I Am a Science Fiction Convention Virgin

Oh, before I forget: I’m giving serious thought to attending Torcon 3 this Labor Day Weekend. It is this year’s host of the World Science Fiction Convention, at which they give out the Hugos, and I think it might be a fun introduction for me into the world of SF fandom. Also, Toronto is a nice town.

Having said that, I am — what’s the best way to put this — a complete SF Con virgin. I know, I know, hard to believe. And yet there it is. Well, there was that one time I went to a Star Trek convention. But I went as a reporter! I was working! I interviewed Armin Shimerman, for God’s sake! So I couldn’t actually soak in all the SF-y goodness. I was on the clock.

Basically, if I go, I don’t wish to comport myself as an ass, at least not unintentionally. So those of you who have attended an SF Con or two who might wish to pass along your words of wisdom about what I can expect and should steel myself for, please do so in the comments or in e-mail, and tell all your friends to come by and offer their advice as well.

See, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a virgin. And I want to make sure I know enough so that when it comes time for my first time, well, that it’s, you know, special. So there you have it. Please, be gentle.

Random Crap

* First off, you all realize that if Saddam is in fact dead, we’re six weeks away from the End of the World. Please refer to the seminal film South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut for all the details. The truly ironic thing about this is that relations between the US and Canada at the moment are very nearly as bad as they are in that film, not in the least because Canada actually hasn’t repeatedly apologized for Bryan Adams.

* Got word from Tor today that Old Man’s War has been slotted into a May 2004 release, slightly later than the late 2003/early 2004 release Tor had been mulling over. I’ll need to go through the site and update references, but for now, you’ve heard it here first. I’m not known as being the world’s most patient man, but I’m actually pretty good with this release date, since previously there’s was a chance that OMW and The Book of the Dumb would be released right on top of each other. That would have been no good because I can’t reasonably expect people to buy two books of mine in the same month, no matter how much guilt I apply. However, now they’ll be six months apart — more than enough time for people to have save up their pennies once more. Everybody wins!

* The Movable Type – increased readership thing is definitely confirmed — I’m now operating at double the unique visits per day than I got pre-MT even on weekdays, which is pretty neat (and doesn’t even count the RSS feed access). I wonder if other people who switch over to MT have noticed a similar bump in traffic with a switchover.

On the flip side of this, the amount of spam I get also seems to have doubled in the last couple of weeks as well — about 250 pieces of junk mail daily on my spam trap accounts and another 50 or daily on my main account. Yes, I actually get 300 pieces of spam a day. And yet, I still don’t want to buy a Dale Earnhardt commemorative wrench set! I wonder if people also have noticed a corresponding spam increase after they switch.

Back to work. Done with Scandalous Women, now I’m onto Inventors of Fads. Yes, it is a truly random life I lead, thanks for asking.

Morbid Thought for the Day

Phone meetings and essays to write on Scandalous Women, so contributions here will probably fairly light today. But I leave you with the following question:

I am I the only one whose first impulse, when he doesn’t see any of his New York friends on his IM list, is to click over to the CNN site?

Discuss.

Defense of the Flag

As anyone who reads this knows, I’m no fan of the new Georgia flag, which despite having the virtue of not being based on the Confederate Battle Jack is still steeped in Confederate imagery. Be that as it may, a reader forwarded me a link to a floor speech by Georgia Rep. Bobby Franklin, arguing for the new flag at the expense of the 1956 Battle Jack flag. Franklin, an admitted “Southern Heritage” sort of dude, has some very interesting things to say about the Confederate Battle Jack flag which he had previously supported, including the following “Nixon to China” moment which I will pull out here:

“Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.”

Here’s Rep. Franklin’s entire speech.

“Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to explain why HB 773 is an excellent means to bring reconciliation, healing, and unity to our state.

“In 1993, when Governor Miller proposed eliminating the Confederate Battle Flag from our state flag, Southern heritage concerns lead me to consider running for the legislature. In 1994 I did run unsuccessfully, but then was elected in 1996.

“In 2001, I voted against changing the flag. In the next legislative session I sponsored a bill calling for a referendum. This session I introduced HR 1, calling for a referendum.

“My motives for defending the use of the Confederate battle flag have always been totally unrelated to race; I have simply regarded it as an honorable symbol of Southern heritage.

“However, political reality now argues against returning its imagery to our state flag.

“The General Assembly is the place to resolve the flag issue. The governor’s call for a non-binding referendum means this responsibility will ultimately devolve upon us.

“So let us decide now. Let us rise to the challenge of leadership. Let us lay aside the past. Let us lay aside prejudice, partisanship, and politics. Let us bring healing, reconciliation, and unity so that we may focus on making Georgia a better place for all our citizens.

“Let me ask you four simple questions:

“1. Is it not true that the political campaign leading up to the referendum is not likely to be characterized by intellectually honest debate and enlightened discussion that will bring us together as one people?

“2. Is it not true that the far greater likelihood is that such a campaign will drag us through the mire of racially-charged and racially-divisive demagoguery from extremists on both sides?

