A Reminder, Re: Famous People I Know

Another one of those “post now, refer people to later” entries. I’ve written about this before regarding specific instances, but it’s nice to have something general to point people to.

So, it turns out I know, and am friends (or at least I have been friendly) with, people who are notable or famous to some degree or another. Yes, I am as amazed about that as anyone else. Sometimes, those notable/famous people:

* Are disliked by a large group of people, for whatever reason(s);

* Have a life event, often not a happy one, that gains attention in the public sphere;

* Will have a public conflict with some other person who is also generally notable;

* Says or does something that causes the Internet to fall on their head;

* Some combination of two or more of the above;

* Otherwise attracts attention to themselves in some manner or another that elicits general comment.

When that happens, occasionally people will remember that I know that person and that we are friends (or at least, are friendly), and will want me to publicly comment on/gossip about/publicly denounce or praise them, depending on that person’s own inclinations.

Here’s the deal with all of that:

1.  I don’t take requests. Which is to say that just because you or anyone else wants me to publicly comment about something involving a friend of mine, it doesn’t mean I will. Why? Because I reserve the right to deal with matters involving friends privately, no matter how famous/notable they might be. Also:

2. I probably won’t talk about it publicly. Because, again, if it’s a friend, then it belongs in a personal sphere, regardless of how public their life might otherwise be. If I do say anything publicly at the time of whatever event is happening, it’s likely to be either bland or oblique.

3. If it’s involving a friend, consider that as a friend, I’m processing what’s happening, too. If something bad has happened to a friend, I may be concerned or grieving. If a friend has done a jackassed thing, I may be angry or heartsick (or both). If a friend is having a public feud with someone else, consider I might be friends with that other person, too. And so on. This is a friend we’re talking about; someone I like, and care about, and probably respect, and possibly love. In which case, demanding I do/say something about them publicly, and on your schedule, might be unrealistic.

4. If I “come for my friend,” I will probably do that privately and none of you will know. Strangely, a friend who has had the Internet drop on their head (for cause) might be more likely to listen to a friend talk to them about why the jackassed thing they did was an actual problem, if it is done privately and in the spirit of love and care, than if it takes the form of public castigation. How do I know that? Because I’ve done jackassed things, alas. When that happened, I was more open to criticism from friends I knew and trusted pointing out how I fucked up, than I was to the Internet falling on my head. Being someone’s friend means sometimes you get the privilege of telling them they screwed up. That’s often best done away from everyone and everything else.

5. If I do “come for my friend” privately, results are not guaranteed. People are going to do what they’re going to do. Sometimes they will listen, and sometimes they won’t. And sometimes if they do listen, they’ll decide I’m wrong, or it’s none of my business. That’s just the nature of the beast.

6. It’s entirely possible I might decide your concern/issue/demand is bullshit. In which case I am likely to mute/block/otherwise ignore you, although I might be snippy about it before I do so. This will more likely be the case when your own concern/issue/demand is obviously bound up in your own set of entitlements, i.e., what you seem to think you deserve from that friend of mine. And no, when you’re acting entitled it doesn’t matter if you put a winky emoji in there somewhere.

7. Generally speaking, friends mean more to me than strangers. This is kind of a non-controversial statement, or should be — if something bad is happening to a friend (or a friend has really stepped in it, for whatever reason), my thoughts are going to be on them more than on what people I don’t know think about whatever it is that’s happening. Addressing my friend’s needs (or deficiencies) will take priority over addressing the wants/needs/desires of strangers.

8. I try to keep friends. Which is to say that if I have decided to invest in caring about someone, it’s because there is something them about I think is valuable to me and will make my life better, not worse. Which means that when a friend does something jackassed, I try to deal with it with an eye toward staying friends with them. That’s not always possible; there are people I have let go because ultimately it was clear there was an unbridgeable gap, or because their actions showed I was wrong about them. That’s a grieving process of its own. But as someone who has done his own share of jackassed things and then tried to do better, I’m glad for friends who didn’t just toss me over the side.

9. My actions (or lack thereof) are open to criticism. You don’t have to like any of the above, and it’s entirely possible that you may find my action (or inaction) insufficient. That’s the nature of being on the Internet, and of being my own particular flavor of well-known. Criticize away. If you do it away from me, I’m unlikely to address it in any manner. If you direct it to me, my reaction will range from no response at all, to “I hadn’t considered that, you may be right” to “fuck off all the way to the moon,” depending on the nature of your criticism and how it’s presented to me. Mostly I’m not likely to respond, however.

10. If I do say something public about a friend, it will be at a time, place and manner of my own choosing, not anyone else’s. And it still might not be the statement you wanted or thought you needed from me. And that’s fine. Because I won’t be doing it for you. I’ll be doing it for me.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

Reader Request Week 2020 #8: What It Means to Be Dead

Juan Preciado asks:

What does it mean to be dead?

For the person who is dead, not much! Because they are dead. They are no longer thinking about anything or doing anything or being anything, other than dead. Dead is a state of not; there is very little meaning in not. When I am dead, it won’t mean anything to me, and I know that from experience, since I’ve been not alive before (see: the roughly 13.7 billion years before May 10, 1969, the day I was born), and it didn’t mean anything to me then, either. I understand lots of people believe in an afterlife, and I think that’s fine, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to be an asshole to people in life; however, I don’t believe there’s an afterlife (or a different life, or reincarnation, etc). I could be wrong! Won’t I be surprised! But I’m pretty sure I won’t be — in fact, I won’t be anything, because I’m dead.

“Death” in itself is a concept that, aside from the mere and banal scientific concept of what it means to be “alive” or “dead,” relies on the living to apprehend it; you have to be of a certain level of cognizant to even recognize that things are alive or dead; you have to be of an even higher level of cognizant to attach meaning to it. You don’t have to be human — we have very good evidence that animals other than humans recognize what death is and mourn those who die — but certainly humans are of the set of creatures who understand what death is and attach meaning to it.

While we’re alive, that is. “Death” is a concept for the living, who are in a state to apprehend it, understand it, and in doing both, attempt to attach some meaning to it, because we are pattern-seeking creatures, and we want things to mean something: To happen for a reason, so we can explain to it to ourselves, and to others.

So, for me, a pattern-seeking creature, what does it mean to be dead?

For one thing, when someone (or something, but for the purposes of this piece, I’m mostly going to stick with humans) is dead, it means that all your agency is done. You can no longer do anything, and you can no longer cause anything to happen. Yes, you can leave instructions for things to happen and you can even, while you are living, employ the levers of law/tradition/social conditioning to try to ensure those things happen after you’re gone. But once you’re gone, it’s up to others to decide whether to honor those instructions. Think of all the dead writers who left instructions for their writing to be destroyed by a spouse or friend, only to have that spouse or friend go “Yeeeeeeah, not only won’t I burn this manuscript, I’ll have it published instead!” Look up Franz Kafka and Max Brod, just for funsies.

This doesn’t mean that the repercussions of what one did in life end once one is dead; simply that one’s ability to meaningfully control them directly in one’s self is gone. Now one must rely on children, or acolytes, or lawyers, or whomever, to try to approximate one’s intent, to the extent that they will bother at all — if, frankly, one’s life and acts merit such consideration. Most of us do not leave charitable foundations, or social organizations or religions behind to be tended and cultivated. Most of us can barely remember to do estate planning. For most of us, what is required by the living once we are dead, in terms of our wishes — the very last suggestion of our agency — is to honor them, or let a probate judge sort them out if we didn’t leave behind a will. After that, whatever agency we had is done, and what is left is memory.

For a while, anyway, because one other thing it means to be dead is to be eventually forgotten. There’s a nice sentiment out there (well, nice to extent you like the person in question) that suggests no one is really dead if there is someone who still remembers them. For the vast majority of us that means family and friends. Their memory of us lasts only as long as they do, and in some cases, less time than that, after which point we are at best names on a family tree.

Most of us do not leave much in the way of tangible expressions of who we were — letters, articles, creative works — and if we do the things we leave behind are often banal, and of little interest beyond those who are in our immediate circle of confidants. Yes, your Facebook wall will remain after you die (well, maybe; social media companies have a way of disappearing and taking user accounts with them when they do), but very few people even now go back to read what’s there once people die. They are the unvisited testimonies of (usually) fairly ordinary lives.

Which does not mean that they — or the lives they represented — did not have value. Everyone has lost people they love, and cherish them in their memory. But just because you loved your uncle, doesn’t mean that your great-great-granddaughter will, or indeed should have any memory or thought of him other than a name and perhaps a picture or two. Your uncle will be forgotten. In time you will too. And so will your great-great-granddaughter. This is neither good nor bad; it just is. The living can keep only so many people in their heads; they are understandably going to prioritize the living.

