Catching up with . . . Charles E. Gannon

Chuck Gannon probably doesn’t need any introduction to those who’ve been paying attention to Baen publishing over the last five years. In addition to authoring or co-authoring works in the prestigious shared universes of giants such as Larry Niven and Eric Flint, Chuck has embarked upon a very ambitious future history series, in the form of the Terran Republic books, the second of which launched in 2014. I’ve included links to both Trial by Fire and Fire with Fire further down in the text. Chuck gave a fantastic interview! I hope you enjoy.

Brad: This is the second book in your TALES OF THE TERRAN REPUBLIC future history. Which would seem to put you in good company with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Robert A. Heinlein, and other authors who have meticulously constructed human-based interstellar civilizations. What kind of special research did you do for the “ground floor” layout, even before you wrote the books?

Chuck: I suppose the best umbrella statement I can make is that I approached the entire universe using futurist tools, but a science fictional perspective. What I mean by that is: futurists tend to specialize in deductive, projective analyses. This unfortunately produces a whole lot of unimaginative “straight line projections”. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s probably an unavoidable consequence of who pays for “professional” futurist studies and why: the impulses are purely practical, not visionary. Of course, it tends to be the opposite with us hard SF folk; we are not predominantly interested in simply projecting future trends. With us, the energizing imaginative spark is in the classic “What if…?”

For Tales of the Terran Republic and Trial By Fire in particularly, my “what if” was a first contact scenario (and its sequelae) almost exactly one century from now. Over that span of time, there were a number of key watershed events that had significant impacts on shaping the society and technology of that future world. I don’t refer to these watershed events much, but there is a 21st century event referred to as the Megadeath (which is not a plague) and another (which is more explicated in the first book of the series, Fire With Fire) referred to as the Doomsday Rock. The former explains why a lot of technology has not moved as far forward as we might expect: there was a decade of treading water. And then, given the second event, a lot of the resurgent development went into aerospace technology—for purely utilitarian reasons. If it sounds like I am being deliberately vague, I am: trying to prevent any spoilers from slipping out, for those who haven’t read it yet!

I’ve been researching, and watching the progression of, relevant scientific, technological, and politico-cultural factors since 1990. In that year, I sat down with the global almanac, the CIA world fact book, critiques thereof, and crafted a whole bunch of spreadsheets to project economic growth, funding/acquisition targets, budgetary allocation guesstimates based on historic (event-informed) trends. I did decade by decade summaries, projected out 100 years into the future. So far, the real world hasn’t thrown me any distorting curve balls (but then again, I elected to minimize big changes until after 2040, which actually seemed a reasonable fulcrum point).

More narrowly, I identified the key economic questions of a space faring society—but not strictly from the standpoint of market analysis. Here’s an example of what I mean: over time, the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo programs have paid back what we spent on them—but the costs of the space race were truly amortized over time. However, the key point is this: the space race was not undertaken because market forces made it attractive. It was undertaken IN SPITE of countervailing market forces. Going to the moon is not the first time humans have spent great amounts of treasure on something which will not show a tidy a near-term profit. I very much suspect it will not be the last time, either. Those total social forces figure heavily in my “future history.”

I did much the same thing with the alien (“exosapient”) races we’ve met in the series. In each case, I tasked myself to define their “dawn of intelligence” story—presuming that no two would be exactly the same, and also, that the differences in how a species rises to intelligence is likely to leave a deep imprint upon the predispositions and shapes of the culture that will arise along with it. How long they’ve been around—and in space—has a major impact on their place and role in the unfolding story of humanity.

There are so many layers beyond these basics that I can only encourage readers to find out in the most practical way possible: read the books. It’s a whole lot better than reading me expound upon the backstory and technological and scientific presumptions in this interview! However, one thing that I have been particularly gratified by is the number of readers who get in touch with me and say something to this effect: “It feels so real, like there’s a whole world you’ve worked out underneath everything we encounter in the book(s).” To which I reply: “absolutely right.” My pet peeve with a lot of future histories or grand interstellar schemes is that, when you run the numbers, they don’t add up. How much stuff is being moved how far for what cost and what validating reason? You might get two or three of those questions answered, but usually not all four (or not rigorously; engage the balonium drive!). In Trial By Fire (this year’s Sad Puppies recommended read and current Nebula finalist) you will get a powerful sense of just how “solid” the world is. I don’t like worlds where the surroundings feel like theater sets–painted cloth held up by flimsy wooden frames— that with one good poke, you can puncture and so, disbelieve forever after. I resolved to provide the kind of depth that promotes total immersion in the world, and which sustains over the entire arc of the series.

Brad: You’ve said elsewhere that Caine Riordan is a protagonist who must grow beyond himself through the course of events. Would you say you agree with Mike Resnick’s adage that the hero must not arrive at the same place, at the end of the book, as he began? Meaning, his viewpoint and attitudes are altered by the time he’s done with his journey?

Chuck: I agree with Mike’s comment; I’d expand upon it in one particular. It is entirely possible to have a protagonist whose journeys lead her/him back home, and confirm her/his initial worldview. But that is *still* change. To plunge our presumption and views into the crucible of events and varied experience is akin to refining a metal into a purer form. Such a “Trial By Fire” (forgive me; I couldn’t resist!) is a change agency unto itself; it has the power to both challenge and confirm the beliefs with which we started. In short, even a journey that brings us back to where we began has changed us, because we occupy that place not out of tradition or assumptions, but from a personal journey that confirmed its “rightness” to us.

