It is a good hat, I think.
(But not really mine. I borrowed it from my pal Jess for the photo. That said, it really doesn’t look bad, all things considered.)
How’s your weekend so far?
It is a good hat, I think.
(But not really mine. I borrowed it from my pal Jess for the photo. That said, it really doesn’t look bad, all things considered.)
How’s your weekend so far?
The first one of the year. No parking lot, but there is a street with parking on it, so I have that going for me, which is nice.
I’m here in Boston visiting friends, with no scheduled public events. Sorry. However, next weekend I will be at the Confusion convention in the Detroit area, and I’ll be doing a reading and signing there. Just in case you were planning to be in the neighborhood.
As for me, fuck it, I’m having ice cream for dinner.
Author Nick Cutter has an obsession, and it’s in his latest novel, Little Heaven. It’s an obsession with an aspect of human nature that involves spirituality, and possibly, gullibility. It’s an obsession he’s here to explain to you now.
You write enough, you likely reach a point of familiarity with your obsessions. Those bugaboos that seem to crop up your books. The things that vex or intrigue or drive you. Now sometimes they creep in insidiously—often, in my case, against my best efforts to keep them at bay. Other times they mosey on in bold as a bull, just kinda squatting in the middle of your narrative and taking up space. You might try to shoo them away, or ignore them, or write around them—sometimes you even succeed—but often they’re there, they’re loud, proud, and most fundamentally, they’re you. That’s the nature of obsessions.
Sometimes these obsessions don’t fully reveal themselves until you find them cropping up over and over again in your work. People will tell me, “Craig (or Nick, as may happen), you are clearly consumed by the concept of time” or memory, or pancakes or sloths or whatever they see cropping up over and over in my books. Sometimes I’m aware of those things, whereas other times I’m like, “What? Really?” And that person says, “Really!” and points those instances out to me. Sometimes they’re right, and I’m gobsmacked. Other times they’re kind of seeing things they want to see in the text (which is totally their right as readers) moreso than that which might actually exist on the page.
But one thing that I know to be a personal obsession, and which drove the conception and plot of Little Heaven, is religion. Or maybe more fanaticism.
Or maybe to distill it to its core: False prophets. Profiteering prophets.
This is too big a topic to plumb in depth—and the word limit of this column is clearly stated—so I won’t say much beyond: I don’t trust prophets. Of any stripe. Whether they preach from a pulpit or a boardroom or a Dianetics center or barstool or a milk crate in the town square. At no point and in no place would I believe or (as I like to assume, perhaps only because I haven’t sampled every moral poison on offer) would I follow someone whose agenda, to me, always seems pretty plain. That is, to assemble a flock in order to shear them down the road. All the Popes and Timothy Ferris’s and Napoleon Hills and Benny Hinns and John Edwards and Tony Robbins of this world—fah! To the devil with them all. They’re all snake oil peddlers; their tonics might be differently-flavored and brightly-and-bouncily colored, but they all taste the same: the sour, gamey funk of subservience and obediency.
Call me a cynic. Lord knows I am. But everywhere I look, whenever I set my gaze on these fellows (and they’re almost always fellows, with the odd Rhonda Byrne or Long Island Medium melted into the fetid stew) I see shysters. People who have happened upon some universal infirmity or fear that’s knitted tight to the human condition, and instead of helping, really helping, they prey on that infirmity under the guise of guru-ism or religious subservience.
It makes me sick, it really does. But it also obsesses me.
That’s the way it is with a lot of obsessions. They repulse and fascinate in equal measure.
So. The preacher character in my book Little Heaven. It won’t take a scholar or historian to see who he’s loosely based on. The mirrored Aviator shades. The greasy duck’s ass hairstyle. Yup. Ole Jim Jones. A lot of people followed Jimmy, too. Followed him out into the middle of the jungle. Followed him right down to the bottom of those Kool Aid pitchers. And that horrifies me. The power the man had over his flock (and that’s really the right word, isn’t it? A flock. And too often those flocks have a sociopath as a shepherd—perhaps it’s that sociopathy that made them want to be shepherds in the first place, and maybe it’s that fundamental distance from true human emotion that allowed them to be so good at their chosen path)—anyway, that power astonishes and terrifies me.
And that was the Big Idea that propelled and directed a large part of the novel’s narrative. That Idea’s done the same work in other books and stories of mine. Which is how I know it’s one dilly of an obsession.
I could point towards certain recent political events, too, that illustrate the toxic power of demagoguery of the sort Jim Jones practiced . . .
But anyway. That’s a story for another day.