“3. Is it not true that a referendum over the flag will be counterproductive, not only in terms of stirring up racial animus, but also in terms of negative national publicity injurious to our business climate in the midst of an economic crisis?

“4. Is it not true that this entire process is a distraction and a diversion that interferes with our concentration on the more essential issues of education, economic development, environmental quality and transportation?

“As a proud Southerner who is a former member and camp commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and while continuing to believe that the battle flag is not inherently a symbol of racism, oppression or hatred, I have gained a better understanding of why it is deeply disturbing and offensive to many.

“There is a reasonable alternative which will allow us to honor Southern heritage without including the Battle Flag image on our state flag.

“To those who argue that the battle flag has been misappropriated and misused by hate groups and white supremacists, but that it is only a symbol of heritage, I offer three answers:

“1. Allowing hate groups and white supremacists to hijack the battle flag and pervert it into a negative symbol without publicly and repeatedly repudiating them, dissociating from them, and demanding that they cease and desist has been a grievous moral failure. Silence in the face of evil may be construed as consent or worse. The result of this moral failure — a failure of conscience and courage — is that the battle flag is so tainted from misuse that it cannot stand as merely a symbol of heritage.

“2. Even if those who argue that the battle flag is a symbol of hate, etc. are absolutely wrong in their interpretation of history, can we not have the grace and the sensitivity to be considerate of their feelings? In order to honor our ancestors and the Confederate war dead and wounded, must we insist on a means that hurts and offends over one-third of our fellow Georgians?

“3. In the Scripture, I Corinthians, Chapter 8, the Apostle Paul discusses things that while not inherently sinful might create a stumbling block or give offense to others. He concludes in the final verse of the chapter, verse 13 “that if eating food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.” The spirit of Christian charity is to surrender my right, even though there is nothing wrong with it, so as not to offend my brother. The analogy is clear: While there is nothing inherently wrong with the Confederate Battle Flag, to some it is the cause of grievous offense. Therefore, in the spirit of Christian charity, let us choose not to offend.

“I ask Southern heritage advocates to search their hearts and be willing to agree to a plan that does not restore the perceived negative and offensive messages associated with the battle flag.

“I also ask those opposed to the use of the battle flag to be willing to compromise so as not to alienate, anger, and injure citizens of good will who, without negative race-based intent, merely wish to honor their ancestors and heritage.

“Together, as legislators elected to do the peoples’ will, if we act in good faith and with mutual respect, in the spirit of charity, we can achieve a solution that will satisfy the concerns of all our citizens.

“What do I propose?

“1. That the General Assembly repeal the current state flag.

“2. That the General Assembly adopt the following flag. (He held up a photo of his Stars and Bars design.)

“This flag is specifically based upon the first national flag of the Confederacy, popularly known as the “Stars and Bars,” with the Georgia state seal and the phrase “In God We Trust” added.

“If the true motive of “heritage advocates” is to honor the South and those who fought for Southern independence, what better symbol than an actual national flag of the Confederacy with reasonable and timely modifications?

“Unlike the Battle Flag, the national flag has never flown at a Klan rally or at a lynching. Thus, it does not carry the racially-charged and racially-offensive perceptions of the Battle Flag.

“This is an attractive design around which all Georgians of mutual respect can rally.

“Finally, let me stress that returning to the pre-1956 flag, or some new variation thereof, is absolutely not a satisfactory compromise. There is absolutely nothing specifically and uniquely Southern about the pre-1956 flag. Some proclaim, and the media seems to promote, the idea that its red and white stripes are taken from the Stars and Bars. However, there is at best only an oblique and tenuous connection. Without the context of the actual Stars and Bars alongside for illustration, these stripes are merely generic. They could well appear on any state or national flag without reference to Southern history. Certainly just as good a case could be made that it derives from the Austrian flag.

“Adopting a flag that is not clearly Southern will guarantee ongoing unhappiness and uproar. Many will view it as capitulation, not compromise. Let us avoid this by adopting a flag that while distinctly Southern is free of negative, racially-divisive imagery.”

A Briefing From the Information Minister

“In an apparent show of defiance, Iraq’s Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf stood in the streets of Baghdad Monday morning amid a U.S. raid on the capital, issuing denials of coalition advances… He denied certain buildings, such as the al Rashid hotel, were under coalition control. ‘The Americans, they always depend on a method what I call … stupid, silly. All I ask is check yourself. Do not in fact repeat their lies.'” — “Sahaf: U.S. troops will be burned,” CNN, 4/7/2003

Reporter: So, Minister, the US says they’ve taken over another presidential palace.

Sahaf: The Americans infect us all with their putrid filth. Their so-called advances are illusions and shadows. We have gutted them like the fish our noble Saddam hauls out of the river.

Reporter: Well, they’re actually broadcasting from the Palace. See? Look, there’s a US Marine waving in front of a collapsed statue of Saddam right there.

Sahaf: How easily you are taken in by their prevarications. It is obvious that is in fact an image manufactured on a sound stage in Hollywood. Undoubtedly they are filming “Wheel of Fortune” right next door. That gaunt temptress Vanna White is even now turning over a vowel, and some flatulently sedentary housewife from St. Olaf is winning an oven. Listen. You can hear her squealing in joy through the cheap plasterboard of the Marines’ soundstage.

