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July 31, 2005

Finally, some real blogging

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Coming in a day late and a dollar short on the Saturday post; time management, not my strong suit. I have a persistent feeling I used up my somber essayist quota last week, so I'm going to get all bloggy on you and wind up with some lingering comments on the last few weeks.

Ohio: Nothing to add, not an expert. But it reminds me to mention "None Dare Call It Stolen" by Mark C. Miller in the August Harper's. Oh, and of the time I walked from Indiana to the Dayton airport. Well, not all the way... really, the less said, the better.

Why America Doesn't Suck at All: superhero comic books, unlimited soft drink refills (with ice!), nacho platters the size of a small principality, the hold 'em poker boom and the Internet to play it on, and the Constitution. Oh, and the part of Hollywood responsible for Buffy and Battlestar Galactica.

Blogging and censorship: okay, so count me as a gobsmacked over the nannygate controversy that hit the NYT. Seems to me, if you want to write an anonymous blog involving the salient and salacious, then you damn well should stay anonymous. In my experience, the TV version of the slip-of-the-lip that gives away the murder to the detective doesn't happen often in real life. More often, the people who get in trouble with a terminal case of TMI were on the road to self-destruction one way or another. Most people, just not good at keeping secrets. Which is why it's a good idea not to go out of your way to generate any.

Anonymity: I promised a follow-up post on this, but every time I started it I ended up hating it four sentences later. Long story short, after a post on what separates us, I wanted to go for what connects us—and as you might guess, any post that has to disclaim Seven Degrees of Separation in the first sentence is just begging to be cliché-filled.

But what I had in mind was writing about how most of us are connected to the people around us in terrifying ways. We hear about a tiny fraction of these connections, but most of them stay hidden. My examples: met an old college friend I hadn't seen in years, found out she was a co-worker with my first girlfriend who I hadn't etc. Or the time I met a Newsworthy Individual at a conference in Japan and we discovered we lived across the street from each other. You have your own examples. We all do.

It seems to me that we build up these connective calluses to survive living in a teeming mass of humanity, but it also seems somewhat tragic that this means so many people pass in and out of our lives daily without notice. Try it sometime: silently say "goodbye, forever" to a stranger as she gets off the subway train. Not that I have any ideas on what to do about this, if anything.

Batman: Here's everything you need to know about Batman. There's this scene in the recent JLA series where Batman has gone off to do some scouting of the bad guys' base. Superman is standing next to the Martian Manhunter (about as powerful, somewhat different powers), and both are watching the horizon. Superman says, "Can you see him?" Manhunter says no. Batman appears behind them in the frame and says, "okay, let's go."

If you're a comic reader, and I am, you're used to seeing all sorts of fantastic things in the storylines. I recall one storyline from my youth when Superman temporarily stopped the Earth from orbiting for a little while. Into all of this waltzes this man, merely human, who wasn't rocketed from his exploding home planet or hit by lightning in front of a chemical locker. Through sheer force of will, he makes himself into a hero.

The big three of DC comics are Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The Man of Steel, an Amazon princess—and a human being with wits and training and just a dash of psychotic obsession. The movie didn't quite capture all that, but it's the closest one so far.

Finally, while I liked the discussion that came out of my freelance agenting idea, I'm a bit disappointed that I generated less buzz from the professional crowd here than I hoped (buzz meaning "actual thoughts on doing this"). I'm guessing that there are flaws to the idea that I missed, but if anyone wants to discuss further, my email address is cleverly hidden on every page of my site.

Alright, time for this Antiscalzi to turn out the lights. Looking forward to having John come back, actually; I've missed him, although I hope I did 1/7th of the job of making you miss him a little less. Thanks for listening.

Posted by at 08:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Ohio: The Heart of It All (Yeah, Right.)

(Posted by Jim Winter)

[WARNING: Lots of footnotes. Please read before commenting, or I will say rude things about your mother.]

Since today is July 31 and the end of John's sabbatical, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on this mysterious state he and I share.

When you travel, it's amazing what people really think of where you live. This is especially true when the people you meet have never been to your neck of the woods. If you live in California, or especially New York City, people's opinions of your home are pretty much set in concrete. They're experts on the place without ever having visited.

I'm finding the same to be true for Ohio. On a recent business trip to Baltimore, a colleague asked me how Ohio could support two baseball and two football teams. Aren't those teams awfully close together for such a rural state?

Well, I wouldn't say that. For starters, the Indians and the Browns play 225 miles from the Reds and the Bengals. And having lived in both cities, I can tell you it's like moving to a foreign country travelling between the two. And rural? Well there are vast stretches of the state where you can almost hear Michael Learned calling out "Goodnight, John Boy." Indeed, my parents lived in such an area, where broadband is a rumor, cell service an urban legend, and everything closes after eight. My youngest brother still lives in that area, but he moved into the nearest small town in search of cable.

"But surely," you must say, "you and John are in the same corner of Ohio. Don't you two get together at all?"

Technically, we're in the same area, but I live in Mt. Washington, a detached neighborhood of Cincinnati that's sort of its own suburb. If the wind's blowing in the right direction, John can call his area Dayton, though he lives in Darke County. I never even heard of Darke County until he mentioned it. It's north of Dayton, over an hour-and-a-half drive from my place. In actuality, we've only met once in person, at a book signing in Dayton. It was a drive for both of us.

John can better describe where he lives than I can. I'm fairly certain he does not have to dodge Amish buggies or their resulting droppings. (That would be up in Holmes County, where my brother lives.) I can tell you that most of Ohio is urban, suburban, and increasingly exurban. I can also tell you everyday I live in Cincinnati is another day of culture shock for a boy raised on a culture of American cars and steel, Slavic food, Bruce Springsteen, and Cleveland's answer to political correctness, the Certain Ethnic joke.* Cincinnati is college basketball, German Catholics, Bible-belt crusades against anything remotely sexual, and UDF ice cream.**

Along with Columbus (Buckeyes football, classy strip bars, and pro soccer), Cleveland and Cincinnati are the major urban centers in Ohio. But their attitudes are like night and day. If Cleveland has a rival, it's Pittsburgh, two hours away in Western Pennsylvania. It's barely aware of Cincinnati, probably because the Ohio State Buckeyes block the view. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has a prevailing attitude that Cleveland is the portal to Hell, based largely on the fact that Art Modell lived there when he screwed over Paul Brown, former Cleveland Browns coach and founder of the Cincinnati Bengals. This attitude is generally not based on anyone having actually VISITED Cleveland, which never stops AM talkshow hosts from expounding on how the city to the north is so much worse than Cincinnati.***

Still, Cleveland has a tendency to go broke a lot. It hasn't gone bankrupt since the late seventies, probably because the last three mayors tended not to take advice from space aliens or Shirley MacLain****. That alone has helped the city rebound time and again. Cincinnati, for all its lethargic development, tends to be a quiet city. When the murder rate rises above 75, people call it a major crime wave. Meanwhile, even smaller cities in Ohio are saying, "What are you doing right?"

One thing I do not miss about my hometown is the weather. I'll be honest, I hate snow. I've lived in Ohio all my life*****, and believe me, a couple days of heavy snow every winter beats the weekly onslaught of lake effect snow hands down. The temperatures also stay warmer in Cincinnati. Spring starts earlier, and fall lasts longer.

I suppose the big difference is this. Cleveland has more in common with the East Coast. When I go to New York or Baltimore or Philly, I feel right at home. I think it's the culture and the ethnic mix. It's also because Cleveland sits on the edge of a large fresh water sea someone with a warped sense of humor called a "Great Lake." (Lakes do not swallow iron ore carriers whole. They just don't. See EDMUND FITZGERALD; LIGHTFOOT, GORDON). Cincinnati has more in common with the south. A river town, Cincy is otherwise landlocked. Parts of it remind me of Atlanta or Memphis (though it's much easier to get around than Atlanta, which doesn't say much.) Cincy is more conservative as a whole, like the South, and has more in common with Kentucky, across the river, than it does the rest of Ohio.

So there you have it. Ohio. It's not a foreign country after all.

It's four or five of them.

*Invented by an angry Pole who thought the FCC had no business telling him he couldn't make skits out of Polish jokes.

**Have to plug UDF ice cream on behalf of my employer, who makes a killing off the stuff. Also pads my 401k nicely.

***Glaringly absent from such talk is that all the action in Cincinnati is actually across the river in Northern Kentucky. Cincinnati is a suburb of Covington.

****We had a mayor who, in fact, did that. Dennis Kucinich. The town went bankrupt on his watch. However, careful analysis of the situation shows that the former CEI (now FirstEnergy) triggered the bankruptcy. This is the same outfit that triggered the Great Blackout of 2003. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has added FirstEnergy executives to its list of open seasons for hunters. I plan to mount the CEO's head over my fireplace.

*****Yes, I know. I could always move to Florida or Texas, but are hurricanes really preferable to six feet of snow?

Posted by at 08:00 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

July 29, 2005

Cat Vacuuming: A Post With Visual Aids

(Posted by Claire Light)

(Sorry about posting this late! technical difficulties, you know. I'm a geek, but not a computer geek, unfortunately. So here's my last blog of the month. Thanks for listening!)

By now, most of you know what cat vacuuming is. If you don't here's a definition from the forward motion website: "Cat hoovering (also Cat vacuuming) - 1. any excuse to avoid writing, even vacuuming the cat (Gerri); 2. A pointless exercise used to avoid real work. (HughSider)" For example, reading this blog rather than doing ... whatever it is that you do (unless what you do professionally is read blogs for some reason) is a perfect example of cat vacuuming.

The term supposedly originated with rec.arts.sf.composition, a discussion board of some sort. It bounces madly around the blogosphere, though, and seems to have taken hold especially in SF/F writing circles. There's even a Cat Vacuuming Society in Northern Virginia, which is, of course, a writers group. Plus, there's this nifty,award-winning sermon which offers an alternate, and ironically less Protestant-work-ethicky definition of cat vacuuming: the compulsive rituals that keep you from succumbing to lethargy or sin.

BUT WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? you ask. (And even if you didn't, just work with me here.)

This cartoon of funny feline abuse might give you ideas.

But really, really, I wrote this entire blog entry just to post a video of me vacuuming my cat, non-abusively. I think you can tell from the evidence that he looooooves him some hand-vac. This video is actually beautiful because it is an example of both literal and metaphorical cat vacuuming, since I took the video during my "work hours", when I'm supposed to be writing my novel ... hey, kinda like right now. Enjoy!

Posted by at 07:50 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

July 28, 2005

A final Thursday half-hearted shout-out to my peeps (or complete lack thereof)

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

July's almost over. And with its passing shall go my brief interlude as your Thursday shtick-artist. I hope to leave the place as I found it - with a not entirely unpleasant smell, a re-stocked mini-fridge and all the neighbors unwilling to (formally) file restraining orders. But before I go, I do feel the urge to cut a more natural swath through things I find to be absurd currently. And shamelessly plug my often brilliant blog, and the Family Buick, in hopes of luring the buncha youse on a more regular basis over yonder after my time here is done. With that said, I'd like to offer my Reasons Why America Doesn't Completely Suck, as inspired by the despicably self-righteous Bernard Goldberg. If you see Bernie anywhere near your communities in the near future promoting his new book, egg the man mercilessly. Trust me - he deserves it.

Why America Doesn't Completely Suck
1. Even with most of the Country sweaty and gross, the temperature outside my San Francisco apartment is currently 64 degrees. And I only have to pay exorbinant cost-of-living rates year round to enjoy the beauty of room temperature all day long.
2. DirecTV is currently running ads for their NFL Sunday Ticket package incessantly featuring an overweight Jeff Garlin, even though the season won't start for another 6 weeks.
3. ComedyCentral is also incessantly promoting a "Roast" of Pamela Anderson, even though she's about as funny as Dick Van Patten. With huge knockers.
4. There's a new cigar bar opening in Little Rock named "Monica's on Clinton" near the Clinton Presidential Library. Seriously.
5. The Bushies are now calling the "Global War on Terror" the "Global Struggle against Extremism." No wait - that's one of the Reasons This Country Sucks (sorry, wrong list).
6. Pauly Shore can still find work.
7. Jon Stewart can say what he says without getting arrested. Unless he does so while buying crack with a male prostitute from an undercover cop. So to speak.
8. We invented TiVo, the Apple PowerBook, and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Entirely by accident.
9. Baby jogging strollers are now better equipped than my entire childhood elementary school.
And a final Reason Why This Country Doesn't Suck...
10. The internet has made it possible for anyone to publish for a World full of the curious (and spurious) at ree-deek-you-lousy low rates.

Any other Reasons you might want to offer? Regardless, tanks for reading. Rock on.