A reminder: Per my blurb policy, which I’ve had on this site for years, and for which a link is prominently featured on the sidebar that appears on every page of the blog, please do not send requests for book blurbs directly to me. I will reject the request. Have them come through your editors or publicists or agents or publishers instead.
Why? Bluntly, because I am very selective about the books I blurb and most books I’m asked to blurb I don’t. Often that’s because I run out of time in terms of when the blurb needs to be in, but sometimes it’s because I’m not in love with the book. I have to be in love with the book to blurb it. A blurb is explicitly an endorsement; it’s me saying “I love this and you should try it.” My name is attached to the book, and that matters to me.
(If I don’t blurb a book, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t good, I should note; just that I didn’t love it. I can think of a couple of books I was asked to blurb that I chose not to that went on to be bestsellers and/or award winners and/or critical favorites; conversely I remember a couple I did blurb which then sank beneath the waves and were never heard from again. My taste is my own and my endorsement does not guarantee sales. Fair warning.)
It’s really awkward to have an author — a peer — directly ask you to blurb their book and then have to come back to them after reading and say “I can’t”; it’s a little like someone asking you if you think their kid is smart, when you saw the kid shoving crayons up their nostrils five minutes beforehand and saying the cat is made of ham. There’s not a good way out of it — or at least there’s not a good way out of it for me.
Which is why I’ve made it a requirement for all blurb requests to come through editors/publicists/agents/publishers — that way, at least, there’s an intermediary, and it’s an intermediary who won’t take it personally if I have to pass on the book, for whatever reason (time, too many books of the same sort coming to me, less than complete love for the book, etc), and who can help manage the expectations of an author in terms of blurbs in general.
“But I would never hold it against you if you didn’t like the book!” I hear you, a completely rational, grown-up and understanding author, say. And I want to believe you! Alas, experience tells me that some authors who believe they would totally be okay with me not endorsing their book get a little salty when I say “I can’t.” Which totally makes sense! These books are our brain babies. We want people to like them. It’s one thing to say we’d be fine with someone turning down our book for an endorsement. It’s another when it happens. Some authors can handle it just fine; some can’t. How can you tell which is which? Well, you can’t, until it happens. To be fair, often they don’t know, until it happens. Which is why I route blurb requests through others.
“But we’re friends!” Dude, I need this policy especially for friends.
(For those of you wondering: I myself do not ask people for book blurbs, nor have I ever. My editor or publicist handles that end of things. Honestly, I don’t even know if my books go out for blurbs, or to whom, unless and until I see the book has blurbs somewhere on the cover. When they do, it’s a pleasant surprise. I don’t ever know who said “no” to blurbing it; I don’t ask, and no one ever tells me.)
I should note that there are some authors who have asked for blurbs who I have pointed in the direction of my blurb policy explaining why I pre-emptively turn down direct author blurb requests, who have then gotten pissy and annoyed with it, and with me. That I can handle, one, because the policy isn’t about the specific book or author, it applies to everyone; and two, because, again, the policy has been up and easily findable for literally years on my site, and I make occasional reminders (like this one!) that it exists. It’s not entirely unreasonable to have the expectation that people know about the blurb policy — or at least, understand why I have it and apply it. If they’re still unhappy about it, that’s fine.
So, again, authors: If you want me to consider your book for a blurb, don’t ask me directly. Tell your editor/publicist/agent/publisher that I’m one of the people you want them to consider asking for a blurb. And then let them handle it from there. Thanks.
First, and in case you missed me talking about it on Twitter yesterday, I have a piece up at the LA Times site (a version of it is also in the Sunday newspaper) about getting creative work done in the Trump years — some advice about how to keep focus when it’s likely to be a challenging time for the creative class. Note that this advice generally probably also works for people working in professions generally considered “non-creative” as well, but I’m working with what I know here. Also, of course, if you’re neutral or positive on the idea of the incoming Trump administration, then this particular piece is probably unnecessary for you. Carry on, then.
Second, when I had the idea I originally thought to post it here, but then remembered a) that the LA Times books section has a freelance deal for me to be a “critic-at-large,” an appellation with actually a fairly wide remit, under which an article like this would probably fall, b) The LA Times has a pretty wide reach and the piece would probably be seen by more people there than here, both online and in print, c) also I could get paid, which is always nice. So I queried, and it was accepted, and it went there.
This reminded me that one of the things I did want to do this year is to place more essays/columns in newspapers and magazines and online sites, partly to purely strategic reasons — like, getting my name out to people who might not have otherwise heard of me, and to keep a healthy sideline in a form that I was writing in long before I became a novelist — and also for the fact that I like seeing my byline in lots of places. Once you’ve been a jobbing freelancer I don’t think this impulse ever leaves you.
