April 04, 2007
Reader Request Week 2007 #7: Short Bits II: Electric Boogaloo
Since doing this yesterday so was so much fun -- and so easy! -- let's keep the good times going, and finish off Reader Request Week for 2007 (especially since it's now dragged on for nine days), with another entry of short bits.
Alex J. Avriette: "I'd be interested in hearing you discuss the relevance of science fiction to literature as a whole. It's been discussed off-and-on in various places, particularly in authors' weblogs, but they all seem to have a 'wait and see' attitude. Stuff is just around the corner, and then we can speculate. Can SF gain the credibility required to, say, have it be covered in high school classrooms? Will we ever see books like Accelerando or Snow Crash (or their successors...) offered alongside works such as To Kill a Mockingbird?"
Well, Alex, I think SF is already taught in high schools and even middle school; I know Fahrenheit 451 and Martian Chronicles are both popular, and assigning 1984, Brave New World, and Stranger in a Strange Land or Starship Troopers is not unheard of either. My particular high school was unusual, I'll be the first to admit, but it had an entire class on utopic literature, which assigned everything from (yes) Utopia to then contemporary science fiction.
Now, the question of whether newer SF books will ever be taught? Difficult to say. Books are taught in high school for a reason, because of the themes involved and etc; Fahrenheit and 1984, for example, are good because they talk about individuality in repressive societies. For newer books to start showing up in reading lists, they have to hit some pretty basic themes, and the thing about a lot of adult science fiction these days is that it doesn't do that -- at least, not as well as Bradbury or Heinlein did. I suspect teachers will stick with what they know.
Or, and I think this is a very real possibility, they'll assign YA SF. One author I expect will be taught in high schools -- because it's already started -- is Scott Westerfeld, whose Uglies series of books is dead-on about issues of identity and personal determination in a repressive society, done up in a way that works for contemporary teens.
Joel: "What impractical foreign language would you like to be fluent in?"
Italian. Which will outrage some folks because Italian is, after all, spoken by 55 million people and it's fairly practical for them. But here in the US, outside some very specific urban enclaves, it's not particularly useful. I'd want to speak it because my grandfather only spoke Italian until he was five and started school, and I like the idea of sharing that language with him, because I loved him a lot.
Jesse C: "I wrote a post on my blog about authors building web communities as a new sort of business model and you were my test case. So I figured I'd pass the link along to you. Its something it'd be interesting to hear your take on during your reader request week."
I think creating the opportunity for online communities to exist can be very helpful for an author -- whether one coalesces, of course, is another matter entirely and depends on both the writers and the fans. And I do think an author who is cynical about it, or plots to create community only as a means to an end, is likely to create disappointment on all sides. The community around here is a little different, because the Whatever predates any of my books by a couple of years, and my published science fiction by seven -- which is to say the community was here before I was an author of any consequence. This is why I am equally known for blogging as I am for writing SF. As it happens I'll be talking about this very subject in a few days in San Diego; when I get back I may expound on it a bit more here.
SFC SKI: "I have two topics. The first is: Citizenship, in the sense of 'Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.' The second topic: Is the term 'Punk' as it's used today just a cooler way to describe Power Pop?"
Second one first: I think 'Power Pop' is used to describe power pop, although I also think it's acknowledged that punk is a part of its DNA. I do think there's always been a poppy aspect to punk; if you go back and listen to Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols -- as I recommend you do -- or any early Ramones or the Damned -- the thing that gets you about it now is that it is actually damn catchy. It's a direct line from Sex Pistols to Fall Out Boy, as much as that horrifies punk purists (it's not necessarily a straight line from TSOL or Husker Du to Fall Out Boy, but that's another discussion).
I do think that using the word "punk" to describe power pop is just lazy or misinformed, but I don't think it's an insult to either genre of music.
First one second: I think it would be lovely if more people believed citizenship entailed service and responsibility. I think one of the great tragedies of the current war was the strategy choice that asked nothing of any of us not in the military except for us to go about our lives, and surrender a few key civil liberties. It made sense for the administration to do it this way -- it fit their conception of what this war was going to be -- but I think the disengagement it engendered on this end was not a good thing.
Anonymous Coward: "The Singularity - fact, fiction or somewhere between?"
Nothing ever happens the way science fiction authors imagine it will, and this will be a perfect example: The Singularity, if and when it happens, will happen like the iPod or the television happened: One day a few fashionable geeks will be caught up in it, and a year later everyone will be part of it, and no one will think anything much about it after that. The Singularity will happen and it'll seem like a perfectly normal thing, and as a culture we'll still want to know if Britney is walking around without underwear.
Rebecca Hb: "What are your thoughts and evaluations on the short story market for genre writing these days?"
I think it's fine; I think it's changing. I think, for example, that the short story SF magazines like Asimov's and F&SF better rethink at some point or continue to face the slow leak of subscribers they seem to have now; I also think that eventually the entire genre short story market, save for anthologies, is going to be online, and that writers and publishers need to find a way to make that work economically, since writers will still want to get paid.
I wish there were a way to make writing short fiction generally more remunerative for writers, but I don't know if there's a solution that will work globally. Personally, with the exception of creating collectors' items like The Sagan Diary, short fiction doesn't pay enough for me to consider it as a viable income generator, so my solution is to view short fiction, basically, as a loss leader and a playground to experiment with my writing. This is why I've done relatively little of it, compared to my contemporaries in SF.
Randomscrub: "What drove you to get a philosophy degree as an undergraduate, rather than English or something else typical for a writer?"
Well, to be honest, what drove it was that at the end of my third year in college, I looked at the courses I took and realized that I had enough credits to graduate with a philosophy degree right then, whereas any other concentration of study would require five years to graduate. So I said "Hmmm, guess I'm a philosophy major," and then had a very relaxed fourth year, which is atypical at the University of Chicago.
