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/

—-

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.

—-

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

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

Sunset, 5/6/20

I think the new camera is gonna do just fine. Have a good evening, folks.

Meet the New Camera

It’s the new Nikon d780. And it’s a beaut.

“But, Scalzi,” I hear you say, “Why did you choose that one when [insert your favorite recent camera] is clearly the best one?”

Well:

1. Because I like, and am used to, shooting with Nikons. Switching over to some other brand would require a bit of a learning curve, and right about now I’m not feeling like I want to do learning curves. Also, I like dSLRs, including their form factor, the optical viewfinder, and their other utility — for example, the battery on the d780 is rated for 2200 pictures, while a mirrorless camera battery craps out at about 400.

2. Because I already have a fair bit of glass that corresponds to Nikon’s dSLR line, which meant a) I didn’t have to add on the expense of new lenses, b) I could use the lenses I had to their fullest extent (i.e., not every dSLR lens is fully functional with Nikon’s mirrorless line).

3. Because Nikon pretty much stuffed the guts of its Z6 mirrorless camera into the d780, and in “liveview mode,” i.e., looking at the back panel LCD rather than through the optical viewfinder, the d780 has pretty much all the functionality of Nikon’s mirrorless line. Basically, it’s like getting two Nikon cameras — a dSLR and a mirrorless — for the price of one! And that both appeals to the utility junkie in me, and gives me a bit of time to get used to mirrorless functionality, because it seems likely that SLR cameras are going out to pasture in the next couple of camera generations.

4. The d780 had the same 24.5 megapixel resolution as the d750, which in theory I was not in love with — I was thinking I wanted at least 36 for the next camera. But then I thought about what I use the camera for and also my own storage and workflow. And in point of fact 24.5 megapixels is more than enough for what I do (especially since I’m not exactly printing out most of what I shoot), and a 24 megapixel RAW file is not so much of a monster, size-wise, that I will run out of archive space… which I might with the RAW files from Sony’s 61-megapixel shooters, as an example. Additionally, all the reviews noted that the sensor in the d780 was excellent, in terms of its functionality — great colors and sensitivity and so on. So that’s good.

5. Because I wanted it now (it’s my birthday present to myself), and while there’s a possibility that Nikon will come out with new dSLRs with bigger sensors, etc in the near-ish future, everything about this particular camera was pretty much what I wanted. So, you know, why wait?

And how are the pictures? I’m glad you asked!

They’re pretty good.

And will probably get better the more I learn how to use this particular camera. Because this time around I plan to do more with the camera than just leave it on “auto” all the time and then futz in post (although honestly that’s done pretty well for me to this point).

In any event: Here’s the new camera! I think I’m going to have fun with it.

The Big Idea: Jon McGoran

In the aftermath of writing his latest novel Spiked, author Jon McGoran found the reality of the moment catching up with the future of his fiction in ways he didn’t expect… and in ways that gave him food for thought.

JON McGORAN:

One of the things that has drawn me to science fiction since I was a kid is the way it embraces­—or, as a writer, allows one to embrace—big ideas. I have one of those restless brains that is always churning out ideas: not always big, definitely not always good, and probably 60% in the form of puns. But some of them are big, and some of them stick with me. And some of those make their way into stories or books.

My Spliced series started with a single big idea: What would happen if genetic engineering technology matured to the point that it was available on the street as a form of body modification?

That idea sparked many questions, and many other ideas. What would the world be like by then? Transformed in many ways by climate change. Who would actually get spliced? Probably mostly young people. Why would they do it? Many reasons, including solidarity with the natural world, protesting its destruction, and preserving and honoring species going extinct. How would others react to them?

That last one became one of the defining themes in the books. I knew that if these chimeras existed, some people would seek to use them: some demonizing them for political gain, some seeking to label them as non-persons, and some trying to physically exploit them for profit. And yes, there’s a lot of overlap among those groups.

Those ideas were at the core of the first two books in the trilogy, and they remain essential to the final one, Spiked, as well. But Spiked also goes in different directions that are incredibly relevant today.

The people most vehement about labeling chimeras as non-persons are also most enthusiastic about embracing computer implants, called Wellplants in the book, named for the character who developed them and who also leads the anti-chimera backlash. Is it kind of hypocritical for one group of transhumanists to try to dehumanize another group of transhumanists? Heh-heh. Sure is. But people are like that, amiright? In my mind, Wellplants are a way to explore the impact of smart phones, the digital divide, and the ways in which wealth and technology can make some people very different from others.