So basically here is a thing this means: When I think of something I want to write about in essay form, I’ll probably ask myself the following questions:
If the answers are “yes,” “I can wait” and “I’m feeling reasonably industrious, actually,” then it’s possible I’ll try to place it elsewhere. Because that would be neat!
That said, knowing me like I do, the answers to the latter two questions are generally “I want it out immediately” and “I’m feeling lazy as hell,” so I don’t know if there’s actually going to be any impact to what gets put up here. Plus, you know. I like writing here. So there’s that, too.
I guess basically what I’m saying is perhaps I’ll be writing even more this year! I mean, aside from two novels, one non-fiction book, a video game, occasional LAT columns and of course what I put up here (oh, and Twitter, let’s not forget Twitter). The funny thing is I consider myself a very lazy person.
Anyway, enjoy the LA Times piece. I think it’s pretty good, and useful.
I’ve known Rusty Coats since he and I were twenty-something newspaper columnists geeking out over Coen Brothers films together, so it’s no surprise to find him today with a novel, Avalon, full of noir and speculative elements. Today in 2017’s first Big Idea essay, he’s talking about how to build a virtual city, meant to be a haven, but ending up as something else entirely.
The Big Idea behind Avalon is a dystopian future where a virtual reality city, once built as a beacon of hope for a world that has fallen down, has become a hedonistic destination full of brothels and bloodsport. Basically, VR meets Prohibition, with a conspiracy to seize control of the city – and humanity itself.
Avalon is told in the first person by Jack Denys, whose parents were part of the global project to build the virtual city. Jack had grown up on Campus, believing in the promise of a city that would unite a world scarred by nuclear exchanges, pandemic and economic collapse. But his encryption program was deemed an act of treason, and Jack, the last privacy hack, was sent to prison.
Now it’s eight years later. Still incomplete, Avalon was outlawed after a mysterious “programmer’s disease” killed thousands and left millions hopelessly addicted. The United Nations tried to destroy the metropolis but failed when a new mafia called the Digerati seized control. In an age of Prohibition, the Digerati have retooled the City of Light into an online Babylon. And Jack, who has vowed never to return to Avalon, has been hired by one of them for a job that turns out not be so simple.
I had been on a noir kick, reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, while talking a lot with a friend who was launching a virtual reality company to document big-building construction. (Bonus: You can see through walls.) Throw in my love of Depression Modern design, an infatuation with FDR’s Works Progress Administration and a love of all forms of encryption and you get the major ingredients. I wanted to blend the language and style of Depression-era and noir fiction with an alternate future where VR is simultaneously a source of hope and despair, told through the flawed voice of an antihero.
To design the virtual-reality city, I turned to Norman Bel Geddes, the early 20th Century designer responsible for the iconic designs of the 1939 World’s Fair. Since Depression and Prohibition historically breed fanatics, I added an agrarian/Luddite sect called the Sons of David – a blend of my former work as a reporter covering Amish and Northern Californian off-the-grid communities. And, since everyone likes a good global conspiracy, I created technocratic cult, the Neuromantics, which promotes itself as benevolent caretakers of a wounded populace but, well, we’ve all seen how that usually turns out.
The Big Idea, then, is an amalgamation, and a bit of an homage. My grandfather worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of FDR’s New Deal, and it was the first step in moving my family out of poverty in Southern Indiana. The designs of Bel Geddes and others were symbols of hope – that a streamlined, futuristic design could accelerate the country out of the Depression. And, as someone who has worked in media for 25 years, I’ve seen how every digital development – from AOL chat rooms to virtual reality immersions – are met with equal parts ecstasy and dread.
And we all need a little privacy in the promised land.
It was pretty, I think. Unlike today, which is just low clouds with sullen spats of snow. Winter, it is here, and it’s moody.
Do I have work for you to consider for this year’s awards? I do! Here they are:
The Dispatcher (10/16, Audible)
Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (12/16, Subterranean Press)
Aaaaaand that’s it, I think. There are individual short stories I’ve written that are eligible, including in Miniatures, but I think it hangs together best as a collection, so that’s what I’m asking people to consider it for.
Note with The Dispatcher its eligibility will be dependent on whether the awarding group considers audiobook publication the same as print publication for the purposes of their awards (I know it is for the Hugos; I have a query in about it for the Nebulas). If it’s not eligible as an audiobook, well, the print version comes out in May, so I might end up listing it next year, too. Awards! They’re wacky. Also note that in the places where it might matter, I consider The Dispatcher to be fantasy, rather than science fiction.