Posted by at 05:07 PM | Comments (16) | TrackBack

July 27, 2005

They Call Him the Wanderer...No, Wait, Scratch That

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

About a month ago, I contemplated reading The Traveler, noting "a suspiction that, having spent my entire adolescence and early adulthood devouring all the science fiction I could get my hands on, I've seen this all before." My fears were well grounded--I managed to get through about the first hundred pages yesterday, and it was only because I didn't have anything else to read on the subway that I continued past this whopper on page 23: "As far as he was concerned, anyone who used random numbers to guide his life should be hunted down and terminated." I mean, I know pulp villains are predisposed to believing wacky things, but those beliefs usally aren't quite so ridiculous. My favorite line, though? "This is a special security room. Everything said here is confidential." Yeah, that sounds enforceable.

Bascially, we're looking at a cross between the Gnostic paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the transdimensional Machiavellianism of Roger Zelazny, with details from Wired articles on surveillance technology thrown in for good measure. Plus some other sources: everytime those random number-generating anarchist ronin refer to themselves as Harlequin, I catch myself expecting that the highly regimented authoritarian society against which they rebel is going to change its name from the Tabula to the Ticktockmen--but no such luck. John Joseph Adams, a/k/a "the Slush God," gives it the benefit of the doubt as a "snack novel," but I find myself leaning towards Tod Goldberg's more acerbic take: "mindless entertainment that engages you while the neighbor kids piss in your pool." Apart from the ridiculous dialogue and the fact that the premises don't really work all that well if you think about them for more than thirty seconds, on the surface it's polished well enough.

A lot of people have commented that it seems less like a novel than like a treatment for the eventual movie, and they're not far off. That's actually one of the factors that went into my (probably wrong) guess as to the true identity of "John Twelve Hawks," the allegedly "off the grid" author behind this psychedelic potboiler. It all started when I realized that something in the "voice" of The Traveler was reminding me of a prison riot novel I read a decade ago. A little Googling told me that book was Green River Rising, and it's by a psychiatrist turned writer named Tim Willocks. It wasn't the fact that Willocks is a novelist and a screenwriter that sold me so much as that he hasn't published a novel in a long while...and that the first third of the novel is largely set in London and Los Angeles, the two cities between which he seems to divide his time. I could be wrong, but I'd love to have the guy who unmasked Joe Klein run a concordance analysis between the two, just in case...

...and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note a potential problem with my theory: Willocks just sold a novel about the Knights of Jerusalem and their defense of Malta against the Ottomans in the 16th century. Then again, that might just tie back into Twelve Hawks' Illuminati-lite secret history of the world...and, hey, "T. Willocks" even sort of sounds like "Twelve Hawks," right? I mean, I'm not crazy, am I?

UPDATE: Well, maybe I am, just a little. I've been discreetly informed that there's no way Willocks could've found the time to write a wacky sci-fi trilogy around the new novel. I'll buy that--and gladly, because I kinda had a soft spot for Green River Rising. More conclusively, Joe Regal is Twelve Hawks' agent, but Tim Willocks isn't on his client list...

Posted by at 01:27 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

July 26, 2005

Saturn Speaks

John Scalzi again. No, I'm not back yet. I still have a week left on my hiatus. However, I wanted to drop a musical composition I did on y'all. The Cassini mission has recorded radio frequencies from Saturn and NASA has fiddled with them to put them into human hearing range, and I thought they sounded interesting enough to work with in a musical sense. So, for your musical delectation: "Saturn Speaks." It comes in three flavors: Real Media (3.4 MB), small variable bit rate mp3 (4.3 MB) and large variable bit rate mp3 (9.9 MB). The track itself is 7 minutes long. Let me know what you think.

Posted by john at 02:48 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Doctors and lawyers and priestly ways

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

The legal system's often a mystery, and we, its priests, preside over rituals baffling to everyday citizens. (attributed to Henry Miller)

Anyone who tells you that people like filing 'frivolous lawsuits' because it's easy money also probably believes that women have abortions for recreational purposes.

Law school is initially disorienting because you're having your entire brain rearranged to a different way of thinking; when they're done with you, though, you can't imagine having been different. (It's a bit like "The Colour Out of Space," where the farmed humans come to prefer the aliens' strange, ill-tasting food to normal Earth produce.) It's easy to lose sight of how opaque--and terrifying--the legal system is to people who are not lawyers.

I work in an area of law where my clients are people rather than corporations. As with doctors, people come to us when they need answers, or help, sometimes when they need that help very badly and they're very frightened. Like doctors, we have a weird language all our own, we may not seem to understand what it's like to be in their shoes, and we have to hedge everything we say with scary things. "This will probably be just fine, but there's always a small chance that..."

Doctors have the advantage that, sometimes, they can make their patients better, or whole. In the law, "better, or whole," means getting money. I can't arrange for a settlement where my client's stage-four lung cancer will be taken away, or where he will be awared another four years to see his grandchildren grow up.

When I talk to our clients, I imagine that doctors must play part of the same role we do, as confidants and confessors. Because of that famous attorney-client privilege, people know they can tell us things that will never go beyond the walls of the law firm, even if those things are not "necessary" to their lawsuit. They tell us things they won't tell their spouses or their children, even though that may not be anything that's "relevant". And we listen, and we assure them that we will make things better. Most likely. We're working hard on it, certainly. But, like doctors, we can't say for a hundred percent sure that the treatment will work.

Doctors, of course, are fighting against disease and injury. We're up against other lawyers. I'm not sure who has it worse.

Posted by at 10:43 AM | Comments (29) | TrackBack

July 25, 2005

Agent to the Stars Arrives


Athena is clearly impressed by the blurb on the back cover. I'm personally quite pleased by the book -- it looks great (particularly Mike Krahulik's artwork), and of course it's just a happy, happy thing to have Agent finally in book form. I'll have more to say about it when August rolls around, but for now, thanks to Bill Schafer and Subterranean Press for doing such a great job with it. It's everything I wanted it to be.

If you haven't gotten your own copy yet: Plug plug plug.

Posted by john at 07:42 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Scalzi Mojo Winners

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

Winners, get your Scalzi mojo here. It wasn't easy, not at all, and as I have a decision making disorder, my lovely wife Gretchen made the near-final call on these. By her estimation, and mine, these were the "best" reasons to buy a copy of John's new limited edition, Agent to the Stars.

Oliver Dale:
Because John is too delicate for jail.

If I don't buy a copy, John will be forced onto the streets, and, just to survive, will be sucked into an underground ring of thievery. But he's a writer, not a thief, and so he'll be caught and arrested while stealing from Dunkin' Donuts. John's milky white skin will attract the ardor of the jail's cohabitants and I think we all know that ain't a good thing.

Dwight Brown:
Because if you don't buy a copy of *Agent to the Stars*, the terrorists have already won.

Steve Eley:
So that an angel will get its wings.

Rich G:
Because verily, in this land of ice and snow I live in where winter lasts three quarters of the year and the sun is a legendary object, seen only in the distant memories and dreams of those who reminisce about Pangea, I have need of entertainment that will double as a source of heat in the lean times ahead.

Though if Bush has his way, we Minnesotans will soon be wearing grass skirts and holding pig roasts. On the bright side -- I'll have beachfront property!


Yes, I know we chose more than one entry, but it was close, and we had several favorites. Winners, if you'd be so kind as to email me your address at subpress (at) earthlink.net, I'll see that you're given some of that Scalzi goodness.

Posted by at 10:32 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 24, 2005

What Prevents Terrorism?

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Jeff Porten here, on Jim's day, and still recovering from the crap that laid me out for the past few days. So this is a note of apology for the late post, and notice for Patrick and anyone else who wants to know who's writing.

I haven't been keeping up with the news as much the last few days, but as best as I can tell the world is still losing its collective mind. Random searches in New York, for the first time ever. An innocent man slain at point-blank range by police on the London Tube. New attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh. And the steady drumbeat of bombings in Iraq, which have become so common that I doubt most people consider them to be breaking news.

All of this is taken as part of living in the brave new world, in dangerous times, where there are evil men out there who would kill us. They do not have the power we wield to invade our countries and overthrow our governments, so they resort to bombs and the inculcation of terror. Our leaders tell us that this is new, that they will put a stop to it, and that when they do we can stop being afraid.

Perhaps the key to Londoners' calm is that they know full well that this is old and unstoppable, for they remember, remember the fifth of November, of gunpowder treason and plot, exactly four centuries ago. Perhaps, being British, they remember the IRA. Or perhaps, being European, they remember Brigate Rosse or Epanastatiki Organosi 17 Noemvri.

What is certain, however, is that Americans have forgotten April 19, 1995, when we were attacked by our own. We have forgotten the weeks following that attack, when many Americans jumped to the conclusion that we had been attacked by foreign terrorists. I wish I had a copy of my call at the time to a national NPR show, during which I rebuked the experts who were talking purely in terms of international terrorism.

After Oklahoma City, we had no one to invade, and so we turned to the rule of law. We prosecuted the attackers as criminals, and put one of them to death. In contrast, after Ground Zero, we invaded and overthrew two countries and passed dozens of laws to tighten up domestic surveillence on anyone living on U.S. soil.

Was Oklahoma City less important? Her dead less valuable to us? OKC led to changes in the American legal system, and inspired some (mostly stillborn) measures to watch Americans more closely. 9/11, in turn, led to the most radical reshaping of American foreign policy—and some might argue, domestic—since the close of World War II. The difference was in the origin of the attacks. The difference was in our leadership. The difference was in ourselves.

Today, the watchword for any move by government is claiming it keeps the people safe from terrorists. We rarely stop to ask what we mean when we say that. The tactics of terrorism are as old as humanity. This is not to justify the attacker; I have no interest in painting a sympathetic picture of such vicious animals. This is merely to be a student of history.

Nor is it possible to take away their weapons. Gunpowder can be made from urine. Explosives can be made from excrement, as Oklahoma should remind us. I have it on good authority that a suitable substitute for napalm can be made with gasoline, Ivory Soap, and a cheese grater. Granted, such weapons are crude and less lethal than the modern varieties; however, since America continues to be one of the world's leading producers and exporters of small arms, we can rest easy knowing that only the most truly impoverished terrorists will be forced to resort to such measures.

So—what should we do? If weapons are eternal, if the will to engage in terrorist acts is eternal, do we then simply resign ourselves to it?

The answer to that, of course, is no. But the correct answer is not to declare war on terror, because America has a poor track record with such things. We have waged wars on drugs, on poverty, and on crime. There are many reasons why we have lost these wars, but the core reason in my view is that intoxication, subjugation, and evil are part of the human condition.

But can all crime be attributed to evil? To believe that, you have to believe that Americans are among the most evil people in the world, based on our incarceration record. Perhaps we are. Or perhaps you can pay heed to history and human nature, and decide that people can commit evil acts, and can become evil, when their condition becomes sufficiently desperate.

Brian took a good stab at discussing successful preventive measures to crime, but to my mind he's answering the wrong question. The question is not to prevent motivated criminals from harming us; at that stage, we are fighting a rearguard effort and all it takes is a criminal to be smart or lucky. Given sufficient trials, we will eventually be exposed to the smart and the lucky.

The weak link in the chain is in the number of trials. We may believe that all those who would attack us are irredeemably evil and were always thus; if that is true, then we must engage in perpetual war to exterminate our enemies. Or we may believe that some forms of evil are born in nurture and not in nature, and do what we can to stem their conversion. We will still need to fight the naturally evil; they exist, they will remain, and they need to be countered. But we are all aware that the evil can be assisted by the impressionable, the desperate, and the foolish. Jones and Manson and many others have shown us that on the small scale; Hitler has shown that entire countries are not immune.

When we fight al-Qaeda, an army of 20,000, outspent by the American military by 1000 to 1, publicly befriended by none, are we fighting an army of the evil or the desperate? Of its leaders there can be no question; but what makes them leaders but that they have followers?

What Brian got right is the phrasing of his question, in asking about the prevention of crime. For terrorism is just a form of crime, one that is carried out for political ends. Why do we afford a certain kind of criminal so much credence, tell him that he alone is so threatening and dangerous to us that we would reconfigure our nation in response to his actions?

We need to remember that terrorism is crime, plain and simple. We are Americans. We and our true allies fight crime with justice; we know whom our true allies are because they do not shame us. We combat criminals with the rule of law. We were among the first to declare the equality of humankind before the law, and while we have been imperfect in our implementation, it is to the strength of this virtue that we owe the respect humankind affords us. For a millennium, nations wished to be feared; we were the first among many which gave reason to be loved.

When we forget that, when we declare war and start torturing our presumed enemies, when we deprive them of their freedoms without the due process that we have enshrined in our law, when we pretend that we need not act according to our ideals because we have the firepower to enforce our will, then we have sacrificed something indefinable which we are putatively defending. We are destroying the nation in order to save it.

I remember 9/11. I remember being out on the street in Washington DC, on an excrutiatingly beautiful day, all of us trying to make sense of the day's events. I remember thinking how normal it was. I remember thinking, for the first time, what it meant to be a superpower. We were too strong; our enemies, unlike our enemies of the last great war, to feeble to harm us as a nation. They could blood us, they could kill us, but they couldn't destroy us.