Reporter: Actually, I think that’s the sound of some of the elite Republican Guard surrendering. See, look.

Sahaf: Just because you are taken in by advanced computerized special effects does not mean I have to be. Our Republican Guard would never surrender. Even now, just a single one of our immortal fighters is slaughtering an entire division of American Marines at the airport we let their foolish forces take in order to lure them into a false sense of security. And he’s doing it with nothing more than a ball of twine, some hard cheese, and a kitten. They are like a legion of MacGuyvers, our Republican Guards.

Reporter: Minister, I’m getting a report that Marines have in fact entered this very building.

Sahaf: Why do you repeat their despicable nonsense? The Americans will never enter this building. The citizens of this city would not allow it. They would rise up, yes, even the toddlers and the infants, among whom even the newborns can disembowel one of their vaunted Army Rangers with one swift thrust of his chubby fist.

Reporter: The Marines seem to be carrying you away even as we speak, Minister.

Sahaf: It is all lies. I am stationary. It is the room that is receding.

Old Friends

It’s been old friend week here at the Scalzi Compound, as pals of mine have renewed their acquaintance with me after separations and silences ranging from several months to the better part of an entire decade. I don’t know why this week has occasioned such a repatriation of friendly affection; perhaps last week was National Google Your Old High School Pal Week and I just didn’t get the memo.

There’s something exciting about catching up with someone you used to know so long ago that there’s a good possibility that the person they are today hardly resembles the person you knew back then. I myself am an enthusiastic exhumer of long-lost friendships; I will occasionally call up someone from elementary school just to see how they are. That’s always fun because, of course, they have no freakin’ clue who I am talking down the line to them — I like to think I retain many youthful qualities at age 33 years 11 months, but the vocal timbre of a second grader is not one of those qualities. And if you think I’m kidding about occasionally ringing up, say, my best friend from the second grade, here he is:

Kyle Brodie, now a Deputy Attorney General for the Department of Justice out there in Los Angeles. He prosecuted the guy who killed Ennis Cosby, so watch your step in the City of the Angels. He also plays drums, rather better than I do (he was a professional musician at one point in a band called Nothing Painted Blue. He wore his hair longer then). I call him up roughly every five years or so, just to check in. He’s usually very polite, although I do wonder if he thinks I’m a little insane. The answer is: Well, of course. What other sort of person randomly calls up his best friend from second grade? Fortunately it’s a harmless sort of insane, which is good, because Kyle has the prerogative to get all Ashcroft on my ass. And no one wants that.

The many-years-later-reconnection often has a small tinge of guilt to it, because generally speaking there’s usually no good reason that you stopped talking to the people who were once so close to you. In each of the cases where an old friend reconnected, there hadn’t been a falling out or even a lessening of affection; it’s just that whole “life” thing getting the best of you. You would think that, given the ceaseless exhortations of the phone companies to get on the damn horn and prop up their failing long-distance businesses already, more of us would keep in better touch. But we don’t.

Fact is, from the ages of 18 to 35, it’s just damned hard to keep track of people here in the US — we move all over the place. The phone numbers and e-mail addresses I have for people are typically ones from two phones and four e-mail addresses ago. One of the primary reasons I got the Scalzi.com domain was simply so I would never have to change my damned e-mail again. Then there are the other usual excuses of work and family and new friends and just not wanting to call because the prison only allows you to call collect, and it’s not like you wouldn’t have enough to explain about your circumstances already without trying to slip that one by. So many excuses, but so very few of them any good.

The secret, I’ve found, is simple: Assume that the friendship has survived. These people are your friends, after all. If you’re calling, they’ll be glad you’re calling. If you get the call (or the e-mail, or whatever), you should be glad to hear from them. Do the obligatory “So this is what I’ve been doing over the last decade or so” to get them caught up on the story so far and then just reinsert them back into the calculus of your life. Your friends are your friends, and friendship is always contemporary.

I love that these old friends of mine are coming back into my life, especially because it coincides with a time when I seem to be making quality new friends as well. A new friend who I sincerely hope I will one day have the honor to call an old friend wrote recently: “I want to discover beauty and strangeness and kinship in new friends.” Rediscovering all of these things in old friends is just as sweet. It’s truly a good life when you have both.

Lessons From Heinlein

I was re-reading the postscript I had on Old Man’s War just before I sold it, and which I subsequently removed from the Web site. I think it’s interesting enough as a discussion of the mechanics of writing that I’ll go ahead and repost it here. Astute observers will note that I wrote it before I actually sold OMW, and so the entire discussion of writing successful SF is a little presumptuous. On the other, it is sold now, so there you have it. The first graph, talks about OMW a little bit, but the meat of article — what I call Heinlein’s Theory of Characters — is generally applicable. Anyway, here it is.

