When is it okay to quit?

Harshness ahead. You were warned.

There have been a very few instances when I’ve encountered a writer who is clearly wasting his/her time. I know, we’re not supposed to talk about it. We’re not supposed to admit (among ourselves) that any of us could be wasting his/her time. Yet, clearly, there are people in this field who are wasting their time. I know. I’ve met them. They are few in number, but they do exist.

Sure, 90% of the business is work ethic and never quitting. But if you don’t have the other 10% (imagination + style + insight + voice + creativity + ability to learn + yadda yadda) then you’re kind of trying to paddle up the Mississippi with a soggy flap of cardboard.

In each of the these few instances (and they truly are few) the writer in question had been struggling for decades (yes, plural) with no results: no sales, no publications, or at least no publications of serious note (badly formatted, unproofed self pub, with a bad cover, almost doesn’t count.) As a result, (s)he had developed a rather ferocious level of envy towards anybody who had enjoyed some success (YMMV as to the definition of “success”) and there was also a fair degree of conspiracy paranoia happening. Ergo, “The publishing system is rigged against me! The reviews system is rigged against me! Amazon is rigged against me!” Et cetera.

I have come to strongly suspect that such tortured people are far more in love with the idea of being authors, than they are with actually writing stories. No, not in love. Wrong word. Love is a healthy emotion. They are obsessed with having a book (or books, or stories in magazines) with their names on the covers, and with passing through the halls at conventions in the guise of “author”, and with also having fans, and with gathering to themselves all the acclaim and credibility of accomplishment, and warm fuzzies, and all that they believe will come to them, if only . . . if only . . . if only . . .

In one particular instance (because I am sometimes too nice for my own good) I read some of the works proffered by just such a writer. (S)he claimed to have spent the better part of 30 years perfecting them, before putting them up on the internet. In despair. In the hope that someone might read them.

I did. Because I was morbidly curious. And I wanted to see if I could help. I paid my dues. Two decades of toil and effort, no sales. 1992 to 2009. Surely the patient could be cured? Lord knows I’d been brought back from a near-flatlined state myself. I was determined to see what I could do for this despairing individual.

The stories were . . . pale and flat. They were stale. Lifeless. Clearly, they had the abuse marks of having been “polished” into oblivion. And they did not manifest — from story to story — any sign that the author in question was getting any better. Not even a little bit.

I made a few (what I thought) were gentle suggestions; for potential improvement. Not with the stories themselves. They were DOA. In fact, that was the thrust of my advice: let the old stories go, get on with the business of telling new stories. Polishing (or the process most of us call “polishing”) has what I consider to be a rather sharp curve, in terms of diminishing returns. Past a certain point, you cannot improve a thing. You’ve looked at it too much. It’s as good as you can make it. Let it be. Go on to something different. Something fresh.

I also said (s)he might think about trying a new style of voice (1st person to 3rd, or was it 3rd to 1st? I can’t remember . . .) and branching out into a new arena of speculative storytelling, etc. (“Instead of near-future contemporary, try off-world, or maybe even a cyber-fantasy?”) It seemed to me this author was trying very hard to write what (s)he thought the markets wanted; without much consideration for what the author wanted. I of course cited my own trials and tribulations, to make him/her aware of the fact that I knew from personal experience how this kind of uncomfortable change — turning over the writer’s apple cart — had helped me grow, get better, and break through.

Yet, I was rebuffed. (S)he got defensive. Started up with the victim stuff, and the paranoia stuff. I was accused of being both lucky, and knowing how to “game” the system.

So I gently withdrew my interaction, and allowed him/her to return to his/her dark closet of creative despair. I could not help him/her. (S)he did not want help. Even from a fellow traveler who knew his/her struggle in intimate detail. Having secured for myself a life preserver, when I offered to show him/her how to also obtain a life preserver, (s)he preferred to stay submerged.

How do you (gently) tell such a person, that (s)he is running him/herself over the proverbial cheese grater for nothing? That perhaps (s)he simply wasn’t meant to do this thing we call writing? The mantra is that (s)he who never quits, gets published. And it’s true. Especially now that Amazon and CreateSpace have made it easy. But what can you say to a person who has dwelt in a personal wasteland of disappointment for so long, over failing at a thing (s)he was clearly not given any gifts for?

It’s a bit like seeing a cellist who has no musical ear, nor any finesse with the instrument, saw painfully at the thing day after day, over the same dog-eared sheets of rote music, all the while despairing of ever joining an orchestra or getting to play solo at the concert house.

The noble response is to simply smile and say, “Keep trying, you can do it eventually!” The professional arts world is replete with examples of failures who simply pushed one step farther, and the light went on, and success was had by the truckload. We adore and love these rags-to-riches examples. They inspire us all to keep after it. To keep putting our butts back into our chairs. Because we need to believe that we too can be that rags-to-riches (“riches” being defined any way you please) person.

But sometimes . . . sometimes I wonder if we’re also not just enabling a person’s further descent into a paralyzing spiral of fruitless time consumption — for the sake of a dream that probably should have been set down at the side of the road long ago. Really, not everyone who wants to be a writer (or a concert cellist) was given the gift.

That’s blasphemy, I know. And as someone who went the better part of 20 years without any success, it may be wrong of me to suggest that somebody else may not have what it takes to make it. How dare I?