That said, the journey of Caine Riordan, the protagonist of Trial By Fire, is certainly one of change. He is not a soldier or a diplomat or an intelligence operative when the series starts, but because he’s the right person in the right place at the wrong time, he must accrue these skills. The only reason he succeeds—and survives—is because he is smart and versatile. But as the series goes on, his successes become more difficult and more costly: he started out within his comfort zone; the more directly involved he becomes in the looming interstellar conflict, the further outside its boundaries he moves. The changes to Caine’s character and outlook are subtle at first, but grow (some might say devolve) as the series progresses.

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Brad: How do you envision interstellar economics working in your series, and are there any clues you’re taking from extant international 21stcentury economics?

Chuck: The Interstellar economics of Trial By Fire are informed by a fairly complex combination of forces. It is extremely expensive to travel between stars, and it takes about five weeks (most of which is preacceleration) to get from one stellar system to another. And at the beginning of the series, the maximum “shift range” is about 8.33 light years. The mechanics, costs, and energy-density physics of the Wasserman Drive are unfolded in plain, painless language in the first book (and actually as someone being a jerk by displaying someone else’s ignorance. I avoid “as you know, Bob” stand-and-deliver scenes).

The initial drivers to found Earth’s colonies are, in many ways, informed by a more clear-eyed version of what happened in the early years of the 18th century with the colonization of North America. In short, the strategic benefits of settlements and concommitant resources that were beyond the ready reach of other European powers became increasingly important. And it was intolerable to any of the powers of that age to simply allow rivals to develop a monopoly over New World influence.

Much the same thought initiates the initial colonial drive outward from Earth. Then, other factors enter: there resource, including novel biota and xenogenetics that are quiet valuable. There are also a variety of social pressures (but not over-population; the economics of using spacelight to ameliorate Earth’s overcrowding just aren’t very promising). However, new star systems provide new homess for the disaffected, the anarchic, the different, the adventurous, the restless, the entreprenurial. Their modest diaspora becomes a win:win for a variety of nations and national blocs. Growth is fairly slow, at first, but that changes after an invasion of Earth that almost succeeds. Two major post-war variables create an accelerating outrush: 1) reverse-engineered (as in better) alien technology and, 2) the strong sense that living on planet Earth might be akin to living in the crosshairs of hostile powers.

At this point, the interstellar economy begins very much to resonante with the dominant cost:benefit ratios of the mid-18th century: colonies were still a drain on the home country, but they were an obvious requirement to maintain power and expansionistic parity—so it was ultimately more costly NOT to support them. And of course, by then, the benefits of trade with the New World (significantly amplified by the greater reliability of Atlantic passage, or, in this case, speed and reduced cost of interstellar transits) begins to look economically positive in the long view.

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Brad: Would you call yourself a futurist?

Chuck: I suspect I pretty much gave away the answer to this question in my first response. I am a futurist—I consult as such—but I am a proponent of what I call “immersive futurism.” To put it another way, you can project all sorts of change with graphs and charts and timelines and numbers. But that doesn’t all mean very much to 99 % of people–not until it gets connected to a narrative to which they can relate. What is the STORY of that future—and what might it be like to live in it? Futurism which does that has a chance of working because it not only engages the mind, it excites the spirit. Or it may terrify the spirit: sometimes the shaping force is a carrot, sometimes it’s a stick. But either way, personal, gut-level involvement is what has been missing from a lot of “professional futurism” (and sometimes, science fiction) in the past few decades. However, when I put on my futurist hat, I’m thinking both about what the future might contain, and what stories it allows us to tell which are new and captivating.

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Brad: You teach for a living, yes? Do you find yourself dropping into “lecture mode” when you’re doing prose, or does writing fiction stretch a different skill set?

Chuck: Actually, no, I haven’t taught for a living since 2007. However, I still have my title from St. Bonaventure University (Distinguished Professor of English) since I have, on occasion, undertaken some projects for them and am happy to carry their flag wherever I go.

On the more important matter of dropping into lecture mode. No, no, no and doubly no—which is probably not a surprise given the preceding answers and my concern with blending ideas with entertainment and vice versa.

Firstly, I keep the emphasis on drama, action, dialog, and twists because that’s what makes for a fun read. Novels may or may not illuminate, but they must entertain/interest/captivate readers. I hope my novels do both. And that brings up my other reason for stringently avoiding treatises or “platform statements” in my stories: we don’t actually hear “treatises” a lot in the real world unless we go LOOKING for them. Are you in a classroom, at a conference, attending a public talk? Sure: you’ll hear treatises there. You’ll hear treatises until your ears bleed. (I’m a professor: I know whereof I speak on this matter…)

But unless my characters have a reason to go hear a treatise, and unless the information imparted thereby must be represented AS a treatise, why would I put it in my novel? And frankly, I can’t think of a single good (or even bad) narrative reason to inflict that on a reader. Oh, it might be realistic to portray a character listening to a one-hour sermon or lecture—but does that make it a good idea to write one, and force a reader to endure it? My answer is: no, never.

Fiction has some implicit contracts with readers. One of them is that the book should be an enjoyable experience. If I also elect to make an implicit promise that I am going to try to convey a world that does not insult the implicit boundaries of reality, that does NOT mean that I now get to make the book dull. Instead, it means I’ve set myself TWO jobs—the book must be fun AND believable. The burden of increased narrative ambitions should be solely on the author and her/his skillset, not the reader’s patience. In Trial By Fire and the rest of the series, I take on those two narrative ambitions—and more—but I always bear this in mind: it’s on ME to make them all work. I won’t tolerate including a scene where I have to make an excuse, where I have to tell myself, “well, it might not be as interesting or exciting as other scenes, but it is SOOOO necessary.” Nope: that’s lazy writing. Go back and try again, Chuck. You know there’s a better way. There’s ALWAYS a better way. And when people are plunking down their hard earned cash for my stories, I bloody well owe them that effort, all the time, no shirking, and no fail. And you know what? It makes a better book, and me a better author.