The other big idea is… Pandemics.

Pandemics have been a part of the Spliced world from the beginning. Part of the backstory of the trilogy is that a flu pandemic some time between now and then contributed to a depopulation that altered the social landscape. Combined with energy scarcity and a costly new super-efficient energy distribution technology, they caused a virtual abandonment of sprawling suburbs, a blight that mirrored in ways what happened to inner cities in the last century.

But pandemics reappear to take center stage in Spiked. I don’t want to go into too much detail (after all, the title is Spiked, not Spoilered), but it has been eerie. I spent a couple of years researching pandemics (especially the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic), first for the back story and then for Spiked, then writing scenes of a pandemic tearing through my city of Philadelphia, and finally watching one take place in real time, while waiting for the book to come out.

I write a lot of near-future science fiction and science thrillers, so seeing ideas from my books come to life is nothing new, but this has been orders of magnitude different. And much sadder and creepier.

There are a lot of differences between COVID-19 and the pandemic in Spiked, but a lot of similarities as well, like viruses jumping from species to species and widespread quarantines.

At the risk of revealing a little too much, the pandemic in Spiked doesn’t just happen, and part of the impetus behind its release is to save the environment in the face of dwindling resources and impending climate collapse, to save the Earth—for the right people, of course. It’s an idea I find both reprehensible and fascinating. (I explore another version of the same idea more deeply in another novel that is as yet unfinished).

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a human tragedy of colossal proportions on many fronts. But one razor-thin silver lining bears out some of the ideas in Spiked: the accompanying global slowdown has had a strikingly beneficial impact on the environment. In India, mountain ranges long invisible have reappeared in the distance. Satellites over China reveal a substantial decrease in air pollution and an increase in the clarity of the atmosphere. In a few short (or, subjectively, excruciatingly long) weeks, the air and water have grown demonstrably cleaner and healthier. In some places carbon emissions have plummeted to extents that have previously been declared unachievable.

No one expects these benefits to last, no one wants the pandemic to last, and no one seriously sees this as a long-term solution to climate change. But it does raise some interesting and difficult questions. Perhaps the biggest of them is this: If the world is capable of taking such drastic action (or inaction, as the case may be) to save hundreds of thousands of lives in the short term, why are we so incapable of taking similarly drastic action to save hundreds of millions of lives in the long term, not to mention, the planet itself?

—-

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

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

Thoughts on Cameras in the Age of Excellent Cell Phone Photos

I noted here, I believe, that recently my dSLR, my Nikon d750, basically crapped itself, most likely from a faulty mirror mechanism. This wasn’t entirely a surprise to me — it had developed a hiccup several months back where the first photo after being turned on was a black rectangle as the camera remembered it needed to get the mirror out of the way to take a photo. I was not happy about this state of affairs but neither was I terribly put out; I have had the camera a sufficiently long time, and have taken a sufficiently large number of photos with it — literally hundreds of thousands of them — that I feel like I have gotten real value from the camera. I can repair it (and probably will, eventually, to pass it along), but I’ve been thinking of getting a new camera for some time now. Now, as it turns out, will be the perfect time.

But here’s an actual quandary: I want a new, dedicated camera, but I am also, if not cheap, exactly (and here I look around my office at computers and musical instruments), someone for whom utility-to-price is a huge motivator in purchasing. Which is to say that if I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of use from something — “use” being a very flexible term in this formulation, but let’s not go there now — then I can’t justify the price in my head. So right now I’m asking myself the question: Can I actually justify buying a new dedicated camera?

The reason why this is a question: Well, look at the photo above, of a dandelion, which I took on my walk yesterday. I took it with my Pixel 4; I saw the dandelion, bent down a bit, took the photo and then kept walking. Then I came home, fiddled with it some in Photoshop, and at the end of it had a picture that’s in many ways as good as one I might get out of a dSLR — a dedicated camera. So, do I need a dedicated camera at all?

Another example:

The top photo here is taken with a Nikon d5100 dSLR, an older but still serviceable dedicated camera that I’m using since the d750 crapped out. The bottom photo is taken with the Pixel 4. Both pictures were taken within seconds of each other — look at the cloud shapes for confirmation of that — and both are jpgs taken directly from the camera without any further editing on my part.