Famous or notable people get to be remembered longer, but let’s be clear that the quality of that memory doesn’t tend to be all that great; in almost every case even the greatest and most powerful people of their time are collapsed down to one or two things that they did, not who they are. I can, for example, name you (probably) all the presidents of the United States, but with the exception of the very early, and the most recent, ones, I can’t tell you much of what they did or who they are as people. Literally the only thing I can tell you of Millard Fillmore off the top of my head, aside from his name, are his last words: “The nourishment is palatable.” Creators tend to be remembered for one or two works; in the memory of our culture, we all eventually become one hit wonders. And then we slip off the radar entirely.

(If you don’t think I think this will happen to me — ha! If I were to die tomorrow, I will be written up as “The author of Old Man’s War and Hugo winner for Redshirts;” 50 years from now I’ll be the author of Old Man’s War and other works; 100 years from now no one will read me except people doing degree work and maybe some family members. Prove me wrong, history! Prove me wrong.)

Which brings us to the final thing I’ll address in this particular piece: What it means to be dead is to be assessed. When one is dead, one is at the end of everything — there are no longer things you are going to do, or things you are doing, only the things you’ve done. Other people, pattern seekers that we are, will then look at the whole of that life to assess it and to sum it up. For some people that will be a short process — “beloved husband and father” — and for others it will take years (I suspect they will still be finding previously unknown material in Prince’s musical vaults 20 years from now, for example).

If you’re a regular person, it’s family and friends who do this assessing; if you’re a famous person and/or leave behind a notable body of work, it’ll be other people as well. With the latter, it goes into the cultural memory bank of you, and will often supplant who you were as a person — which is not a bad thing for you if who you were as a person was a real asshole or an otherwise terrible human. What is bad — and good — about a creative or historical person often is diminished because the work they leave behind is easier to apprehend and to deal with (and often, bluntly, more interesting, too).

Again, all of this is about the living, not the dead themselves, because, again, they are dead. They don’t care. They can’t care. The meaning of being dead is for the living, who will themselves be relieved of agency, assessed and remembered, and then forgotten, in turn, and so on and so on, until there is no one left who cares to assess or remember, and then to forget.

In the meantime, what it means to be dead is: Someone is still alive to give death meaning.

Reader Request Week 2020 #7: Cover Songs

Let’s get musical! Keith asks:

Cover songs: The deity’s gift to humanity or an abomination unto said deity? What makes a good one? Any that you particularly love or hate?

I personally love a good cover song, and there are cases where I prefer the cover to the original, either because it’s the version I heard first (and therefore, to my ears, the “original”), or because the person performing it brings something to it that I thought the original lacked, for whatever reason — often this has to do with production but equally can be about performance.

Also, I think it should be understood that “covers” are a relatively recent concept, tied in inherently to the idea of the “singer-songwriter.” No one thinks of someone “covering” a song written by Gilbert & Sullivan, or Rogers & Hammerstein, or by Tin Pan Alley songwriters; they were just performed. There are in fact a whole lot of politics about musicians covering songs by other musicians — particularly, in the early era of Rock n’ Roll, white musicians covering the songs of black musicians and getting them onto the charts while the originals languished. I’m not going to get into that now, but just be aware it exists and is a real thing. “Covering” was not (and still sometimes isn’t) always a great thing.

As for what makes a great cover: Mostly, empathy and understanding on the part of the covering artist, of the original artist, or the original work, or both. It means that the covering artist gets where the song was coming from, and so when they make their version, can add to it in ways that build on the original, rather than detract from it. It’s not entirely surprising that so many great covers come from artists who are singer-songwriters themselves.

A bad cover, in my opinion, just lies there — a rote performance, or one where it’s clear the performer is not engaged with and/or does not understand the song. A bad cover makes you miss the original, or even worse, makes you wonder why anyone would have covered that song at all.

(There’s another category for me, which are songs that I don’t think are especially well covered but that I like anyway, often either because I have some personal affinity for the performer covering it, or because it’s so incongruous a cover, such an out-of-left-field choice, that I have to admire it even if I as a listener would not have ever considered it in the realm of possibility. Points for effort, basically.)

And now, because this would be the place for it, some of my favorite covers over the years. BE WARNED — remember how I said some covers I enjoyed even if I didn’t find them particularly great? Yeaaaah, there will be some of them here. This is not an exhaustive list of covers I like, and also, if in the comments you say something like “you forgot [insert cover here]” the answer is no I didn’t, this is just not an exhaustive list, okay, and also, that’s probably on your list, not mine.

(Also, I’m not putting in “Sweet Thing” covered by The Waterboys here, because it was featured in another recent compilation of other songs I assembled. But know it is one of my favorites.)

Krissy and Me, 5/14/20

Yup, pretty much sums us up at the moment.

I think this might be my favorite picture of the two of us in a while.

I’m This Week’s “By The Book” Feature in the New York Times

And I’m talking about which books I’m reading, which books I think fit the current moment, whether books should be consider guilty pleasures, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Curious? Of course you are! Here’s the link to the piece. Enjoy!

Reader Request Week 2020 #6: Pulling Punches in Criticism

Troy Gordon asks:

Do you ever hold back in your criticism of other artistic endeavors (movies for instance) out of fear or apprehension that it will open your own work to hostile/non constructive criticism and exclude you from future opportunities? You are successful and obviously intelligent enough to know how story and character arcs work, and how to bring a story to life, but sometimes your reviews on things can come across as… muted. I find this interesting, given how outspoken you can be on some topics, but very careful in your criticism of other’s work. Is it because as an artist, you appreciate the effort that went into that other piece of art, is it a political consideration, or a combination of both?

This answer is complicated! Strap in!

First: I mean, I was a professional critic for years, primarily in film but also in music and video games, so in fact there’s a long and rich history of me going deeply negative on things when I thought it was necessary. I even have some stories I can tell about creators getting pissed at me for doing so — if we’re ever in the same room at the same time, get me to tell my story of Ian Astbury of the Cult sending me an all-caps email after I gave his band’s (then) new release a less-than-entirely-shining review. I don’t feel like the argument that I’m overly muted in reviews is supported in the text, running across all of my career.

Also, if sometimes my criticism of something comes across as muted, it might be because I’m writing about something I didn’t feel all that strongly about. For example, last December when I wrote up a piece on The Rise of Skywalker, the tone of the piece reflected how I felt about the movie: I was reasonably entertained, but it felt rushed and there wasn’t a whole lot of emotional range in the film. I didn’t hate the film, and didn’t feel the need to be performatively angry with it or the filmmakers for not providing a certain level of catharsis; likewise, I didn’t love the film or desire to defend it, or the people who made it, from the criticism of others. It was just fine. The review’s tone reflected that.

“Just fine,” incidentally, is where the vast majority of films (and, honestly, most creative output) reside, particularly if they’re put out by large entertainment companies who know how to spot, hire and support technically proficient people who are competent at their jobs. With very few exceptions, Disney and Warner Bros and Universal and Netflix and so on are not all that interested in turning out immortal works of cinema that will shine through the years; they want to create something you’ll spend money on to watch. The “I’ll watch that” line for most people is not “immortal cinema,” it’s “entertaining enough for two hours.” If it turns out a film is immortal cinema as well as being entertaining for two hours, so much the better; none of them are opposed to that. But if they had to choose between “entertaining for two hours” and “immortal cinema,” they’ll go for the first. They understand the first. They can market it. Immortal cinema is much trickier, and hardly ever as commercially reliable.

When I was a professional film critic, I would say that 10% of my reviews were of amazing films and 10% were of genuinely terrible films, and in both cases writing a review was not difficult because there was so much to say either way. 80% of my reviews were of films that were some level of mediocre: Nothing wrong with them but nothing great about them either. Those were the challenging ones to write, because how do you approach “meh, it’s fine?” over and over again? One solution is to basically go to war with every film you don’t think ranks as immortal cinema, and, well. That’s a choice. It’s not the choice I usually go for.

So I don’t disagree that my reviews might come across as muted to some folks. But if they do, because that’s mostly how I feel about the film I watched. Meh, it’s fine! If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like! And so on.

What’s often more interesting than straight review at this point is meta-commentary: What the film means in a larger context. So for example, my thoughts on Wonder Woman, which I thought was fine (specifically, I said, “a solid film with some genuinely great moments, cheapened a bit by the generic boss fight at the end”), but about which the most interesting thing was — to me — the perception of it being much larger success than its sibling films Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, when globally it made just about the same amount, financially, as either of those two films.

Here on Whatever, where my commentary on film does not have to be straightforward “should you pay money for this or not” reviewing, I tend to do a lot of meta-commentary; for example, my observations of the last Star Wars trilogy are as much about the role of Disney taking over the franchise from George Lucas as it is about the individual films themselves, because I think that’s interesting. At some point I’ll probably write up something on how the Disney trilogy was about what happens when a major corporation loses its nerve and plays it safe (as opposed to the prequel trilogy, which was all about an auteur doing things exactly how he wanted to, even if what he wanted to do frankly sucked). But for now I will acknowledge that this sort of inside pool may not be as interesting to other people. So it goes.

Yes, yes, Scalzi, but do you pull your punches because you’re trying to do business in Hollywood? Answer the question!

UGH, fine.