All that said, it is also true that different readers want different “joys” out of books. Some folks want a non-stop all-action romp, light on the ideas, long on the explosions: Michael Bey between covers. Other folks want something that is ovewhelmingly cerebral, conversational, where action becomes a distraction from the interplay of ideas. Neither one of these are really my style, because, you see, I love both action AND ideas. I won’t write a book that banishes one for the sake of the other.

And that completes my extended lecture about never writing extended lectures. Wait…what?

Brad: When developing your future universe, what deliberate choices did you make (if any) to make your universe stand out?

Chuck: I decided upon a number of what I felt were atypical elements to ensure that this universe was distinctive, while remaining a reasonable projection of our contemporary reality, one hundred years hence. One such atypical elementi s the historical fulcrum point at which I choose to site the series.

Most far ranging SF or sf-fantasy tends to place us in a far-future world with what I will call the Utopist’s Device: the universe depicted is separated from us by a signifcant gap in time and historical linkages. It is A Very Different Place that only faintly points back to its origins in this, our contemporary moment. So, somehow, humanity crossed from the humble banks of our every-day river of reality to that far shore of a wondrously different world. I think this is fine, and I like a whole lot of this literature. I write some of it myself, but it is not, in my opinion, a distinctive project. Lots of people do it. In the Tales of the Terran Republic, I chose to do something very different.

I site my series neither on the banks of contemporary experience, nor on the far shore. Rather, the vantage point of the characters places them squarely upon the bridge of change, the bridge that we must ever build as we move toward the far shore of the future. And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope readers will, in retrospect, not only reflect upon how far we have come and how fast, but also, how in getting there, the characters did not experience the journey as an endless rollercoaster of dislocating jolts. Rather, the progress into that vastly changed future seemed deceptively, almost insidiously, gradual, more marked by it seeming normative rather than stupendous.

This is fundamental to my interest in creating immersivity, in creating a world that feels real because it follows a key feature in our experience of change: it does not arrive as a fast cascade of momentous events. Rather, most change comes daily, on cat’s feet, and we only realize how far we have come when we glance in the rearview mirror. Being utterly committed to verisimilitude (because: immersivity), I want that experience to track into my fiction; in short, that change is something we feel more in retrospect than in any given moment.

In deciding upon this as a kind of guiding principle, I also determined that I was pen the series as a subgenre mashup that hadn’t really been attempted before: mid-future hard sf with political/techno-thriller. Nothing says “today” more than cutting edge thrillers. They are immediate and visceral. And I wanted to bring that same sense of gritty urgency and reality to my SF. In short, I wanted to imbue a future history with a narrative style that imparted a sense of present-day urgency.

Lastly, I will call out one phrase from a prior paragraph: “ And when the series is assembled as a mosaic (my intent from the start), I hope to show readers how far we have come and how fast.” It is important to me that every tile (i.e.; novel, story) in this series’ mosaic has its own, complete tale to tell and image to impart. But that does not preclude it from also being one part of a much greater whole. The series of which Trial By Fire is a pivotal part is about the human future. The specifics—the warfare, the exosapients, the technologies, the political evolutions—are not unimportant, but I hope that the series’ greater ambitions are becoming evident (if they weren’t from the start). Because underlying all the various action in all the various novels, these questions are being probed in ever-greater depth: what does it mean to be human? What diversity of intelligence might there be in the universe, and what does it signify–not only to us, but to the unfolding of that universe’s far future? How and where are the points of commonality which make interspeciate communication possible–and where are the unbridgeable crevasses? Is love universal? Hope? Faith? Compassion? Fellowship? Individual consciousness? To repeat what I said earlier, I love both action AND ideas.

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Brad: Having been previously nominated for a Nebula award, what’s your opinion on the state of the field’s (SF and F’s) accolades? Are we (collectively) doing it right? Doing it wrong?

Chuck: I’m going to spin this question in a different direction (hell, I’m not even sure who the collective “we” refers to). I am going to discuss something pertinent to awards and voting. I do not have the temerity to (nor would I be comfortable with) offer(ing) opinions, let alone exhortations about how anyone else should vote. Rather, in the spirit of “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” I am simply going to reveal how *I* approach voting for books. And, if the universe were intrinsically fair (–chortle–) I would want no more than to reap as I sow (but at 54 years of age, I have no illusions about the likelihood of that).

While I suppose one could consider this (or expect it) to be an overview of my “aesthetic approach”, I must lead with an important caveat:

Yes, I am a professor of English, have taught literary theory (several times as a Fulbright Fellow in Europe), am no stranger to the ebb and flow of critical reception and the whys and wherefores thereof. It was part of my job, after all. And here’s how much that affects my award recommendations and voting:

Not. One. Damned. Bit.

I like what I like. I put my sheepskins and scholarly robes in a corner when I make my recommendations, in large measure because I refuse to conflate matters of taste with questions of any predetermined set of literary expectations.To argue that the latter should determine the former is an inherently suspicious assertion. At its most extreme, it suggests that a work which might be a lifeless yet pristine narrative object should also excite our personal delight.

Sorry. No. There are many objects of beauty in this world that leave me cold. There are many objects defined as “pop culture,” or which were “once beautiful” but have been consigned to the rearview mirror of contemporary taste, that I still find beautiful. Those purely subjective reflexes determine my voting.

