The 10s in Review: My Career

The short version is: It was a pretty good decade for my career.

Now, let’s expand that, in bullet points that are in no particular order.

* First, the stats: Eight novels, two novellas, two short story collections, four nonfiction books, six anthology appearances (there may be more, I suspect I’m forgetting one or two), two TV series, two video games, one interactive graphic novel. Multiple appearances on various New York Times bestseller lists as well as the USA Today, Publishers Weekly, Locus, LA Times and other bestseller lists. A week as the #1 author on the entirety of Amazon. Won the Hugo Award for Best Novel, two Locus Awards for best science fiction novel, two Audie Awards, and was nominated for (and occasionally won) other domestic and international awards. Toastmaster of a Worldcon. Special Guest at San Diego Comic-Con. President of SFWA for three years. Got a nice contract. I’m probably forgetting something but I think you get the point. A solid decade for me.

* And also, not inevitable it would have been so. I’ve noted before that there is a three-year gap between the publication of Zoe’s Tale (2008) and my next novel Fuzzy Nation (2011), which is the longest gap between novels in my career. This was because Tor and I had a bit of a falling out in there (due to a contentious contract negotiation) and I spent time doing other things. Tor picking up Fuzzy Nation — or more specifically, offering on Fuzzy Nation in a manner I decided would be acceptable — was not a sure thing, and had Tor decided to go in another direction with that particular book, it’s entirely possible my next decade could have looked very different indeed. So you could say I’m delighted that Tor and I managed to patch things up. I strongly suspect I prefer the current version of events to what might have been.

* Am I the biggest science fiction writer of the 10s? Nope — in terms of sales of a single book, that likely goes to Ernie Cline or Andy Weir (for Ready Player One and The Martian, respectively), and there are other science fiction writers who I suspect in aggregate have sold as well as or better than I have. Nor am I the most important science fiction writer of the 10s — I’m very certain that honor goes to NK Jemisin, although there are other contenders as well, including Paolo Bacigalupi, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu (in English translation) and Ted Chiang (this is, I assure you, not a complete list; also I’m not talking about fantasy at all here).

So if I am neither the biggest nor the most important science fiction writer of the 10s, when someone bothers to write up the history of the genre in this last decade, what will they say that I brought to the party? That will be up to them but if they were going to ask me, I would say: Consistency and approachability. My work comes out predictably and frequently, it’s remarkably regular in terms of quality (and that quality is pretty good), and my work is really easy to get into and share with other people, including people who don’t think they like science fiction as reading material. I am, more or less, “a sure bet”: People who know they like my stuff can feel pretty comfortable that whatever new thing I put out is going to be something they’ll like, and can share with friends.

Which is, I am the first to admit, emphatically not sexy, and is open to reasonable criticism — the negative complementary of “consistent” is “same-y”; for “approachable” it’s “unchallenging.” Likewise, my science fiction work is frequently called “lightweight” and “pleasant” and other such things. Which I cannot and really would not mount a defense against, because, well, it is, at least on the level of initial readability. My books are designed to suck people in and keep them zooming along until they come out the other side, hopefully having gone “wheee!” most of the way through.

I cannot say my writing is underappreciated, exactly — please see my sales and awards shelf for the last decade, and that contract of mine; I’m doing just fine — but I do think that it’s accurate to say that a very minor curse of an author who writes consistently and accessibly is that people often assume that what they do is easy to do. The best and really only response to this is, well, okay, try it. Then get back to me about how easy it is to do. Of course it looks effortless; that’s part of the point. But in practice it’s more complicated.

I will say that one of the advantages of writing consistently and approachably is that when you do (and, yes, when you’re a straight white dude in the SF genre), you get away with all sorts of shit. This decade, I wrote a novel entirely about metaphysics, personal narratives and free will. I wrote another novel with a protagonist whose gender is never revealed, and which features significant discourse on disability and culture. I wrote a third novel about humanity’s heedless exploitation of a diminishing natural resource it doesn’t understand, and the consequences of a society built on rent-seeking, where the majority of the people pushing the plot forward were not white, straight or male. All of these books got into the NYT lists and/or won awards.

So, yeah, I feel good about what I wrote this decade, and how I wrote it, and where I fit in with the other notable science fiction writers of the decade. Not the biggest, or the most important. But when they write that history, I’ll be in there.

* Any discussion of my career over the last decade needs to include the antipathy of me by a certain cadre of right-wing SF writers and fans, a group which overlaps (considerably) with the “Sad/Rabid Puppies” who publicly shat themselves so dramatically during the middle bit of the decade with regard to the Hugo Awards and other aspects of the business and community of SF/F literature. I noticed the first real push of the antipathy after Redshirts won the Hugo, and certain dudes suggested that Redshirts won because I had sucked up to the Social Justice Warriors sufficiently, rather than because, say, it was a popular book riffing off a beloved science fiction franchise in a clever and affectionate way, written by a writer who’d been nominated for Best Novel a few times before.