Lessons From Heinlein

A number of readers have commented that Old Man’s War is strongly reminiscent of two classic science fiction novels: Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. In both cases, the comparison is flattering, although in the case of Forever War, it’s an entirely coincidental thing, since I haven’t read the novel and (horrific as it is for an sf reader and writer to admit) I’m only vaguely aware of the plot. I’m aware there’s a war going on, and I think there’s the matter of long distances taking a long time to travel, but beyond that… nope. Drawing a blank (although I have read other Haldeman stories and have enjoyed them, which is how I know the comparison is flattering).

The Starship Troopers correlation, on the other hand, is emphatically not a coincidence, since Old Man’s War is modeled after that novel in several ways. The most obvious is of course the military setting and the introduction of a starry-eyed protagonist into that milieu, and the subsequent progression from recruit to grunt to seasoned veteran. More generally, however, Old Man’s War follows roughly the format of a number of Heinlein “juvenile” novels (of which Starship Troopers was one originally): It’s meant to have the “boy’s own adventure” feel that RAH jammed into those books. One could easily say it’s a classic “juvy,” just with a 75-year-old as its hero.

I adopted the “juvy” format for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I like the format, which lends itself to classically linear storytelling and a pace that allows the reader to get comfortable with characters and situations. Second, I like the irony of marrying the format to the story of a senior citizen, whose motivations and interests are emphatically not the same as those of, say, Starship Troopers’ Johnny Rico, who is fresh out of high school when he joins the military.

The flip side of so consciously appropriating such a well-known sf format as Heinlein’s juveniles is that Old Man’s War cannot be accused of being breathlessly original, either in concept or execution. I think that’s a fair enough assessment. To speak of novel in musical terms, it’s best described as a variation on a theme or an improvisational riff off a classic tune. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with approaching a science fiction novel in this way; writers intentionally chain themselves to established formats all the time, or reimagine old concepts and old stories in new, subtly altered ways. Given the persistence of Heinlein juvies on the bookshelves, there’s a market for the format. I think readers will note the points of departure from the original formula and judge them on how successfully the riffing works.

In a general sense, I think Heinlein is a fine writing teacher — his enduring popularity after many of his sf contemporaries find themselves slipping out of print suggests there’s something about the writing that is atemporally appealing; that is to say, as fresh today as when it was first written. And whatever that is, it’s worth study and worth emulating (so long as it’s married to one’s own individual narrative gifts; no point writing exactly like the man, after all).

But one has to be careful not to focus on the wrong lessons. One of science fiction’s misfortunes is that what many people take away from Heinlein is the man’s penchant for “hard SF” wonkiness and his polyamorous libertarianism. Few of the writers who try to replicate these aspects of Heinlein’s corpus do it very well, and indeed, with the latter of these subjects, Heinlein himself had a tendency to go overboard. In any event, not everyone likes reading (or writing) hard SF or polyamorous libertarianism.

More enduring lessons from Heinlein come in how the man handled characters — both in how they existed in his writing and how they talked and interacted with other people. If I could boil down what I see as Heinlein’s Theory of Characters. It would come to these four lessons:

1. Your Characters Doesn’t Exist in the Story; Your Story Exists For Your Characters. Starship Troopers concerns itself with obligation and duty, but it’s about Johnny Rico’s development as a person who recognizes the importance of these qualities. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress addresses freedom and the cost of achieving it, but in the context of the relationships between its main characters (which include a self-aware computer). Friday mulls over what makes humans human by providing us a warmly human heroine who worries that she’s not human at all. The character is the context; Heinlein books that are more about ideas than people (such as I Will Fear No Evil or Job: A Comedy of Justice) aren’t anywhere as good.

2. Make Room in Your Characters For Your Reader. One of Heinlein’s great talents was creating characters that the readers felt they could be, either because the character was a more or less average person (Troopers’ Johnny Rico is a perfect example of this), or because even if they were special in some way they were still nevertheless subject to uncertainty and doubt (Friday fits here). Heinlein was also smart about immersing his reader into his characters by degrees, rather than frontloading the character development and dumping a complete character into the reader’s lap before the reader knew how to handle it. It’s like boiling a frog: Do it slowly enough and the frog doesn’t realize it’s in hot water. By the same token, if you get your reader comfortable with your character bit by bit, by the end you can do anything you want and the reader will willingly follow.

3. Make Your Characters Talk Like People Talk. This is not to say that you populate your characters’ speech with “ummms” and “uuuuhs” and fractured sentences and grammar. But you do help your readers by not torturing them with strange usage. Nearly all of Heinlein’s books feature recognizably contemporary language usage, and that fact is a great part of their appeal — the reader can focus on the story rather than the language used to tell it. This is probably the lesson that will be the most ignorable, since not every story wants or needs language with an easy-to-read, contemporary feel. But on the other hand, unless you’ve got a reason to make your language difficult, don’t.