It would be a gross misreading of my meaning to believe that I am saying that I am not concerned with quality; I most definitely am. But I do not need to make painstaking cognitive assessments to detect and reject clunky prose, predictable plots, hackneyed characters. No thanks. However, it is rightly said that the “success” of a narrative is best assessed “critically” (or, more improbably, “objectively”) in the terms set by its own structures of execution. In short, a critical assessment that tries to compare a pulp novel to belles lettres is like a food critic trying to compare french toast to escargot: each has its own rules, and implicit (gustatory) expectations.

These, from my perspective, are all matters of theory and literary criticism and have their own validity and place. But I do not use those metrics when voting for an award. That is particularly true when the criterion for the award can be framed by the simple question “but which do you LIKE best?” If I were to base my choice upon a critical checklist, I would not be answering that question. Rather, I would be responding to the query “which novel succeeded most in its own terms?” These are two very, very different questions. I will vote for the first; I may deeply admire the latter.

The natural consequence of this is that I am not wed to the past, the present, or the cutting edge of any “movements” or “missions” in the field of fiction. I have seen enough, and taught enough, of them to feel quite safe making the following assertions about what is, was, or will be au courant:

* it will change

* it is more about fashion and contrast with what preceded it rather than any intrinsically permanent merit (time will tell that)

* it is invariably politicized (I mean this in terms of both aesthetics, academics, and public partisanry)

* those who raise an uproar about it (you can tell this by their wide-eyed vehemence) are full of sound and fury signifying nothing

My non-genre/canonical preferences run from Flannery O’Connor to Pynchon to Faulkner to Kipling. If you can find a common thread there other than my own eclectic taste, I would be happy to hear it. But that’s the nature of what I like, and how I vote.

If you have (or plan to) read Trial By Fire, my very deep gratitude. My equally deep gratitude if you decide it is worthy of your nod for a Hugo nomination. It is not a ‘typical’ award-category book–but then again, what is? And more to the point, is it wise that anything should be “typical” of any given award? I think/hope not.

And to ensure that we end on a practical rather than philosophical note, here’s a statement of fact: I believe in free samples. So you can know if you want to plunk down hard earned money for my scribblings, Baen Books makes this very easy. They publish the first ten chapters or so of all their books. Here are the links to Trial By Fire, this year’s contender for the Nebula award, and with your kind help, the Hugo as well.

Posted in Catching up with..., Sad Puppies 3 | 7 Comments

BOOK BOMB! Short Stories from the Sad Puppies Slate!

Brad R. Torgersen:

Time to bust out the signal boost for some worthy authors! Take a look at the official SAD PUPPIES 3 book bomb for our novelette and short story writers!

Originally posted on Monster Hunter Nation:

It is time to spread more awareness about Puppy Related Sadness. The following are our suggested nominees for the short fiction categories, novelette and short story.

The way a Book Bomb normally works is that we pick one good book worthy of more attention, which is available on Amazon, and then we get as many people as possible to buy it in the same day in order to boost it up through the ratings. As the the rating climbs, it gets in front of more people, until it ends up on an Amazon bestseller list, where lots of people who aren’t involved in the Book Bomb see it. Success breeds success, the author gets lots of new readers, but more importantly, the author GETS PAID.

This Book Bomb is a little different. Because the ones I’m doing right now are to get more people exposed to the works we nominated…

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Catching up with . . . Kevin J. Anderson

I’m reviving this column, beginning with my friend and mentor Kevin J. Anderson. Kevin has had numerous New York Times bestsellers, is well-known for collaborating with Brian Herbert on the continuation of the Dune universe, and instructs at numerous writers’ workshops and seminars throughout the year. Kevin is arguably the hardest-working author in the SF/F field, and he’s got a terrific original SF novel out; the first of three in a trilogy, following up on his Saga of the Seven Suns series.

Brad: This is the first book in your second series set in the SAGA OF THE SEVEN SUNS universe. Having already covered a lot of territory in the first novels, what are you looking to explore now, with this second bunch?

Kevin: In the Saga of Seven Suns, I created a whole universe — countless planets, cultures, political structures, races. It was truly my love letter to science fiction. When I wrote the seven volumes, a million and a quarter words, I had a huge story to build and bring through its whole story arc — but I always had another grand story in mind. I set it up in the original Saga, planting many seeds, but I held it in reserve for when I was recharged and ready to return to that universe. I had to clear my head (by writing a dozen novels or so!) and when I came back, I was ready for an Even BIGGER threat to the universe.

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Brad: This is a book (and a universe) that heavily blends aspects of science fiction, with quasi mythology; in the form of near-eternal and ancient forces rising from the past to the threaten the (future, in the book) present. What present-day influences or mythologies (if any) did you draw on to create your (imagined) future conflict?

Kevin: The key word is “saga” and I wanted a story truly BIG enough to fill a whole fictional universe. Not just a trivial story about one person in one city on one planet. I wanted to show the whole tapestry, and I have studied a lot of history, a lot of mythology, a lot of legends, and also my lifelong love for science fiction. That’s what I brought to the table, mixed up in my imagination-processor to tell a story that ranges from the small concerns of two star-crossed lovers to political decisions that might bring about the fall of empires.

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Brad: Do you see machine intelligences being an inevitable threat to real civilization, assuming humans develop far enough to make them; or encounter alien machine intelligences built by other species?

Kevin:I rely on machine intelligences for almost every aspect of my daily life, whether it’s a google search or Siri navigating me to a friend’s house, or watching computer models on the Weather Channel. I am not afraid of fire, or tools, or the wheel. I find them useful.

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Brad: Would you call yourself a futurist? Should science fiction even try to predict anything?

Kevin: I don’t think “predicting” is the point — “experimenting” is. Science Fiction, and fiction in general, allows us to imagine scenarios to their extremes and to learn from them. I love taking an idea and running it to possible conclusions. Not to predict what’s going to happen, but to experiment with how things might happen. And doing it infiction is usually more palateable than doing it in polemics.