But there ought to be a point of clarity. A realistic look in the mirror. A limit past which sanity tells you that you’re doing something self-destructive. That the void you’re trying to fill (with Passion A) is actually just a process of digging your hole deeper. When what you really need is to go discover Passion B (or C or D or E, ad infinitum) and allow those seed(s) to sprout, and blossom, in the soil of your soul.

Misery, bitterness, paranoia, for years on end . . . these things are just not worth it. There are other ways to be successful. To leave a meaningful impact on the world. There are even better, quicker, more lucrative ways to achieve fame and fortune, if fame and fortune are what you truly desire in the final analysis.

I didn’t quit, because I ultimately couldn’t stop telling stories. To myself. In my brain. On the bus, or while driving, or even at night with my head in the pillow. I couldn’t stop the puzzle-assembly fun of putting characters and situations and settings together, like a cookie dough mix, and imagining where the mixture might go. On the “movie screen” of my mind. Even when the rejections were piled up and the thousands (yes, thousands) of hours spent, seemed waste. I couldn’t help myself. My mind would find excuses to go back to the stories. To the mental bijou. And (ultimately) wanting to share my mental bijou with the rest of the world.

If you don’t have your own mental bijou — if your favorite thing is not getting a soda and a bucket of popcorn, and sitting alone in your personal theater to watch the imaginary movie(s) of your own making — I suspect that you might be trying too hard at the wrong thing. That writing may not be what you were cut out for. Especially if the exercise has lasted for so long, with so much disappointment, that all you have left for the affair is pain and sorrow. It might be time for a divorce: kick your “dream” out of your life, and go find a new dream. Something that actually makes you happy and which brings you joy. Something that makes your spirit light up like fireworks on New Years Eve. If writing doesn’t do that for you, take a close look at what it is you truly need from writing.

And maybe you can fulfill that need somewhere else?

Posted in Advice, Personal Thoughts, Science Fiction related | 17 Comments

Launch week for Racers of the Night

Okay folks, the week has officially arrived! It’s launch week for my second short fiction collection, Racers of the Night. The book contains 12 pieces of short science fiction, the majority of which have appeared in the pages of Analog magazine, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Mike Resnick’s Galaxy’s Edge, and elsewhere. To include collaborations with Mike Resnick, and two pieces which have never before seen print.

If you will be attending Salt Lake City Comic Con on September 4, 5, and 6, there will be a stack of Racers of the Night available at the WordFire Press super-table, where Kevin J. Anderson, David Farland, Larry Correia, and several other authors will be signing. I personally will be on-hand at the table for the majority of Thursday evening (September 4) so if you want to snag me, chat, have me sign and personalize your book, etc., come on by! I will also have copies of Lights in the Deep available for purchase, and will probably give away a few promo copies of my forthcoming Baen novel The Chaplain’s War.

For those who can’t make it to Salt Lake City Comic Con, there are (of course) direct-order options through major on-line retailers.

Amazon.com: trade paperback, or electronic.

Barnes & Noble: trade paperback, or electronic.

Kobo: e-book

Smashwords: multiple formats

And if you still want a personalized and signed trade paperback delivered to your mail box, you can PayPal me $20.00 and I will ensure that you get your copy!

Need something more to wet your speculative literary whistle? Here are a few snippets from some of the stories contained in the book.

From, “The Curse of Sally Tincakes” . . .

Second to last lap, and Jane was in a familiar spot with the leaders at the front of the pack. Having gamed her way into the elite group—same strategies and tactics as always—she’d almost considered her advancement to the final heat to be a foregone conclusion, when one of the other drivers from the middle of the pack made a particularly dangerous—and gutsy—move. Trying to copy Jane’s technique as they entered a turn, the man began spinning out of control, first pinballing off one bike, then another, then a third, until suddenly the track was alive with wildly spinning bikes, their riders trying desperately to regain control—overcorrecting—and then either smashing down into the safety barriers nearest the domed-over crowds, or pinwheeling up and off the track altogether, arcing out across the sun-blasted regolith, legs and feet come loose, flailing.

From, “Blood and Mirrors” . . .

Suddenly the door to the ICU suite popped open, flooding light into the room. Camarro got a glimpse of a standard blue police uniform, and that was it for her. She’d been prepared since the moment she’d enter the suite. There were no exits anywhere, besides the windows. She hit the largest one going full speed, smashing through the double panes and falling two stories to the roof, where she landed, rolled, then got to her feet and sprinted across the roof, bits of glass flying off her back. She got to the roof’s edge and dropped another story onto the skybridge that connected the hospital’s south wing with the parking garage. She ran the length of the skybridge and jumped down onto the concrete of the garage’s top level, which was open to the sky. She arrived at her bike just as the elevator doors on the other side of the top level opened, spilling uniforms.

From, “Life Flight” . . .

We debated who should cast Janicka into the void. As the only person aboard who’d been intimate with her, I mumbled a few words on her behalf. Then cursed myself for not having anything more eloquent to say. Just as nobody in the planning stages had thought to consider what might happen if the people went haywire, there was nothing in the training nor the library for dealing with death. Janicka was too stark a reminder to me that it would probably be me in that sack some day: a relic of the trip, soon to be disposed of. Which made up my mind for me. I told Chris we aren’t doing any space burials. Janicka is going to stay in cold storage on the outside of the ship until we reach our new home, and then she’s going to be goddamned buried in the goddamned soil like the pioneer woman that she is.

From, “The Nechronomator” . . .