But that was before I saw military commandos riding the Metro. That was before we took a page from the Soviet playbook and started demanding papers. That was before Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and an entire nation living on Guiliani Time.

We are a people with a long history. We are a people who are used to the exercise of force, who are comforted by our use of it. We should know that force can prevent acts of terror, but not the will to terror itself. We should know that force can turn our enemies into the Hydra. But we are frightened, and we are more than willing to trade our liberties for temporary safety.

What prevents terrorism is justice. The show of force is simple, its costs borne by our voluntary defenders and our involuntary targets, and temporarily effective. But it is the pursuit of justice that chokes off the support of evil, that leaves it to founder, and makes its destruction possible. It is the pursuit of justice that made us who we are. It is what we claim to be willing to die for in the abstract, but history will show this to be a time when Americans mouthed the words and forgot the lessons. When we refused to pay the price and forced others to bear the burden.

We were built on the rule of law, trusting in the civil liberties of a free people, using our military force as a true option of last resort. Our power was built on the backs of the millions who came here believing they could find such values here. It is a slow, difficult, and dangerous way to live. It served us well for two centuries. The United States may be able to survive its repudiation, but America cannot.

Posted by at 10:02 PM | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Watch Your Mouth

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Having a blog is great. In fact, having two this month has been great. I just now have to figure out how I'm going to finish out this month. Thank God it's only Sunday.

It's been mentioned by a couple of acquaintances that one must be careful about what one blogs about and whom. There are anonymous blogs out there to be sure, which let some writers vent. However, that does not shield one from the consequences of what one says.

Does that mean censorship? Yes and no.

What it does mean is common sense. Don't trash your publisher in a public forum. Don't trash your agent or former agent in a public forum. And for God's sake, if you take issue with another writer, don't make it personal.

Best advice I ever had about handling other writers came from SJ Rozan. "Whatever you say, it gets back to them."

I've tried to follow this rule, but a couple of times, I let my temper get the better of me. That in and of itself illustrates my point. Writers as a whole are a screwed up lot, but most of them (even Michael Koryta allegedly. I've even seen his ID!) are also adults. So act like one whether you like it or not.

If I got a dispute, I take it to the disputee or I vent to friends if I'm not sure what course of action to take. The world at large doesn't need to know that one writer rubbed me the wrong way at Bouchercon last year or another got into an email brawl that turned into a three-month cold war. Why not? Because I get along with both writers now. It happens, and even an incorrigible grudge-holder like me has to accept that.

Besides, my former agent has told me enough stories in confidence to show me that you can vent without making it a public spectacle. (No, I will not tell you who she dished on or what happened. These were largely to teach her client about the biz. Too bad said client's an arrogant hack who hasn't learned yet.)

There's plenty to gripe about in this business without trashing other writers or editors who might someday read your manuscript or the agent with the very contacts you need to break out of the pack.

Besides, remember the story about the two writers I had run-ins with. You may be planning to pull a Glen Close and leave a boiled bunny in their kitchen today. Tomorrow, however, you might be asking them to read your manuscript so they can tell you that it's absolute crap, just like you suspected. And those are just your friends. Imagine what happens when you need a favor from your enemies.

Posted by at 12:28 AM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

July 22, 2005

The AGENT TO THE STARS Contest Apocalypse is Nigh

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

Just a quick reminder. Today's the last day to enter and win a Scalzi-penned alien encounter. Details here.

Posted by at 11:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


(Posted by Claire Light)

Having nothing political or cultural to exercise me today, what's a girl to do but show her goodies?

Therefore, I'm going to proceed to the shameless promotion portion of my month. Please read, because this will include some virtual goodies you won't wanna miss! (Limited Time Offer!)

SF/F readers and writers! Check it out! My Clarion West classmate Wendy Bradley, being gifted with a genuine English accent, has decided to create and publish her very own SF/F/Horror lit journal, called FarThing, and is even paying writers right out of the starting gate! Submissions are closed for FarThing's first issue, which is dangerously close to being a paper reality (she will have the completed books in Glasgow for Worldcon) so be sure to subscribe now. Additional benefits of subscription include keeping another paying prozine alive long enough for you to read or write for it. Plus, the cover is classy.

In the near future, Las Vegas will be covered over with sand and all that will be left to tell you fragments of its history will be a magical slot machine. Sound fun? Get the CD-ROM, The Real, from new media artist and musician and writer José Márquez, who writes so much (and so smart) in his blog that I have absolutely no idea how he gets anything else in life done. Also, check out Pepito , a multi-media musical performance group shared by him and his wife, Ana Machado, which is some of the best live stuff I've seen in ... well, a long time.

Once July is behind me, I'll be blogging on Other Magazine's staff blog. Other, "pop culture and politics for the new outcasts" is designed for people who don't fit in the usual racial, gender, sexual, vocational or conceptual checkboxes. Yes, WRITERS, they're looking for both articles and fiction, rants and sly comments, and reviews, reviews, reviews! Please read the blog, subscribe to the magazine, and submit your story ideas.

One of the funniest short animations I've seen in a long time is "Maritess vs. The Superfriends", the story of the Super Friends' Filipino maid. This is a flash animation by Dino Ignacio based on a comedy routine by Rex Navarrete. Since he did "Maritess", Dino has learned new tricks, among them, computer 3D animation, so check out his other stuff, too.

On the new and exciting blog tip, one of the cool people I met at Wiscon (where I also met Scalzi), Lauren McLaughlin, an SF writer, film producer (no, really, she made money from it) and musician, has finally capitulated to reality and started a blog. Naturally, I've already started argumentating with her on her blog. Stop the world! I want to get off! (Plus, there are mp3s of her spooky music on the website.)

As always you should keep checking out Hyphen magazine's blog for Asian American news and temerity. Plus, every now and again you'll get links to racist dj comments and clips of the San Francisco 49ers partying with strippers.

Other people who must not ever get any sleep: twice-book-published-poet, teacher and nonprofit administrator Barbara Jane Pulmano Reyes, blogging here. If you're poetry readers, check out her first book Gravities of Center and expect her second soon from Tinfish Press. Barb is going to guest edit the lit section for issue 8 of Hyphen, so tell your Asian American writer friends to send her their stuff!

Plus, someone sent me this book quiz which is hilarious and true. I am Barbara Tuchman's Guns of August, which joke everyone will understand once I publish my novel. Yes, I'm writing a novel. Show of hands: who isn't, writing a novel? Thought so.

Posted by at 01:40 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 21, 2005

Safe Travels, James Doohan

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

On a day when London's all a twitter once again (or maybe just the media is trying to make it appear so in their coverage of another handful of bombing threats), I expect that few people are taking the time to mourn Star Trek's Montgomery Scott. James Doohan passed away yesterday at the relatively ripe age of 85. I'm far from a Trekkie, even though this is now my second posting with a reference to that area of entertainment geek-dom. But I do have a James Doohan story to pass along, in hopes of making us all see the man behind the man behind the machines.

I went to college in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota. One Saturday after an intramural co-ed football game my sophomore year, our team headed to Big 10 Subs on Washington Avenue to get some grub and hopefully score a few pitchers even though we were all officially underage. While waiting in line for a table, two Trekkies came up behind us - I recall one half-assed Spock and a pretty saucy Asian Uhura. What does one say to Trekkies in the real world? Probably some derivation of what we said - "is there a convention nearby?" There was - across the street at the Radisson - and we then inquired whether anyone of note was there. With glee they told us that Scotty was there, signing autographs and chatting with his fans. What would you do? I couldn't have crossed the street faster if I'd had a few dilithium crystals horked up my butt.

Two of my female teammates with not only well-developed irreverent streaks agreed to join me in checking out the scene. To say that they were both attractive would be unfair. We were a teamful of ringers (I played ball in High School, as did the other guys). But the women were all way out of my league, so to speak. When we went to the concierge's desk to ask where Scotty was, he never even bothered to look at me. "Upstairs," we were told with a helpful, drooly response. "And you'll want some paper, 'cause they're charging for it up there," he said while handing over a few sheets to Holly. Surprisingly, he gave us enough hotel stationary for Holly, Shelly AND me. We bounded up the stairs and saw that only handful of people were in line ahead of us. Everyone's attention was directed at Mr. Doohan, who was seated at a long banquet table with an array of pens and glasses surrounding him. As we moved closer to Scotty, I soon realized that he was what you might call tipsy if you were being respectful. Flunkies seemed to appear with alarming regularity with new drinks for him. But he was entirely in jolly-mode, not the least bit surly or overtly Canadian (sorry, bad joke - he was from British Columbia, after all, not Scotland). When we reached him, I tried my best to offer something witty or at least not irritating. But I could have been speaking Klingon for all the attention he paid to me. Instead, as most men did, he focused his attention on Holly and Shelly. The line I remember was, "would you like to sit on Scotty's lap?" There were others. But here's the point of my recap, offered with the utmost respect to him and his family - he was utterly charming. In a funny, slightly-bawdy, very much there for his fans way. My friends didn't sit on his lap, but if he'd asked twice they most surely would have. And from what I read in his NYTimes obit, he continued to do conventions until last year. I assume charming all manner of fans - real or feigned - along the way.

The end of the Times obit mentions how his family has arranged for his ashes to be shot into space. Damn straight - he earned that burial. Anyone else had a brush with a member of the Enterprise crew? I'd love to hear about it if so. Moonrock on.

Posted by at 01:36 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

July 20, 2005

One of My Life's Great Mysteries, Solved!

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

superfolks.jpgI read something when I was seven years old that, even though I didn't know what it was, stuck with me for the rest of my life. From what I've been able to reconstruct of my memories, it must have been in a magazine, probably something like Esquire, which my dad got sometimes--and I was the kind of precocious kid who would basically read any chunk of print I could lay hands on. Anyway, it was a story in which all the superheroes in the world were gone, most of them killed. The thing that always stuck with me was that, as I'd one day rediscover in its exact wording, "Even Snoopy had bought it; shot down by the Red Baron; missing in action over France."

For years I tried to remember what the heck that story was and how could I track it down again. At some point, because I remembered there being so many characters created by other people, and because I'd read it in a magazine, I got the idea that it was a Philip José Farmer story. (Which, for some reason, also made me think it had sex scenes, because I also remembered not really getting much of the story beyond the fact that it named comic book heroes I recognized.)

A couple months ago, I was browsing in my local bookstore when I stumbled onto Robert Mayer's Superfolks, which had just been brought back into print, and nearly felt chills as I read the opening pages, because I knew instantly this was that story. I'm positive now that I read an excerpt in a magazine, because I can't imagine either of my parents buying this novel in 1977--it turns out to be sort of a parody of Donald Barthelme parodying Frederick Exley by making his sad sack suburbanite a washed-up superhero who's retreated entirely into his secret identity...as newspaperman David Brinkley. And, yeah, it's pretty much the real David Brinkley: the entire novel is populated by a mixture of real-life and pop culture icons. It's also a send-up of 1970s New York, when crime was hitting all-time highs and the city was nearly broke. That's one of the things that would have gone completely over my head in '77, since I was not only at the complete opposite end of the country, but another couple thousand miles beyond that, living on a military base in Hawaii.

So of course I started reading the novel as soon as I left the store, and pretty much devoured it overnight. It's just fantastic stuff--apparently, a lot of comic book writers who either read the whole book in '77 or a few years later cite it as a major influence in their desire to write more psychologically "realistic" superheroes (including the sex scenes, which do turn up, but which I probably didn't read back then--a good thing, too, as the thinly disguised Marvel Family scene alone would have scarred me for life if I'd seen it as a kid), but there's a lot more to it than just the comic book satire. I would definitely recommend going out and tracking down your own copy.

Posted by at 10:02 AM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

July 19, 2005

The Search for Scalzi

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

No, not John Scalzi himself. He's...he's over there in Ohio somewhere. I mean his books.

I didn't want to buy Old Man's War right off Amazon--I generally prefer to buy from independent bookstores when I can, and failing that, it's an excuse to go into a physical bookstore and browse. Unfortunately, I live in a smallish town where the next closest bookstore is a Borders; the next independent bookstore is about a 45-minute drive in either direction.

One of the features of my job is that I am frequently sent out to tiny, remote towns. My firm represents people harmed by asbestos, and it's not unusual for a client who is ill or dying to have retired to a small town because it's affordable or near family, and when they aren't physically able to come to the Bay Area for a deposition, we go to them.

These two things came together when John posted that the second run of OMW was on its way. I should really pick this up at an independent bookstore, I thought, and then, Why not a bookstore at one of those little towns?

Thus began my quest: The Search for Scalzi.

The first thing I discovered is that many small towns simply don't have a bookstore. People get their books at Wal*Mart, or I suppose Amazon, or the grocery store on racks. For anything like a real bookstore, you go over to the big city. In some of the towns I've sayed in, "the next big city" is an hour or more away and is still too small to have a bookstore. When they do have a bookstore, it tends to be very tiny, heavy on local-interest books and paperbacks.