As most of you know, the print and ebook editions of Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi came out on December 31 (here’s the Amazon link); now, today, the audio version of Miniatures is also available for your listening delight, available through Audible.
I just listened to it myself, and while I should be considered biased, for obvious reasons, here’s a couple of reasons why I think Audible did a very fine job with it:
a) They used multiple narrators, which is good because it changes up voices between stories and makes the “interview” stories — which are basically dialogues between two characters — a whole lot more enjoyable and easier to follow;
b) With the “interview” stories, they dispensed with the “Q & A” dialogue tags entirely, which makes the audio versions basically humorous radio skits. Which is exactly as they should have done, and means they’re pretty delightful to listen to.
So basically the audio version is less like a traditional audiobook and more like a comedy album with a really skilled company of actors. All of which makes me want to do this book with performers in front of an audience. Hmmmm. Maybe on the boat!
Also, it’s $7. Cheap! Get it and the eBook, which at $6, is also cheap! (But if you want the signed, limited edition, there are also a couple of those left through Subterranean Press.)
Really, I just continue to be thrilled with Miniatures. Subterranean Press did a terrific job with it, and now so has Audible. I literally could not be happier with how this collection has turned out.
Monday, January 2, 2017, 9am-ish: Work officially begun on Head On, the sequel to Lock In.
Wish me luck!
Today I went on a date with my wife, wrote something I liked, and got a pretty sunset out of the day. 2017, you’re off to a decent start. Keep it up!
As we begin 2017, there is something I’ve been thinking about, that I’d like for you to consider for the new year. It starts with a famous quote, the best-known version of which is from Martin Luther King, but which goes back to the transcendentalist Theodore Parker. The quote is:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In the main I agree with that quote. There are things about it, however, that I think many of us elide.
The first is the word “long.” I think both Parker and King understood that moral endeavors can be measured in years, decades and sometimes centuries. This is not an argument toward complacency; indeed I think it’s an argument against defeatism and fatalism in the face of setbacks and stalemates. We live in moments and days and it’s often hard to see past them, and it’s easy to believe when we are struck a hard blow that all is lost. All is not lost. The arc is long. Nothing is ever fully decided in the moment or the day. There are years and decades and sometimes centuries yet to go. The arc continues to bend, if we remember that it is long, and that we need to imagine it extending further.
We need to imagine that because of the second thing: The arc is not a natural feature of the universe. It does not magically appear; it is not ordained; it is not inevitable. It exists because people of moral character seek justice, not only for themselves but for every person. Nor is the arc smooth. It’s rough and jagged, punctuated in areas by great strides, halting collapses, terrible reverses and forcible wrenching actions. There are those, always, who work to widen the arc, to make that bend toward justice as flat as they can make it, out of fear or greed or hate. They stretch out the arc when they can. If people of moral character forget the arc is not ordained, or become complacent to a vision of a smooth, frictionless bend toward justice, the work to flatten the arc becomes that much easier.
Right now, today, here in 2017, there are those working very industriously to flatten out the arc. They have lately seen little penalty for their hate, or their dissembling, or their disdain or greed; they have contempt for justice other than a cynical appreciation of its features when and only when it is to their advantage; they don’t care for anyone or anything outside the close horizon of their own interests. They have won a moment; they have won a day. They will try to win more than that, now, however they can, flattening the arc with hate and fear and greed.
On this day, in this year, in our time: Help to bend the arc back.
As you do, there are things to remember.
Remember the arc is long. It’s not one moment or one day or even a year or four years, even when that moment or day or year seems endless.
Remember the arc is not inevitable. It needs you. You are more important than you know, if you don’t give in to despair, to complacency, or to apathy. Add to the moral weight that bends the arc toward justice. You can’t do it alone, but without you the work becomes that much harder.
Remember that those who are working to flatten the arc hope you give up and give in. They are relying on you to do just that. Disappoint them. Disappoint them in big ways. Disappoint them in small ways. Disappoint them each day, and every day, in all the ways you can. Do not consent to this flattening of the arc.
Remember finally that this arc toward justice never ends. We are human. We are not perfect. We will not arrive at a perfect justice, any more than we will achieve a perfect union. But just as we work toward a more perfect union, so too we bend the arc toward justice, knowing the closer we get, the better we and our lives are, as individuals, as communities, as a nation and as a world. This is a life’s work, not just work for a moment, or day, or year. You won’t see the final result. There isn’t one. It doesn’t mean the work doesn’t matter. It matters. It matters now. It matters for you. It matters for everyone.
It’s a new year. There’s work to be done. I hope you will do it, and that you find joy in the work.
See you on the arc.