4. Make Your Characters Act Like People Act. A corollary to lesson three: Give them doubts, fears, amusements, petty fears, indecisions, conflicting thoughts, space to learn and grow. This note is especially evident in Heinlein’s juveniles, which makes sense because their “heroes” are meant to be teenagers. But Heinlein does it with his adult novels, too — Valentine Michael Smith famously has to learn how to laugh in Stranger in a Strange Land and copes with a continual failure to fundamentally grasp human nature. The plot of Friday depends on its character’s doubts and needs. Characters who are recognizably people are a comfort to reader, since it implicitly suggests that extraordinary things can happen even when one is having ordinary emotions.

Now, bear in mind that not every story is going to be well served by this Theory of Characters. One major science fiction classic that would be flatly ruined by it would be Frank Herbert’s Dune, an outsized story if there ever was one, in which even the primary character of Paul Atreides is ultimately little more than a very mobile and integral chess piece. One also shudders to think of the mess this theory would have made of the Lord of the Rings books.

But by attempting to incorporate the ideas found in this theory, your average writer has the opportunity to try something interesting: Incorporate big events into stories on a human scale. Heinlein did this on a regular basis, even in his juvenile fiction — and indeed the format of his juvenile books feels implicitly designed to support this character theory.

This theory also informs Old Man’s War. It touches on topics such as the utility of war, the responsibilities we have towards others (particularly those we don’t know and will probably never know), and the uses of both youth and old age. But ultimately what it’s about (or what I think it’s about; as a writer I cheerfully acknowledge that readers don’t have to get out of the novel what I wrote into it) are the relationships that make us fully human. One of my favorite comments about the novel came my friend Erin, who read an early version of the novel and noted that the novel comes on like a sci-fi action thriller but is really a love story. This is exactly right and I was thrilled that this fact came through in the writing.

Whether Old Man’s War is actually successful is another matter entirely, and I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide. Certainly it doesn’t try to be exactly like Heinlein. For better or worse, I’m my own writer, and even if I could write exactly like Heinlein, why would I want to? He left enough books lying around. But as I’ve said, I’m happy to play with some of the forms he’s championed and see what I can do with them. If you’re thinking of writing a book, think about fiddling with them as well. You might be surprised (and happy) with what you come up with.

Another Georgia Flag

A reader was so good as to send me a link to this article about this proposed new flag for the State of Georgia, which as you may know has had a contentious time of it recently with its flags. For those who don’t know, in 2001, Georgia ditched the state flag it had been flying since 1956, which prominently featured the Confederate Battle Flag (just in case anyone should think that this switch didn’t have to do with white folks gettin’ all angrified at them there black folk, it should be noted that the switch to the Battle Flag design coincided with Georgia being ordered to desegregate its schools), for a flag that featured it only as a tiny historical element. This enraged the “Southern Heritage” folks to no end, and since then there’s been a push to bring back the 1956 flag by way of referendum.

This new flag is designed to sidestep bringing back the battle flag design in an interesting way. The Georgia Legislature could adopt this new flag immediately, and then about a year from now, there’s to be a referendum asking Georgians if they like the flag. If they do, it stays. If they don’t, then they’ll have another referendum on whether to bring back the Battle Jack flag (or the one that flew before it, which, as it happens, was also modeled after a Confederate flag). Obviously, the lege will be banking on the hope people will like the new flag just fine.

I think the new flag is interesting because it plays to both the pro- and anti- Battle Jack crowd in a really cynical way. For the “anti-” crowd, it has the attraction of not being the Battle Jack, which is, of course, the internationally-recognized symbol of small-brained racist white folk. But for the “pro-” crowd, it has the attraction of still being explicitly modeled after a Confederate flag — the “Stars and Bars,” the first flag of the Confederacy, and the model for the Georgia state flag that flew from 1872 through 1956.

The “Stars and Bars” is not nearly as infamous as the Battle Jack, but it’s still a nice Confederate memorial flapping in the breeze, representing the State of Georgia, and even the smallest-brained of the racist white folk can appreciate that if they just keep their yaps shut about it, this subtle bit of Confederania will slip right by all the folks who get het up about the Battle Jack. The “In God We Trust” part, I imagine, is just there to sweeten the pot for the approval of God-fearing partisans on both sides.

In short, in one fell swoop, this new flag plays on the ignorance of some, the racism of others, and the cheap religious sentiment of yet a third subset between the first two. Make no mistake, this new flag is just as racist and hateful as the Battle Jack flag, specifically because of the fact that it is just as modeled on a Confederate flag as the 1956 flag was, and all Confederate iconography (or vexillography, to be more accurate here) equally represents the only government in the history of the world that specifically encoded the enslavement of human beings into its Constitution. Were I a Georgian, I’d be no more excited to have this flag flying across my state than I would the Battle Jack.

My correspondent wonders how long it would take for this flag to generate a lawsuit. I don’t imagine it will be very long. I suspect the “In God We Trust” part would be the bit that gets the action, because it’s not a bit of language traditionally associated with Georgia (whose state motto, ironically in this case, is “Wisdom, Justice and Moderation”), so its sudden inclusion here is fairly questionable. Sure, it’s on our money (added in at the height of Godless Communism fear-mongering, incidentally), but I don’t know how well that argument would stand up in court.