Brad: Since the scope of your story is so big, with literally galactic stakes, what do you consciously do as a writer to bring the story back down to human scale? So that you can tell it from a personal point of view that readers may identify with?

Kevin: By telling the story from a human (or relateable alien) perspective. I see the gigantic story as the Main Character, the driving force, but it is told from dozens of points of view, from the highest noble to the lowest street urchin, so you can see the story, the saga, the galactic war, from ALL perspectives. Readers may not identify with every character, and they may loathe some of them, but they will also feel very close to some of them.

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Brad: Why three books this time, instead of another seven? As with the first series?

Kevin: Because seven books — ALL of them over 170,000 words long, ALL of them delivered exactly on time each year, every year, for seven years — was an exhausting high-wire act I’m not sure I want to attempt again! And the seven books was a complete story, not just a book and a bunch of sequels. I plotted the whole seven-book arc and held it in my head as I spent seven years writing it. This time, my brain capacity only allowed three books (but, in my defense, they are BIG books!)

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Brad: Do you find yourself unconsciously channeling themes and ideas you’ve worked on before? With so many different novels under your belt, do you have to sometimes remind yourself specifically which universe you’re working in?

Kevin: When I’m working on a book or series, I am totally immersed in it and I live with all those worlds, those plots, those characters as my imaginary friends. I am very close to all of them and I hold them in my mind. A few years after they are published, though, I can mentally file them away and focus on the current project, which is what consumes me right now. (I just finished dictating my chapters in the first draft of NAVIGATORS OF DUNE, but I put that on a back burner while I do my final edit on CLOCKWORK LIVES, which is where my entire focus is right now . . . and when I’m done with that, I edit NAVIGATORS and then begin the prep work to write ETERNITY’S MIND, the third and final novel in the Saga of Shadows trilogy. After that . . . well, I’m not thinking so far ahead!

Posted in Catching up with..., Sad Puppies 3 | 4 Comments

My FANifesto

Having read my friend Rob’s delightful piece this morning, I thought I’d follow; with a few thoughts of my own.

I am a fan.

I never needed to go to cons to prove it.

I also never had to pass a fan knowledge or political litmus test.

I became a fan the moment Apollo and Starbuck first hit their TURBO buttons and blasted out of the Galactica’s launch tubes.

I became a fan because the crew of the Phoenix daily saved Earth from the plots of Zoltar, and planet Spectra.

I became a fan because Lando said “Punch it!” and Luke brazenly challenged Vader thus: “You’ll find I’m full of surprises!”

I became a fan because Admiral Kirk looked into the viewscreen and taunted, “I’m laughing at the superior intellect.”

I became a fan because Lynda Carter captivated, as Princess Diana.

I became a fan because Erin Gray was the boss, as Colonel Deering.

I became a fan because Roy Fokker showed Rick Hunter how to fight the Zentraedi war machine.

I am a fan because, for Jack Burton, it was all in the reflexes.

I am a fan because the Enterprise boldly went where no one had gone before.

I am a fan because of Han Solo’s Revenge.

I am a fan because of The Artifact.

I am a fan because, “Death came quietly to The Row.”

I am a fan because Picard said, “Make it so.”

I am a fan because a coward learned to have courage.

I am a fan because of Diane Duane and A.C. Crispin.

I am a fan because of Orson Scott Card and Larry Niven.

I am a fan because of Red Mars and A Fire Upon The Deep.

I am a fan because Samwise the gardener carried Frodo the ringbearer up the slopes of Mount Doom.

I am a fan because of Kzinti, Pierson’s Puppeteers, Protectors, and Grendels.

I am a fan because no matter what the universe throws at us, mankind will find a way to prevail.

As a fan, I want to adventure to new worlds, with new civilizations.

As a fan, I prefer that my heroes be manly and courageous.

As a fan, I prefer that my heroines be strong as well as beautiful.

As a fan, I prefer that my villains be deliciously villainous.

As a fan, I believe in real endings that inspire.

As a fan, I like it when they get married happily every after!

As a fan, I reject all criticisms that begin with, “You’re not a real fan, if . . .”

As a fan, I reject cynicism, nihilism, moral ambiguity, and various other assassins of hope.

As a fan, I embrace the sinner, while rejecting the sin.

As a fan, I want a story, not a sermon.

As a fan, I don’t want to be talked down to.

As a fan, I do not want to be lectured.

As a fan, I don’t need you to check my “privilege” for me.

As a fan, I don’t need my soul policed.

As a fan, I embrace content of character, over color of skin.

I remain a fan, because I want to experience a bona fide sense of wonder.

I remain a fan, because my lusty eyes are forever turned upward to the stars.

I remain a fan, because I believe in having fun.

And nobody can ever take any of that away from me.

Amen.

Ladies and gentlemen, the floor is yours. Please share your FANifestos.

Posted in General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Sad Puppies 3 | 41 Comments

SAD PUPPIES: visual numbers, and who gets to be a ‘real’ fan?

ALERT: Larry Correia is doing a terrific Book Bomb for the SAD PUPPIES 3 novella nominees! Please go check out Larry’s page and support John C. Wright, Arlan Andrews, and Tom Kratman’s work! These are quality writers who deserve to be recognized, but they deserve to be read and enjoyed more.

Now . . .