I thought I had a pretty good chance on my last trip, since I stayed in California and was in a small farming town. The "next big city" bookstore owner explained that she doesn't carry hardbacks often, and doesn't order SF hardbacks, because people generally don't buy anything but paperbacks. "Except when a new Robert Jordan book comes out, you know, those sell."

This isn't a commentary about OMW being obscure or hard to find. It's not as though I'm clawing my way through stacks of pristine copies of Hokkaido Popsicle or the latest Laurell K. Hamilton and just not finding any Scalzi. I seriously underestimated how few and how rare brick-and-mortar bookstores are outside the big city, and how independent booksellers, struggling to keep their doors open, have to make very narrow choices about what they can put on their shelves.

I really feel bad about not having bought the damn book yet, so I'm probably going to stop at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books next time I'm down at the courthouse. But I can always use a second copy, eh?

The quest goes on.

Posted by at 10:42 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

July 18, 2005

D'oh! Accidently Deleted Comments

John Scalzi here. While rooting out the spam, I accidentally deleted a small number of actual comments, so if you commented here between about 11am and 3pm today (Eastern time), you might want to come and repost. This is particularly the case with those of you who are taking part in Bill's book contest. If it makes it any better, I deleted a couple of my own comments as well.

Sorry sorry sorry.

Posted by john at 03:12 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday Morning Shill

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

The trees have been killed, the paper milled, the proofs approved (some doubly so). Later this week, the Signed Limited Edition of John's protean novel, Agent to the Stars, begins shipping from Subterranean Press.

Let me tell you. The demands we had to put up with to get this done. Chocolate in the mornings. A masseuse for Scalzi's dog. The typos hunted and bagged, the largest of them professionally stuffed and mounted in Scalzi's living room. It's been an ordeal.

But here we are, and later this week, here the books will be, all minty and fresh and just waiting to be bubblewrapped, bagged, and shipped.

I should tell you a few things:

-- A2S, as it's called, is limited to 1500 individually numbered hardcover copies, all hand signed by the author.
-- The incomparable Mike Krahiluk (of Penny Arcade) provided the dust jacket art.
-- Speaking of PA, 10% of the cover price ($30) of each copy sold direct will be donated to their charity, Child's Play.
-- If you order now, U.S. shipping is on us. Order later in the week and we'll ding you $5 for it.

As a thank you to Whatever patrons and our customers, we'll be sending direct purchasers a small bonus, a chapbook containing two Scalzi short stories. (Unless I'm mistaken, they remain the only two short stories John has published.)

Well, I've had my say, and now everyone should have theirs. Please post the best reason you can muster for buying John's novel. At the end of the week, I will pick the "best" reason and bestow upon that person a free copy.

Posted by at 03:38 AM | Comments (39) | TrackBack

July 17, 2005

The Sky Is Falling!!! (Not!)

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Well, it is if you're here in Baltimore, like I am for the weekend. The remnants of Dennis blew into town shortly after I did and combined with Chesapeake Bay's already unpredictable weather. Note to Baltimoreans: I hereby promise not to go to Marley Station to shop anymore. It rains hard every time I do.

But I'm not talking about the rain when I say the sky is falling. What I'm talking about is the "Woe unto us! The poor, bedeviled professional novelists!" Last week, I read no fewer than three blog posts about how making a living at writing novels is hard, and how there will never be another Ed McBain because there's no opportunity.

I also looked at the authors' Amazon ranks. On the day in question, all three had lower ranks than I had at the time. I am a small press author who has to fight to get on store shelves and depends quite a bit on out-of-trunk sales and online shopping. Theoretically, my rank should be somewhere around Boston Teran's last novel (which effectively killed his career for the forseeable future.)

They blame the publishers. They blame the chainstores. They blame their agents. Nowhere do I hear authors blame themselves. They ask, "Why can't I be Ed McBain or Lawrence Block or Stephen King and write prolificly?"

First off, McBain, God rest his soul, was a freak of nature. This is a man who, at the start of his career (as Evan Hunter) forced himself to slow down to 8000 words a day. (For those of you who want to know, that translates into 32 typed, double-spaced pages.) Stephen King, no slouch himself when it comes to production, banged out about eight pages a day before he kissed the grill of a minivan and slowed down. There will never be another Ed McBain again not because the opportunity isn't there. Create the next 87th Precinct and you might not be able to produce them fast enough. It's because only Nora Roberts comes close to his level of production.

"Oh," you say, "but she uses ghost writers." No, she doesn't. This woman writes all day long, seven days a week. She takes her laptop to public appearances and writes in the car as she's traveling to and from the event. She'd probably write during the event (or maybe she has) if she could get away with it.

And Lynn Viehl? I envy her. I can do one or two books a year. (Or three this year, but the stories are fully formed for two already.) Since 2001, Lynn has written 28 freakin' novels and those are the ones already scheduled for publication.

Yes, kids, if you build it, New York will come. So the whole "The industry is against me" line doesn't wash with me.

So why, then, are these guys upset? Well, because the era of the insane seven-figure advance is over. And good riddance, too. Yeah, I wouldn't mind having a very early retirement financed by Random House, but the truth is it'd end my career out of the gate.

But even then, most writers I know, including a couple of the blog authors despairing the state of the publishing industry, seem to understand you don't get rich right away. But they can't seem to understand why they don't break out.

I'll tell you why.

Meet Joe Konrath. Joe's a beginning player like me. Unlike me, he signed with a fairly big house, St. Martin's. And while St. Martin's seems to have paid him well for his first three novels, along with doing the requisite PR, Joe doesn't think that's enough. He presses the flesh. He goes to conferences and conventions. He visits his publisher and the publisher of his audio books. Joe Konrath is involved with every single aspect of selling his book. And yes, he does a book a year.

And that's what's REALLY wrong with publishing. I hired a publicist (mainly as a much-needed tax write-off.) My Amazon rank has stayed in the low six figures to mid five figures since March. It's been higher than a lot of better known (and in many cases better) writers. Why? I gotta pimp my wares.

There's no room for the "Marketing is icky, let the publisher do it" mentality anymore. There hasn't been for years. You have to shake hands with booksellers, find out what the chains want. Publisher didn't make a big push for your novel? Guess what that advance was for. That's right, bucko, you gotta sell yourself. Patterson does it. Grisham did it (and still does). And when you do all the traveling Ken Bruen does, often on his own dime, then you can complain nobody's reading you.

I know this is a tough business. Someone recently pointed out that novelists have only a 1-in-380 chance in making a living with their work.

What they forget is those are better odds than when I was in high school.

Sorry, kids. The sky ain't falling. There just wasn't the pie up there you thought there was.

Posted by at 12:01 AM | Comments (9) | TrackBack

July 16, 2005


(Posted by Jeff Porten)

So, I'm just back from a trip to Boston, where I succumbed to a serious case of municipal puppy love. Damn, what a great town. Yummy food, worthwhile eye candy, and the people were all friendly to a fault.

Except this one guy. Long story short, it was a crowded Starbucks, and he felt I had done him an injury over table-sharing etiquette. So after moving to another table, he came back and lectured me on my manners. Naturally, before I left, I went back to his table and told him that I was a visitor to Boston, and he was the first rude person I had met there.

I left as he cheerily called behind me, "Anytime! Come back, I'll do it again!"

I can't say that this exactly bothered me. Not to put too fine a point on it, some percentage of the population consists of assholes, and you can't live in a city without encountering a few. He probably put me in the same category. But it stands out because I was traveling, and in that odd sensory state where you notice the world around you a bit more, and perhaps are bit more open to making new connections.

On the trip in from the airport this morning, I struck up conversations with at least nine people; might have been more, I just remember the nine. Three instances of giving directions to out-of-towners, and a conversation with a guy at the bus stop about the historical social impact of air conditioning in the American South. (This is how I talk about the weather.)

I didn't do this because I'm a nice guy. In fact, I'm an acknowledged bastard—crotchety and irritable and quick to get into a confrontation. The Starbucks thing was all about that, when I wouldn't back down from the one guy holding a table for four next to the only power outlet; other people might be less likely to stand their ground there. But I also make a point of deliberately choosing to be friendly, because I want people leaving Washington with the same warm feelings I had in Boston—and those stemmed from the sum total of how people treated me there.

It's good for my karma. But more importantly, it's a massively positive trade-off. On my side, I'm giving up 10 minutes of my humdrum day. On the other side, if I give good advice and warm fuzzies to someone who is having, perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime trip, then I'm contributing to something that might last decades. In 2035, someone might take a look at their picture of the Zoo and remember that nice guy who gave them bus directions. More likely (and more importantly), they'll just remember what a good day they had.

That's if I single you out. But otherwise, if I don't know you, you're just part of the scenery, and I am the same to you. I probably was in the vicinity of over a thousand people this morning alone: in two airports, on Metro trains, and then arriving home in my busy tourist-bedecked neighborhood. Nine of them briefly became human to me; everyone else made up the human flotsam, the loud voices when I tried to sleep, or the foreign language soundtrack you always hear in DC. A necessary requirement for urban living; there are good sociological reasons why you only greet people on the street in places where the population density is low.

And yet.... It was precisely that anonymity that gave that man in Boston social leave to lecture me, and the same that allowed me to respond in kind. What if he's a Whatever reader? What if he liked my previous posts, felt like he knew me a little bit? What if he reads this and recognizes himself? Would that change the self-righteousness he took from our encounter—which I'm sure he felt, as I did. It's my distinction between my calling him an asshole and myself a bastard. Bastards are justified in what they do, at least in their own minds. Assholes are just in it for the random cruelty.

My name is Jeff, and I'm a bastard. (Chorus: Hi, Jeff!) But catch me at the right moment, and I'll be astonishingly generous to you, or any other stranger. I think most of us fall into that pattern to some degree or another. And I also believe that a fairly large number of social ills stem from the calluses we've had to build, which we live behind whenever we act like bastards.

When I have time, I have a few more words to say about that.

Posted by at 06:10 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

harry potter

(Posted by Claire Light)

just got my harry potter amazondelivered. who else is going to hogwarts today?

Posted by at 05:28 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

July 15, 2005

Rape Dilemma

(Posted by Claire Light)

One of the most distressing things about growing up and getting older is that you run into more and more controversies the rights and wrongs of which you can't decide at a glance. Is it that the world is getting more morally ambiguous, or am I just getting more tentative?

I saw on News of the Weird last week that South Africa, sometimes known as "the rape capital of the world" (1.69 million women a year are raped there, by the South African Law Commission's estimate) has been thrown into a tizzy recently by a new anti-rape device, known as a "rat trap". The rat trap is placed inside the vagina and designed to wrap around a rapist's penis, hooking into the ... er ... protuberance in such a way that it could not be removed without medical intervention.

I'm really ambivalent about this one.

An anti-rape advocate claims that this "man-hating" device "misunderstands the nature of rape and violence against women in this society. It is vengeful, horrible, and disgusting." She also compares it to a chastity belt and calls it "medieval". Another one says "It is a terrifying thought that women are being made to adapt to rape." And a rape victim who was stabbed during her rape points out that "This will increase the danger to women, who are already in great danger during a rape."

The inventor, Sonette Ehlers, counters with "“We have to do something to protect ourselves. While this will not prevent rape, it will help identify attackers and secure convictions."

The argument about this endangering women more hits hard. Not just because a rapist already rat-entrapped can still beat, stab or shoot his victim (after all, the other weapons women commonly use, such as mace, pepper spray, taserguns or pistols, are designed to disable the attacker, not tag him.) It's mainly ineffective because 75% of rapes in South Africa are gang-rapes, so the victim can, and probably will, still be gang raped, only now by a gang of really pissed off rapists. Additionally, once the word gets out, won't rapists just check for traps first, before going in? Presumably, the things are easily enough removed from the woman. They may very quickly become ineffective, serving only to anger rapists who check first.

In addition, the other main purpose of this device is to identify rapists afterwards. But that only works if we can assume that vengeful, disturbed women won't use this device to entrap men. We can't assume that 100% of the time, can we? In fact, this just complicates the his-word-against-hers issue of date rape, where a rapist can claim that the rape was consensual, and a disturbed woman can claim that consensual sex was a rape. How can you tell? This device ensures nothing on that front.

In fact, the most effective objection to this device that I can see is that, as a deterrent and as an identifier, it simply won't work.

Having decided that, though, I'm still suffering over the ethical considerations.

Talking about it being terrifying that women have to adapt to rape ... uh, hello? When was the last time that speaker walked through a bad part of town by herself at night? All women the world over are already adapted to rape. We know where not to go, we know not to go out by ourselves at night, we know to go out in groups, we know how to hold our keys in our hands, etc. etc. etc. This is not a further adaptation. This smells a lot more like fighting back.

The "medieval", chastity belt argument also feels wrong. The problem with chastity belts isn't that they exist, nor even that they used to be used primarily or exclusively for women. The problem was that they were imposed upon women by others, as a method of controlling their sexuality. Nowadays, there are almost more chastity belts made for men than for women, to be used in consensual dominance play. The point with chastity belts, as with rape, is always, always, consent. The form of sex is not the issue; the consent of all participants is. It feels to me that the rage this device has inspired in these anti-rape activists has more to do with the images the form of the device calls up, and less to do with the actual issues the device raises. But I'm open to being proven (or argued) wrong.