The answer is: Not really? At least, not as it relates to doing business in film and television. First, bluntly, no one in Hollywood gives a shit what I write about film (or anything else) here on my blog because this blog doesn’t matter to them. It’s not Variety or The Hollywood Reporter or the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, and it’s also not the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes score, so, really, who the fuck cares? I’m literally off their radar, and nothing I could say here has an impact on what they do.

Which is a sentiment, incidentally, I get, since as a writer, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal serve the same function in my industry: They’re the trades, they’re what everyone in publishing (and also library and bookstore acquisition people) read. Because of this, we writers remember when, say, Kirkus gives one of our books a pan (and boy, have they!).

So I could write whatever I wanted here, secure in the knowledge that literally the only person who cares, vis-a-vis doing business, is me. I know this because, despite writing a piece where I saidStar Wars is not entertainment. Star Wars is George Lucas masturbating to a picture of Joseph Campbell and conning billions of people into watching the money shot,” I’ve been offered work in the Star Wars universe more than once. When I pointed out to the people offering me work that I actually wrote those words, they more or less shrugged. Because no one gives a shit, except me.

With that said, it is entirely accurate to say I don’t post very many negative reviews here in film, music, TV and so on, especially in the last several years. This is because:

1. Since I’m generally no longer being paid to write criticism, I mostly don’t bother to write about the things I don’t like; I think it’s better and more useful to point out the things I do like.

2. Over the course of time I have becomes friends or friendly acquaintances with all sorts of writers/musicians/filmmakers/artists/etc, and I’m sensitive to publicly criticizing in a negative way the creative output of people I like (and sometimes, especially in film/TV, their participation is not always immediately evident; one might be surprised by an IMDb listing).

3. In the one field where my public opinion does have weight — science fiction and fantasy publishing — I am very sensitive to the fact that if I thoughtlessly crap on someone else’s work, it could have a negative impact on them and me, since I will look like a real dick punching down on others. Generally speaking I don’t want to be that guy. So even if I have public beef with someone in the community, and at this point it’s been years since I have had, by and large I leave their work out of it. There have been exceptions to this, but very few, and I don’t think any of them were actual in-depth reviews.

4. Finally, philosophically speaking, creating is hard, and outside of some vanishingly rare examples of people trying to simultaneously sabotage a contract while still fulfilling it to the specific letter of the law, no one starts creating with the intent to make something bad. At this point in my life, unless I have a really good reason to do otherwise, when I see creative output I think is bad, I try to remember someone at least tried to give someone else joy with their work. And, sure, they fucked it up, but I can honor the attempt, and not call out the failure — which, among other things, might be a failure only to me; someone else might love it.

None of this is really about worrying about curtailing my business opportunities; it’s more about trying to be a decent person to other creative people.

Now, nothing here should be understood to suggest that negative criticism a) shouldn’t be allowed, b) isn’t useful, c) is put out by shitty people just to be shitty. As noted above, over the course of time I’ve written plenty of negative criticism. Negative criticism can be useful and is often necessary, and importantly, it’s almost never for the creators themselves. I’ve written about this in full elsewhere, so you can go look at that if you like. All that I’m saying is that unless I personally have a truly compelling reason to write a negative review, these days, I don’t.

(Also, and almost as an aside, I am entirely unconcerned about whether, if I write a negative critique of something, I will get a negative critique back. It almost never works that way, and also, dude, I get so many negative reviews anyway. I’m not worried about negative reviews in a general sense, because I was a pro critic and I understand better than most that negative reviews are just the cost of doing business. Also, and this may just me, I enjoy a good negative review and kind of always have. It’s nice someone cared enough to really hate something I did.)

So, no. I don’t pull punches in reviews or critiques because I worry about repercussions. But I won’t punch something if a small tap will do, and most of the time, these days, I won’t bother to punch at all.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

The Big Idea: Tone Milazzo

Get out your comic books: Author Tone Milazzo is thinking about the super humans that populate our popular culture, and how they relate to the themes of his new book, The Faith Machine.

TONE MILAZZO:

It took me decades realize some pretty obvious things about superheroes.

For example: Batman will never stop the Joker from killing, not for good. When Bats takes the Joker back to Arkham Asylum at the end of a comic, it’s a carpool. Just a guy giving the Joker a ride home after work. For all his struggles, the best Batman can do is maintain the status quo. He has to if there’s going to be more Batman vs. Joker stories. Batman wins the battles, but he’ll never win the war, and the Joker gets away.

I think a lot (too much) about what if superpowers were real. How would the criminal justice system, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military accommodate even bottom-tier superheroes and villains? Superheroes are in their own printed world, but aren’t a part of their world. Heroes want to fix their world’s problems. But the publishers won’t let them. If you drop someone like Superman or Spider-man into a world like ours, they start changing things, and that world spins off into something unrecognizable (and, from a publisher’s point-of-view, unmarketable).

That hasn’t stopped superheroes from lurching toward realism since Marvel’s initial line up was set in New York instead of Fictional City, USA. A decade later, Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams challenged Green Lantern/Green Arrow with the real problems of drugs and racism. They brought Batman down to earth as well, abandoning the last traces of his TV persona and redefining him as The Dark Knight. A few years after that, Chris Claremont and John Byrne would bring complex, human relationships into The Uncanny X-Men at Marvel. Each of these legendary creative teams brought superheroes a step away from the simple, pulp origins of the 40s.

Come 1986, and two titles, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns dragged superheroes as far as they could into the real world, and dragged me, as a reader, along with them. I wanted stories that brought my childhood heroes into adulthood with me, a thick layer of nostalgia to protect me from the real world, but without the corniness. Any comic that professed, “This is what real life superheroes would be like,” had my money. Thus began the Dark Age of comics. The age of gritty anti-heroes whose imperfections outweighed their virtues. That’s what I thought I wanted. Until ten years ago, when two grassroots political movements emerged and were destroyed.

Occupy Wall Street was oppressed as law enforcement persecuted its members and leadership. Meanwhile, the Tea Party was exploited by Republicans for their votes and funds while giving nothing back. I saw new powers destroyed or manipulated by the existing powers. If this is how upstart political powers were treated in the real world, why not superpowers?

In this context, I finally realized this reality informed both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The Comedian and Dr Manhattan worked for the government, while the rest of the Watchmen were outlawed. Superman worked for the President, while law enforcement hunted The Dark Knight. I hadn’t seen this message about power under the Dark Age’s thick layer of grim and gritty.

The only way I could come to terms with superhero fiction was to write my own. Superheroes whose actions change and improve their world, but with a tension between superpowers and the established powers. My own lurch toward realism. For that, I needed a setting.

That came to me while reading The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson’s non-fiction book on Cold War psychic warfare programs. According to first-hand accounts by the participants, members of the US Army’s First Earth Battalion were capable of clairvoyance, stealth, and the titular remote slaying of farm animals. They were superhuman and part of the intelligence community under the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). What if these “agents of the mind” existed, operating among us? Striking in secret with subtle powers, but still servants to greater, mundane powers?

Psychic espionage became the framework for exploring these themes of power in the The Faith Machine. A clandestine world where power doesn’t flex along a strict line between flashy good guys and bad guys. It’s hundreds of factions aligned to nations, criminal justice systems, economics, technology, intelligence, and the military, all at each other’s throats, usually for selfish reasons. When nascent powers manifest in this world the extant power structures move in to destroy or employ them to maintain the status quo. A story about one of those nascent powers learning to fight back, and to win once and for all.

—-

The Faith Machine: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter|Facebook|Instagram

Reader Request Week 2020 #5: Me and Sports

A “Hilketa” player, ready to bash another player. Art by Tim Paul.

Go, team! Kevin Sims asks:

What are your views on professional and amateur sports? Do you have a favorite sport/team? You’ve created a fictitious sport in the Locked-In universe and one of the characters from those books was a legendary basketball player, but I’ve never read a blog or a tweet from you about sports in general.

Here’s a fun fact: In the late 90s/early 00s, I wrote several weekly newsletters for AOL, which they used as member retention tools, i.e. reasons for people to stay subscribed to the service when by that time one could just go out on the Internet. One of the newsletters I wrote was on sports, in which I, in the guise of a sports fan named “Bucky Blast,” would opine of the sports news of the day and solicit reader comment for the newsgroup forum.

It was, far and away, the most popular of the newsletters I wrote, with hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and the feedback I would get from them was that they really appreciated how knowledgeable and passionate “Bucky” was about sports. And truth to tell, it was also my favorite of the newsletters to write — it was fun, and it was nice to write something that a lot of people enjoyed and engaged with on a regular basis. I was sad to stop writing it when AOL eventually quit the newsletter business — or at least, quit wanting to pay me for them.

People who knew me were surprised both that I was writing a sports newsletter and that I enjoyed it, because, like Kevin here, as far as they knew I had never expressed much particular interest in sports, either as a fan or as an athlete. Likewise, Krissy is occasionally dumbfounded when at family gatherings or the company functions she brings me to as a spouse, I can fluently speak sports to cousins and coworkers even though she never ever sees me evince even the slightest interest in the activity at all.