A friend recently posed an interesting question: how do the attendance numbers for Worldcon compare, year to year? Accurate stats are a little difficult to come by. But thanks to the magic of Wikipedia there are some approximate stats, going all the way back to the inception of the convention. So let’s take a look at them in visual form, starting with a snapshot of totals for all Worldcon conventions, both U.S. and international:

That graph is pretty saw-toothed, mostly because international Worldcons tend to draw fewer attendees than U.S. Worldcons, with the outlier being Loncon 3, which (in 2014) had over 10,000 memberships. That was also the same year (not coincidentally?) that SAD PUPPIES 2 strongly encouraged fans of all stripes (who’d not previously been involved with Hugo award voting) to get involved. Thus there can be something of a disparity between memberships (which anyone can buy) and attendance, which is sometimes lower.

So, let’s look at another graph reflecting only U.S. Worldcon attendance without SAD PUPPIES putting its collective paw on the scale:

Still somewhat saw-toothed, but notice that the left half of the graph still reflects the relatively low numbers typified by Worldcon overall. This was because from the 1950s through the early 1970s, Science Fiction (and Fantasy) were still a fairly “closed” and combined field. The typical trajectory for most writers was to come up through the pages of the magazines, then do books. And the total number of books being printed was fairly small compared to what it was by 1985. Likewise, the total number of teenagers and adults who readily identified as SF/F fans was relatively small, compared to what it was by 1985. So Worldcon attendance was modest.

But look at what happened from about 1985 onward:

The blue portion of the graph is Worldcon. The orange portion is San Diego Comic Con. Note that San Diego Comic Con also began life with relatively low attendance numbers, which roughly matched those of Worldcon, right up until the middle of the 1980s. At which point things began to change drastically.

Now, it’s a truism that correlation does not mean causation. But I want to reiterate some things which I’ve been saying in this blog space since at least 2009, and which I’ve been repeating again since SAD PUPPIES 3 kicked off earlier this year.

1) Star Wars changed everything. Kris Rusch noted this ten years ago. Star Wars was the first mainstream fiction franchise to not only put SF/F on the international movie-making map as a source for blockbusters, it also gave birth to legions of enthusiasts all between the ages of 6 and 30. Suddenly, SF/F wasn’t just that dorky thing a few of the highschool kids and some dippy Star Trek fans did in their garages anymore. Star Wars was everywhere. It was omnipresent. Talked about at the office water tower, as well as in the gym locker rooms. Jocks could now be counted as fans. Businessmen. House wives. Fifth graders. You name it, people were excited about these movies, and they weren’t afraid to show it.

2) Once Star Wars altered the movie-making map, other franchises followed suit. Star Trek was revived on both the large and small screens. Indiana Jones successfully translated the pulp tradition for a contemporary 1980s audience. Close Encounters of the Third Kind gave us a non-B.E.M. iteration of the classic alien visitation tale. And studios began making SF/F an integral part of their yearly production plans. Because these movies were raking in the cash, while also raking in the audience. Terminator and Terminator 2 being two very notable examples. But they weren’t the only ones. The 1980s and 1990s saw hundreds of SF/F films and television shows hit the big and small screens. Spawning hundreds of millions of fans world-wide.

3) But these new fans weren’t “fans” according to the old guard who held court yearly at Worldcon. For “fandom” all of SF/F could still be contained within the literary tradition. There were obligatory nods to the motion picture and television industry, but “fandom” itself still carried on with a conversation largely internal to itself, while the explosively expanding body of total fans became truly enormous. No longer was the enterprise of SF/F contained strictly within a specific tradition, nor a specific mode, more even a specific group of cross-talking individuals. SF/F went “big” and it never looked back. If SF/F was once a garage-time activity, it went to Hollywood, took over the popular imagination, and remade the popular social landscape in its own image. All while “fandom” preferred to keep things small.

4) For fans (general) one of the new, prominent national gatherings, was San Diego Comic Con. If once SDCC had been a smallish affair similar to Worldcon, it eventually rose to become the preeminent popular expose for all things SF/F, with special emphasis on comics, movies, television, and gaming properties. Movie stars eventually began making regular appearances at SDCC, as part of promotional junkets put on by studios. SDCC therefore came to reflect — more than any other con — the successful subsuming of mainstream culture by SF/F culture, such that a runaway synergy occurred. No longer could the two things be said to be separate or distinct: SF/F culture, and mainstream culture. Not with the list of top-grossing films of all time being dominated at length by SF/F franchises. Likewise, not with SF/F books and television enjoying so much lucrative appeal.

So here we are in 2015, and everybody is a fan in some way. They have either a favorite movie or series of movies they like. Perhaps a game, or series of games? Maybe there is a television program they enjoy? And in each instance, the property in question is explicitly SF/F. You literally can’t take SF/F out of mainstream culture. By the same token, you cannot take mainstream culture out of SF/F.

Much to the chagrin of “fandom” which has (unfortunately) preferred to keep itself small. Inclusion comes with a bit of a price: you have to adopt the look, the lingo, the historical knowledge, and the prejudices of “fandom” before someone who is a fan gets to be someone who is a Fan. And there is huge resentment on the part of “fandom” if a group of people who are not properly acculturated to “fandom” come tromping through the Worldcon door; either literally, or digitally (in the form of Hugo nominations and votes.)

It is perhaps inevitable that SF/F “fandom” reacts with confusion or hostility, to people who don’t display the correct social markers, taste, and mindset. But as one fan put it so well recently, the days when “fandom” could be the arbiter of who is and is not a FAN, are gone. Dead. Done. There is no gate any more. There are no walls. The ghetto has been razed and paved over to make way for a Cineplex 16. Some fans enjoy and roll with the change. A bullish SF/F market has also meant the diversification and expansion of “flavors” from which to pick. But other “fans” dislike this open-market phenomenon, preferring to keep the trappings of the “small” era, while selectively choosing which aspects of the “big” era to adopt.

