating pure undirected artificial intelligence to creating beneficial intelligence. It might take decades to figure out how to do this, so let’s start researching this today rather than the night before the first strong AI is switched on.”

What about the guy who came up with the gold standard test for determining whether a machine could think? What would Alan Turing say about AI? Quite a lot, it turns out, almost all of it quotable and said many years before Gates—much less Musk—was born. (For his part, when Turing was writing about this Hawking was an 8 year old climbing out the windows of the new family home in St. Albans to get away from his sisters.)

He said most of it in a 1950 paper called “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” published in the philosophy journal MIND, back when a philosophical paper might change the way computer scientists think, and might even read stuff that wasn’t in computer science journals. Admittedly, that’s mostly because there were no computer scientists besides Turing, Johnny von Neumann, and a few of their respective protégés, nor were there journals for them.

He said his piece in what storytellers might call his third act. Turing’s first act came in his early twenties, when he successfully tackling the famous “decision problem,” or Entscheidungsproblem posed by David Hilbert. Another mathematician, Alonzo Church, also solved it independently and somewhat traditionally; straight up math, with techniques you’ll remember (probably with no joy) from your high school geometry class.

Turing? He solved it by inventing the modern computer in the abstract, then programming it and running it in his head. Nice work. Enough to make you famous for creating the Universal Turing Machine, a fame that will last until our computer overlords rewrite history to get rid of the human role in their invention.

So what do you do in your thirties, for your second act? How about playing a key role—arguably the key role—in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, work that saved countless lives and accelerated the Allied defeat of the Nazis. And maybe designing an honest-to-goodness mechanical computer to do it?

Done and done.

The Turing Test for artificial intelligence was the culmination of his third act. If you don’t know what it is—not likely here on John’s blog—it’s…well, sorry. I’ll say no more about that because it’s the lynchpin of our narrative.

We don’t get to know about his fourth act, and that’s the big idea at the heart of our book. Turing was thoroughly modern in so many ways: a mathematical genius, the inventor of modern computers, an expert in encryption, and, as it happens, open about his sexuality in a time when that just wasn’t done. But he died over sixty years ago, his life cut short because a foolish and ignorant society (it’s not completely fair to call it ungrateful, since Turing’s code-breaking work was kept secret until the 1970s, and at that time computers weren’t part of daily life for people like you and me) allowed him to be arrested and convicted for the crime of being gay. Yes, it was a crime in 1950s England, and might as well have been in most other places in the world. The consequences of this were miserable for Turing, and by the time you finish our Imitation Game, I hope you’ll agree that they weren’t good for the rest of us as either.

As I said before, the game itself plays an important role in our graphic novel, so I’m glad Abrams liked our title as much as Leland and I did. And I think Turing would have appreciated it too, to the extent he’d notice. I suspect he would have been proud but perplexed by a biography, and only mildly interested in it. He’d have much rather told you about this new theory he was working on, or a science fiction story he was finishing up, or…

I can’t even imagine what else that might be, but I do know for certain that the world would have benefited—and been much more interesting—if we’d had decades more of him thinking, discovering, and stretching the boundaries of intelligence.


The Imitation Game: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


More Photos From the New Camera

When I got the new camera, I skipped the kit lens that came with it and bought two specific lenses instead: a 50mm f/1.8 prime lens (which doesn’t zoom), and a 28-300mm f/3.5 – 5.6 zoom lens (which zooms rather a lot) which comes with vibration dampening, so presumably at full zoom you won’t get too much shake.

The pictures yesterday were with the 50mm lens, which I like a lot — it works fantastically in low light, which is great because I dislike using flash and try to avoid it whenever possible. Today I went outside and shot with the zoom, to see how it does. The results are below. All the pictures are zoomed in to some amount or another (the picture of the dude on the bike was at full zoom; I was roughly 800 feet from him when I took the photo).

Not bad at all for a general purpose lens. I suspect I’ll be using the 50mm most of the time when I’m shooting indoor or shooting portraits, but it’s nice to know this lens will fit my needs if I’m going to be in a variety of situations.

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