Saying that the device misunderstands the nature of rape (it is a crime of violence, not of sex) is, I think, also not entirely right. But this is more ambiguous to me. This device is a weapon, designed to harm an attacker, like a can of mace or a tasergun, or a pistol. It is, however, passive. It isn't designed to disable an attacker -- any kind of attacker -- but rather to sexually disable and tag a rapist specifically. In this way, I think it understands the nature of rape better than other weapons, which treat rape as a crime of violence on par with all other types of assault. Rape is different from other types of violence in that it uses sex, it uses gender in favor of the assailant and against the victim. Yes, women rape and men are raped, but the rat trap recognizes that rape is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, against women; that man-on-woman rape is a violence arising out of misogyny.

As such, the rat trap is unusually appropriate as a weapon against male rape of women. Only someone who actually penetrates a woman's vagina is in danger from it (assuming, of course, that a woman doesn't capture a man, tie him up, and simply wrap a rat trap around his penis). Yes, the rat trap can only be used against men, but assuming that most women aren't going to attempt to entrap men with it, how can anyone have a problem with a rapist making his own bed and having to lie in it this way? And really, is pepper spraying a would-be rapist in the eyes or kneeing him hard in the groin really less "man hating"?

On the other hand, weapons that disable attackers, any kind of attacker, are there to prevent the crime from happening. The rat trap waits until the crime has already begun. Not only is the weapon passive, it encourages the victim to be passive. This reminds me of an episode of "Cops" I saw in the early nineties. The cops were pursuing a report of a woman screaming in a park: they arrrived, located the screaming, and then turned off their lights and waited for the assailant to come out. When asked why they didn't just turn on the lights and siren, they said that that would scare the assailant away and then they couldn't catch him. Their job, you see, was to catch a rapist, not to prevent a rape or protect a woman.

There is a profoundly disturbing view of humanity in all of this: one that finds it more important to identify and punish criminals than to prevent trauma and crime. It's a despairing view, one that has given up and only wants to strike back. Is that essentially "man-hating"? I think so, but not in the sense of the word "man" that has it mean "male humans". I think it's "mankind-hating".

What do you all think?

Posted by at 11:30 AM | Comments (23) | TrackBack

July 14, 2005

Teach them well and let them lead the way

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

If you're like me - and since you're reading blogs on a summer day, I somewhat safely assume that you are - the internet has worked its way deeply into your daily life much like sand bugger did to Chekov in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". How many of us open a browser and start surfing through our favorites in the morning even before we make a cup of coffee? And for how long has that been the case? I remember back in '93 seeing a grad school prof almost burst into flames with nebbish delight when he showed myself and a handful of other techie minded journalism students the wonder that was Mosaic. I assume we all have similar if not far earlier exposure to this world-changing technology. It's a part of our lives. It is evolving daily. But if one snaky law firm in Philadelphia is successful, the history of the net will be much harder to hang onto.

For those of you that didn't see coverage of the suit I'm referring to, what looks like a crappy healthcare information company claims that the beloved non-profit Internet Wayback Machine has violated the DCMA (the Hollywood-friendly broad-reaching intellectual property law). So they want...well, I'm not exactly sure what they want except for money justified by some vague claims of privacy protection conjured up by their law firm. But when I read that the Wayback Machine info-archive now contains 1 petabyte (1 million gigabytes) and that it is growing at around 20 terabytes a month, I took a briefly Googled trip down the memory lane of internet phenomenons from the past 9 years or so. Going back that far felt like setting the dial for the 19th Century. But thankfully it's all seemingly still out there in the ether.

Who can forget the beloved silliness of Mr. T and Chewbacca's all-consuming taste for testicles? The WIRED interview with the originater of the joke thanks to a broken exit light in a freshman dorm hallway sheds much needed irreverent delight on that craze from '96.

Or the still brilliantly inane all your base are belong to us.

And what of Mahir? How many of us have longed for his red speedo and ping-pong pics circa '99 to appear again in the hottest lane on ye olde information superhighway?

Will any of these old diversions have any sort of impact on kids today? I've got a 4-month old daughter who I hope won't see the importance of any of these things, even if the Dancing Baby might still conjure a giggle or two from her in the years ahead. But I, for one, strongly appreciate that the Wayback Machines and Googles of the world are protecting this largely irrelevant history. For our children and our children's children.

Any faves in your own personal Wayback Machines? Beguiling minds want to know.

Posted by at 10:09 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

July 13, 2005

See A Guest Blogger Live

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Hello, all. Sorry to barge in so early in the week. However, if you're wondering what any of us crackpots* covering for John look like, I have an opportunity for you. I, your humble Sunday narrator, will be at Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore this Saturday, signing books and generally trying not to look like a hack at Laura Lippman's favorite store. (It's the real life model for Tess Monaghan's aunt's store.) So if you live in Baltimore, Philly, or DC, stop by. Kill an afternoon with me. Come heckle.

We now return you to our regular guest blogging, already in progress.

*I know. Crackpot's a horrible thing to say. But I have only me to judge by, so the bar's probably lower than it should be.

Posted by at 08:00 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Selling a Motorbike

It's John Scalzi, popping in real quick. My father-in-law is having me sell his motorbike on eBay, so I thought I'd mention it here as well. If you know anyone who might be interested in a 1965 BSA Thunderbolt in good condition, direct them to this eBay auction here. It just started (like, 15 minutes ago). Here's a picture of the bike:

I now return you to your regular schedule of guest bloggers.

Posted by john at 06:18 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Mmmm, Karen Black!

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

Well, okay, I think maybe John & Brian were the only people who demanded it... and I suppose "demand" is really sort of an overstatement. Nevertheless, here is pretty much what the cover of The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane will look like when it comes out this November:


The bottom row features Alec Guinness, Sissy Spacek, Paul Newman, Tommy Chone, George C. Scott, Richard Roundtree, Marlon Brando, Gene Wilder, Dennis Hopper, Raquel Welch, and Henry Winkler--and, no, that's not a TV reference thrown in at the last minute.

As I get closer to the actual pub date, I'm starting to get excited about the book again. I have to admit there was a period just after I'd turned in the manuscript when I didn't even want to think about '70s movies for a while. It's still a little difficult for me to work up the energy to actually watch stuff that comes up on cable that I didn't manage to see when I was doing all the research. But I think I might finally manage to make it through Detroit 9000 today, if I can transcribe enough interview tapes for the magazine article I'm writing (about the somewhat less sexy subject of test prep and college admissions guides...)

Anyway, I pretty much want to just open up the floor here, so start telling me all about your favorite '70s films, the ones you're going to beat me over the head with my own book at my signings if they're missing from it...

Posted by at 12:36 AM | Comments (27) | TrackBack

July 12, 2005

Pride and Joy

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

I thought it was de rigeur for children of writers to suffer the angst of their writer-parent's shadow. (If they choose to be writers, of course, which is less a choice than you might expect.)

It's never a problem I myself had; my parents are both educated, and intelligent, and I grew up in a house full of everything from archy and mehitabel to 1984. But they're not writers and were never moved to write much beyond college. I had no so-you're-so-and-so's-kid! with which to contend. My struggles are my own, and I'll never have to worry that I got the benefit of the doubt because of my Famous Parent. Nobody will eye anything I've written and wonder if it only got published because the senior Halbany wrote a series of best-selling novels, and nobody wanted to piss off his editors.

One of my children is turning out to be a writer. I was a little concerned that if my plodding efforts ever turned into publication, that she might have issues with being in my shadow. It's becoming increasingly clear that I am in danger of having the shadow fall the other way.

Oh, sure, every parent whose kid can string three words together will probably tell you how creative they are, but remember, I have three; the other two are certainly talented, but none of their teachers pull me aside and tell me those children have an amazing gift. Relatives coo over their efforts, but Grandma has never quietly asked me if I've thought of sending them out for publication. None of them ever wrote a story that won an ABA online contest (and made me buy the prize mug from her). No, she's not writing the Great American Novel--yet--but she might, rabbit, she might, given time and talent.

There's a ten-year-old on my tail, and if I don't get my writerly butt in gear, the angst is going to fall in the wrong direction.

Posted by at 02:00 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 11, 2005


(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Sorry to break in on a Monday, but I decided that my promised commentary on airport security was far too trivial to inflict on the Republic of Whatever, so I've moved it over to my own blog.

And a burning question -- John collected the guest bloggers' pictures, Claire has commented that she's seen them, and I am apparently as dense as a fudge-covered brick. Can someone tell me where to find these?

Posted by at 11:29 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 10, 2005

Time For A Change In The Language

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Last week, I managed to stir the pot with my opinions on Reagan and of the recent Discovery Channel poll of great Americans. One of the results was an interesting back blog debate between my fellow guest bloggers Claire and Jeff as to male and female and gender roles and designations. During that discussion, Jeff made the point that "man" and "he" are often used as gender-neutral and came up with the following:

"'they' is grammatically incorrect in the singular."

Let's stop and think about that, shall we? Why is it grammatically incorrect? The obvious answer is that it's plural and not singular, therefore it is grammatically wrong. To which I ask, why should it be?

If you look at the history of the English language, it becomes clear that "they" used for gender non-specific singular is more than feasible. In fact, it's almost mandatory. Why? English has no gender-nonspecific singular pronoun except "it." "It" doesn't cut the mustard (another point Jeff made.) "Yes," you say, "but one can always use 'he' or 'she' randomly to fill in the blanks."

To which I say, that don't cut it, either, kiddo.* English often uses plural pronouns in place of singular. In fact, you and I use one such pronoun everyday. And if that's acceptable, so is they as singular gender nonspecific. What is it?

Well, let's look at a more obvious example first. The royal "we." We (meaning all or most or at least a large number of us) use "we" in place of "I" from time to time. Royalty used it to denote their place above the fray. Now, granted, "we" meaning "I" has fallen out of favor and for good reason. When you say "I," everyone knows who your talking about. To use "we" as singular, given its history, is just plain pompous and quite a bit useless.

"So what's this pronoun we use everyday?" you say. What pronoun sets the precedent for "they" being grammatically correct? Well, do you hear people saying "thou/thee/thine" a lot these days for second person? You don't? You know why? Because speakers of English sometime around the age when Cotton Mather was burning witches because some little girl had bad dreams** decided the royal "you" was more efficient than using "thou" for singular and "you" for plural. Now, based on the criteria of why "they" singular is grammatically incorrect, "you" is also used incorrectly billions of times a day. Why all of you should be ashamed of yourselves for referring to the person thou're talking to as "you." It's deplorable, a travesty. It might...


Change the language.

Is that the problem? We can't have "they" be singular third person because, heaven forbid, the language might change, grow...


But the language has to. One of the great aspects of the English language is its adaptability. Having "it" as the only gender nonspecific pronoun is really a major flaw in the language in that it implies an inanimate object. So why not "they"? If we've already ditched "thou" for "you," "they" is a no-brainer. Certainly better than the synthetic s/he or the inadvertantly sexist "he" (or "she" for that matter. What? Without a penis was bad, so now without one is? That's just repeating the problem, not solving it.)

Quite frankly, the ban on "they" singular has to go. Unless someone comes up with something better, people should embrace the singular "they" as a part of everyday language.

"But that goes against tradition!"

Screw tradition. It's also traditional that a woman take her husband's last name. If you think going against that grain is dead wrong, my wife, whose legal last name is McCarty, would like to have a word with you.***

English is supposed to be a living, breathing, changing language, and usage changes it. Using "they" to refer to a person of indeterminate gender is only logical. All it does is add a new meaning to the word, one that's already in use. Do we want our language to stagnate and die? Let me know, because there's a Berlitz school in the building where I work. I can always go find something more adaptable and less rigid there.

*Yes, I'm aware that's grammatically incorrect. I'm sprinkling fairy dust here, though. Work with me.

**Yes, I'm being overly simplistic. Again, work with me here.

***My mother-in-law refuses to call her anything but Mrs. Winter, despite my insistence she's disrespecting my wife's name. We've agreed to not discuss the subject during holidays.

Posted by at 08:00 AM | Comments (25) | TrackBack


(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Summertime, and the living is orange.

I am on the down elevator to the Washington Metro trains, and an abandoned water bottle is on the floor in the back. Upright, maybe an inch or two of water in it. Clear sport bottle with a closed spout, no label.

This is not out of the ordinary. This is not uncommon. This is par for the course at the Metro stop for the National Zoo, where among the 20,000 tourists that passed through today you have to expect some cretins who treat the nation's capital as their own personal trashcan. This is mundane detritus.

And yet....

There are plenty of chemical agents that dissolve in clear liquids. There are many such chemicals that aerosolize. Pinholes cannot be be seen from a standing height. And if I were the architect of a terrorist attack, what better way to ensure that my vector would stay undisturbed than to abandon it in plain sight, in an everyday object, as common trash that no one will deign to pick up?