Mind you, it’s not my state, so I don’t have to live with this flag or any other Georgian flag. If you Georgians want to go on fetishizing the dumbass Confederacy, thereby reminding a significant portion of your population that you continue to be proud of a period of time in which they would have had the same personal rights as a table lamp, by all means, go right ahead. As I’ve said before, I prefer my small-brained racists clearly marked. This will help.

Update: A correspondent from Georgia writes to note that “In God We Trust” is actually on the current flag as well. And so it is! Interesting.

Posters for Dubya Haters

Having won the hearts of many right-wing folks yesterday with my excoriation of the Marine reservist who didn’t know that the Marines occasionally kill people, let me just as quickly alienate them by promoting my pal Ted Rall’s latest bit of Dubya bashing: Downloadable “Bush is an Unelected Usurping Warmongering Nitwit” posters. Choose from two conservative-enraging designs:

Before you post comments I’ll inevitably have to delete (unless they are truly creative): Yes, yes, I know Ted is an affront to all right-thinking patriotic Americans, and by linking to him I’m showing my own personal contempt for those who are fighting right now for my freedom, and so on and et cetera. Please refer to this document for my response. Thanks!

They Shoot People, Don’t They?

“‘They don’t really advertise that they kill people,’ Funk said. ‘I didn’t really realize the full implications of what I was doing.'” — Marine Reservist Stephen Funk, on why he refused to report for active duty, “Marine: ‘I refuse to kill’,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/2/03

You have to be a really interesting sort of ignorant not to know that the Marines kill people from time to time. Your first hint: The big rifle so many of those Marines carry around. Your second hint: All those movies, books and television shows, widely available to the general public, in which Marines are shown, you know, killing people. Your third hint: The fact that the Marines are widely acknowledged to be a branch of the military of the United States, and militaries are likewise widely known, by most people who are smart enough to stand upright on two legs, to kill other people on occasion (typically members of other nations’ militaries, though sometimes they’re not so picky, depending on country and context).

This rather goopy column on Stephen Funk describes a kid who got over 1400 on his SATs and got accepted to a number of excellent colleges, including my own University of Chicago, which is widely known (when it is widely known at all) for being the sort of school that remarkably stupid people don’t usually have high on their wish list of collegiate destinations (Funk eventually landed at University of Southern California, which is not nearly as an encouraging indication of intelligence, but never mind that right now). In short, Funk is portrayed as a very smart kid, not the sort of person who, for example, needs a reminder that coffee may be hot, so please don’t place it near your genitals, or, as another example, that the Marines occasionally go to war and kill people, being that they are an arm of the military.

The column piece suggests that the Marine recruiter filled Funk’s head so full of tales of wild adventure and technical training that our young hero couldn’t even contemplate the idea that Marines might go to war, which I would expect is true as far as it goes. The armed forces of the US spend a lot of time and money in their recruiting commercials pushing things like skills training, money for college and seeing the world, and less time pushing things like no showers for weeks, endless Meals Ready to Eat and the possibility of having to put a bullet into the gut of someone who wants to do the same thing to you but is slightly less quick on the draw, and who will then go down screaming because you’ve just turned a large portion of his small intestine into a crimson mess with the consistency of Libby’s potted meat food product.

But even then, there’s always the indication that the military is not exactly a peaceable organization. Take the Marines recruiting site. On the front page are three pictures, one of which features Marines handling rifles. Put your mouse over the pictures, and Java script pops up text. “Those Who are Warriors. Those Who are Driven. Those Who Belong.” Click on “About the Marines” and the text that pops up reads, right from the beginning: “Marines are warriors. Comprised of smart, highly adaptable men and women, the Marine Corps serves as the aggressive tip of the U.S. military spear.” The picture on this page is a squad of Marines, rifles sighted and ready to shoot, stalking the photographer. To be strictly accurate on Funk’s immediate point, there’s nothing on the Marine recruiting site that I can see that specifically says anything about killing people. But on the other hand, all this talk of warriors and pictures of rifles doesn’t give the indication one is signing up for day care training, either.

The part of Funk’s quote above that rings true is the second part: “I didn’t really realize the full implications of what I was doing.” This, I believe. I think it’s entirely possible to sign up, get into training and then realize, holy crap, am I ever in the wrong place. Moreover, I think there’s absolutely no disgrace in realizing that — indeed, it’s better for everyone if you do, because the last thing I would want if I were a Marine would be a squadmate who’s not sure he’s ready to kill if he absolutely has to. Moral quandaries are fine, just not when an Iraqi Fedayeen is shooting at you wildly from the back of a fast-moving technical. Out with him.

But Funk and others in his situation should place the responsibility for this where it belongs: Not with a fast-talking recruiter, who promises adventure and fun and sort mumbles the fine print about having to shoot people under his breath, but with himself. He may not have realized what he was made of, but he almost certainly knew what he was getting himself into.

Update: More details to flesh out Funk’s reasons for wanting out. It’s looking less like he didn’t know killing was involved. Also, a gratifying admission: “Ultimately, it’s my fault for joining in the first place.” My respect for Mr. Funk has just gone up a tick or two.