So what gives?

Simply: I’m not actually a fan of sports — which is, I don’t passionately care about a particular sport or team, or the world of sports in general — but I find the phenomena of sports fascinating: How it functions in our society, how people respond to its structure and celebrities, and how we talk about it — and also, the conditions of excellence it requires, and the commitment one has to undertake to achieve that excellence. It’s an active part of the human condition and how could one (at least, the one that is me) not be interested in that?

Also, and I think this is important, I never really subscribed to the nerd/jock division that was prevalent in the culture when I was growing up, and still exists to a greater or lesser extent. I played sports in high school — I ran track and cross country and played soccer — and I went to a small enough high school that nearly everyone played sports of one sort or another. And so a lot of our nerds were jocks, and a lot of our jocks also did theater and so on. Then I went to the University of Chicago, where everyone was a nerd, even the jocks, and we were Division III in any event, i.e., the NCAA division where college sports were an affectation, not a revenue generator. All this was and is useful because it means I don’t have any deep-seated resentment of sports or the people who love them passionately. They’re not my tribe, but they’re not my enemy, either.

Anecdotally, that seems to be more often the case these days. It’s not a new or particularly interesting statement to make that there’s not all that much of a difference between sports fans and “nerd” fans. One wears their favorite team jerseys while the other wears t-shirts with their favorite media characters; one cosplays and the other paints themselves up in team colors; and so on. This is even more the case with the immense commercial rise of nerds in the last two decades: San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon (and all the other immense media conventions) fill up hotels and restaurants as effectively as a Super Bowl and have just as many celebrities showing up to be part of the proceedings, albeit different celebrities. And in these COVID times, both groups are feeling the same uncertainty of wondering when, if ever, they are going to gather again in their tens of thousands to celebrate their thing. The similarities are enough that to also note that there is these days a non-trivial overlap between sports fans and nerds — that people are entirely comfortable expressing their love for both the Cubs and Firefly — seems anticlimactic.

(And even more anticlimactic when you factor in the rise of eSports, which these days is the only sports anyone is getting at the moment! But that’s a subject that would require its own whole piece.)

Here’s another thing which I think contributes to my knowledge and interest in sports: As a journalist, I found sports writing consistently some of the best and most interesting journalism out there — some of the most readable, in fact, so I enjoyed reading it. Sports journalists were allowed to write with style and sarcasm and sentimentality that journalists reporting on news and politics were usually not allowed, for various reasons. Like entertainment reporting, where I worked, sports journalism was more “feature-y” on a regular basis, which allowed the writers to get away with more. It’s fun to write and fun to read. So I would — and do! — read a lot of it. And when you read a lot about anything, you tend to pick up a knowledge base about it.

Add this all up and it means that I have an interest in, and knowledge of, sports, even if at the end of the day it’s not “my thing.” It’s not! But it’s cool if it’s your thing, so long as you’re not a dick about it to others. Please note that “Enjoy your thing, but don’t be a dick about it” is a general mantra, not one relating directly to sports fans.

Now as relates to me directly: I don’t really have favorite sports teams, excepting some vague residual affection for the Dodgers, Lakers and Kings because they were the local teams when I was growing up. I don’t watch sports on TV although I enjoy going to live sports events with friends, because, you know, friends. I think Division I college football and basketball are a racket, but living in Ohio I’m also aware the entire state’s mood is affected by how well Ohio State’s teams are doing, which I find fascinating. I have affection for minor leagues and weird sports and will sometimes buy jerseys from minor league teams/sports with amusing names.

I play in a fantasy football league every year with friends and let the computer pick my team, a fact which everyone else in the league knows, so when my team beats theirs (occasionally) or wins the season (much rarer, but has happened) it annoys the fuck out of them, because they all made an effort. I like the sports movies of Ron Shelton, particularly Bull Durham, which I think is probably the best movie about baseball ever made. If I had to pick two sports to watch for the rest of eternity, I would probably pick curling and Australian Rules Football, the former because it’s a ridiculous sport right down to its pants, and the latter because I have absolutely no understanding of how it’s played even after looking up the rules. It just looks like dudes in togs running around with a ball, and honestly, that level of complete chaos appeals to me.

Finally: Hilketa, which is the sport I created in Head On, was an immense amount of fun to create and put together and I would absolutely love to make a video game or table top game based on it, I think it would be absolutely huge — the perfect eSport, in fact. Game makers, talk to my people about it.

I think that covers me and sports! Bucky Blast, heading to the showers.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

We are all searchers of truth — some more than others. Dan Moren is thinking about the truthseekers in this Big Idea piece for his new novel, The Aleph Extraction.

DAN MOREN:

Truth is a binary concept: either something is true, or it isn’t.

Or is it?

As a certain Jedi Knight—and questionable teacher—once said, “many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

When writing any story, truth becomes a much more slippery concept for the characters, the reader, and even the writer. That’s especially true when you’re dealing with the shady realms of spies, criminals, and legends, as in my latest novel, The Aleph Extraction,

As Aleph opens, Commonwealth covert operative Simon Kovalic and his team are sent after the Aleph Tablet, a legendary artifact that’s believed to contain secrets which could tip the balance of the ongoing Galactic Cold War. Are those secrets real? Is the artifact they’re searching for actually the genuine article? Does the “real” artifact even exist, or is it all just a myth?

The idea for the Aleph Tablet stemmed from my fascination with the Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone that’s one of the oldest pieces of archaeological evidence mentioning events from the Bible. I first came across the Mesha Stele in one of my Near Eastern Studies courses in college and, as someone raised by a pair of parents who were not particularly religious—one a mostly secular Jew, the other a lapsed Catholic—I was captivated by discovering the “truth” of religion. With the customary self-assuredness of a twenty-year-old, I figured that hard evidence must lead in a direct line towards capital-T, universal Truth.

A year or so after I learned about the Mesha Stele, I was traveling abroad in France and turned a corner in the Louvre only to come face-to-face with the stone itself. But as amazed and awed as I was to see it with my own eyes, what didn’t happen was an Indiana Jones moment, where I was confronted by the incontrovertible truth, beams of energy shooting forth as from the Ark of the Covenant—probably a good thing, since ouch.

Maybe it was because the stone was smaller in person, maybe it was because it was just tucked away in some random alcove in a museum, but for me, the truth of it in that moment was less earth-shattering than I’d hoped. Ultimately, the Mesha Stele is a window into historical events, but it neither confirmed nor denied truth.

That was a milestone in a lifelong journey, where I’ve learned that “truth” isn’t always synonymous with “fact.” Truth can be far more personal, such as one’s belief in a higher power. It’s something that one needs to search out for oneself, and it can take a long time—for some, their whole lives. Others might never find it.

All of the main characters in The Aleph Extraction are searching for truth in one way or another. Kovalic wants to know if the suspicions about his boss’s ulterior motives are true; daredevil pilot Eli Brody wants the truth of what happened between Kovalic and their former team member Aaron Page; and new recruit Addy Sayers, well, she wants to know if the future that Kovalic and his team promise can truly live up to her expectations.

As an author, you have to know the truth of your story, even if your characters don’t. Keeping track of what different characters know—and, more to the point, what they think they know—can be a tricky proposition. As the omniscient force behind the scenes, you can see the whole picture, but you want to be careful about how you dole out that information to the characters and to the reader—especially, if you’re building for a big reveal.

Every story depends at least in part on withholding the truth, whether it’s your classic whodunnit or a mainstream literary novel. Fundamentally, if your readers know everything that’s going to happen, then there’s not much reason for them to keep reading.

Character’s points of view are a lens through which you can present the reader with a facet of the truth. Those characters may have doubts and questions, or they may be convinced that they—and perhaps only they—know the real truth. They may even avoid confronting truths that are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

By the time The Aleph Extraction comes to a close, all the characters have had to grapple with truth and decide whether they can live with it.

I can relate: the older I get, the more I come to grips with everything I don’t know—and may never know. Having recently turned 40, the idea of ever getting to some sort of universal Truth seems further away than ever, especially given the world we live in, where the very idea of truth has become a weapon to be wielded in the service of opinion.

Ultimately, I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that some truths are unknowable, destined to forever remain a mystery. Is the Aleph Tablet one of those? You’ll just have to read the book to find out.

—-

The Aleph Extraction: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Apple Books

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

Reader Request Week 2020 #4: What It’s Like To Be a Cis Straight Man

Allison asks:

What is it like being a cisgender straight man?

I ask because I’m a trans woman who spent 50+ years living (or at least trying to live) according to the assumption that I was a man, but could never make any sense of the men around me. I couldn’t figure out why they did what they did, nor how they they related to one another. I just never “got it.”

By contrast, women have always made sense to me (even when I thought they were being cuckoo), and I find I can even relate to most trans men reasonably well.

I don’t know if you can do anything with my question, but I thought I’d throw it out there.