The Nechronomator was hideous. His flesh hung limply on his tallish skeleton, sagging and gray. He sat cross-legged on a marble bench that sat at the top of the cross-shaped mausoleum. Liver spots had darkened to black and his mouth looked dry as he moved it. The woman stood before him, motionless in her Sunday finest. The only breaths either of them took were the ones they used to move air across stale vocal chords. I still couldn’t make out what they were saying. Suddenly the Nechronomator stood—a surprisingly swift movement for someone who’d been dead for three years—and slapped the base of his palm on the woman’s forehead. She spasmed and gave a quick, hoarse cry, then flashed into nothingness—like the bulb of a camera had gone off, erasing her from existence.

From, “Reardon’s Law” . . .

Dead leaves clung to Kal’s skin like wet paper. She peered intently over the lip of the ledge. Half a kilometer distant, the mighty trees had been flattened in a rough halo under the belly of the enemy craft. Which was mammoth. A metal whale on stilts. The heat tiles of the ship were grossly discolored from its many, many in-atmosphere trips. Underneath the vessel—between its massive landing pylons—four personnel hatches lay open with four ramps extending down to the ground, like rusty tongues. There was also a fifth, much larger cargo hatch. Its wide ramp was populated with people moving crates up into the ship. They appeared to be bringing the crates from somewhere deep in the tree line. Where Kal couldn’t see. They must have located the remnants of the Broadbill? Or at least the Broadbill’s cargo?

Amazon.com: trade paperback, or electronic.

Barnes & Noble: trade paperback, or electronic.

Kobo: e-book

Smashwords: multiple formats

Personalized and signed trade paperback: PayPal me $20.00 US.

Posted in Conferences & Conventions, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Now in print! | 3 Comments

When ignorant snobs attack

Tonight I chanced across this smelly little gem:

Baen books specialises in works of “military SF” that, behind their appalling prose styles and laughable retro cover designs, speak to a right-wing readership who can recognise the enemies of America even when they are disguised as cannibal lizard aliens. Baen’s chief editor Toni Weisskopf went so far as to issue a diatribe against any and all sci-fi that did not pander to this conservative agenda.

I won’t feed this particularly empty ego any more than is necessary, suffice to say that the individual who wrote this obviously does not read very many (if any?) actual Baen books by actual Baen authors, nor do I think this person has actually read any such “diatribe” by my editor at Baen. In fact, I can state with certainty that the words “Toni Weisskopf” and “diatribe” do not belong in the same ZIP code. You will seldom find a less offensive, even-tempered, non-confrontational, fair-minded editor and publisher in the field today. And it’s not just an insult to her when shit like this (above) gets written, it’s an insult to all the many talented and varied authors who ply their trade beneath the Baen label. Myself included.

Unfortunately, ignorant snobbery of this sort is nothing new in the genre. You find out very quickly (once you begin publishing) which writers, editors, publishers, and artists enjoy the favor of the “society” people, and which writers, editors, publishers, and artists do not. My from-the-hip observation is that the “society” people want to see SF/F turned into a lightly speculative and fantastical carbon copy of the “prestigious literary” world. Replete with ambiguous covers that don’t really tell you anything about the story, but follow the general pattern of all things deemed “prestigious” and “literary.” If this year’s talked-about lit work features a somewhat fuzzy, off-focus photo of a pair of muddy Converse sneakers sitting on somebody’s front stoop, then by golly SF/F needs to follow suit with similar photos of similarly mundane, slightly off-focus objects which may or may not have anything to do with actual science fiction; as practiced traditionally by the greats.

Speaking of which, did you know Baen is one of the few publishers actively working to keep the works of the greats alive and well in the modern marketplace? I mean, Poul Anderson for heaven’s sake. That’s a name which ought to make even the 20-something spec fic “lit” kids sit up and pay attention. And if his estate’s re-releases of the Dominic Flandry books seem to have more in common with James Bond movie posters than the latest art house tome, perhaps that’s actually a good thing? Young general genre readers (thankfully oblivious to art houses of any sort) might actually read Anderson as a result.

Of course, one must remember that Baen is the “military” SF publisher, for “right wing” readers. Because as you know, Bob, Eric Flint is the world’s biggest right winger. David Drake too. But wait, maybe it’s worth noting something Drake actually said:

Frequently I write about soldiers or veterans: military sf. Because of that I’m accused of writing militaristic sf by those who either don’t know the difference between description and advocacy or who deny there is a difference.

Seems to me Drake — who might raise an eyebrow at being called “right wing” anything — is far better equipped to judge whether or not Baen is the “military SF publisher for right wingers” than someone who seems to have decided that Baen is a cut-rate house, based purely on . . . the absorbed conventional wisdom of like-minded aesthetes? Who sniff at the banally popular, and declare it both shallow and of no consequence. Because, muddy out-of-focus Converse sneakers! Or how about a stark black background with stark, anemic white lettering, no painting or picture whatsoever. Excellent, my good chaps! Because the less actually shown, the better. It’s the thing with “real literature” these days. Spaceships and galaxies on the covers? Aliens and rockets flying to the planets? Lantern-jawed heroes and hot-bodied heroines? P’shaw! One might start thinking the spec fic inside is actually speculative fucking fic. And that’s no good, you know.

We wouldn’t want our readers to actually have fun. That would be the worst thing ever.

