Reader Request Week 2023 #10: Short Bits, Part Two

John Scalzi

More short answers to pressing questions! Let’s get right to it:

Theorboast: I would love to see you rate some unusual musical instruments for suitability in your band. Theorbo? Theremin? Hurdy-gurdy? Duduk and tar?

As it happens I do own a theremin, and also some other vaguely unusual musical instruments such as an Omnichord, a MandoTenor and a Banjolele. As a practical matter, however, I end up doing most of my stuff via a Digital Audio Workstation and a MIDI keyboard, with occasional guitar and bass.

Bradley: What are your thoughts on serialised webnovels as a genre, both for the reader and the writer?

I mean, that’s how I first presented Old Man’s War here, 21(!!) years ago. In general I think it’s a perfectly fine idea, although as a general practical issue, I would suggest writers actually have the thing done before serializing it; that way the output is not threatened by, you know, life taking a week or a month out of your schedule for non-writery things.

Carl: I assume you support the WGA strike. Are you a member? Any thoughts on the strike or how it will effect any pending film or television adaptations of your work?

I’m not a member; I don’t have enough points yet. If and when I can become a member, I will do so. As for the strike, I am a supporter of it, which should be no surprise as, aside from anything else, I am the former president of a writers organization where one of our chief concerns was adequate compensation for writers. The strike does affect at least some of the projects I have in development, which is, of course, fine. When the studios and networks want to get them back underway, there’s an easy way to do it: Treat the writers fairly.

Hugo: I’ve noticed that compared to authors of previous eras, bestselling authors these days don’t tend to write a lot of short fiction – whereas (for example) the Big 3 of the mid-20th Century SF had multiple short story collections. There is the odd author who has a lot of short stories, but they seem to be the exception, not the rule. Why do you think this is?

The short answer is that short stories don’t pay enough for someone to make a living, or a substantial part of their living, off of them, which is a thing that used to be possible. I myself tend to write short stories either for my own amusement or for a very specific strategic purpose, since the money usually isn’t there. The slightly longer answer is that some of the writing energy that used to go into short stories now goes into things like graphic novels or video games, which pay a reasonable amount for the effort.

BostonDan: Let’s admit that the output of ChatGPT currently resembles that of a clever but very lazy, plagiarizing high school student. Do you expect to be astonished by the 2030 version? Could you ever consider such a program to be “intelligent”?

I think AI is going to get very good at simulating and iterating what already exists — it’s already pretty good at that — but I don’t think it’s going to be by itself very good at original thought that will appeal to humans, because its intelligence, however one wishes to define it, is not human and never will be, even if it is trained on human intelligence. I’m curious what AI creativity would be, left to its own devices.

Icarus: I think you said that you still have a landline. What does your phone bill look like with taxes and such? how much does a phone call cost you if you do it from a landline these days?

We keep the landline these days basically because it’s bundled with our home internet access and it’s cheaper to get both than the internet alone. Don’t ask me why, that’s just how they do it. I haven’t made a phone call from it for years, and if someone calls it they get voicemail. Most humans we wish to speak to know to call us at our cell numbers these days, so what messages are left are usually political robocalls or people trying to scam us. I don’t generally respond to those.

Matt S: Where do you lean on the “nature vs nurture” spectrum for how parents raise kids? How much of a child’s successes and failures are accredible to the parents, their environment, and themselves?

I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” answer to that, and each child and each situation is different. Also, it’s never “nature versus nurture” anyway. “Nature” is what’s in your genes; “nurture” is what’s in your environment. They are complementary, not in opposition.

Justin Bowles: If IP wasn’t an issue, what book or series would you write from another writers work?

None; I’m really not interested in playing in other people’s universes. I did it once, with Fuzzy Nation, because I had a specific curiosity about what it would be like to write a “golden age” story with a more modern sensibility, and the particular story I used was in the public domain. Otherwise, I’m fine thinking up my own stuff.

Mechtroid: As a parent, what point did you decide “One kid is enough for us, thanks”?

We didn’t, biology did. Which is to say after Athena, Krissy miscarried and it was determined that the cause of that would make more kids unlikely. Adoption would have been an option, but we never really explored that and anyway, life was busy enough.

Logophage: What are your (current) thoughts on liking problematic things, and/or learning that things you like are problematic? 

Pretty much what they were before. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that art/artists you value aren’t perfect and that time may reveal their flaws; I think it’s okay to recognize that you don’t have to defend the problematic aspects of art/artists that have value to you; I think it’s okay to set aside the art/artists whose problematic aspects are now too great for you to ignore, even if they once had value to you. I have a whole bunch of art and artists that I am done with — I took value from them before but at this point I am content to put them aside. It helps, mind you, that there is so much other art from other artists that I can explore. I’m not at a loss for good art from interesting people.

That wraps us up for another year! Thank you, folks, for asking such interesting questions yet again. Let’s do this again, say, in roughly a year?

— JS

7 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2023 #10: Short Bits, Part Two”

  1. ” as a general practical issue, I would suggest writers actually have the thing done before serializing it;”

    And if George R.R. Martin had taken that advice, a lot of people would be considerably less distressed.

    Of course, they’d also have a lot less to read, but that’s another problem.

  2. I get a kick out of how you said, “…it’s never nature versus nature….” I like reading common sense that I don’t see elsewhere, as with your balanced take on “liking problematic things.”

  3. I didn’t know that Krissy had miscarried your 2nd child.

    My wife miscarried our potential 2nd child about 8 years ago. It almost never comes up now, but when it does my wife gets a little sad.

    Thank you, again, for expressing my feelings better than I could.

  4. “Also, it’s never “nature versus nurture” anyway. “Nature” is what’s in your genes; “nurture” is what’s in your environment. They are complementary, not in opposition.”

    Yes. So much of today’s world seems to be couched in “either-or” terms, and so much human interaction is treated as a zero sum game. Nuance, cooperation, and balance win every time.

  5. Apparently the latest thinking, based on work on twins identical and fraternal as well as lots of other work, is that it isn’t even nature plus nurture, we have to add in chance. Chance has been found to account for around 50% of the differences, because even gentetically identical twins aren’t. There are so many processes involved from the fertilised egg to the grown human, but a simple example: a neuron in the developing brain goes left and it links up with one neuron, right and it links up with a different one, multiplied by all of the neurons in the brain. And that’s just the processes in the body, nevermind the changes caused by different environmental factors even when you grow up in the same household. Which is one of those “makes sense once someone says it” things, but I still find rather mind blowing.

  6. We’d have big problems receiving phone calls at home without our landline (copper wires for the last portion, not part of internet service). Cell service in northern Denver suburbs is abysmal (two weeks ago I sent my wife a text as I left work – it arrived at home 20 minutes later, just as I did), while my home service always works. (We’ve gotten accustomed to receiving voicemail on our cells without them ever ringing.)

    I used to work in the part of Bell Labs that developed central office switches, so I’m somewhat familiar with the infrastructure. For a long time phone service over copper wire had (big) battery backups in the central office, so you’d have phone service even with the power out.

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