I can’t speak for all cis straight dudes, but I can tell you my experience of it, which is:

Being a cisgender straight man is thoughtless.

By which I don’t (necessarily) mean that being a cisgender straight man is about being “thoughtless” (i.e., a heedless jerk, unintentionally or intentionally), or that it means we cisgender straight men are all thoughtless in that manner. What I mean is that because being cisgender, and straight, and a man, are all cultural defaults, I don’t have to expend any sort of thought on being them or relating to world as those, if I choose not to.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to not think about these particular things. I just… don’t think about them. I don’t think about my gender expression or my sexuality or my maleness pretty much the same way I don’t think about geese, or garden hoses, or Nepal. They’re not things I have think about on a regular basis, and I don’t have a particular interest in any of them, so, yeah. What’s it like to not think about Nepal? If you can imagine that, you can imagine me not thinking about my gender expression, or sexuality, or maleness.

I mean, I can think about my cisness, and my straightness, and my maleness, just like I can think about Nepal. I could concern myself very passionately about Nepal if I wanted to, learn all about it beyond what I know now, which is mostly that it’s the place where we keep the Himalayas and Kathmandu, something something Doctor Strange and Marian Ravenswood, aaaaaand that’s about it (Oh! And it has a pennant for a national flag). If I do think about Nepal in a more than cursory manner, I might learn something, and appreciate more about the world and my place in it, and possibly become a better person with a larger understanding of others. It might behoove me to learn more about Nepal.

But, and this is the thing, there is no actual penalty for me if I don’t. I live in the US! I have no business with Nepal at all! If I don’t think about Nepal, my life does not materially or significantly change. Thinking about Nepal is optional for me. Just like thinking about my cisness, straightness and maleness. I can think about these things, or not.

So frequently I don’t! I don’t have to give much thought to my gender presentation, because my gender presentation largely follows the norm, and as a result, when I’m out in the world no one thinks of that presentation as remarkable or objectionable, and I don’t feel any internal conflict between who I am and how I present.

I don’t have to give much thought to my sexual identity, because my sexual identity also largely follows the norm, and there is, almost without exception, no penalty for being straight in our culture. I don’t have to explain it or rationalize it or defend it. It just is.

As for being a man: Well. No one’s telling me what to do with my body, or making me uncomfortable being in the world, and again with very rare exceptions I don’t have to worry about going from one place to another, or being anywhere, or how to dress or how to exist, etc. I don’t have to think about much of anything about being a dude.

When you don’t have to think about these things all the time, guess what? You don’t! I can expend my brain cycles on other things, not relating to existing in the world. Which makes existing in the world, and this life, less difficult for me than for a lot of other people. I may have touched on this before, a time or two.

In our society, the highest privilege is being able to have the option not to have to think on your privilege, or lack thereof. As a cis straight man (who is also white, and also able-bodied, and also well-off), all my privilege checking is allowed to be optional and conditional. I do check in on my privilege, and try to understand it, and try to be a decent person in navigating it. But most of the time, I’m just getting on with my life, in a world that’s designed to be largely frictionless for who I am.

What’s that like? It’s pretty great, if I think about it, which I suspect I do more than many cis straight dudes, but still not nearly as much as people who aren’t cis, or straight, or men. Most of the time, I simply take it for granted, because I can, and because I have other things I want to think about.

It would be nice if everyone had the luxury I do, to be thoughtless about who they are because there’s no reason not to be, and they won’t be materially penalized by the culture, and by other people, for who they are and how they choose to be in the world. And that, at least, is something I should be thoughtful about, and try to work toward, as I move through this life.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #3: Becoming More Ourselves

Who are we, really? Or as dchotin asks:

My grandmother used to say that as she grew older, she didn’t change, she just became more the way she was. I’ve always thought there’s a lot of truth to that – people don’t really change as they grow old, but aspects of their personalities become highlighted. Do you think that’s true? What do you see being highlighted in yourself?

I think your grandmother can be correct. But a lot depends on the person, and their choices.

Take, as an example, me. I very strongly feel a thread of continuity from the person I was at fifteen, and the person I am at 51 — the things I see in my personality as virtues are there at fifteen, waiting to be developed, and the things I see as flaws are also there, ready to be unleashed. At fifteen I was already observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative, and so on. All of it there, all basically ready for me to start making choices about which of these things I would put into play, and paying attention to which of these things would get me what I wanted.

At 51, I am still observant and lazy and funny and attention-seeking and sensitive and manipulative (and so on), and I am also the sum of my choices about how to use all of those tools, both positive and negative. I have to say that broadly speaking, the choices I made have turned out pretty well for me: I got to be who I wanted to be when I grew up, and getting to be who I wanted to be when I grew up did not turn out to be a curse. And I think that the people who knew me at 15 can (and in fact, do) look at me now and say, yup, we could see the person you are now in the person you were then. I’m me, as I’ve always been me, just refined.

Which is great — except that I’m also aware that, had I made different choices, or if my life circumstances had been a little different, my life now could be wildly different in a number of ways — and yet the people who knew me at fifteen could still look at me and say, yup, we could see who you are now in who you were then. All the ingredients of who I am would still have been there. I simply would have mixed them differently, and gotten different results.

So your grandma is right. But she’d largely be right no matter what would have happened in the course of a person’s life — different circumstances require different aspects of one’s personality to come to the fore. Barring trauma that materially changes aspects of one’s personality, we play the personality cards we were dealt by our genetics, in the game that is provided by our environment. This last sentence is, shall we say, a grossly oversimplified metaphor for life. But I think you get what I’m aiming for.

I do often think about how my life would be different — and how I would be different — if certain things had turned out differently. Who would I be now if I had a stable childhood? If I had not gone to the high school or college that I did? If I had not gotten the first job I did? If Krissy and I had never met? If I had written a thriller instead of a science fiction book when I first sat down to write a novel? In every case, who I’d become then would not be the person I am now — but the person I would be is someone I think could still see a continuity to that fifteen-year-old me, and probably see the person he was now as, if not inevitable, at least highly probable.

Which is to say that out in the multiverse, there are many different iterations of me, each of them a lot like me, all logically derived from the same 15-year-old me, but different enough that I strongly suspect you would be able to tell us apart after a few minutes of conversation. It would be fascinating to get to meet some of them and chat with them and see how their version of life had gone up to this point. If some of them were novelists, we could totally swap books, and then suddenly all of us would have a decade or so of new novels to release without having to work at it! I like this plan. Because, remember, I’m lazy.

I will also note that at age 51, I’m not done with this — I am still making choices and I’m still deciding which parts of my personality to put to the front, and that will have an effect on who I am at 52, and at 60, and at 75 and so on (provided I live to these ages). I am reasonably cognizant of my virtues and also of my vices at this point in my life, so that’s nice. But that doesn’t mean I’m always going to make good choices, because I’m human, and you know how they are. I’m lazy and be petty and cranky and mean and tired and occasionally dimwitted just like anyone else. I’m not perfect, and I know that about myself.

Often, when I am confronted with choices I have to make, or wonder how to be in the world, this is what I do: I cosplay as a better version of myself, and choose my actions accordingly. This has the short-term advantage of generally helping me to make better choices, and the long-term advantage of, if you pretend to be a better version of yourself long enough, the chances of you actually becoming that better version are somewhat higher.

And then when you do, you can look back and see that who you are is who you’ve always been. Just, as your grandmother said, more so.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #2: The Hellish Swill I Consume

This question, from (and here I assume this is a WordPress error rather than the actual name, but even so) g2-772325788f49f5257c84be1c8310f9d7:

To a long-committed healthful foodie, your apparent diet is quite horrifying. How often, if ever, do you consume plant “superfoods” such as carrots, kale, collards, broccoli, winter squash, sweet potatoes, chard, etc, etc, not to mention whole grains, beans and so on?

I work at least two or three of such superfoods into each day’s menu, and couldn’t survive on the hellish swill you so often highlight.

“Hellish swill”?!? I mean, damn.

So, two things:

1. I’m still alive — and healthy! — at age 51, even with this apparent diet, so there’s that.

2. The key word here is “apparent.”

In fact, I do eat carrots and broccoli and sweet potatoes and beans and such on a regular basis, although I don’t go out of my way to call them “superfoods” — that’s a marketing term, not an actual scientific designation — they’re just, you know, vegetables and fruits and stuff. I eat vegetables and fruit regularly because I like vegetables and fruits, and also (and I suspect this is to the point) because it’s a good thing to eat more than just heavily processed foods high in fat and sugar and empty calories.

(And here Krissy, who is about whilst I am typing this, says, “You eat fruit a lot, but you don’t eat vegetables unless I make them,” to which I said, “Yes, but you make them often,” to which she said “but not that often,” to which I recounted all the times in the last couple of weeks she’s made vegetables with dinner, to which she rolled her eyes at me. So, uh, yeah, vegetables?)

