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 | 82 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 | 161 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 | 9 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

New releases for 2014

I’m excited to announce (for the first time in the same space) my 2014 list of new releases: one new short fiction collection, my first novel, and my collaboration with none other than Larry Niven!

Racers of the Night will be my second short fiction collection from WordFire Press. As with my first WFP release, Lights in the Deep, the new collection will showcase some of my best and most recent short science fiction pieces. Including stories which have appeared previously in the pages of Analog magazine, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Galaxy’s Edge magazine. Also included — by popular demand — will be two connected original novelettes in my Emancipated Worlds universe. You may remember that project from 2010? I’m getting it back on the road with these two stories: “The Ash Diggers” and “Seed of Liberty.” Both of which will be seeing print for the very first time in Racers of the Night. UPDATE: Unfortunately the EW stories weren’t quite where I wanted them to be by the time August 1 rolled around, so I’ve had to push those out again, and I am sorry to anyone who was looking forward to seeing them in the new collection.

The Chaplain’s War is my novel I built from the bones of two short stories which previously appeared in Analog magazine: “The Chaplain’s Assistant” and “The Chaplain’s Legacy.” Both stories also saw print in my first collection, Lights in the Deep, and “The Chaplain’s Legacy” not only won the Analog AnLab readers’ choice award, it was a 2014 Hugo award nominee for Best Novella. The Chaplain’s War is scheduled for an October 2014 release from Baen books, and is the story of a lonely prisoner of war (POW) marooned far behind enemy lines. A mere chaplain’s assistant, he despairs of ever seeing home again — and stumbles across something that may be the key to not only stopping the war, but stopping the wholesale extermination of mankind. Ostensibly military in flavor, The Chaplain’s War also dwells on the purpose and value of religion in a post-religious high-tech society. It’s also a tale of human/alien contact, wherein opposed minds come together to discover that both humanoid and insectoid have far more in common with each other than anyone ever suspected possible. Including the desire for redemption.

Red Tide is a three-way effort spearheaded by bestseller and Hugo award winner Larry Niven, with help from myself, and also Matthew Joseph Harrington. For those not familiar with Phoenix Pick, this imprint is an outgrowth of Arc Manor, and pairs up-and-coming science fiction and fantasy writers with established professionals. Larry is a personal hero of mine, and it was both an honor and a delight to work with him on this project, which revives one of his older universes focusing on a potentially revolutionary technology that might plausibly be just over the horizon. How this innovation changes society — the advantages, and especially the drawbacks — gets examined through the eyes of a newstaper: a man whose livelyhood depends on him being an eye witness to all the news that’s fit to record. Only, when events get bigger and meaner than our protagonist could ever imagine possible, he’s suddenly racing the clock to not only clear his name, but change the way America uses this new tool; lest future disasters strike.

Posted in Emancipated Worlds Saga, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Now in print! | 22 Comments

Fear and loathing at the Awards Table 4

Following up from the last installment in this series, I wanted to talk about a few more things regarding the 2014 Hugo ballot.

But first, did you hear that the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII has been announced? A lot of old names, a lot of new ones, and some genuine surprises (Serkis! Sydow!) in the mix. I am therefore cautiously optimistic about the new movie and its chances with Star Wars fans. There are probably one billion of us at this point, give or take a hundred million. Some of us liked the prequels. Many of us (most of us?) felt the prequels were a letdown. Without launching into an unfair tirade against George Lucas, the magic (for me) simply wasn’t there. In fact, the magic was so not there I haven’t devoted any time to the prequels, beyond an initial screening, whereas I’ve seen the original three films (the middle chapters) hundreds of times each. Does JJA actually have the right touch — to restore the Star Wars franchise to its former place in the hearts of all of us who grew up on the middle chapters? I hope so!

Okay then. Back to the Hugos.

But, some of the stuff on the Hugo ballot is only there because a bunch of Larry Correia’s people blindly put it there!
Now that I can publicly talk about my story “The Chaplain’s Legacy” having won the Analog magazine Analytical Laboratory (AnLab) readers’ choice award for Best Novella, I want to point to the AnLab (and Analog readers) as an independent source of verifiability. See, Analog is the oldest and most widely circulated science fiction magazine in the English language. Its readers are both a social and political panoply. Not the kind of readers who pay a lot of attention to in-genre stunts or shenanigans. Yet they voted “The Chaplain’s Legacy” as their favorite, for its category. And at least some percentage of those readers also voted during the nomination period for the Hugo awards. So while it’s understandable that many plaintiffs will see Larry Correia’s suggested slate (and its uncanny replication on the Hugo ballot) as proof that the works in question didn’t earn a place on the Hugo ballot in an honest fashion, I think the AnLab is fairly bulletproof. In that it confirms that “The Chaplain’s Legacy” is not just good, it’s good by the standards of a shrewd and non-connected body of readers who vote explicitly for enjoyment, not name recognition, nor political affiliation, nor because of any kind of campaigning on the part of authors.