In the full bloom of the Puppy beclownery there was more of the same, a fair amount of snide discussion of my sexuality and gender, and general allegations that my sales numbers were inflated and/or propped up by bulk purchases by my publisher, which, by the way, was doing terribly and would soon be out of business. My personal favorite bit of this was when there was a long discussion about how my 2014 novel Lock In had been a massive sales failure and that Tor was about to drop me as an author; this discussion was happening simultaneously with me negotiating with Tor for my multi-book, multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract (which included not one but two sequels to Lock In). When the contract was announced, the narrative shifted to how much more I would have made self-publishing, and then later how I’d never really make as much money as the public figure of the contract. Which, well, okay, dudes. In time most of them have left off this nonsense, but there are a few of them still out there on this bullshit — why, I was chucklingly misgendered just this week!

What is it about me that bugged and in some cases still bugs these dudes? If you ask them they will give you all sorts of reasons, but having dealt with this nonsense for a better part of a decade I’ll tell you it’s mostly envy, and frustration about the state of their own careers, which they feel should be better because they write the sort of science fiction they’ve always loved and assume others still love as well. And which I also do, so why the hell do I get the big contracts and they’re (mostly) left to scrape by? There has to be something else involved — thus the secret cabal of SJWs, bulk purchases, also I’m gay and/or trans and thus not a man at all, hur hur hur. Add to this the fact that at least a couple of these dudes legit dislike me for other reasons (most of which boil down to the fact they can’t argue their way out of a paper bag and at one point or another I pointed that out to them in public), and some of them just happen to be bigoted as fuck, and you’ve got a fairly toxic mix of resentment and complete bullshit.

This hasn’t affected my career in any meaningful way — see the summary earlier in the piece — but on a personal level it could be tiresome. I’m guilty of taunting some of these dickheads on occasion, because they deserve the taunting and because I know my successes irritate the shit out of them. But mostly I’m glad it’s largely done and over with, save a few stragglers. I think after a certain point it just became difficult to argue that I was a failure, and that their doing so just accentuated their own relative positions, which they preferred not to do. And also, after a certain point you do just have to get on with your life and write your things. To the extent that some of them are doing that, good for them. Those that aren’t, well. Bless your hearts, dudes.

* The above nonsense notwithstanding, I do think the 10s were an outstanding decade for science fiction and fantasy, and that we exit the decade with the field being more diverse and (commensurately, as this is causation, not correlation) far more exciting to be a part of and to read. The mode of the genre has manifestly changed, in what sells to publishers and to the public, and to what is out there winning awards and other accolades. Science fiction flatters itself as being the literature of ideas and of challenging accepted orthodoxies; the 10s were a decade in which that actually happened to be true, not only in the topline, best known work, but also in the fray, where new writers are coming up to challenge old ways, and established writers are taking chances they might not have done before.

But speaking of the topline: starting in 2010, the (other) Hugo best novel winners have been Paolo Bacigalupi, China Mieville, Connie Willis, Jo Walton, Ann Leckie, Cixin Liu, NK Jemisin and Mary Robinette Kowal. Over at the Nebula Awards, you can add Kim Stanley Robinson, Jeff VanderMeer, Naomi Novik and Charlie Jane Anders to the best novel list. These writers and their works could easily stand with the best writers and work of any other decade; every time I think of them as my peer group I get chuffed. Toss in the other nominees for both awards over the last decade and it gets even better. I can’t believe I got to be part of such an amazing decade in my genre.

I also think the field is only going to get better from here — more writers, more diverse experiences that they are drawing from, more and better fiction that take us places a lot of us didn’t know we wanted to go. Earlier this year, some half-wit suggested that I would never win another award in the genre because I was a straight white male. My response to this is a) I’ve won enough awards so it will be fine if I don’t win any others, and also b) I feel pretty confident my work can compete, in sales and in accolades, with any work by anyone. Whining that a larger and more diverse pool of writers (and award voters!) makes it more difficult for your work to be considered is the long way around to saying “I can’t write well and my work can’t compete.” It’s gotta suck to think so little of yourself and your work, and also (apparently unwittingly but even so) to say so out loud for everyone to hear and see. Not exactly a sterling self-recommendation.

* And in fact I am looking forward to the next decade of my career. My first book of the new decade comes out in April, and there’s more to come after that. Let’s see where this ride takes me next, and how long it lasts.