I don’t usually blog about the fruits and vegetables I eat because there’s nothing particularly unusual about eating fruits and vegetables — or, indeed, most of the other perfectly normal and largely healthy foods I eat on a regular basis — whereas the “burritos” I make from the leftovers I have in the fridge are usually heinous in some way that’s amusing enough to post. I should note that I eat burritos that aren’t particularly notable in terms of their contents, too, but I don’t post about those. In general, I don’t post most of my food. It’s not that interesting. Please do not confuse what I present here and on social media for actual general caloric intake.

(This is where I point out again that the John Scalzi you see here and on social media is a real and actual John Scalzi, and also a John Scalzi that is tuned for online performance and engagement. This includes showing off questionable foods because it’s funny, and not showing off the normal food, because it’s boring.)

That said, I will note that I am eating in a (somewhat) more healthy manner than I was a couple of years ago, because when I started making a concerted effort to get in better shape at the end of December 2018, part of that was not only trimming back the amount of calories I was putting into myself, but looking at the quality of those calories as well. So I eat relatively fewer empty calories now than I did before. I don’t want to overstate that, because I still eat a not-trivial amount of junk; I have a pretty serious sweet tooth and I don’t fight that much. That means I will still eat cheesecake and candy and what have you. But I do keep track of how much of it I eat, and work to balance it out with things that are better for me in the long run. Moderation! It’s boring but it turns out it works.

I do appreciate that people don’t want me to die of burritos and candy, which, bluntly, is a reasonable concern given that I’m on the old side of 50 now, and also I’m a writer, i.e., in a profession not known for being physically active (like, at all). But in fact I’m in better shape now than I have been in probably a decade, and I am actively keeping an eye on my health, which includes getting up to move on a regular basis, and looking at what I eat.

Yes, I eat crap, and tell you all about it when I do. But it’s not all I eat. I promise.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Reader Request Week 2020 #1: Being Politically Persuaded

It’s time for this year’s Reader Request Week! Let’s dive right in, and why not dive into the deep end? GB Miller asks:

I think over the years you’ve made your political beliefs quite crystal clear. Have you ever legitimately considered/agree with any viewpoint that came from the other side of the spectrum?

I’m gonna argue with some of the particulars of this question, because a) I don’t necessarily agree that I’ve made my political beliefs “crystal clear,” and b) I don’t agree with the formulation of politics as being on a linear spectrum. So let me address both of those before addressing the heart of the issue: Whether I consider political viewpoints that are different from mine.

First: Have I made my political beliefs crystal clear? I have certainly made my political opinions of the day clear  — I have a three-decade track record of publicly talking about politics. But this is where I remind people that what I talk about publicly is not the entirety of my thinking, or of my action, and also, it’s important to note that people having positions on particular political topics does not in itself necessarily offer much insight into their political beliefs. Many liberals and many libertarians, for example, believe sex workers should be able to ply their trade openly and without social/economic/legal penalty, but the underlying beliefs that lead to that agreement are widely apart. And independent (heh) of political belief, there’s a fundamental difference between the position of “I should be able to work as a sex worker without penalty” and “I should be able to pay for sex work without penalty,” which leads two often very disparate cohorts to agree on the political topic of sex work.

If you know what I (or anyone) think on a political topic, what you know is what I (or anyone) think on that particular subject. Unless I delve deeply into the ethos and philosophy that led me to that point, however, you can’t say you know much of the underlying political belief. You can argue, with some justification, that there is a significant correlation between one’s thoughts on a set of political topics, and an underlying political ethos. But correlation is not causation, and one can be led astray.

Moreover, there’s a very large difference between how people see their own political beliefs, and how others often see them. I tend to think of myself as an inherently conservative person, motivated by an underlying philosophy of rationality and individual liberty, balanced by the practical issues of how to make a nation of 330 million as livable as possible for the largest number of its citizens. The Internet, on the other hand, often sees me a screaming socialist communist liberal who wants your guns and your freedoms.

Who is correct? Well, I live in my head, so I have a better idea of my own thinking. But I’m also human and prone to self-idealization. “The Internet” in this case is shorthand for people who superficially oppose my positions on political topics, and have the need to both gamify political discourse and simplify the world into “sides,” because binary systems are so much easier to deal with: Either you’re with us or against us. But again — hold a large enough set of personal political opinions, and the correlation with a “side” becomes stronger. So maybe these gamifiers and simplifiers aren’t entirely wrong.

Again, however, it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. It’s entirely possible that what I see as my personal inherent conservatism and belief in individual liberty within a system meant to benefit the largest number of people can lead me to espouse what are currently seen as (at the moment but not necessarily historically) intensely “liberal” positions. I am thinking of the cause of my political opinions; the Internet is seeing the effect of my political beliefs.

Second, and as a consequence of the first: Political sides are bullshit, and linear political spectrums are bullshit, and the fact that the political system in the United States has developed over the years to allow only two major parties at a time to control the discourse of politics is also bullshit, since it codifies “sides” to a vastly detrimental degree. We’re seeing the damage of that right now, as one of our major political parties has devolved into a tool of reactionaries who have almost no political philosophy other than cronyism, bigotry and a will to power. There is a philosophical reason I don’t belong to either major political party in the US, even if, as a practical matter, I find myself generally aligned to one of them and adamantly opposed to the current iteration of the other.

[Deleted: 3,000 word rant on this subject here, further expounding on the bullshit nature of “sides” and “political spectrums”]

There, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system —

— we can get to the question of whether or not I’ve ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that comes from a different “side of the spectrum.” Specifically: No, because as noted, “sides” and “spectrums” are bullshit.

I think the more useful question here, and the one that I think gets to the point of what was asked in the first place: Have I ever considered or agreed with a viewpoint that is different than mine on any particular political topic? Yes, and primarily for two reasons:

1. I think it’s useful and necessary, as a politically acting and thinking individual, to understand the wider landscape of current political thought, specifically in the US (because I live here) and in the rest of the world to a lesser extent;

2. I think it’s useful to interrogate one’s own political positions and assumptions, and one of the better ways to do that is to find people who disagree with those positions and read what they have to say to see if it exposes flaws in one’s own thinking.

So, as it happens, I read and consider a fair amount of writing from people whose positions on political topics are different from mine. Do I ever find this writing persuasive? Sometimes! There have been times when I have been provided with a deeper historical or cultural understanding of a topic that has required me to incorporate that knowledge into my own thinking. Other times I learn that an understanding I had on a topic was based on an error, and I needed to re-examine my position based on that information. Sometimes with new information my position changed to a different position I felt was justifiable. And, of course, sometimes I went, “Oh, that’s interesting, but, yeah, I don’t find that reasoning compelling,” and kept my opinion.

Have I ever changed my mind entirely based on someone else’s viewpoint? Not generally based on a single piece of writing or argument, no; I would argue that my position on a topic would not be particularly strongly held if a single piece of writing could fundamentally alter my understanding on it. But a single piece can inform my thinking on a topic, and from there further reading/consideration can influence my thinking, alter it and over time change it significantly from where it was when I began thinking about the topic with any seriousness.

I don’t want to overstate my intellectual malleability, mind you. Because I have an underlying political ethos (as noted above), some aspects of my political thinking are more resistant to change than others, and it would take a lot of doing to move those. But there are topics for which I don’t have particularly strong opinions, or alternately new topics for which I don’t have a whole lot of information, where a single piece of argument, compellingly presented, can be significantly persuasive on my thinking and understanding.

Moreover, I don’t particularly find it difficult, or intellectually dissonant, to find common cause with people whose opinions on political topics I might otherwise generally disagree with. There are number of people in the US who consider themselves political conservatives who are (rightly, pun intended) appalled by the Trump administration and the GOP’s general willingness to abandon what are supposed to be its principles in order to dive head-first into the kakistocracy the current administration has wrought. Hey, we agree on this, and weirdly, for many if not most of the same reasons! Does this means we are now political BFFs forever? Nah. But on this topic I will take all the help I can get.

I will say that one of the things I do find tragic about the hazy electron shell of political positions that constitute the self-identified “right” in the United States today is that, while there is shitty political discourse all over the scatterplot of US politics, the shittiness of the discourse of the right is far closer to its mainstream than it is elsewhere — bad arguments abound and morally reprehensible positions are defended because, well, look who is in the White House, and authority must be defended, always.

Worse, much of this is by design — any organization that offers political opinion can offer up shitty hot takes on the topics of the day, but for places like Fox News and Breitbart and The Federalist (to offer three examples, each in logarithmically decreasing levels of respectability), being disinformative is the point — Sean Hannity and whatever poor desperate hacks the Federalist has sucking on its billionaire teat at the moment are not interested in sound argument. They want to muddy the rhetorical water and play as much “Debate: The Gathering” as possible because the destruction of clarity and logic in politics serves their purpose, or more accurately, the purpose of those paying them. Propaganda is not only the tool of the American “right,” as a quick glance through history (and the Internet) will show us. But the American right leads with it right now, because it must.