Fifteen seconds have passed, the elevator is one-quarter of the way down to the platform, and I have considered the above. For the rest of the trip, I balance the following:

  1. The odds that this is in fact not an abandoned bottle of water. Estimate: nonzero, but exceedingly tiny.

  2. The odds that reporting this bottle of water, as we are asked to do in this time of extra vigilance (without much guidance as to what to be vigilant for), will tie me up for the rest of the evening, or cause the temporary closing of the station, or otherwise create a snowball effect that is far worse than the danger of a bottle of water. Estimate: low, but greater than "tiny".

The doors are opening. I have decided to leave well enough alone.

At that moment, the overhead speakers are activated with a systemwide announcement reminding us that the Department of Homeland Security has raised all public transit systems to Code Orange (the rest of the nation remaining magically Yellow), and we should be certain to report any unattended items or anything else out of the ordinary.

The bottle of water is a perfectly ordinary unattended item. I report it. The station manager appears utterly unconcerned, and as I board the escalator descending to the train platform, he still has not left his booth.

Posted by at 03:29 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 09, 2005

Fifty years ago, and today

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

I am doing my best impression today of a highly ambulatory decapitated chicken in preparation for my trip to MacWorld starting tomorrow, so abbreviated remarks follow about what's on my mind, with permission from the Speaker to revise and extend them for the Record at a later date.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a wholly remarkable document, The Russell-Einstein Manifesto. It begins, "We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt." It led to the founding of the Pugwash Conferences, which along with its co-founder Joseph Rotblat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

I received an email from an activist friend earlier this week who asked me, somewhat tongue in cheek, if I was still trying to save the world. I responded in the affirmative, but in reality I can't say such things. On the other hand, Rotblat is a man who I believe truly has. Fifty years on, he is still pursuing this work, and his work is not over.

Moving on to current events, one begins to wonder about the value of keeping the population under constant surveillance (if one does not already) when considering that London has the most police cameras per capita in the world, and under the lenses of these cameras a terrorist attack was successfully completed. Had that happened in the US, I have little doubt that the response would be a panicked clamor for more cameras, more government tracking, and greater restrictions on "dangerous" movements, speech, and activity. But reports from London indicate a calm that is entirely in contrast to our own hysteria (and in keeping with their historical mien). It will be interesting to see whether the attack brings upon a redoubled pursuit of illusory safety, or if people will ask somewhat more loudly why the millions of law-abiding are watched when the criminals are not deterred.

More to come.

Posted by at 04:31 PM | Comments (11) | TrackBack

July 08, 2005

Wombatman Wombegins

(Posted by Claire Light)

My favorite joke is intertextuality; I throw it in wherever, whenever I get the chance. Intertextuality is the perfect way to shit on something: just say it's derivative, or has no existence of its own, separate from what has gone wombefore. It's an argument impossible to defend against. Love it.

However much I like to joke about intertextuality, though, the movie Wombatman Wombegins is seriously it, incarnate. People have wombeen raving about it; it got 83% on rottentomatoes.com, and that despite the fact that it sucked, wombig time. I could not figure it out, so I went and started reading the reviews. And I found ... intertextuality.

Here's Manohla Dargis in The New York Times:
"It's obvious that Mr. Nolan has made a close study of the [wom]Batman legacy, [wom]but he owes a specific debt to Mr. Miller's 1980's rethink of the character, which resurrected the Dark Knight side of his identity. ... What makes this "[wom]Batman" so enjoyable is how Mr. Nolan ... arranges the familiar genre elements in new, unforeseen ways. Weaned on countless comics and a handful of movies, we may think we know the [wom]bat cave like we know the inside of our childhood [wom]bedroom. [wom]But to watch [wom]Bruce Wayne stand in the atmospheric gloom of this new cavern, surrounded [wom]by a cloud of swirling [wom]bats, is to see the underground refuge for the first time."

Um, okay, geek. So we know how Manohla spent her Saturday afternoons in the den as a kid. I, however, was not "weaned on countless comics". I never read a comic wombook until a guy who was trying to get me into wombed turned me on to Love and Rockets one long college night. What seems to wombe so wombrilliant about Wombatman Wombegins is the choices "Mr." Nolan made in dealing with the substantial wombatman lore and source texts. Here, apparently, he referred to this; there, he repudiated that; and in that scene he put paid to that silly notion (titter!) from the third scene of the second movie directed womby the fourth director.

The intertextual connections are so strong that, for those actually weaned on comics, they seem to negate the effects of wombanally schizophrenic art direction, entirely illegible action sequences, mushy and pointless martial arts, a love interest who ages at a different rate from the protagonist (womby about ten years), dialogue in other contexts destined for a polite rejection slip, a "plot" that tries to cram one clichéd and two half-wombaked movies into one, agonized theme-whoring as frenzied and shallow as Times Square the day after a war ends, and the stupidest wombatmobile in the history of vehicular homicide. (Plus, as my friend Jaime points out, Wombatman actually spray paints a dark grey piece of wombody armor womblack in one scene. Wouldn't somebody with a handle on a visual medium have made that piece of wombody armor a color that started out not so close to womblack--you know, just for contrast?) What's really important about this movie, unlike the delightful and free-to-wombe-me Tim womBurton version, is how many Saturday afternoon epiphanies in the den it wombrings womback, and not how good a movie it is in its own right.

Okay, so who really cares, wombesides non-comics-reading squares like me? Is this right and good or wrong and wombad: a much trickier question in an age of synergy, cross-marketing, and intermedia tie-ins--not to mention space/time compression, virtuality, and all that other Paul Virilio shit? In this speedy day and age, can auteurs of various media avoid sliding into each others' assholes? Should they avoid it or should they pursue it? Is this the experience we're going for in our entertainments: to strive for a moment of thrill or pop joy in one medium, and then to recall that moment again and again through endless sly, allusive remakes? On the one hand, the resonance wombecomes more complex each time it strikes a new surface. The experience of one story told in several media, several different ways turns a single fiction into a shared world. On the other hand, what ever happened to doing your own thing, telling your own story, respecting the integrity of the singular whole? Even the highly idiosyncratic womBurton version was immediately folded womback into the history of Wombatman storytelling. And to wombe honest, at wombase, that's what it was: just another Wombatman version. We're an individualist culture. Why do we find truly individual visions so threatening?

Anyway, I'm done wombitching. What do you all think?

Posted by at 10:16 AM | Comments (37) | TrackBack

July 07, 2005

Plans to stir get shaken

(Posted by Eric Magnuson)

As a guest host who wants to be viewed as courteous and attentive, I got up extra early today on yet another beautifully foggy San Francisco morning. I intended to offer my contribution to the already robust discussion of writing we've seen here in the past week. I've been reading closely, as I expect you have, and even as an as-yet-unpublished writer, I've got some logs to throw on the fire. But as we've all come to dread on some barely-hidden collective level, the news of the day invaded like the marauding barbarians in those seldom funny CapitalOne ads. London has been hit with coordinated bomb attacks during morning rush hour - reports now say 3 explosions at stops in the Underground causing an evacuation of the entire system and 1 blast that destroyed a double-decker bus. The news networks are wetting themselves in carnivorous glee as the video pours in and they anxiously fill their scrawl writers' coffee cups and bring them extra donuts. Blair gave a morosely statuesque "we will not be shaken" speech with the other G8 leaders and their important guests arrayed behind him...just before he hopped a copter and said "ta-ta" to any hope of success from the conference intended to address poverty and global warming. Dubya has been quoted as asking Americans to be "extra vigilant" (practice your own imitation while mouthing that phrase). All of Europe, the DC transit system and all manner of other national systems are on high alert. Crazy reports are trickling in through always dubious avenues such as the Drudge Report - he posted an AP story that claims Israeli Finance Minister Netanyahu got a warning of the attacks from the British police minutes before the blasts. And a previously unknown al Queda group has claimed responsibility for the attack. So what's a self-aware news junkie like myself supposed to do? Shelve plans for a more thoughtful post, hunker down for a bit, have a second cup of coffee and try to make some sense of all the static. But I'd love to hear what reactions those of you have to this unsettling news. If you have a moment, post a comment. Vent. You know you want to do it.

I'll get more up later in the day, but I wanted y'all to know that I'm here to host and try to hopefully elevate the dynamic just a smidge on occasion with a few thoughts. Thanks for reading. Hug your kids, pets, and/or plants for me. Rock on.

Posted by at 08:22 AM | Comments (15) | TrackBack

July 06, 2005

Don't Hate SF, Because It's Beautiful

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

I figured if I was going to be taking over a science fiction writer's blog, even for just one day a week, I'd better reacquaint myself more fully with the field. You see, I used to read almost nothing but SF as a teenager, until I started grad school right around the time the first issue of Wired came out and suddenly the real world was looking awfully SFnal...(Wired got lame eventually, but that's another story for another time...) Anyway, I kept up with just a handful of my favorite writers for the next decade or so; I always knew when a new William Gibson or Neal Stephenson book was out, and eventually I stumbled onto George R. R. Martin's big ol' epic, but mostly I was busy reading mainstream stuff for fun and profit.

So when a copy of Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Age of Maturity, 1970-2000 showed up recently, I figured it'd be a good way to get up to speed. Especially since it covers the most intense period of my immersion in the field, so it'd bring back some memories as well. And it's fine as far as it goes. 1970 is a good time to start, as the New Wave was by then entrenched enough to make its influence felt, and when you get to lead off with stuff like Riverworld and Ringworld, you've dealt yourself a good hand. Likewise, if you've got to end someplace, 2000 is as good as any--it brings you up to Cryptonomicon, although as Darren Harris-Fain points out, then you have to ask yourself whether that's really SF or not.

The only problem is that "as far as it goes" actually covers a very limited theme, which we've all heard before: some SF is really, really well written and why doesn't the literary establishment get that? In Harris-Fain's case, he puts forward "Octavia E. Butler, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe Haldeman, John Kessel, Kim Stanley Robinson, Connie Willis, and Gene Wolfe." The point isn't so much who's not on the list--but where's James Morrow? To me, it's more like the consistent focus on the most innovative or "literary" work of the period doesn't necessarily lead to a full appreciation of what was going on in science fiction during those decades. For example, Ringworld is the only substantial mention of Larry Niven; there's nothing about his subsequent collaborations with Jerry Pournelle, nor about the entire subgenre of Reaganite Cold War military SF that followed in their wake. (Remember Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr? This won't jar your memory.) Perhaps that's because it runs counter to the classic explanation he offers, by way of quoting Charles Brown, for why Michael Crichton isn't really science fiction: unlike other genres, SF refuses to be "consolatory" and reaffirm our cozy assumptions about the way of the world. Which is pretty funny, because as he points out, a lot of classic SF is pretty much grounded in the notion that, sure, science and technology are going to change the world, but "the American way of life" will assuredly prevail.

In another case, Harris-Fain mentions in passing that Asimov returned to the Foundation series in the 1980s, but he doesn't go on to mention how he then tried to tie together everything he wrote into a Heinleinian future history. For that matter, he doesn't have much to say, beyond noting that some longtime writers could eventually get big advances, about how fandom helped the earlier Grand Masters extend their shelf life so you had, to pick two random cases, Asimov could run through Foundation sequels and prequels and Heinlein could churn out increasingly solipsistic material. (Let's face it: The Number of the Beast? Job? Not the man's finest hour.)

I'm not going to lose much sleep over most of what's missing, especially the huge chunks that fall squarely under Sturgeon's Law--and I suppose you could even make a good case that the Gor books are actually fantasies rather than SF, so he's off the hook there. (Or wait, maybe "John Norman" was British...) And it's hard if not impossible to fault any of the choices for "mature" works worth singling out. I'm not particularly keen with his emphasis on the "fix-up"--I think it's fine to point out that a lot of book-length works were cobbled together from short stories and novellas, but I don't think the term realistically applies to the expansion of a single short work into a novel, but that's a minor quibble. Just keep in mind that this is only one story about what's been going on in American science fiction since 1970, a story designed especially to appeal to the sensibilities of English departments and literary critics. Introducing mainstream readers to this tiny segment of the genre might make them feel better about reading science fictionl. Saying that it'll get them to really "understand" it, though, might be like saying you only have to read Bridget Jones' Diary to understand what's going on in chick lit.

Posted by at 04:24 PM | Comments (7) | TrackBack

July 05, 2005

Sing, O Muse

(Posted by Laurel Halbany)

I envy Jane Yolen. All right, yes, because she's a prolific writer of astounding talent, and I'm a very beginning writer of questionable talent, that goes without saying: but also because her Muse is gentle and kind.

Backtracking: of course there is no such real, tangible (or even intangible) thing as a Muse. They're a metaphor from Greek mythology, a way to describe the creative inspiration that seizes us, where an idea illuminates the brain like cloud lightning and says: Write. Draw. Dance. Do this thing, now, and do it this way, or it will possess you until you make it real.