Caution: Stupid People At Work

“White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, seeking to put the shortest stamp on the duration of the war, said today that the White House did not consider the war starting with the March 19 aerial attack that targeted a Hussein bunker. Rather, he said, the White House was considering March 20, when troops first entered Iraq, as the official start, followed by the beginning of the massive aerial assault a day later.”“U.S. Smashes Through Iraqi Lines,” The Los Angeles Times, 4/2/2003

Just to be clear: Trying to assassinate a nation’s leader via guided missile is not an act of war.

I wonder which egghead over at the White House glommed on the idea that trimming 12 hours off the start of the war is going make that much of a perceptual difference to anyone. Probably the same fellow who had advised Rumsfeld on that “49 miles” thing.

Spat

This is interesting to me: A newgroup thread on the Coke-thowing spat between authors Jo Walton and David Brin. The short introduction to this is that Walton and Brin apparently crossed swords during a panel at this year’s Boskone science fiction convention, and then later at a party sponsored by Tor Books (my publisher, as well as the publisher of both Walton and Brin) Walton was sufficiently annoyed with and/or by Brin to douse him with a Coke she had in her hand. Walton blogged the event on her site shortly after it happened; some weeks later Brin found the blog entry and the comments that followed and responded, re-igniting the controversy afresh, and of course since then much of SF fandom and not a few authors have chimed in with their opinions of Walton, Brin and the entire spat. It’s a heck of a pile-up.

I have no horse in this particular race; I don’t know either Brin or Walton personally and so I have no opinion as to whether Brin deserved his cola shower, or if Walton was justified in administering the same. In a general sense, I try to live my life so that I neither throw nor am the recipient of thrown fizzy, carbonated beverages, and indeed, I encourage each of you to live your life in the same peaceable, non-sticky manner. But it is interesting to me in the sense that I am now a science fiction author (or will be soon enough) and will be entering the community of both of other SF authors and those who read SF; these little squabbles are now within my little sewing circle, as it were, and it’s fascinating to see how the dynamics of the interaction work here.

What is especially interesting is not so much the interaction between Walton and Brin (My only comment about the two of them is that each is the gardener of their own crop of karma, and so long as they are tending in a manner that makes them happy, more power to them) but the interaction of the peanut gallery of SF readers and their opinions of one or both of the authors. From what I observe, (popular) science fiction authors inhabit an uncomfortable intersection of reality and celebrity — notable enough that they’re up for grabs about speculation about themselves and their lives, but not such high-grade celebrities that they’ve developed the psychic callouses that allow those poor people to get on with their lives without collapsing into a heap under the weight of what everyone in the world has to say about them.

In short, they seem prime candidates for being really cheesed off by random burblings from the people who know them from their books and what other people have said about them based on third-hand reports from friends who went to conventions. And of course, what they read on newsgroups and comment threads. Combine that with the fact that SF readers can be, well, not nice, and the fact that writers tend not be the most magnificently socialized of people in the best of circumstances, and it’s no wonder SF writers can be a little twitchy.

Not to blame the readers, mind you (please buy my book when it comes out). If two authors hadn’t gotten into it in public, all the comment threads simply wouldn’t have happened. It’s just interesting to watch it all in play.

Right and Wrong

Irony abounds, if you care to look. The Dubya administration’s problems in selling its war plan exactly mirror the US troops’ problems in implementing the war plan — in its massive rush forward toward its goal, it left itself vulnerable to sniping from its flanks. The US military is dealing with the problem by killing Iraqi irregulars; the administration is dealing with it by trying the kill the messengers. In both cases, it’s far more trouble than expected; not entirely surprisingly, the military is doing a better job of it than the administration.

The interesting thing about the erupting tiff concerning the war plan is not whether the plan has been successful or not — the fact is, griping aside, the US military is currently in ass-kicking mode in what is still a pretty short and casualty-low pocket war. We may still get the actual killing-and-bombing thing done within a month. The interesting thing is just how bad a job the administration is doing in convincing anyone that the successes of the war have anything to do with it. The current line about this thing seems to be that the troops on the ground are making good progress despite the fact that the administration — particularly Rumsfeld and his pals — cut its legs out from under it by underestimating the number of troops needed initially and overestimating just how quickly the Iraqis would fold. This has thrown Rumsfeld into highly visible and somewhat amusing fits, and put the administration in the position of defending what is, from a pragmatic, results-oriented point of view, a pretty successful plan so far.

But isn’t that like this administration to have to justify its successes. It comes in part from the growing realization that the boys have done so many things badly (mismanaging the economy, bungling foreign diplomacy, and meting out blunt force trauma to the Bill of Rights are the things that immediatelycome to mind) that any assertion of continuing, ongoing incompetence in any aspect of their organizational purview comes across as sounding just about right.