Needless to say, I do not find those “viewpoints” compelling. I find them disheartening, not only on the macro level of “what the fuck are you doing, Jefferson and Hamilton both would find common cause to kick your ass,” but also on the personal level of, when it turns out that one’s publicly stated political viewpoints are binned reductively on the “left,” it’s more difficult to find people on the self-identified “right” who can make a coherent argument on those viewpoints because “make a coherent argument” is not a priority in that sphere right now. That’s bad news for me, and much worse news for the country and planet.

What I’m saying is: I do consider viewpoints that are not my own. I wish right now that I was getting better arguments interrogating the viewpoints I currently have.

(There’s still time to get in questions for this year’s Reader Request Week! Go here to ask your question.)

Krissy, Mother’s Day 2020

In addition to being my birthday, today is Mother’s Day, which gives me all the pretense I need to show off this portrait of Krissy, who is, after all, a mom. And a very good one, if I do say so myself.

Also, I’m pretty happy with this new camera.

51

You know what, 50 was a pretty good year overall. Not for the world, sorry; for the world the last 366 days have been a bit shit, and while I’m not really responsible for any of that I still regret that we all had to slog through that. But for me — pretty reasonable! I got myself into the shape I wanted to be in, I wrote a book and a novella and some other things, got to see friends and spent time with family and pets, and popped up into the NYT Bestseller list near the end of it. There were ups and downs in there, but there are always ups and downs. In the end, however, for me, everything tootled along nicely. The enforced sequestration of the entire planet has certainly been a thing, but that’s definitely not just me dealing with that.

I have apprehensions about what the next 365 days will bring. There virus is still out there, despite our national and various state governments wanting very hard to pretend it isn’t, and I don’t think our world economy is just going to spring back as if nothing happened (in no small part due to the fact that the virus is still out there). I think we’re all dancing as fast as we can at the moment, trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. I don’t think any of us really know. We’re going to find out. Oh, and also, there’s an election in November. Plan ahead, please. Like, right now.

For all that, I personally feel okay going into the next year. Ultimately I am a fairly optimistic person — or at least, if not optimistic, then curious. I want to find out where the story goes from here. I always have. Maybe that’s why I became a writer. I have my own plans as well, world and time allowing. I’m looking forward to getting to it.

A Goal Entirely Hit, Addendum

You may recall that some time ago I had felt out of shape and was unhappy with it. After hitting a high weight of nearly 200 pounds, and also feeling tired walking up stairs, I set a goal of getting down to 170 pounds. With regular exercise and calorie counting, I hit that goal last July (in fact, ten months ago today).

At the point I had to decide whether to sit pat (i.e., maintain that weight) or keep going a little further. I decided on the latter, but on a more relaxed basis: I wanted to get to about 165 pounds, which for various reasons I think is an ideal weight for me, but I didn’t want to set a particular timeframe on it. I adjusted my calorie counting scheme to lose just a little bit on a weekly basis and tweaked my exercise to be a bit less strenuous, and then just settled in to see what happened next.

What happened next is that this morning I crossed over the 165 pound mark (I was at 165.1 pounds yesterday morning, which was annoying for the perfectionist in me) and hit that goal in ten months, which is an interesting contrast to the amount of time it took to drop 25 pounds (seven months) when I was really working on it. The chart features some swings on it — you can see the peak where I went on this year’s Joco Cruise pretty clearly — but generally speaking it was a long, slow glide to dropping that last five pounds.

Now that I’ve hit 165, what’s next? Nothing! More accurately, I don’t have any ambition to lose any more weight, so now the goal is basically to maintain current weight (plus or minus a couple pounds) for the foreseeable future. This goal may be tweaked if, for example, I decide to exercise more and as a consequence build more muscle mass (which is denser than fat and thus might increase my weight without adding bulk), but generally this weight is one where I generally conform with my own image of myself, so, yes. Good enough! Time to declare victory!

If nothing else, it’s nice to hit this particular goal on the final day of my 50th year; I can start my 51st year pretty much exactly where I wanted to be in terms of physical shape. That’s a nice little gift to myself.

The Big Idea: Ilze Hugo

I’m going to use this intro part of this Big Idea piece to say that the cover of The Down Days, by Ilze Hugo, is probably my favorite book cover of the year. To date! There might be a better one down the line! But I suspect not. And now here’s the author to tell you about the book that merits such a fantastic bit of cover art. Spoiler: It’s super timely at the moment.

ILZE HUGO:

I stumbled onto the idea for my debut novel, The Down Days, while doing research for the Time Out Cape Town travel guide. I was visiting sightseeing attractions for research and on my list was a medical museum I’d never heard of that was hidden away behind one of the city’s hospitals.

Stepping inside, I found the usual array of weird historical medical memorabilia along with an exhibition on the history of disease in Cape Town that blew my mind. (Don’t get too excited and start dreaming about buying that plane ticket – the exhibition wasn’t much more than a few boards of text laid out in a row; no artefacts or fancy lights or audio or anything). But the ideas contained within the words on those boards made me think about epidemics in a way I’d never done before. Particularly the way epidemics have shaped my city.

Take scurvy, for example: If it wasn’t for scurvy, the Dutch East India Company wouldn’t have found the need to plant a veggie garden on the tip of Africa in the first place. During the 1600s, spices were a hot commodity. People went all ‘Dune’ for them. And getting them back to Europe was a death sentence for many. In fact, so many sailors were dying from scurvy while sailing between East and West that the Dutch East India Company had to come up with a plan. Their solution? Set up a pit-stop at the midway point and plant a veggie garden there. And so Cape Town was born.

The idea that viruses could shape a city culturally, socially and geographically. fascinated me, so I started doing more research on the cultural history of disease in Cape Town and abroad. What really struck me was the plethora of similarities in how humans responded to epidemics across different time periods and time zones. Every single epidemic seemed to be the same story on repeat. The history of epidemics was Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, stuck in the same loop, ad infinitum.

Take the way in which governments and society as a whole have consistently used epidemics as an excuse to further racial/political agendas and give a voice to really screwed up prejudices. (One South African example is how, during the Bubonic Plague outbreak in Cape Town, Africans needed a plague pass to travel because they were deemed ‘unclean’; their homes were also razed to the ground and they were sent to tented camps on the Cape Flats, while the houses of Europeans were merely disinfected.)

Another thing I found interesting was how myths, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire during each epidemic. And crazy made-up cures circulated, like drinking whiskey or bleach. (This spread of myths and fake news would later become a major theme of my book.)

So now I had something that really interested me. Epidemics and how they change history. With a lot of great historical material to use for world-building. I was all set and ready to write my novel, right? Umm, no. Not exactly.

There was a problem. Epidemics were well-worn territory. It seemed like every damn novelist and their mother had written one. Not to mention all the films on the topic. So, how to do it differently?

While I was planning and writing the book, South Africa was reeling from a wave of corruption scandals; we had a major electricity crisis; and a water crisis that seemed positively Apocalyptic. (In April 2018, the city announced that we were 3 months away from running out of municipal water. To curb the crisis and try and stop Day Zero, citizens were only allowed to use 50 litres a day. That’s about 13 gallons – less than a 6th of what the average American uses per day*.)

But although it felt like the world as we knew it was falling apart, people were still going about their daily lives. Adapting to all the load shedding schedules and water restrictions and the bizarre newspaper headlines that sounded like punchlines to one big cosmic joke. Moaning a bit, sure, sometimes even having sleepless nights, but mostly cracking jokes. Cause what else could we do? We just had to keep going. Falling in love, feeding the dog, paying the bills, putting on pants in the morning. (Although nowadays, thanks to self-isolation and Zoom, that too is optional.)

I couldn’t help thinking about all those classic post-apocalyptic films and novels where they make it seem like one day the world just crashes to a stop in a big ball of proverbial flames, the clock resets and the next moment we’re running around in mohawks and leather bikinis with guns strapped to our ankles, dodging cannibals and living off fried rats.  And about all the horrifying epidemics mankind have managed to weather and somehow survived throughout history.

Maybe that whole fried rat scenario wasn’t so realistic after all? Maybe the Apocalypse would be more of a slow fizzle, rather than a big bang. Maybe it wouldn’t even be so Apocalyptic after all. Because in among the doom and gloom, people are stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for. Whatever the universe seems to throw at us, we just roll with it and adapt. Humans seem to have a way of surviving against the odds. Like cockroaches.

Yes, that’s what I wanted to write about. Not another just depressing, slit your wrists, let’s all cry in a bucket and put on the spandex kind of Apocalypse. I wanted to write an apocalypse with hope. Full of craziness, sure. And chaos. And cults. And confusion. And corpse collecting. And quarantine. And mass hysteria. And ghosts. And hair thieves. And MMA Easter Bunnies. And masks. Of course, masks. (Crazy ones, fashionable ones and colourful ones.) But also… hope.

*According to this National Geographic article: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/02/cape-town-running-out-of-water-drought-taps-shutoff-other-cities/

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The Down Days: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Reader Request Week 2020: Get Your Questions In!