Of course, we’ve not even addressed “appalling prose styles”, for all definitions of “appalling prose style” that include actual, straight-forward, engaging, page-turning storytelling. You can always spot an art house poseur by how often he puts down the prosaic accomplishments of people who actually entertain audiences and make money. Because a lot of Baen authors have been known to do that, you know. Entertain. Make money. Someone please catch me, I am suffering a case of the vapors! One wonders if Lois Bujold, she of the many Hugo awards and much literary praise, is aware of the fact that she’s been tried and convicted of “appalling prose style” by an individual who clearly hasn’t read any of her work.

You know, I get it that in an era of explosive social media growth, everybody is scrambling to make waves, draw attention, get page hits, etc. But it really pisses me off when a jackass who should know better, sits down to type something that is not only patently dishonest, but stupidly patently dishonest. Someone please dangle this daft chucklebutt by his ankles, his head submerged in the nearest loo, the water (and other liquids) swirling happily about his ears. Maybe the cool refresher will get his synapses firing a little more efficiently? Yes?

Posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 84 Comments

Fear and Loathing at the Awards Table 5: Sad Puppies 2 post mortem

Snipped from a comment I made to David (“Trouble with Tribbles”) Gerrold, on Facebook, during a remarkably civil discussion about this past year’s Hugo award drama . . .

The maxim, “Never complain, never campaign” is ostensibly noble. I admire it. It’s what’s been preached to me since the inception of my (young) career. Alas, I think the reality falls far short of the ideal. Because campaigning is clearly happening right under our noses every year. I’ve seen the e-mails, read the threads, observed the electronic conversations. Social media has “liberated” the Hugos and the Nebulas from the notion that campaigning is uncouth. For adept operators who can run a non-campaign campaign (aka: stealth campaign) or who simply have a dominant web presence (“Name brand, everybody knows me!”) they get to have their Hugo/Nebula cake, and eat it too. They can win while simultaneously exclaiming, “Campaigning is uncouth, and I would never do it!” So while I agree that in a better world campaigning would be poor etiquette, a good many authors clearly no longer agree. If they ever agreed.

Larry Correia’s sin (with Sad Puppies 2) being: he was honest about what he was doing.

Though I can think of few people publishing in the SF/F genre who care less about awards. Larry is a six-figure writer in an era of plummeting advances and hardscrabble business practices. He’s got nothing to prove. What Larry does care about is ensuring that the Hugos are not a “liberals only” club. You may deem his perception wrong, or even pernicious. But it’s a perception shared by many other authors (myself included) as well as a great many readers to boot. Baen, or not. Analog, or not.

Complaining clearly doesn’t carry the stain it once did either. Otherwise we’d not have the near-perpetual moaning about “There aren’t enough (insert minority here) on the ballot!” Or, conversely, “There are too many (insert majority here) on the ballot!” Because the genre seems to have a spiritual hangover from the bad old days when straight white men wrote all the straight white man stories and won all the straight white man awards (perception, not saying it was fact, that is the backwards-through-time perception) the genre is in more and more of a hurry to correct the perceived error, via affirmative action.

And yes, discussion of affirmative action sets my teeth on edge too. Because affirmative action introduces what I would consider to be irrelevant criteria into the “Only the story should win, on its own merits!” equation.

Which is not to say I think affirmative action voters are being deliberately pernicious. I’ve done a fair bit of affirmative action voting in my own life, where political office is concerned. Much of it in my (more idealistic) youth. When I thought it actually did more good than bad. Affirmative action is well-meant push-back against perceived systemic biases and prejudices. I get it. I really do.

But at what point does the affirmative action go too far? Almost becoming a mockery of itself?

I noted with unhappiness the “squee” that erupted from some individuals when an all-female Nebula list hit the internet airwaves earlier in the season. As if merely ensuring all the winners had vaginas was a triumph unto itself? So, do we oscillate? For fairness? One year, it’s all penises, the next, back to all vaginas again? But wait, what about trans people who have neither penises nor vaginas? Clearly the frontier needs to be pushed again. And so on, and so forth.

One might get the sense that in this kind of affirmative action environment, the merits of the story proper are definitely riding in the back seat. One might be correct about that, too.

Larry Correia could care less if a Tongan gay socialist Democrat wins a Hugo. Just as long as being Tongan, gay, socialist, or Democrat, aren’t the primary factors in the win. Story first, you know.

But here again, the reality can’t meet the ideal. Because clearly being gay, or socialist, or trans, or black, or Chinese, or female, or many other identitarian labels, does matter in the Hugo selection process. It matters if you (author) are any of these things, and it matters if you (author) insert these things into your stories. It’s mattered more and more every year since at least the late 1990s. A bad story can’t beat the odds no matter what, but a comparably well-done story (in relation to the field as a whole) has a distinct advantage if it comes from the keyboard of a sexual or ethnic minority, or features characters who are in a sexual or ethnic minority. If said minority author has a good-sized web footprint and is popular in the social media, so much the better. All of this attracts votes and voter sympathy. Well-meant, well-intended. All of it.

But then, not everything well-intended has a positive consequence.

So perhaps it’s ironic that if the maxim “Never complain, never campaign” were in truth the rule at the Hugos, Correia would be happier than anybody. Because Correia believes in it too. He just doesn’t believe in being silent while a lot of what he considers to be bullshit, goes on — without question from very many people in established positions of prominence.