The Greeks knew there was more than one Muse. There were nine, by their count, but I think there are more, and perhaps we all get the Muse we deserve. Jane Yolen muses on her Muse:

The Muse is an ornery creature and rarely comes when called. She wears feathers in her hair and birkenstocks on her feet and is often out in the woods when you are home at your keyboard.
But sometimes when you are writing, and are so concentrated on what you are doing that you pay her little heed, she comes into the room, looks over your shoulder, and breathes softly in your ear. It is a tickle, like baby's breath, and could be mistaken for a shift in the internal wind in the room.

Mine is not so kind. She has a tendency to interrupt me when I have other things I need to be doing. She knows her power and she wields it as she pleases. I think when I struggle with what she wants, she finds it funny. She's cruel and capricious and impossible to resist.

"Write about that Lesbian Avengers party," she says, "not the real one, where you danced, but a different party where two women slip away for a very private meeting. Talk about what it's like to kneel in front of a new lover and have nothing in your mind but bringing her pleasure."

"I didn't get laid at that party," I say. She leans over my shoulder, her mythical and metaphoric breast brushing against me. She slides her fingers into the soft hair at the base of my neck, and yes, she breathes softly in my ear, her breath as warm and dangerous as the wind before a storm.

"Tell them," she whispers, and I do, and "Girl Ascending" was bought by a real publisher and printed in a real book, for money, my very first professional fiction sale.

She sits in the imaginary office chair across from mine and curls her elegant legs up beneath her. She holds her long fingers up to make a square, like a director framing a shot. I pay attention: she rarely talks with her hands. "Here's what you see," she tells me. "There's a man, handcuffed to a chair. He's surrounded by other men, professional men, from the Mafia or something like it. He's going to die. They're waiting with him, because they're not going to kill him. They don't hate him, so they're comforting him before the awful thing happens."

"That doesn't make any sense," I say. "Why don't they just shoot him? What are they waiting for?"

She uncoils herself from the imaginary chair and bends over me. I inhale, expecting perfume, but she smells like nothing at all. Her lips brush my ear.

"You know," she says, "or you will know. Tell them." And The Black Seal printed "Admission" it its fiction supplement, Five Million Years to Earth.

I don't pretend she gives me talent or good language skills. Those are my department, not hers. Inspiration is her game. Sometimes she shows up when I barely have a minute to breathe; sometimes she goes away for long stretches of time, leaving me to spend my limited writing time putting commas in and taking them back out.

But when she deigns to drop by, I forgive her every time. "Tell them," she whispers, and I do.

Posted by at 03:11 AM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

July 04, 2005

All Over Japan, Little Kids Are Shouting "Gamera!"

(Posted by Ron Hogan)

Plumes of steam shot out of the sea yesterday off Iwo Jima, the result of an underwater volcano.

To answer science fiction and comic book writer Peter David's question, yeah, I, too, thought it'd be cool if Godzilla poked his head up and said hello. But I'm not disappointed.

Peter Jackson might be, though.

Posted by at 04:00 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Small Press Tutorial

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

Bill Schafer here.

As I mentioned last week, I make my living as a small press publisher. Along the way, I'd like to think I've learned a trick or ten.

Not Everyone Will Share Your Taste.
A fan of aquatic vampire stories about hunchbacks? Good for you. It's a corner of the genre not yet fully mapped. Trying to build your press on such offerings is another matter entirely. Just like with the big publishers in NY, you have to publish what readers want, or you'll find yourself using unsold inventory in creative ways -- anyone for a coffee table made of books?

Do Not Cater Exclusively to the Collector's Market.
There are a whole host of small horror presses that have cropped up in the past few years: Delirium, Necessary Evil, Bloodletting, Earthling, to name a few. They specialize in small print runs, always under 500 copies, frequently producing editions of under 100 copies. Some of these micro-presses produce sturdy, quality limited editions. Some don't.

Even at the specialty press level, I believe publishers have an obligation to reach as wide an audience as possible. Microscopic print runs sell to the same few hundred collectors, who don't necessarily buy the books to read them. Trust me, when we see another economic downturn, when hardcore collectors have fewer sheckels in their pockets for limited editions, we'll see a winnowing among the micro-presses.

Company's due here in a few minutes, so I'll be back later with more, and a few tales of where SubPress' bodies are buried.

Posted by at 09:48 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

July 03, 2005

Personally, I Voted For Mike Judge. Huh-huh. Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.

(Posted by Jim Winter)

Since tomorrow is July 4 - Independence Day us for Americans - I thought it appropriate to comment on the AOL/Discovery Channel Greatest American Poll. The results were as follows:

1.) Ronald Reagan
2.) Abraham Lincoln
3.) Martin Luther King
4.) George Washington
5.) Benjamin Franklin

Um... What's Reagan doing in the Top 5? I'm sure history will judge him kindly, even put him up there with both Roosevelts as a great president. But as your charming host has demonstrated as recently as last month, Reagan's too recent (and still too divisive) to be a good choice.

A look at the nominees' page tells the story. Half the nominees were celebrities. Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Tom Cruise (WTF?) were nominated. Oprah Winfrey made the top 25, but Mark Twain didn't? Was there an IQ ceiling for this poll? I'm amazed Reagan, who, you know, like, ran a country and stuff, even made the list, given vapid semblence of logic used to fill out the rest of it. I'm even more amazed that Reagan, along with Dr. King, Lincoln, and two founding fathers even showed up in the top 5.

Frankly, I'm embarrassed Americans voted in this poll. Tom Cruise is a great American? Where the hell was Tom Jefferson? Yeah, he owned slaves. So did #4, George Washington. I don't recall in my history books Jefferson in the court of Versailles jumping up and down on the couch telling the Countess de Winfree how much he loved Sally Hemmings.

More disturbing, though, is how recent most of the nominees were. As I said, half of them were celebrities. Somehow, I think Reagan got on there not for destroying the most idiotic tax system in US history, nor did he make it for his part in ending the Cold War. No, I think he got on there because he died. Recently.

Which is really ashame, because it says little about him as a president, good or bad. Like I said, at least he made the top 5 along with two other presidents, a civil rights icon, and one ofthe architects of our nation. I'm assuming Franklin beat out Hugh Hefner because while he lived Hef's lifestyle, he had that extra edge by inventing the stove and the lightning rod.

Well, Winter, if you're so high and mighty, who would you pick for top 5?

Read on...

Well, first off, I'd exclude Reagan. Not because I dislike him, but because he's still too recent to be objective about. As I said, he dismantled a moronic tax system. (70% is just evil under any circumstance, and I happen to be all for taxing the rich. Just not robbing them.) He also played arms race chicken with the Soviets, yet read Gorbachev right, which led to the end of the Cold War. But there are too many questions left. Was he unfair to the poor? What about his delayed response to the AIDS crisis? And could he have pressured South Africa sooner and harder over apartheid?

No, Ronald Reagan needs to simmer in the stew of history a little longer. He certainly deserves to be on the long list well before vapid celebs and writers who use idiotic phrases like "simmer in the stew of history."

So who would I choose?

Well, let's go with the top 10, 'cuz I'm a Letterman kinda guy.

10.) Bill Gates/Steve Jobs

These guys share the #10 slot because they've done more to change the way we live our lives than any other business person or inventor in the last fifty years. Argue all you want about whether Windows is evil or if Steve's just copping other people's ideas anymore, the fact remains that together, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs put a computer on everyone's desk and hooked it up to the Internet, making it possible for office workers everywhere to download porn on company time. God bless 'em.

9.) Thomas Edison

Long before JP Morgan bought out his company and turned it into GE, Thomas Edison brought good things to life. Without Edison, there would be no modern technology. Sure, the pieces were all there, but Edison put 'em together. And like Bill Gates, Edison had some questionable practices of his own and screwed his competition whenever he could. But think about it. We listen to music now on compact disc, which evolved from the LP, which... Well, you get the point, oversimplified as it is. I'm typing this by electric light with a keyboard that's a quantum leap from the telegraph key from whence much of Edison's technology sprang. Look around you. You can't swing a dead cat with hitting something Edison either invented or inspired.

8.) Theodore Roosevelt

From Nixon to Carter to W, presidents always look to TR for inspiration. More often than not, I find myself wishing Teddy would be more generous inspiring reform and more stingy on the war mongering. Still, can you think of a president in the last 120 years who had more influence of our daily lives today? I can think of one, whom I'll get to in a minute. Teddy Roosevelt might have swung his big stick a little too often, but he was also something rare: A wealthy patrician who nonetheless beat back the system and forced it to give more to the poor who supported it. Plus, we now have Teddy Bears as a result.

7.) Franklin Roosevelt

The most recent president I'd put on the list. Again, can you think of someone who still wields as much influence now as FDR? No, you can't. Even his ideological opposite, Reagan, found inspiration in the man who led America through a depression and a world war, all from a wheel chair. No Frankie Bears, however.

6.) Thomas Jefferson

Architect of our democracy, which is handy, because he was an architect, among his many talents. A slave holder, Jefferson nonetheless also saw the need for the "peculiar institution" to ultimately be abolished. Had he shown the courage to free his own servants, he might have created a culture earthquake in the South where it was needed most at the time. As it is, he laid the groundwork for such change in the Declaration of Independence and through the precedents he set as president.

5.) Albert Einstein

Chances are, you're reading this because Einstein thought a lot about quantum physics in his spare time. So much so, he once forgot to put on his pants. Everything from the Bomb to the space program and in between sprang from an equation scrawled on the back of a napkin at lunch: E=mc(sq). Because of this, fanficcers everywhere have laws of physics they can violate along with a few copyrights.

4.) Ben Franklin

Big Ben. Invented the stove. Created the lending library and the modern volunteer fire department. Negotiated independence and helped frame the Constitution. And let's be honest, he's the first American smart ass. For that, I'd put him at the top of my personal top 5, with Mark Twain and George Carlin coming in at 2 and 3 respectively. But this is not my personal list.

3.) George Washington

Because of George, we have a blueprint for how presidents should conduct themselves. Some of his practices - the two-term limit, for example - have been written into law, the Constitution, or official protocol. Washington was that rarest of individuals in American politics, a true moderate. Personally, though, I think the 1788 election was rigged. He's on the dollar bill, you know, and Adams couldn't even get his face on a wanted poster.

2.) Martin Luther King

Someone yesterday at Live 8 said, "Ghandi freed a continent; Mandela freed a nation; and King freed a people." And King did it nonviolently.

1.) Abraham Lincoln

I wouldn't want this guy's job if you paid me a billion a year. Well, maybe a billion. I could at least afford better security for the balcony. Lincoln handled his office with dignity and grace at a time when lesser men would have cracked. Indeed, someone said had Lincoln lived and Robert E. Lee survived well beyond the Civil War, the history of American civil rights and reconstruction would have been vastly different, mostly for the better. Too bad we lost both of them in short order. Lee might even have made the top 10.

That's my top 10. Now have at. Who would you put up there? And if you nominate a current celebrity, we reserve the right to say rude things about your mother.

Posted by at 12:23 AM | Comments (41) | TrackBack

July 02, 2005


(Posted by Jeff Porten)

Now that I've established my credentials as an unsuccessful writer, I'd like to propose an idea to aid unsuccessful writers everywhere—and maybe a few editors and readers to boot.

The problem with being a successful writer boils down to two crucial components:

  1. You have to write well.

  2. You have to start a business to sell your writing.

Most would-be writers get the first part but not the second, which is why the frustrated writer commmunity is the world's largest market for voodoo dolls and Jim Beam. It's not enough to craft the most beautiful essay in the English language, if you don't know how to get it to someone who will buy it. Someone who is extraordinarily endowed on only one side of the equation may be able to overcome a failing in the other (and I suspect that this is probably more common with bad writers who are good salesmen), but you need both to really make this a working career. Exhibit A: John Scalzi, whom I think regular readers of the Whatever recognize as being well above-average on both scores.

The problem is that not every good writer has the ability or the inclination to be a good professional writer. The market as it stands allows plenty of good writing to be lost—most of it never being written in the first place. In Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, he postulates a dream library where all the things that were never written are curated. It's a beautiful idea, but also intensely depressing; this is squandering the intellectual wealth of our species. Our writing is a bulwark of our civilization and our legacy for future generations. Engineering the free market to more effectively inspire good writing is one path to improving the lot of humanity.

I'll start with myself as an example of the difficulties of the market. I think I'm reasonably good at this wordsmithing thing, and I start new businesses with the regularity of lunar cycles. The issue is in opportunity cost. Freelance writing pays laughably small sums of money compared to what I make in my regular endeavors—or at least, it does now while I'm still getting started. I have to get to the bottom of my speculative barrel before trying to sell my words becomes the best use of my time.

Or take my buddy Brian Greenberg. We finally convinced him to start a blog, and he comments here on a regular basis. John just called him a smart guy in one of those threads, and it's safe to assume that John's criteria are similar to those of professional editors. But Brian is not self-employed, so he's got even fewer career reasons than I do to write professionally. Plus I'll guess that he knows little about getting into that marketplace and doesn't have the time to learn. So he'll probably sooner start moonlighting in Dixieland jazz (that boy can really swing) than as a freelancer.