Which is the better photo? Ultimately, it’s primarily a subjective matter, I think — but that’s just it: It’s a subjective choice between a dedicated camera using a very expensive lens, and a cell phone camera. The dedicated camera here is nine years old, but the cell phone camera has a imaging sensor that could fit into the corner of the dSLR’s sensor. The d5100 relies on the user to work on the photo manually, either in-camera by fiddling with settings, or afterward in Photoshop, while the Pixel 4 lets the mighty power of Google’s machine learning do all the heavy lifting. There are choices to be made and preferences one might have, but at the end of the day, neither photo is so far and away objectively better — in terms of the technical aspects of the photo — that you would say a dedicated camera is necessary, on the basis of these photos.

So again: What utility will I get out of a new, dedicated camera, when the cameras in phones do such a very good job these days?

The answer for me might be paradoxical to some, and it is: The better cell phone cameras get, the more frustrated I get with their limitations — and the more I recognize how much better a dedicated camera is for those situations.

Let’s go back to the Pixel phones, with their cameras. I should note that they are and have been very, very good cameras, enough so that if I go somewhere and I don’t bring a dSLR, I don’t worry too much if I’m still going to be able to get good pictures. I even wrote about this fact previously.

But that said, their limitations — and the limitations of other very good cell phone cameras — still will pop out at you if you are more than a casual photographer. Their small sensors can only capture so much light and Google’s (or Apple’s or Samsung’s) AI can only compensate so much, and the choices they make are ones you have to live with whether you want to or not. The lenses on camera phones are likewise limited, which is why Google/Apple/Etc have spent so much time creating “portrait” modes to offer fake blur that their lenses can’t provide, and why literally everybody’s nose looks so damn big in selfies. Yes, you can buy add-on lenses for cell phones, but at that point the financial buy-in is high enough that you should start asking if it might not make more sense to get a dedicated camera.

Also, good luck getting a photo like the one above from a cell phone, unless you’re directly on stage with the musicians, sticking a phone in their face while they’re performing. And even then the phone is going to struggle with focus and lighting in ways that mean the chances of you getting that live candid shot before the bouncers haul your ass off the stage is fairly low. There are camera apps on phones that allow you to specify ISO and shutter speed and other technical aspects of your photography, to be sure. But again, if you’re the sort of person for whom all of that matters (and you are comfortable fiddling around with these things), the chances are pretty good you’ve already got a dedicated camera, and you’ll be using that for everything put pickup shots.

Or to put it another way: cell phone cameras have gotten good enough that they will do 90% to 95% of everything that the average person would ever want out of a camera. And that is an unalloyed good thing! Everyone should have a camera that flexible and useful to them. But if you’re an avid photographer (or a professional photographer), you spend so much more of your time than the average person in the 5%-to-10% area where cell phones fall down, that you become painfully aware of how far they have yet to go, regardless of how far they have come. This isn’t about snobbery (or more accurately, shouldn’t be) — it’s about use cases. For how I use cameras, my Pixel phone, as wonderful as the photography out of it is on a regular basis, still can’t give me everything I want and need, and it’s frustrating for me that it can’t.

Which is why as cell phone cameras become better, I still find myself reaching for my dSLR, and why, in fact, I ordered a brand new one, which is scheduled to arrive at my house tomorrow (details forthcoming! Wait until it arrives!). I love my Pixel 4 camera, and I love that I always have a “good enough” camera on me. But “good enough” is still not good enough for everything I want to do, and for every picture I want to take. I will get enough use out a dedicated camera that it is still worth the expense for me. I suspect that will continue to be the case for a while.

Week Seven Quarantine Report

We’ve reached the “Take Arty Black and White Pictures of a Telephone Pole” stage of the quarantine, so, you know, well done us.

* And just how was this week in quarantine, Scalzi? I mean, oddly enough, it was… fine? Not terrible, not great, and I’ve gotten to the point, I guess, where it doesn’t feel all that weird anymore. Again, it helps that “stay in your house and only see family and pets” is my default when I’m at home anyway, but the existential aspect of “you must stay at home” was not this last week weighing on me with any real urgency. It was just, meh, another week at the house. I do think it helps that the weather is now at a point where it’s consistently not cold — welcome to May! — so being able to step out of the house and not feel the immediate need to go right back in is nice. Yesterday it got up to eighty degrees! I’ll take it!