“The Chaplain’s Legacy” also forms (along with its partner, “The Chaplain’s Assistant”) the backbone to my forthcoming Baen Books novel The Chaplain’s War. When Toni Weisskopf at Baen decided to buy The Chaplain’s War in 2013 she didn’t know that one of the components of the novel would be an AnLab winner and a Hugo nominee. But she had seen some of the enthusiastic reader comments I’d been collecting since “The Chaplain’s Legacy” hit the streets this time last year. I felt strongly then (as I do now) that the entire project was representative of me operating on full thrusters; and I think both the AnLab win and the Hugo nomination are strong signs that I am right about that. Plus, it’s not even the first time I’ve been on either the AnLab list or the Hugo ballot. This is my second time winning the AnLab and my second go-round on the Hugos; the first time being 2012 (for Worldcon, when I was also a Nebula and Campbell award nominee) and the first AnLab came to me for my novelette “Outbound” which was my first ever Analog story, published in 2010.

But, the Hugos should be about art, and “fandom” gets to choose which kind of art it wants to see representing “fandom” to the world!
Art arguments are an eternal road to a destination that does not exist, because art arguments ultimately revolve around questions of taste. And as one of my mentors once told me rather sternly, taste cannot be wrong. Just because a given book or story isn’t to your (the reader’s) fancy, that doesn’t make it bad. It just means the book or story was not written to your taste. Which is perfectly understandable given the fact that no book or story can possibly be written to please all tastes, all eras, for all readers. I personally think I happen to suit the taste of the same readership that enjoys Orson Scott Card, Larry Niven, Robert A. Heinlein, and so forth. Generally, I am right about that. And this means my work won’t be to the taste of readers who prefer different authors — though I always invite any reader to at least give me a try, with my short fiction. A novel is an investment. But a short story or even a novelette is quick, and will generally give a prospective customer a decent idea about me and my work.

If “fandom” is as diverse as it prides itself on being, then I think it stands to reason that many different kinds of work and many different kinds of authors will be represented on the Hugo ballot, year in and year out. In point of fact both the Hard Magic and Wheel of Time readerships are a) very large and b) very loyal. Shouldn’t it be that they too get to have a voice in what’s chosen for the year’s supposed best works? Or do the Hugos only deserve to go to “literary” works which are not necessarily having impact on a consumer audience as much as they’re being advanced by academic circle(s) which believe they have a responsibility to advocate for what they believe is their standard of merit? My personal thought is that it’s readers (especially lay readers, not academic readers) who should count the most. But this is a personal bias on my part, since I am a lay reader who discovered authorial ambition in his teens, and worked his way up to pro-level craft.

But, popularity has nothing to do with what’s good! Good fiction is utterly unconnected to what people are buying! In fact, the more popular a thing is, the more likely that thing is to be bad!
Remember what I said, about how Star Wars has a billion fans? Once upon a time Star Wars was this little low-budget sci-fi picture from a little-known director/producer named George Lucas. The movie debuted at the tail end of the 1970s when “people pictures” were something of a rage at the box office, and outside of disaster movies (like the Airport franchise and The Towering Inferno) there wasn’t a lot of effort being put into spectacular filmmaking that was deliberatley science fictional in nature. Then comes Star Wars and an unexpected, monumental success is born. Three films over six years transformed the motion picture industry forever, and moved science fiction out of the proverbial parental basement and into the penthouse executive suite on Hollywood Blvd.

I think it’s safe to say that three generations of avid consumer support have verified that the original Star Wars films are good by most standards that count. Star Wars will therefore outlive its creator, just as Harry Potter will outlive its creator. There is something in these franchises that resonates (over and over again) with audiences. Whether those audiences enjoy the movies, the television spinoffs, the games, the tie-in books, the toys, or whatever. There is a lot of there there. And I think you could say the same about successful fiction juggernauts like the Wheel of Time. Past a certain saturation point, critical or academic acclaim isn’t necessary for a given story or book (or series) to be deemed timeless. And shouldn’t the Hugos be about recognizing the timeless (or potentially timeless?) as much as they are about recognizing literary and academic esteem? Can there not be room for both the literary and the commercial, from year to year? Why does the entry of a big thing onto the “small” Hugo ballot cause so much unhappiness for some people? I honestly don’t know.

What I do know is that I am proud to be sharing the Hugo ballot with my compatriots in the Utah SF/F scene, and I am proud to have delivered (for readers) a product that those readers find genuinely enjoyable. Worth their time. And worth their money.