My personal opinion is that we need more of Sad Puppies, not less. Regardless of who launches it or who is on the slate. There are dozens of men and women who have devoted their lives and careers to building this messy, often combustible enterprise we call Science Fiction & Fantasy. Some of them dwell at or near the bestseller level with each release. Not all of them allow the affirmatively-minded to check a box. Not all of them write quaint or prosaic literary stories better suited to the pages of The Sun or The New Yorker, than a SF/F magazine. Almost all of them can’t buy a Hugo, for various reasons which perplex and sometimes infuriate me. Despite the fact that their fan bases are what prop the genre up from a financial perspective. When the so-called “most prestigious award” in SF/F never finds its ways into the hands of a Kevin J. Anderson or a L.E. Modesitt, Jr. or a David Farland (Wolverton) this sends a strong signal: the voters at Worldcon are anti-success. Pro-affirmative action. But anti-success.

So let’s see more, please. Let’s get some of these deserving souls onto the ballot. If affirmative action is warranted, let’s begin a new brand of affirmative action: lifetime contribution from successful authors who have never won a Hugo. Did you know that Tad Williams has never even been nominated for a Hugo award? Tad Williams?? As I have often said of the Congressional Medal of Honor (“You shouldn’t have to die to get the damned thing!”) so too do I say of the Hugo: a writer or editor should not have to retire or pass from the field, in order to get the award. Stan Schmidt was worthy of a Hugo at least a dozen or more times in his career. How come Worldcon couldn’t give Stan an award until he was out of his editing chair at Analog? What was so impossible about acknowledging Stan when he was still sitting in that chair??

It won’t be Larry carrying the load next time. Larry is a strong man, but not bulletproof. Having mortgaged his reputation (among those who espouse “Never complain, never campaign”) he can’t be expected to bear the burden each time. There were some remarkably cruel and unfair things said about Larry in the last year. Speaking as his friend, a compatriot, a fellow Baen author, and someone who has been proud to be all of the above every step of the way, I think everyone who went out of his or her way to character-assassinate Larry, should be ashamed. Especially those who mewled neutral or even cordial words in public, yet stabbed coldly at Larry in private.

But it will be somebody picking up the torch. Maybe me? Maybe some of my friends who have agreed with and applauded Larry’s efforts? Maybe if all of us do this often enough — if we refuse to allow the Hugo awards to be an exclusive “club” for a certain brand of politics or a certain literary taste — the drama will die down. People will adjust to the new reality: that the SF/F genre really is a big place, populated by every type and kind of professional, and that merely displacing one type or kind for another (in the quest for perceived justice or fairness; or just raw political pique) is an unworthy goal.

Posted in General Writing Stuff, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 163 Comments

A Hugo loser’s speech

The Hugo award winners were announced in London. I wasn’t there to see it. Having two stories on the ballot this year theoretically upped (or downed) my chances. As happened in 2012, I felt like something of an outsider to the final ballot, only more so this time because I’ve added “Baen author” to my list of credentials, along with a second Analog magazine AnLab readers’ choice award. Men with my kind of pedigree just don’t get to have Hugo awards very often these days. Maybe in 1970, when Larry Niven won for Ringworld. But not now. The Worldcon cotillion’s zeitgeist just isn’t there, for a guy like me to easily score a rocketship.

Which is not to say I didn’t score new readers. My mailbox tells me I got a lot of new people looking at my work for the first time, and enjoying what they saw. Enough for them to look for more from me in the future, and even backtrack and pick up some of my past work. All of this cheers me enormously, because I like to give readers a good time, and I like to find ways to put my stories in front of a potentially receptive, fresh audience. Being on the Hugo ballot helps that. So three cheers for new fans, and three cheers for new and old fans alike–and friends–who all put their votes in for “The Exchange Officers” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy.”

The cotillion itself remains problematic, from a numbers perspective; as it always has. When organized fandom staged the first Worldcon prior to World War 2 it might have been accurately said that Worldcon was representative of fandom in total. But this is 2014. We’re almost 40 years past the moment when Star Wars changed the popular consumer landscape in an irrevocable fashion. To snip a quote from the movie TRON, science fiction isn’t the business you built in your garage anymore. It’s a multi-billion-dollar international industry with over a billion active consumers. Throw in fantasy, and we more than double those numbers. The speculative and the fantastic saturate our lives like never before. These things are in our games, our television, our movies, and our books, to an unprecedented degree.

So it’s a little odd seeing the cotillion push the rocketship forward–as the most prestigious accolade in the biz–when barely 1 in 20 people at your nearest Comic Con can even tell you what that rocketship is, or what “Worldcon” is. Chances are they would not know what “fandom” is, historically, nor would they even technically label themselves as “science fiction fans” in an era when franchises and properties have become universes unto themselves. In other words, fandom also isn’t the business you built in your garage anymore.

Which is not to say the cotillion is bad. Heavens no. What I am saying is that the cotillion . . . has limited reach and relevance in an era when every child has a toy light saber in his or her closet, every teenager can quote you lines from Harry Potter verbatim, and middle-aged men walk around flashing each other the Vulcan hand sign at the office water cooler. Sci-fi didn’t just win the cultural battle, it became the whole culture in its entirety. To the point that football jocks on highschool teams flock to see the latest Star Trek movie, and don’t bat an eyelash cracking insider jokes about the latest science fiction video game title.