* I do think, leaving aside the politically-motivated bigoted gun-toting dipshits for a moment, a lot of people have gotten to the “we’re bored with quarantine” moment of things. This is different from the “we’re bored in quarantine” feeling everyone’s had for, what, two months now? This is different; this is the feeling of fuck it, imma see people and if I barf up a lung later, well, that’s on me. Honestly at this point I can’t say that I’m unsympathetic, even if understand that the science of viral outbreaks strongly suggests this will end up with a bunch of people barfing up a lung come Memorial Day.

To be clear: I don’t recommend going “fuck it,” and just dealing with the consequences later. For my own part, my May plans are to stay at home and do what I’ve basically been doing for the last couple months, although with fewer promotional appearances and (hopefully) more actual writing. I am saying I understand why people feel at that point. It’s not all about people being politically manipulated. It does have something with people feeling lonely and purposeless — and also, you know, worried about jobs and money and the future and things like that, which are tied into politics, but are also things which hit on a personal level, too.

* With that said, let’s not pretend that the rush to “get back to business” in defiance of science isn’t rooted substantially in politics. As others have pointed out, a state telling people to go back to work well in advance to it “flattening the curve” in terms of infections and deaths will likely save it from having to shell out more for unemployment, especially in Republican-controlled states where the capacity for handling unemployment has been whittled away to begin with.

Also, it’s becoming clear that the virus is generally affecting poor and/or minority communities substantially more than it’s affecting better off, white communities (this is, no surprise, correlated with those poor/minority communities having more health problems related to less ability to access health care). So lots of white people have been able to delude themselves into thinking that actually this thing isn’t that bad, especially if they live in places where they have not (yet) come into contact with people who have had the virus themselves. Alternately, there are white folks who understand what’s going on but actively don’t care if poor/minority communities are adversely affected because they “need a haircut” and/or just don’t give a shit what happens to those people, because they’re racist fucknuggets.

The science does seem to suggest we’re all setting ourselves up for a second round of infection and death and economic turmoil, but the politics of the moment, most specifically on the right, seems to have landed on the idea that it’s fine if some people die, because those people are probably old and/or poor and/or not white. This isn’t casting unwarranted aspersions, since there are conservative politicians and “thinkers” on record saying that they’re fine with people dying if it gets the economy chugging along again. And, well. They’re going to get their way, at least for a little while. I don’t think it’s going to work the way they want it to. But that’s what happens when you put ideology ahead of logic.

(“But what about Ohio?” Our governor is re-opening the state this month in stages — you can now go to the doctor and dentist again, and later this month retail shops will be open, all with certain procedures in place to protect workers and customers. And, we’ll see; I think DeWine and his people have handled things well to this point, a rarity among GOPers, but I also worry it’s too early. We’ll find out. At the very least I have faith at this point that our governor has been listening to actual scientists and understands the risks they’ve laid out to him.)

* I should just say I want to be wrong with the above — I would be delighted with COVID-19 being managed and more people not getting sick or dying, just with what we have on offer now. I would be happy to be able to sit in a restaurant or fly on a plane or visit friends casually. As I said last week, no one wants quarantine to continue; this isn’t fun for anyone, even the introverts. I would be very happy, in a month, to be the one to whom “We told you so” is being said to, rather than me being the one saying it. Please, please, please, prove me wrong. Just don’t be pissy with me if I’m not.

May Flowers, Plus a New Song From Matthew Ryan

Right on time. We had April showers all last week. Here’s to a lovely May.

Also, my pal Matthew Ryan dropped a new cover song today. It’s a striking version, well worth the listen. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Adrian J. Walker

For his new novel The Human Son, author Adrian J. Walker decided to get into a different mindset entirely. A very very different mindset.

ADRIAN J. WALKER:

Human beings make terrible decisions. I wrote The Human Son in the shadow of Brexit, so I know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t a political statement. I’m not suggesting anyone was wrong or right in that particular vote; rather that everyone was, and has been in every single vote that’s ever been taken.

Let me explain.