As for why I focused more on philosophy to begin with: Well, because it's an interesting subject. I was taking English courses, too, mind you, but my focus on writing was always more practical than not, and so for my education I wanted something theoretical and mind-expanding. It worked out well for me; writing at the newspaper (and freelancing for the Sun-Times and the alt-weeklies) gave me the practical experience in writing, while all the philosophy stuff kept my brain open and gave me an appreciation for learning for the sake of leaning. That was a good combination.
Adam Rakunas: "Have you ever had a fanboy moment?"
Well, yeah. My biggest one was probably when I interviewed John Woo, right around the time of that Van Damme movie he directed as the cost of getting his foot in the door in Hollywood. We had a perfectly good and useful interview where I was all professional and everything. And the minute I turned off the tape recorder and the interview was over, I got all gushy on him. Because he was John Woo, man.
However, I do suspect I've had fewer fanboy moments than a lot of folks, because one of the things you eventually grok about famous people if you spend any amount of time near them (and I did while I was a film critic) was that the smarter, less neurotic ones actually get bored getting squeed over. Most of them want to be treated like normal humans. Doing so is not always possible, particularly in an interview situation, which is how I saw most of them, but the closer you get to that, the more comfortable they feel, and the more they appreciate it. Mind you, that's if they're smart. There are lots of folks who want you to make a big deal over them. These are not the sort of folks I'm like to get fanboy about.
Jess: "Being accused of using Mary Sue's in your writing, you sort of wrote about that already but how do you think that will affect future stories you write, especially changing genres?"
Well, to be clear, I'm not really concerned about the accusations of Mary Sue-dom in my work. Honestly, if I was going to put myself as a Mary Sue in my work, the novel would have to be about an unshaven writer in a bathrobe staring at a computer screen all day. There's no market for that. Also, I don't really mind when people accuse me of making my main characters my Mary Sue, since my main characters are, you know, generally competent dudes having interesting adventures. I mean, I wish my life was that interesting. Minus, I hasten to add, all the pain I put my characters through. I do have to say that when people complained to me that John Perry seemed unusually lucky, my response was, "Well, I did have him lose half his body in a horrible shuttle crash." I mean, come on. The dude was so tore up he kicked his own uvula. I'm not entirely sure I'd want that kind of luck.
My main characters to date have been generally competent, primarily because generally competent protagonists are useful in moving the plot along at a nice clip. Will my protagonists always be like this? I don't think so, and I don't think that's been all I've written; I don't think Jared Dirac of The Ghost Brigades was a classic "competent man" character, for example. I will say that I think people like competent characters in the lead, so if you make one that doesn't fit that mold, you have to make sure you put in the extra work, to give readers something to grip unto regarding the main character.
Girl Detective: "I am in the middle of reading You're Not Fooling Anybody..., and the question that plagues me is if you're making so much money, and living in not-quite-Dayton OH (which I know from; I was born in Columbus and lived in Granville), what are you doing with all that money? Saving it for your kid's college? I just don't get it. Why not live in a good city with a slightly higher cost of living, with good politics, good culture, that's still a good place to raise kids, like Minneapolis, where I'm writing from? But really, I'm still baffled. What are you doing with all that money in the boonies of OH?"
At the moment, I'm going to pay taxes with it, since my income went up a bit this last year (as did our overall household income), and we got a nice fat tax bill to go with it. As they say: Oh, joy. I don't begrudge the amount of taxes I pay - I think it's a fair amount - but sending off a check for the amount I haven't already paid in quarterlies isn't going to be pleasant.
The reason I live where I do is that this is where Krissy's family is. I once dragged Krissy across the entire country when I got a job at America Online; later, when she decided to drag me to Ohio so she could be near her family, it was only fair I go without too much complaint. I would dispute that this is not a fine place to raise a kid, incidentally: Athena is surrounded by a supportive extended family, her school is small and she gets personalized attention, and she has a yard to play in and explore that's larger than most city parks. Later, when Athena becomes a teenager, I suspect she'll not be able to wait to get out of this small town, which I think will be fine. Right now, however, it's ideal.
Likewise, although I would hesitate to call this the perfect environment for me, I actually like where I live. I suspect you overestimate our isolation -- I'm close enough to civilization, for example, that I can take in a Rembrandt exhibit or watch a ball game if I want to, and while the politics of my county are a little conservative for my tastes, the people here are excellent neighbors and fine folks. And of course we are not so isolated that we cannot get whatever daily culture we choose through TV, Internet and Amazon. We're doing fine on that score. Really, it's not so bad. This is Ohio, a densely populated state. Nothing is so isolated that you're more than 45 minutes from a reasonably-sized city.
As to what I spend money on: The usual. We do put away for retirement, we are planning for Athena's education, I buy lots of books and electronic toys, and so on. We also travel a bit. In short, we spend our money the same way other people do -- although we spend less of it on housing and cost of living. Which is, you know, nice.
Scot: "In the spirit of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, what are your thoughts on your sci-fi work being adopted into/the basis of a cult in the future?"
Do I get free sex out of it? With hot women? When I'm old and wrinkly and there would be no other reason I would get said sex? If so, the answer is: Eh, still probably not. I'm not entirely sure I'd want to be in the company of people who fetishized my work to that extent. It might have made Hubbard happy, but this is just another way in which he is not me. The other ways, in case you were wondering: I don't like sailor hats, and I look terrible in a cravat. There it is.
Thanks everyone for all your questions this Reader Request Week. Let's do again, oh, in about a year. Also remember that you don't have to wait for Reader Request Week to ask me to write about something: I like it when people ask me my opinions about things. Just send along an e-mail.
Posted by john at April 4, 2007 09:38 AM
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