One such aspect being the enormous new push for SF/F that devotes time to pondering racism and ethnicity problems, gender and sexuality problems, and the doctrines of academic complaint, as typified by gender studies, racial studies, and certain strains of socialist economic theory. Likewise, climate change has become a favorite point of focus, to include a fair amount of dystopian and Cautionary Tale fiction.

The only problem with this being that many of the fans (big) who have continued to be enthusiastic about the BIG market, have lost interest in the literary scene. If they came to the table for the spaceships, laser blasters, and photon torpedoes in the 1970s and 1980s, they have gradually walked away from the (often) morally ambiguous, socially-conscious books and stories that began to achieve preeminence at the end of the 1990s. You could still find rousing space opera, as well as plausible “nuts and bolts” hard science fiction. But the number of stories and books devoted to social issues (especially the “subvervise” type which tend to take sidelong swipes at Western cultural traditions, and especially U.S. standards and social conventions) grew dramatically.

Pretty soon, the BIG market began to distrust the very thing it had once found reliable. SF/F in print was missing the mark, with a growing percentage of people.

So, as of 2014, we’ve witnessed yet another contraction of the traditional publishing sales numbers, for SF/F. Some of which can be attributed to e-sales altering the marketing landscape. Some of which can also be attributed to consumers having a much wider array of entertainment options than they did in the 1950s and 1960s, when SF/F movies and television tended to struggle (for matters of production value, scripting, and special effects technology) and video games did not yet exist.

But the evidence is clear. Fans have been disappointed. Both of the articles I previously linked above, talked about this. As well as the wall-building attitudes of those who seem to think that keeping “fandom” a matter of inside-baseball — and expecting outsiders to conform to “inside” attitudes, social mores, knowledge, conventions of thinking, and so forth — is a net positive. So, while “fandom” works overtime to prove its inclusivity (affirmative action for the sake of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality issues) “fandom” is still very much an exclusive operation: because if you’re not the right kind of fan, you don’t really get to be a “fan” you see.

And no, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either.

I came of age being a FAN of things like Robotech and the original Battlestar Galactica. For several years, my SF/F reading was almost exlusively Star Trek tie-in novels. Some of which remain among the best SF I think I’ve ever read; thank you, A.C. Crispin and Diane Duane! I fell in love with the original SF/F of people like Stephen R. Donaldson, Orson Scott Card, Chris Bunch & Allan Cole, and W. Michael Gear. I got the writing bug while reading Larry Niven, and typing away at scripts for a little home-spun space opera serial airing on a local community radio station. I am not “of fandom” but I absolutely and without reservation claim the right to be a FAN, dammit. And if you try to tell me (or anyone else) we don’t belong . . . I hate it for you, bro. I’m up there with the orange people, where the genre and the industry lives. The blue people don’t “own” this field, nor are they the sole arbiters of what is quality, or worth noticing.

SPECIAL NOTE: and for that too-big-for-his-britches writer who seemed to be bragging about being out of contracts with TOR, while also telling us he’s too good for BAEN, but BAEN would throw him a contract anyway because he’s just that awesome, but he’d turn it down because BAEN can’t pay him what he thinks he’s worth . . . dude, don’t flatter yourself. Better men than you have gone to Toni Weisskopf (hat in hand) and said (like Ripley from Aliens) “Is there anything I can do?” Toni’s reply will be like Apone’s: well I d’know, is there anything you can do?? BAEN hasn’t been waiting breathlessly for your arrival on the BAEN doorstep. I am not sure anyone else has been waiting breathlessly, either.

Posted in Conferences & Conventions, General Science Fiction & Fantasy, Personal Thoughts, Sad Puppies 3 | 54 Comments

SAD PUPPIES: the march of the straw men

Ever since this Breitbart article appeared, a small legion of straw man arguments have been deployed against the current season of SAD PUPPIES. I was going to type up a very looooooooong rebuttal to the straw men, but Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt already did the heavy lifting for me. Much of what I might have said, they say with superior gusto and humor. It’s a blessed thing having friends such as these. Not just under the Baen banner per se, but under the general banner of colleagues who’d like to see the field return itself to a more balanced state of being.

What I can add, I will try to add with clarity. But first, I want to frame things with this beautiful analogy, courtesy of Dave Freer:

The reality is this –- According to [Publishers Weekly] the print sales for Sf/fantasy in the last three years have declined catastrophically (and according to the same source, e-books have plateaued). While there is an element of GIGO in the PW figures (they rely on Bookscan, which captures ~30% of my sales, and Bowker, which not everyone uses) the trend in Traditionally published sf/fantasy is clear, and the most conservative estimate would have sales about 30% down in the last 5 years. The actual figure is possibly a lot higher. Given economic conditions –- fiction sales are normally counter-cyclical, like camping gear and seeds, and beer, we should be asking hard questions about what is happening in our genre. It’s probable that Brad Torgersen has a point.

Talking of probabilities: as roughly 10-15% of any population fit on the ‘ends’ of the political spectrum, with the population (AKA readers) tend to be more or less a normal distribution on that curve. The Hugo awards –- pre 1990 anyway — historically have been socio-politically representative, and (in context with their times) considerably more welcoming than other fields to writers of different skin color, sexual orientation and both sexes. Outspoken liberals, and outspoken conservatives and libertarians won or were nominees. Of course the bulk of authors were demographically representative of the possible readership, in that they were not outspoken supporters of any extreme of the political spectrum.

To put this in a simple way, think of the chances of Hugo nomination going to left or right ends as represented by a six sided dice throw.

There is ~ 17% chance of any number –- so if we call left 6 and right 1, we should get an equal chance every time we throw (nominate) of either left or right. About 2/3 of the time it will be neither. If that’s true, the competition is fair. If you somehow get five nominations in one category that are all 6 something is wrong. Any casino would regard the dice with suspicion.