The Human Son begins with a decision. 500 years after they were genetically engineered to fix climate change, a small population of advanced beings called the erta gather in a hall and discuss what to do next. Their purpose has been fulfilled and the earth is rebalanced, but at a cost; in order to fix the planet, humanity had to be allowed to die out. Now they must decide whether or not to resurrect it, but they quickly realise that they lack the right data to make this decision. To remedy this, a quiet and clinical atmospheric chemist named Ima — our hero — volunteers to raise a single human child as her own by way of experiment. This, as every parent will know, leads to unexpected results.

As I wrote about Ima’s life and the (at first) utopian existence of her species, I watched what would be four years of political strife unfold in my own timeline and wondered what the erta would make of it all. The difference between their decision-making abilities and ours became one of the book’s big ideas.

Faced with the monumental task of fixing a broken planet, the erta know immediately what needs to be done first: remove humans. Their lack of human frailties like fear, desire and agenda combined with a supreme scientific prowess allows them to identify every global system at play, and specifically those which are most difficult to predict and control. As it turns out, these systems are the social, economic and psychological behaviours of humans themselves. The data is right there in front of them, and so the erta’s decision is swift; so long, sapiens, and thanks for all the carbon.

Compare this with the decision making process of Brexit, or any other great democratic enterprise for that matter. Ask 65 million furious little boxes of fears, hopes, and neuroses to make a gigantic choice with little or no background information and then, to help them decide, shout slogans at them.

Ima would be baffled at such a process. ‘But where is the data?’ she would ask.

The Human Son is told in the first person, and narrating from Ima’s clinical and sometimes harsh perspective had a big impact on my writing. At the start of the book she is a perfect example of her species, seeing things purely as they are rather than what they are like. Simile, metaphor and poetry are of no use to her; in fact, she can’t stand them, so they don’t feature at all in her writing. I was surprised at how fun it was to write in this style, and how liberating it is to describe the world precisely as it appears rather than through the filter of prose. Even more enjoyable was allowing Ima’s voice to develop through the book; her journey as a parent leads her to realise that sometimes truth lies not just in words themselves, but in the space between them. By the final chapter her voice has changed immeasurably.

The more time I spent with Ima the more I thought about what it would mean to delegate to an intelligence such as hers, free from the human gravities of desire and agenda. Fear dominates most discussions about machine intelligence and, to many, the concept of allowing a non-human entity to make human decisions is horrifying. We may as well just boot up SkyNet now and give it the launch codes while we’re at it, right? And even if it didn’t blow us up, what about the humanity? All those fiddly little human nuances we hold so dear. How could any non-human intelligence know what’s best for us?

But such intelligences are already in place and developing, though in arguably more mundane ways and with fewer guns. Big Data allows us to predict social, economic and psychological behaviour with increasing accuracy, and meteorological and geological modelling software is improving by the day. I wonder what we would do if some future amalgamation of all these systems attempted to give us advice. What would be the reaction if it was able to predict with indisputable accuracy the outcome of a political decision? Would it be heard? Or would it be scoffed at, as experts tend to be?

And what if these systems become accessible to us on an individual level? What if we could tap into all this data and use it to help us make decisions about our own lives? And I’m not just talking about the things we already ask of computers — which route, which insurance package, which book, etc., but rather: Do I take that job? Vote for her? Marry him?

Would we listen to it? Our would we revert to our trusty intuitions — those ‘gut instincts’ we’re so proud of yet which, if we’re honest, so often fail us?

If most of us would do the latter, then it’s because human decision making is as much about asserting an ideal as it is about making the right choice, whether for ourselves or for the other 7 billion bundles of neuroses stumbling around the planet. This means that if we want to develop technology to help us make better decisions, then we must also find a way of abandoning our agendas, desires, and fears. Like the erta, we would need to cast off that which drags us down.

Whether or not this occurs through cultural shift or rapid transhuman evolution, it will ultimately come down to yet another choice: do we want to remain as we are and continue to stumble, or fly and risk losing our souls?

—-

The Human Son: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Webb School Days, Vol. 1: A Playlist

And in case you don’t have Spotify, here’s the playlist in YouTube form:

And Now, The Most Terrifying Self Portrait I’ve Done This Week

It’s the “kaleidoscope” setting on a camera app I was playing with. Yeah, that’ll stick with you when you’re trying to get to sleep tonight. Oh, and just for good measure, here it is in black and white:

Sweet dreams!