Thus a Hugo win or loss has limited traction, because only those within the walls of the cotillion recognize the award, and honor it. The rest of the universe . . . is too busy with its Venn circles of enthusiasm to notice when “fandom” gets together once a year to recognize the “best” in the genre.

I will say I was glad to stand with Larry Correia during his “Sad Puppies” campaign to bring new blood into the cotillion space, thus mortgaging his reputation (with those inside the cotillion who are averse to “outsiders” engaging the cotillion) for the sake of making the Hugos more applicable and representative of a wider sensibility. Larry knew (as many of us who participated did) that campaigning for the inclusion of neglected or otherwise non-zeitgeist works and authors on the ballot, would earn him (and the ballot members) scorn. Larry felt it was worth it, however, because as both a fan and a New York Times bestseller, Larry was hoping to see the Hugos display the kind of diversity that Larry (and myself, and many of the rest of us who walk beneath the Analog and Baen flags) felt had been lacking in recent years. I think Larry made his point well, despite the bellyaching and sniping which were directed at him. And I am content to have been a willing participant in “Sad Puppies” because the point Larry made–that Science Fiction and Fantasy are far larger and more broad in appeal than the Hugo ballots of late were indicating–is a point which cannot (I think) be made often enough.

So, the cotillion is ended for another year. And I may find my work on the ballot again in the future. “Sad Puppies” or no. It would be a delight to win, because many of my mentors and heroes are past winners. But it’s no great sorrow to lose, either. Because the readers are still reading, and buying, and I keep getting mail from new people who’ve discovered my writing for the first time, and are eager for more. There is no such thing as bad press, and this year’s awards season provided a good deal of signal amplification.

I’m grateful for all my friends and my editors in the business who rooted for me, and I hope I continue to produce stories which do honor and justice to both the Analog and the Baen legacies.

Posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Science Fiction related | 17 Comments

Excerpt from “The Chaplain’s Assistant”

Today’s excerpt is from my short story “The Chaplain’s Assistant.” This story first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Analog magazine, and is currently available in my collection of award-nominated and award-winning science fiction: Lights in the Deep. “The Chaplain’s Assistant” also forms the backbone (in concert with its sequel, the Hugo award nominated novella “The Chaplain’s Legacy”) for my forthcoming novel, The Chaplain’s War, from Baen Books.

• • •

I was putting fresh oil into clay lamps at the altar when the mantis glided into my foyer. The creature stopped for a moment, his antennae dancing in the air, sensing the few parishioners who sat on my roughly-hewn stone pews. I hadn’t seen a mantis in a long time—the aliens didn’t bother with humans much, now that we were shut safely behind their Wall. Like all the rest of his kind, this mantis’s lower thorax was submerged into the biomechanical “saddle” of his floating mobility disc. Only, this one’s disc didn’t appear to have any apertures for weapons—a true rarity on Purgatory.

Every human head in the building turned towards the visitor, each set of human eyes smoldering with a familiar, tired hate.

“I would speak to the Holy Man,” said the mantis through the speaker box on its disc. Its fearsome, segmented beak had not moved. The disc and all the machines within it were controlled directly by the alien’s brain.

When nobody got up to leave, the mantis began floating up my chapel’s central aisle, the mantis’s disc making a gentle humming sound. “Alone,” said the visitor, his vocoded voice approximating a commanding human tone.

Heads and eyes turned to me. I looked at the mantis, considered my options, then bowed to my flock, who reluctantly began to leave—each worshipper collecting handfuls of beads, crosses, stars, serviceman’s bibles, and various other religious items. They exited without saying a word. What else could they do? The mantes ruled Purgatory as surely as Lucifer ruled Hell.

I waited at the altar.

“You are the religious officer?” said the mantis.

“The Chaplain is dead. I am—was—his assistant.”

“We must speak, you and I.”

Again, I noted the mantis’s lack of armament.

“What can I do for you?” I said.

“I wish to understand this entity you call God.”

I stared at the alien, not quite sure if I should take him seriously.

“To understand God,” I said slowly, “is a skill that requires ongoing mastery.”

“Which is why the other humans come here, to this structure. To learn from you.”

I blushed slightly. In the year since I’d built the chapel—some two years after our failed invasion and subsequent capture—I’d not given so much as a single sermon. Preaching wasn’t my thing. I built the chapel because the Chaplain told me to before he died, and because it seemed obvious that many humans on Purgatory—men and women who had landed here, fought, been stranded and eventually imprisoned—needed it. With the fleets from Sol departed, and our homes many thousands of light-years away, there wasn’t much left for some of us to turn to—except Him.

“I don’t teach,” I said, measuring my words against the quiet fear in my heart, “but I do provide a space for those who come to listen.”
“You are being deliberately cryptic,” the mantis accused.

“I mean no offense,” I continued, hating the servile tinge in my own voice as I spoke to the beast, “it’s just that I was never trained as an instructor of worship. Like I said when you asked, I am only the assistant.”

“Then what do the humans here listen to, precisely?”

“The spirit,” I said.

The mantis’s beak yawned wide, its serrated tractor teeth vibrating with visible annoyance. I stared into that mouth of death—remembering how many troops had been slaughtered in jaws like those—and felt myself go cold. The Chaplain had often called the mantes soulless. At the time—before the landing—I’d thought he was speaking metaphorically. But looking at the monster in front of me I remembered the Chaplain’s declaration, and found it apt.

“Spirit,” said the mantis. “Twice before has my kind encountered this perplexing concept.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Two other sapients, one of them avian and the other amphibian.”