That's the author's side. How about the editors? They have it as difficult as we do, because every one of them has to maintain a slush pile, the dreaded mountain of unsolicited proposals that buries every publisher who has even thought of listing in Writer's Market. The worst piece you've ever read in print was the result of culling out the more execrable 99% that came in the mail slot. If they didn't need new writers, acquisitions editors the world over would be using their slush for merry bonfires and toasting marshmallows.

But they need us, because every week or month they need another 50,000 words to fill in the space between the advertising. And most of them, I reckon, are in their line of work because of their love of writing, and truly do care about the quality of what they print. The avalanche of slush makes it that much harder for the truly good undiscovered writers to break out.

The solution, I think, can be found in the sister market to freelancing: book publishing. There the market has created a niche for a creature known as the "literary agent," who acts as a middleman between the publisher and author. Agents are routinely despised as unfair gatekeepers by frustrated writers, but it's simply a fact that they serve a vital purpose connecting good writers with the publishers who need them.

What I'd like to see is a writer's agora: a community of authors, agents, and editors, mostly conducted online, who come together to broker short writing and take the pain out of the business of freelancing.

Here's how I think it would work. Start with the agents, who will most likely come from jobs within the industry, and who will be part-timing here themselves. They'll have experience, they'll have fat Rolodexes, and they'll have a clear understanding of what writing has to be in order to survive as a business.

They begin building a stable of writers, primarily reaching out to the Brians and Jeffs of the world, but possibly also to the Scalzis who want to stretch into new markets. I don't suppose John knows offhand who the English language acquisition editors are in Tokyo, but maybe the Japanese are dying to learn more about astronomy and indie bands. The authors would either be invited or auditioned; unpublished writers are welcome, but only if they convince the agents with the quality of their work.

The editors will come of their own accord. A hunger for talent will find it—and the fat Rolodexes are there to get the ball rolling.

What follows is Internet dating for the literary set. Authors could query at will by submitting ideas to the agents, or by dropping whole pieces into a library of unpublished content. The agents would earn their keep by knowing what will sell; good stuff will be proactively moved to the most likely markets, while less salable work can sit on file until an editor asks for it. Meanwhile, the editors get quality work and fast turnaround, both to fill that emergency hole for Thursday's deadline, or to provide peace of mind for a schedule six months in advance.

Such a business would require hefty volume to survive; even with a 20% agenting fee, it would be rare for a sale to make more than a few hundred dollars for the agora. But I suspect most authors would be willing to pay that fee, or split it with the editors—80% and getting published is better than the current state of affairs. Pipeline those fees through the website to ensure that everyone gets treated fairly. This reduces the agents' risk, simplifies the paperwork for the publishers, and creates a de facto writer's union to prevent an editor from delaying payment, lest he be cut off from future work until he makes good on his arrears. Good luck trying to enforce your policy of paying three months after publication with this crowd.

With any luck, this would make authors' and publishers' lives much easier, and could also provide a decent income for the agents in question. I'm hoping someone will mention in comments if something like this already exists; I'd much rather use it than build it. But the sites I have seen bypassed the agents, or tried to replace them with software, and collapsed under the weight of the slush pile and spam from vanity publishers. The critical factor for success is expert intermediaries.

If anyone's interested, I suspect the Republic of Scalzi has critical mass on all three fronts. And I know a guy who can do the web stuff <ahem>. So swing on by the comments thread, and we can hash it out there.

Posted by at 11:06 PM | Comments (12) | TrackBack

The Coming of the Antiscalzi

(Posted by Jeff Porten)

It is perhaps no coincidence that John assigned me the last day of the week, for Saturday signifies the End Times, and I am Jeff Porten, the Antiscalzi.

I have no adorable and precociously witty urchins to write about. I live in the selfsame urban metropolis that sent John fleeing to rural paradise. And the only pictures you'll see of hot women dancing around my home office will be the result of Photoshop and a vivid imagination.

But most importantly, I'm not a writer.

Some people might argue with that. I wrote a book ten years ago. That book now sells for pocket change, which keeps me warm through the cold nights. I'm working on a new book, which should be published in a month or two (and you can be sure I'll pimp it here before the month is out). I've done a smattering of technical writing and academic pieces. But I still feel like Epimenides' countrymen when I call myself a writer.

Why? Well, let's compare with my gracious host. John gets hired to write about movies and video games. John gets a paycheck for blogging from the same people who own Superman and Bugs Bunny. And the kicker is... he makes it look easy. If there's a blood-spattered Underwood platen in the back of John's office, you sure can't tell when he writes about translucent supermodels and senior citizens getting frisky.

So as a public service, and as a change of pace for the Whatever, I thought I would introduce myself with a short primer on how to be an unsuccessful writer. Just do all of the things I did, and you too can dream to one day reach your largest audience on someone else's website. Ready? Here we go.

1) Sell your first book before you're ready to write one. I sold that book in 1992. The process was as follows: a) Buy a copy of Writer's Market. b) Send one query letter asking, "hey, would you be interested in publishing a book about the Internet?" c) Get invited to a very tasty lunch when that editor visits your hometown. d) Be utterly clueless about how you're not supposed to be able to sell a book without an agent, an outline, or pretty much any experience outside of writing humorous essays for friends. Be so clueless, in fact, that you only have a bowl of soup at that lunch because you haven't learned that the editors always pick up the check.

Which led to e) Write three chapters of stunningly turgid prose that would put a dissertation committee to sleep. I recall writing five pages about bang paths, which were these addresses you had to use in order to get prehistoric email messages where they were going. As that's all I can remember, I'm guessing this was the most interesting thing in the book.

2) Be stunningly obtuse about the marketplace. I put my first book out of its misery when Ed Krol published The Whole Internet User's Guide. I wrote my editor to say that I was having a lot of difficulty, and since "the Internet book" had been written, I didn't see a market any longer. We shook hands and went our separate ways.

Cue the violins a year later, when I couldn't walk into any bookstore without seeing shelves upon shelves of Internet books, most of which had the clarity you've come to expect from the computer science industry. Krol's book (which was excellent, damn his eyes) sold 250,000 copies, and most of the others did well enough to keep their authors knee-deep in scotch and caviar.

3) Agents start out hungry, too. At this point, I took a step away from the path of unsuccess and met my agent. In fact, I met John's agent, who at the time was just starting out himself. Finding my agent was a long, arduous journey. I went to a happy hour for the self-employed, drank most of a beer, and said to the chatty, amusing guy to my left, "You went to Penn? Hey, so did I!" An hour later, we had an idea for a book.

He went on to get me mentioned in Washingtonian magazine as a "young writer with an important voice." This was for the second book that I was unable to write. But I still have 30 copies of that magazine.

4) Actually get it right, eventually. That same agent managed to get me writing a year or two later, and the result was the book you can now buy for a penny. Which is not to put it down one whit—of all of the things I've done in my various self-employed guises, it's in the top five I'm most proud of. But the fact remains that I don't think it ever would have happened without his prodding.

(By the way, if you're wondering why I'm not naming him, it's because I don't want his slush pile to get any bigger than it already is. I've tried the man's patience enough over the years.)

5) Return to comfortable obscurity. I've come up with a number of other book ideas over the years, all of which were unmarketable, unwritable, or uninteresting. And faced with that challenge, I did what any self-respecting unsuccessful writer would do: I gave up.

Which is to say, I limited myself to writing only what I wanted to write, and if that didn't sell, then I just didn't write for money. Contrast that with the successful writer's credo of taking on marketing brochures for funeral homes, or trade publications for industrial lubricants. For some odd reason, I fell under the common delusion that my writing had to be "important" to be worthwhile. If I had taken the same attitude with my day job, IT consulting, I'd be asking people today if they wanted thin potatoes with their main course.

So that's why I wince when I call myself a writer. Yes, I get paid to write; a fair chunk of my income comes from writing technical analyses for my clients, and it's safe to say that one of the skills that earns my keep is my ability to translate binary into English. But that's getting paid by the hour, not the word. I'm a writer in the same sense that the Redskins and Arsenal are both football teams.

But I still have my merit badge. Like "Senator" or "adulterer," you keep the "writer" title long after you've lost the job description. Lifelong admission to the inner circle. I still get emails from my readers from time to time. Unpublished writers ask me for advice. And now that you've heard that advice, you can see why I start laughing every time it happens.

If you haven't yet decided on whether you want to be an unsuccessful writer, don't let me dissuade you. It has been a lot of fun, and useful to my other nonwriting endeavors. But I recommend that you choose at the outset to be my kind of writer or John's kind of writer. Read between the lines of his many essays on the topic, and you'll see the dues-paying he had to do to get to where he is now. I skipped over all that, and that's why I'm still a dilettante. Unsuccessful writing is easy. Successful writing only looks easy.

Tune in later for Part II, wherein I propose a great untapped market for unsuccessful writers, and hand out a free business idea to anyone with the moxie to pick up the ball and run with it.

Posted by at 04:33 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

July 01, 2005

Gendering Everything

(Posted by Claire Light)

A couple of years ago, the trendy pathology of choice was synesthesia: where some people's brains cross wires and give them input from two senses at once. For example, a synesthete might hear music and simultaneously see a play of colors across his field of vision that corresponds to the sounds. The most common form of synesthesia is seeing colors in letters. That is, you read a text on a page and the letters don't appear as black, or whatever color they've been given, but rather each has its own intrinsic color, which each letter always has. By the way, each synesthete will have a different set of colors to correspond to the letters. No two are alike.

Reading about the colored letters reminded me of something I had put away as a child, but which still operates for me, at a low level. I gender letters and numbers. That is to say: 1, 4, 6, 7 and 9 are male; 2, 3, 5, and 8 are female. Zero is neuter. Letters all have their genders, too, and the "operative" letters in a word tend to gender the word. "Letter" is male, because every letter in "Letter" is male. "Operative" is also male, although "a" and "v" are female. On the other hand, "gender" is a completely gender neutral word, although every letter in it is male, except for "n". "N" is a very neutral female, and "e", and "r" are very feminine males, "e" especially, which is brighter than the other letters.

And it's not just male and female, as you might have already guessed. There are degrees of gender, usually expressed as a level of masculinity or femininity, although its not exactly that. It's not so much a Kinsey scale of gendered characters and digits as it is a sort of personality. The alpha males are"d", "u", "y", 9. Girly girls are "a", "s", 3, 8. When letters and numbers appear in combinations, the gender of each one is lost a little in the roar -- much as a butch guy standing in a corner is butch, but when he's joined by a girl and another guy, that corner is no longer so butch. Are you edging away from me yet?

Things get weirder. Months are gendered, too, but not gendered as words, if that makes any sense. The months have the gender, not the letters in their words. January, February, April, May, June, and September are female. Which puts us today on the first of a male month, 1 being of average masculinity, but July being the most butch month out of the year. It's probably not entirely coincidentally the month of American and French independence days. I just counted and the months are equally divided, the digits are 4 female to 5 male, and the letters are 12 female to 14 male. After a quick mental survey of, well, pretty much everything else in life, I don't think that any other systems are gendered for me in this way. But I'll be happy to check if you think of something.

I don't impose genders on numbers, letters and words. They're just there. They've always just been there, since I learned the characters. I've never thought about it, and never had to. I remember the first time I told someone about this: when I was six. It was a classmate of mine in first grade, another little girl. I told her that letters and numbers were boys and girls and she agreed. We both got excited. Then we compared notes and found that we thought different letters and numbers were boys and girls and just couldn't agree.

This was all by way of introducing myself. Hi. What does it all mean? Did I just give away really embarrassing information about myself that only I can't see? Does anyone else do this? It's not exactly like synesthesia, applying two senses to one stimulus, but it is applying meaning where mere perception would do. Or is it personifying objects unnecessarily?

Posted by at 01:49 PM | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Farewell Ben

(Posted by Bill Schafer)

Bill Schafer here.

We lost Ben earlier this week, to some unforseen cardiac difficulties. My business partner, Tim, found him downstairs on Tuesday night, stretched out peacefully. Into the freezer Ben went for the night, a final trip to be cremated the next morning.

Ben came to us seven years ago. (He was only eight when he died.) He was hanging around my brother's in-law's barn, one of his hind legs so severely infected and damaged that it hung there, like rotting meat. The in-laws would check on Ben every day to see if he was still alive, but didn't see fit to feed him or give him any care.

When my brother mentioned the stray, I saw Ben to my vet's, credit card in tow, with the words "fix him."

He gave us seven great years, of purring and playing, soft fur and an even softer miaow. He killed regularly when he was allowed outdoors, a privilege he demanded every few days. I imagine there are squirrels and chipmunks breathing sighs of relief right now.

Be kind to our furry brethren. Sometimes they're not with us as long as we'd like.


Posted by at 10:39 AM | Comments (11) | TrackBack