(Of course, some folks on the hard right seem to think this sort of thing isn’t a bug, it’s a feature — by swelling the deficit, going unilateral and hammering on individual rights while they’re in power, they make it so less like-minded administrations have to spend most of their time cleaning up their messes rather than pursuing their own agendas. I think this is a very interesting political philosophy, since it seems to incorporate the idea that failure is built-in to the mechanics of their administration (you don’t plan to sabotage liberal administrations if you don’t expect they will eventually win), which is a refreshing admission of the limitations of their politics. It’s either that or the hard right actually feels we as a citizenry are actually better off isolated, in debt and stripped of our rights. Either way, these sorts of maneuvers do not engender trust.)

The more prosaic factor to consider is simply that the Dubyites are reaping what they have sown. When you deal with people in a smug, high-handed manner, they’re more inclined not to feel terribly wracked with guilt about messing with you even when you’re right. This is why the US had to grovel in the UN for Security Council votes it ultimately didn’t get but should have gotten, no grovelling involved, and why Pentagon colonels are now falling over each other to anonymously whack at Rumsfeld as if he were a piñata at a New Yorker inside source party. It’s not enough to be right; you need to be right in a way that doesn’t make people actively hate you for it.

This is a little factor the Dubyas don’t understand, which is why they have such a hard time dealing with it. They really ought to get used to it. It’s not going to get any better from here on out.

Book Season!

Happy April Fool’s Day. I hope you’re telling someone a big fat lie even as I type this. I haven’t done a major April Fool’s prank since the time I convinced the woman who was trying to prank me into thinking she got a new job (she was looking to get a job with me at AOL at the time) that I had taken her seriously and given the job I had open for her to someone else. There’s nothing sweeter than pranking those who are trying to prank you, especially when it involves money and/or employment. Alas, these days, the only people I have to prank are the pets, and they’re no fun. The cats would just run away and the dog will merely look up at me with her sad, sad eyes, as if to say, but why would you want to prank me? I love you. Stupid unconditional love.

In celebration of April Fool’s Day, however, allow me exhume an April Fool’s Guide to Pranking that I wrote, um, about seven years ago. And let me just say, good friggin’ lord, am I getting old. Enjoy.

Other people are celebrating April Fool’s, but April 1 has a different significance for me this year — it’s the opening of book season, the period in which my primary occupation will be grinding through the books I have contracted to write this year. In order to do so, I’ve largely cleared the deck of most freelance work except for a couple of specific clients who help me cover the mortgage, and I’ll be adopting (this is where you may gasp in shock and horror) — a schedule! Yes, a schedule, because nothing says “bite me, I’m writing” like a set in stone writing routine. Also, without a routine, I tend to flail and panic and instead of writing, I’ll give myself over to multiple bouts of first-person-shooter bot deathmatches, which is really unbecoming in a man of my advanced professional stature and level of male pattern baldness.

The two books in question are The Book of the Dumb and the second novel for Tor, which currently is running around without a title — I had thought of one, but then Patrick Nielsen Hayden, upon hearing it, said “Hmmmm… that sounds like a fantasy title.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that I’m not writing fantasy, I’m writing Science Fiction, which needs sharp, metallic, reflective pointy titles. Which, although I’ve never thought about it before, makes perfect sense. A science fiction book, no matter how good it is, isn’t going to go anywhere with a title like The Fluffy Ponies in the Candy-Coated Space Station of Love! Which is really too bad, if you ask me. So, title to come.

It’s a very interesting time to be writing my particular science fiction novel — the idea I sold to Tor was of (here’s the actual quote) “a diplomatic troubleshooter who solves problems through the use of action scenes and witty dialogue,” and at the moment, we’re living in a time where both diplomatic troubleshooting and witty dialogue have almost nothing to do with our current administration’s plan for resolving thorny international problems (although, to be fair, it’s very big on action scenes).

I don’t think there’s going to be any doubt that the current world situation here on Earth is going to leak into the adventures that will transpire in the book. Not directly, of course — it’s that whole idea of “If you want to send a message, use Western Union” which I whole-heartedly endorse — but certainly it’s food for thought whilst I write.

The temporal appropriateness of writing The Book of the Dumb at this moment in time is of course all too obvious, so I need not belabor the point. Let’s just say that for both books, the timing for me is good, almost too good.

Incidentally, regarding The Book of the Dumb, I’ll have an announcement to make fairly shortly — basically, I’ll be hoping for some audience participation, and I’m writing up the details for that right now. More is coming, so stay tuned.

So I am actually going to start writing the books today? Well, no — for all my deck clearing, I’ve got a couple of barnacles: A couple of assignments for my beloved masters at Official PlayStation Magazine (Hi, Joe!) and a series of additional articles for Uncle John’s which will actually take me a couple of weeks to complete. I’ll begin writing the novel probably as early as tomorrow, with the writing on Dumb to commence after I complete the assignments for Uncle John (they’re being published by the same people, so I’m sure they’d endorse this); in the meantime for Dumb I have some concrete setting-up exercises I need to do (which as I said, I’ll be sharing with the rest of you soon).

What it means that from now through the end of September, I’m primarily in book mode. I’m very excited about this of course — the natural habitat of a writer is to be writing books. Well, that and scrounging toothpick-speared finger foods from wine-and-cheese author events (other author’s events, of course). Unfortunately, I’d have to commute for those. Guess I’ll just have to write instead.