Other aliens . . . besides the mantes? “And what could they tell you about God?”

“Gods,” my visitor corrected me. “We destroyed both species before we could collect much data on their beliefs.”

“Destroyed,” I said, hoping the alien’s ears couldn’t detect the shaking dread in my voice.

“Yes. Hundreds of your years ago, during the Great Nest’s Third Expansion into the galaxy. We thought ourselves alone, then. We had no experience with alternative intelligence. The homeworld of the avians and the homeworld of the amphibians were pleasing to the Patriarchal Quorum, so those worlds were annexed, cleansed of competitive life forms, and have since become major population centers for my people.”

I took in this information as best as I could, unsure if any human ears had ever heard anything like it. I thought of the Military Intelligence guys—all dead—who would have given their years’ pay to gain the kind of information I had just gained, standing here in the drafty, ramshackle confines of my makeshift church.

I experienced a sudden leap of intuition.

“You’re not a soldier,” I said.

The mantis’s beak snapped shut.

“Certainly not.”

“What are you then, a scientist?”

The mantis seemed to contemplate this word—however it had translated for the alien’s mind—and he waved a spiked forelimb in my direction.

“The best human term is professor. I research and I teach.”

“I see,” I said, suddenly fascinated to be meeting the first mantis I’d ever seen who was not, explicitly, trained to kill. “So you’re here to research human religion.”

“Not just human religion,” said the mantis, hovering closer. “I want to know about this . . . this spirit that you speak of. Is it God?”

“I guess so, but also kind of not. The spirit is . . . what you feel inside you when you know God is paying attention.”

It was a clumsy explanation, one the Chaplain would have—no doubt—chastised me for. I’d never been much good at putting these kinds of concepts into words that helped me understand, much less helped other people understand too. And trying to explain God and the spirit to this insect felt a lot like explaining the beauty of orchestral music to a lawnmower.

The professor’s two serrated forelimbs stroked the front of his disc thoughtfully.

“What do the mantes believe?” I asked.

The professor’s forelimbs froze. “Nothing,” he said.


“We detect neither a spirit nor a God,” said the professor, who made a second jaw-gaped show of annoyance. “The avians and the amphibians, they each built palaces to their Gods. Whole continents and oceans mobilized in warfare, to determine which God was superior. Before we came and wiped them all out, down to the last chick and tadpole. Now, their flying Gods and their swimming Gods are recorded in the Quorum Archive, and I am left to wander here—to this desert of a planet—to quiz you, who are not even trained to give me the answers I seek.”

The professor’s body language showed that his annoyance verged on anger, and I felt myself pressing my calves and the backs of my thighs into the altar, ready for the lightning blow that would sever a carotid or split my stomach open. I’d seen so many die that way, their attackers reveling in the carnage. However technologically advanced the mantes were, they still retained a degree of predatory-hindbrain joy while engaged in combat.
Noticing my alarm, the professor floated backwards half a meter.

“Forgive me,” said the alien. “I came here today seeking answers from what I had hoped would be a somewhat reliable source. It is not your fault that the eldest of the Quorum destroy things before they can learn from them. My time with you is finite, and I am impatient to learn as much as possible before the end.”
“You have to leave . . . ?” I said, half-questioning.

The professor didn’t say anything for several seconds, letting the silence speak for him. My shoulders and back caved, if only a little.
“How many of the rest of us will die?” I asked, swallowing hard.

“All,” said the professor.

“All?” I said, at once sure of the answer, but still needing to ask again anyway.

“Yes, all,” said the professor. “When I got word that the Quorum had ordered this colony cleansed of competitive life forms—prior to the dispatching of the Fourth Expansion towards your other worlds—I knew that I had a very narrow window. I must study this faith that inhabits you humans. Before it is too late.”

“We’re no threat to you now,” I heard myself say with hollow shock, “all of us on Purgatory, we’ve all been disarmed and you’ve made it plain that we can’t hurt you. The Wall sees to that.”

“I will return tomorrow, to study your other visitors in their worship,” said the alien as his disc spun on its vertical axis, and he began to hover towards the exit.

“We’re not a threat—!”

But my shouting was for naught. The professor was gone.

• • •

You can read the rest of this story in the pages of:

Posted in Excerpts | 11 Comments

Unsafe at any speed

The very first time I ever saw the phrase “trigger warning” I immediately flashed back to White Phase in Basic Combat Training: keep your gawtdamned trigger finger out of the gawtdamned trigger well, crazies! That’s what the Drill Sergeants would yell at us if ever they saw us walking around Hollywood style — our index fingers curled ignorantly in places where our index fingers shouldn’t be curled. Because that’s not a gun, that’s a rifle, and carelessness with a rifle is Very Bad.

Come 2014, and people want us to issue trigger warnings for all kinds of things. What we see, what we hear, and what we read. Or rather, what we might hear or see or read, and how this might touch off all kinds of unfortunate psychological and emotional pyrotechnics. Because (apparently) everyone is a wounded warrior now. Even people who’ve never been in the military, nor experienced any appreciable adversity of any sort. We’re all half a step away from having an episode. So the world needs to be “safed” for us, lest we blunder into hearing or reading or seeing something from which our glass-fragile psyches might not recover.