This upcoming week I have almost nothing scheduled, either in the real world or online, which honestly is a first for me in a real long time. I could just take a break, but where’s the fun in that? So: It’s time for the annual Reader Request Week, in which you pick the topics I write about for the next week here at Whatever. Always wanted to ask me a question? Want to see me opine on a topic of your choosing? See me dance like a monkey just because you can? This is the time and place for it!

(“Didn’t you just do a Reader Request Week?” I did one in November, yes, which is generally far later than I usually do them; I usually schedule them for March or April. So this is an attempt to get things back on the more usual schedule. Anyway, the last six months have been the equivalent of a decade, am I right? So I’m actually behind!)

You can ask any question on any topic — politics, social topics, personal queries, silly nonsense, it’s all up for grabs. Post your question in the comment thread, and I will go through the thread and pick the topics I’ll respond to, starting on Monday, May 11, and going through the entire week.

While any topic is up for request, I do have a couple of suggestions for you, when you’re making your topic selections.

1. Quality, not quantity. Rather than thinking of a bunch of general topic for me to address, which isn’t very interesting to me, and which is also like hogging the buffet, pick one very specific topic that you’re actually interested about — something you’ve thought about, and taken time to craft a question that will be interesting to me. I’m much more likely to pick that than look through a menu of very general topics.

2. Writing questions are given a lower priority. Me writing about writing is not unusual here, so for this week, writing topics are a secondary concern. But if you really want to ask a question about writing, go ahead, just remember that point one above will apply more to your question than most. It’ll have to be a pretty good question to stand out.

3. Don’t request topics I’ve recently written about. I’ve included the last five years of Reader Request topics below so you can see which ones are probably not going to be answered again. That said, if you want to ask a follow-up to any of the topics below, that’s perfectly acceptable as a topic. Also, for those of you wondering how to make a request, each of the posts features the request in it, so you can see what’s worked before.

How do you submit requests? The simplest way to do it (and the way I prefer, incidentally) is to put them in the comment thread attached to this entry. But if you have a reason not to want to have your request out in public, the other option is to send me e-mail (put “Reader Request Week” in the subject head so I don’t have to hunt for it).

Please don’t send requests via Twitter or Facebook, since I don’t always see those. I credit those whose topics I write on, but feel free to use a pseudonym if you’re asking something you’d prefer not to have attached to your real name.

Here are topics from the last few years:

From 2015: 

Reader Request Week 2015 #1: Free Speech Or Not
Reader Request Week 2015 #2: Ego Searching Redux
Reader Request Week 2015 #3: Raising Strong Women
Reader Request Week 2015 #4: Bullies and Me
Reader Request Week 2015 #5: A Boy Named John
Reader Request Week 2015 #6: Me and Republicans
Reader Request Week 2015 #7: My Dream Retirement
Reader Request Week 2015 #8: On Being an Egotistical Jackass
Reader Request Week 2015 #9: Writing Related Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2015 #10: Short Bits

From 2016:

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

From 2017:

Reader Request Week 2017 #1: Punching Nazis
Reader Request Week 2017 #2: Those Darn Millennials
Reader Request Week 2017 #3: Utopias
Reader Request Week 2017 #4: Haters and How I Deal With Them
Reader Request Week 2017 #5: Remembering Dreams
Reader Request Week 2017 #6: Reading as Performance
Reader Request Week 2017 #7: Parents, Their Age, and Their Kids
Reader Request Week 2017 #8: The Path to Publication
Reader Request Week 2017 #9: Writery Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2017 #10: Short Bits

From 2018:

Reader Request Week 2018 #1: Incels and Other Misogynists
Reader Request Week 2018 #2: Our Pets and How We Treat Them
Reader Request Week 2018 #3: The Reputational Reset, or Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #4: Far-Left(?) Scalzi
Reader Request Week 2018 #5: Who’s Cool and Who’s Not
Reader Request Week 2018 #6: The Fall(?!?!?!) of Heinlein
Reader Request Week 2018 #7: Mortality
Reader Request Week 2018 #8: Public Speaking
Reader Request Week 2018 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2018 #10: Short Bits

From 2019:

Reader Request Week 2019 #1: Strange Experiences
Reader Request Week 2019 #2: The War Between the Generations
Reader Request Week 2019 #3: Blogging With Extreme Confidence
Reader Request Week 2019 #4: The Things You Outgrow
Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility
Reader Request Week 2019 #6: Being Entertained as an Artist
Reader Request Week 2019 #7: How My Wife Can Stand Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #8: 13-Year-Old Me
Reader Request Week 2019 #9: Writing Short Bits
Reader Request Week 2019 #10: Short Bits

Got it? Good. Then: Ask me what you really want to know! I might even tell you!

Spring Photos, May 7, 2020

Just playing with the new camera some more. 

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Start with cinematic dreams and stellar ambitions, and what do you get from there? For Laura Lam, you get Goldilocks, her new novel. She’s here to tell you how it all came together.

LAURA LAM:

I love astronaut films.

Gravity. Interstellar. The Martian. Armageddon. Ad Astra. The Mars TV show on Netflix that’s OK, not a film, and also half a documentary. Sunshine. Moon. Some are more scientifically plausible than others. They have tone and pacing ranging from cerebral and contemplative to high octane and a little silly.

I love the stakes of space, the vastness and unknown of it all. It keeps secrets, even as scientists are getting better at peering into its depths.  It reminds me that humans and the Earth are just a tiny speck in the grand scope of things.

Yet a lot of astronaut films arise from those initial machismo beginnings of the Mercury 7 and those who have The Right Stuff. And I love watching the space cowboy archetype. But in a lot of them, the female characters are relegated to people back on the surface, either as human computers, or comms people, or the astronaut’s wife (as happened to Liv Tyler twice in two different films). We’ve started seeing more women in space—Anne Hathaway in Interstellar, Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara in The Martian—but the only one that seems to star a woman is Gravity, with Sandra Bullock. That’s maybe my favourite astronaut film, but she’s also alone for the bulk of it.

I really wanted to see an astronaut film with a cast of women front and centre. Working together, relying on each other, and of course, starting to learn that they were all keeping secrets. So I started writing Goldilocks. Though as a book, not a screenplay, since I have no pull in Hollywood.

There’s so much fascinating space history, past and present, about people who weren’t the default picture of an astronaut that I hadn’t learned about until relatively recently. The Mercury 13, who took the same tests as the Mercury 7 and performed better but weren’t allowed to go into space anyway. The African American human computers highlighted in Hidden Figures. Margaret Hamilton, with that amazing phot of her standing next to the pile of code she wrote for Apollo 11 that’s taller than she is. Mae Jemison, who was the first African American astronaut in space AND was a character on an episode in Star Trek: Next Gen, which is so damn cool. We just had the first all-female space walk 6 months ago after the first one was cancelled because they didn’t have two space suits of the right size, and we still haven’t had a woman on the moon. There have been no openly trans and/or nonbinary astronauts yet as far as I am aware (although trans man Sam Long has been campaigning for it). We only found out Sally Ride was gay after she passed (or at least I did). I want more films and books about people like them. One of the Mercury 13, Wally Funk, is in her 80s and still trying to get into space through Virgin. Send Wally Funk to space!

The Mercury 13 in particular helped me coalesce the purpose behind Goldilocks. I imagined a future where bigotry kept rising, particularly of the sexist variety, since things like the Heartbeat Bills and the discourse around women running for politics were fresh in my mind. I tend to pitch the book as The Martian or Interstellar meets the Handmaid’s Tale, which works well enough as a shorthand starting point. Most books have a series of ‘what if?’ questions behind them that echo that underlying Big Idea, so mine would be:

What if Earth was dying and there was a potential lush and verdant Planet B, called Cavendish? What if the best people for the mission to go there were women, and a woman had even financed the bulk of building the spaceship, but at the last minute they were thrown off the mission to be replaced by men? What if they decided ‘screw that’ and stole the spaceship to save humanity anyway? Then what if after they left, things started really going to hell in a handbasket back on Earth? And what if everyone on board had secrets that, if unleashed, could fracture the trust they need to complete the mission?

I did a lot of research. I tried to keep the science reasonably accurate, with a few big extrapolations of our tech potential in the near future (warp drive, a gravity ring, etc). I do not have a scientific background, so I figured if I could describe things in a way that made sense to me, it would make sense to most other laypeople. I did a lot of solo research, but also ended up speaking to a critical care doctor who is a visiting research scientist for the Cardiovascular and Vision lab at NASA, the former head of life sciences for the Johnston Space Center in Houston, two astrophysicists, a professor of space law, an evolutionary biologist who runs a lab looking at algae in the context of climate change, and several experts in infectious diseases and vaccines, which made going into 2020 armed with that knowledge more than a little alarming.

So I wove in a love of science, my fears for the future of this planet, my favourite bits of astronaut films, and interpersonal dynamics of a group of women with ultimately very different ideas of what it means to save the future of humanity. It will probably never be translated to the big screen (though I guess you never know, I can dream), but damn if it wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun to imagine what it would be like to go into space and to have the right stuff.

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

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