Which lets me segue into a conclusion I’ve been hesitant to address directly, but which I think needs to be addressed — because clearly a lot of people are talking about it under their breath but not a lot of people are talking about it openly.

What is a Hugo award really good for? Bottom line?

Meaning: does having a Hugo win (or a Nebula win or a Campbell win, or nominations for same) make a substantial difference for you when you take your book manuscripts to the marketplace and attempt to interest an editor or an agent?

The answer is — so far as I’ve been able to discern, after asking this question around the industry — nope.

Oh, to be sure, any accolade which can boost PR will be welcome. But the difference between whether or not you get a good agent or a not-so-good agent, or a good contract or a not-so-good contract, won’t be decided by how many times you’ve been on the ballots or have taken home trophies. The most well-known awards in SF/F aren’t well known beyond the field. And even in the field, they’re not well known to most readers. These awards are therefore talismans of prestige among the “insider” group. And while it’s a gas to be nominated or even win, there are limits to how much good these awards can do for you when it comes time to do business, as a creative businessperson trying to make a living.

This reality came as a shock to me when I was still relatively new to the field. I’d always thought of the Hugos as being roughly equivalent to the Oscars, which do have significant punch in the motion picture industry. Alas, the venerable Hugo (and Nebula) cannot take a somewhat small book and make it into a big book, as the Oscars occasionally do for films. Nor will slapping the words HUGO WINNER (or NEBULA WINNER) on the cover of a book cause a significantly large number of prospective customers to pick up and buy the book; if they weren’t already going to buy it before.

Why is that?

Some have argued to me that writers tend to look at the Hugos all wrong — that the Hugos were never intended to be professional awards given out professionally the way the Oscars (and to a certain extent, the Emmies and the Grammies) are given out. And I think (in light of the fannish roots of Worldcon) this is an argument that makes a lot of sense. From a certain fannish point of view.

But I think it also has to be simultaneously argued that unless or until science fiction gets an award that is roughly equivalent to the Oscars (NOTE: my personal opinion is that the Writers of the Future award is the only thing that comes close; but this is an award for new pros, not for established veterans) then the Hugos (and to a lesser extent, the Nebulas) are what there is. And if we’re going to put these accolades forward as being meaningful to the field, then it’s worth it for the consumers and the practitioners to both think long and hard about how these awards are selected, and for what reasons.

Maybe if the Hugo (and Nebula) voters didn’t shun tie-in novelists and media fiction, consumers would pick up on the fact that things they like to read are being recognized by science fiction’s top awards, thus the awards would attain greater significance for those beyond the halls of the “inside” SF/F group?

Maybe if the Hugo voters did not react (as some of them have reacted this year) badly to an “outsider” such as Larry Correia, bringing his popular series and the fans of same, into the selection process, then the Hugos (and the Nebulas) would have a little more cachet — as awards that truly recognize not just literary achievement, but commercial achievement as well?

I know, I know: the Hugos (and the Nebulas) aren’t supposed to be the spec fic equivalent of Gold and Platinum albums. Raw sales all by themselves shouldn’t be the only thing that earns a work (or an artist) acclaim.

But it just seems uncanny to me that the Hugo (and the Nebula) are this field’s most sought-after prizes, and yet they transfer so little to their recipients (in the way of direct professional benefit) that I’ve struggled since 2012 to wrap my head around how or why these awards are still regarded with such overwhelming awe by those of us who work in the genre.

Which is not (I think) a sentiment (on my part) which is likely to endear me to that core demographic within “fandom” that prides itself on thumbing its nose at commercialism, the publishing industry, and authors, and simply wants to keep the Hugos an “insider” thing for insiders who care. I knew before I wrote this series that examining any of the genre awards with a critical eye was liable to cause some controversy. But as I said elsewhere, I didn’t get into the science fiction business to be a prestige man. I got into the business because I was a reader who discovered authorial ambition as a young adult, and when I bumped my chops up to professional level I decided that giving readers a good time and making money were the first and second best reasons to do this.

And no, I am not putting down the awards or the nominees or the winners. Nor am I trying to say the awards are worthless. I have not advanced that argument here and I am not saying anyone should advance that argument elsewhere. This is not a “let’s trash the awards” festival.

I just want to look critically at what the awards are, and at what they are not, and maybe spark a little introspection as to the nature, purpose, and ultimate destiny of these accolades. Because when we put them forward as signposts for what we (collectively) deem worthy in the genre, we are sending not only messages to ourselves, but the world at large. Right now I think I see a lot of mixed signals going on — fandom, to big audience, to arists, to publishers — and as long as those signals stay mixed, I suspect the Hugos (and the Nebulas) will remain both controversial and devalued on the larger playing field of consumer culture.

Posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, General Writing Stuff, Personal Thoughts, Tornadoes in Teacups | 82 Comments