And it’s not just happening in academia. It’s happening at science fiction conventions too. Guests and panelists being kicked out because of what they might say or they might do, and which will mortally wound the minds of the attendees. Safety’s the thing. All spaces must be kept safe from all hazards, both real and imagined. Our eyeball spaces. Our ear spaces. Our mind spaces. All safe, all the time.

I mean, seriously, come on people. Grownups don’t demand that the world be “safed” for them. Grownups don’t demand the creation of “safe spaces” wherein they won’t have to fear being exposed to uncomfortable ideas or words. Part of growing up means you learn to deal with the fact that the world was not manufactured exactly to your personal specs. It’s bumpy. And even sometimes (gasp) crude. And you just sort of have to shrug and say, “Oh well,” and go on about your business.

That’s what being an adult is.

Case in point. The generation that dropped on Normandy and assaulted the beaches of the Pacific didn’t demand that the world be safed. They were too busy getting torn up by bullets and grenades and cannon shells. Stuff that’ll do a bit more to a man than hurt his feelings.

The great fighters and builders and makers of civilization didn’t espouse this safety crap.

So what’s our freaking malfunction??

Perhaps if there had only been one or two instances of late, of this safety madness, I wouldn’t be so cranky about it. It would be an outlier. But after seeing people demand that Mark Twain be safed and college guest speakers getting booted from commencements and a British celebrity being kicked out of the World Science Fiction Convention, and now even fans are being kicked out or denied participation based purely on rumors that they’re going to “unsafe” the con . . . this is not how adults respond to the world. I am sorry, it’s just not.

Time for some tough love.

Never at any moment in history has anyone ever paraded through life without being rubbed wrong. Because the world is filled with a spectrum of ideas held by a spectrum of people, not all of which (nor all of whom) are going to agree with each other. Putting your big-boy or your big-girl pants on means going out into the world regardless of whether or not you think it’s safe, and seeing and hearing all that the world contains, and learning to filter that content (for yourself) so that you are in charge of how you feel and you are the master of your own psychological state. Not others. You.

Today I got back to Utah after spending two weeks doing what the Army calls Master Resilience Trainer training. Like virtually all sound psychological science of the last 20 years, MRT is designed to empower individuals to be their own best helpers, when dealing with adverse situations and the fallout that comes from living stressful, perhaps even dangerous lives. MRT is part of a comprehensive soldier fitness program being implemented to not only help soldiers with PTSD, but to also help people prepare themselves before they become victims of PTSD. It’s a bit like mental combatives: be ready to tackle your thoughts and your feelings hand-to-hand.

Guess what? Not once — during the entire MRT course — did anyone ever utter these words: do nothing to change yourself, because it’s always someone else’s fault.

When you make it the job of other people to protect your feelings for you, you are giving other people power that they should not be given. It’s never going to work. The moment you tell yourself that you will be hurt because the other person can’t or won’t stop hurting you — with words — you’ve put the other person in the driver’s seat. It doesn’t matter if (s)he is a truly despicable individual, or maybe just someone who is careless of the sensibilities of others, or (dare I say it?) maybe you personally just don’t have a thick skin. Once you’ve surrendered your control over your own thoughts and emotions, you’re a casualty waiting to happen. Life is going to run you down or run you over.

So, while all this safing may be well-intended, it’s ultimately fostering immaturity. Nerfing the universe doesn’t build solid adults. It builds adult children running around in oversized bodies. You can hang a thousand literary reflective belts on every potentially offensive book in the library, and all that’s going to do is immediately separate a) the actual adults who want to be exposed to new and different things, from the b) large children who insist that the intellectual landscape never disturb nor upset them in any way, shape, or form. Ditto for safing guests invited to speak at universities. Or people who go to science fiction conventions. You cannot nerf these arenas without destroying the intellectual vitality of same.

Psychological foam padding and ideological wet floor signs cannot protect you from the fact that you are the captain of your soul. Attempting to freight others with what you are responsible for, simply won’t work. All it’s going to do is retard your personal emotional and mental resilience. Because sooner or later all of us run into situations where reflective belts and wet floor signs get ripped away by the tornadoes of life. You can either own your reactions and your feelings, thereby owning your actions and destiny, or you can let the tornadoes of life own you.

Blaming the tornadoes of life for being the tornadoes of life, is foolish. Yet that seems to be the au cuorant thinking: we must wrap the tornadoes of life in caution tape so that they magically won’t touch us when they come roaring through. We will spray-paint all the Bad Words and Bad Thoughts with day-glo yellow traffic dye, lest some unwary traveler run afoul of them. Likewise we will banish all the Bad People — yellow day-glo road worker vests upon their chests — so that their dangerousness is broadcast to one and all. No more unsafes!

Sorry gang, but reality just does not work like this. No matter how much we want it to.

More to the point, insisting that reality must conform — that we will bend the world to suit our theory — is the proverbial road to hell. We’ll exchange actual ideas for the faux ideas of conformity. We’ll burn (in effigy) original thinkers at the ideological stakes, because they are “dangerous” to the status quo — and make us uncomfortable. A society ostensibly dedicated to free speech, will become obsessed with telling us what we cannot and must not say. We’re getting very close to that point already, with speech codes and other encroachments on the spirit of the First Amendment. It doesn’t matter what the law says, as much as it matters what society actually values.

Do we defend and uphold honest inquiry, and the freedom to think and speak as individuals with free minds?

Or do we “safe the space” — and put ourselves to bed for an interminable period of stifling ideological slumber?

Posted in Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 18 Comments