Try it yourself. Count the number of tries it takes to throw five 6s in a row. Try doing this, to simulate multiple years for multiple categories. It is billions-to-one improbable with fair dice. If you threw a fraction of the Hugo 6s in a casino –- they’d ban you for life.

So: There is bias in the Hugos, and it probably isn’t the authors (unless they are lobbying) or the voters, but the various activist lobbies. That is the message from the Sad Puppies. And yes, if a 6 is thrown more than 17% of the time . . . the Sad Puppies prove their point and win. If their being there makes a 1 come up, they also win. And if a 6 wins yet again, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

The contention has been made (by SAD PUPPIES’ detractors) that SP is nothing but a bunch of spoilsport right-wing whiners who want to turn the Hugos (and SF/F as a whole) into a monocultural mirror which looks and reads and sounds just like us. I guess that’s a natural assumption coming from individuals who are already part of the extant monoculture.

But here’s the truth of it. And I am going to borrow Dave’s eloquently succinct D6 analogy. Once upon a time in this field, at the Hugo awards, you could roll the dice ten times, and come up with something like this: 1, 5, 3, 2, 6, 2, 4, 5, 1, 6. The awards did not skew exclusively to one particular ideology, nor even a particular style, nor a specific artistic and creative sensibility. Beginning in about 1995, however, the dice rolls began to change. Over the past 20 years, the mean representative has shifted so that now your average Hugo winner and nomination list is like this: 6, 6, 5, 6, 4, 6, 6, 5, 6. A heavy skew to one side of the spectrum, both in terms of the types of stories and books that are nominated and win, as well as in terms of the authors (and their ideologies) which appear on that list.

SAD PUPPIES stands accused of wanting a 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1 pattern.

I’ll state for the record right now that this is false. And I can speak for the whole of the SP3 braintrust.

What we want is for the Hugos (and the field as a whole) to go back to being 2, 6, 1, 3, 3, 4, 6, 1, 2, 5. Because not only is a 6, 6, 6, 5, 6, 6, 4, 5, 5, 4 pattern showing spectacular bias, it’s causing two-thirds of the readership to drift away. That’s not a rhetorical trick. The trad pub numbers reflect the decrease, and have been reflecting it for the past 20 years. Literary SF/F is dangerously close to vanishing up its own asshole. And becoming an intellectual plaything for a tiny audience.

As someone who became a reader (and a fan) right on the healthy side of the present trough (1985-1995) I think trying to bring the genre (and the Hugos in particular) back to where they used it be, is a worthwhile project. Not because I want to invert the present monocultural dominance, but because I think monoculturalism itself is unhealthy; and puts the lie to the notion that the Hugos or SF/F pursue “diversity” — by catering to one side of the dice.

I also want to address the whole “Propriety demands that nobody log-roll” argument.

I think that would be a fine sentiment . . . in a vacuum. In a perfect world, every single Hugo voter would be voting purely from a standpoint of singularly-informed enjoyment. But let’s face it. Pushes and campaigns and log-rolling have been happening for a long time. I myself can think of at least a dozen instances of “quiet” campaigning, of which I’ve become aware in the past 5 years. Instances where one particular author or editor has made either direct appeals to friends and cohorts, or there has been a concerted effort on the part of said editor’s or author’s fans and supporters, to boost said editor/author above the level of the white noise that sometimes clouds the nomination and voting process.

There are also “flash crowd” campaigns, such as the one which saw Chicks Dig Time Lords make, and then win, its respective category for its year. There were certainly more sage and scholarly related works competing with Chicks Dig Time Lords, but as one veteran said to me before the final vote, “You’ve got probably thirty women writing and editing in that book, and all of them have lots of friends. Of course it’s going to win.”

So, while I am sympathetic to the notion that pushes, campaigns, and log-rolling shouldn’t be a factor, you have to face the reality that the Hugos haven’t really been free of such things for many years. If they ever were at all?

Then there is present-tense evidence of “what I want to win” slates and crystal-ball wish-fulfillment lists. Some of which spring up before the dust has even settled from the last Hugo season. I liken these to the Nebula awards ballot and winners lists, both of which tend to have an uncanny influence on what will show up on the Hugo ballot, if not the Hugo winners list proper. Because thousands (tens of thousands?) of eligible works are published every year — and that number is growing — many voters will tend to rely on bellwethers to point the way. A prominent media blogger, fanzine writer, or other interested party can post his or her wish list, and have an inordinate amount of influence over the selection process.

So, I think we can dispense with the accusation that SAD PUPPIES is doing something that is not done, or has not been done, for the sake of ethics. There is no ethic. A rule that is endlessly violated, is no longer a rule. It might be a quaint sentiment. But it’s useless. And arguing from a standpoint of propriety — in this context — is either naive, or obtuse. Or just flat out dishonest. Look, just about everybody who cares, is getting in on some form of boosterism. To include anti-boosting, in the form of voting “no award” or otherwise trying to spike a specific work’s or author’s chances come awards time.

In closing, SAD PUPPIES merely follows Orwell’s admonition, “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” SAD PUPPIES points to the skew and bias and says, “See here, there is skew and bias.” SAD PUPPIES points to worthy authors and works who deserve a chance at a Hugo, and says, “They deserve a nomination every bit as much as the guy who got three dozen nominations.” SAD PUPPIES declares that SF/F is not a progressives-only club, and that actual diversity (within the field) requires that the Hugo ballot should, like, you know, be diverse.

Of course, don’t just take our word for it:

Mr. Torgersen,

I have reviewed this controversy from the bald spot to the smelly misshapen toenails and I find your analysis accurate. I therefore let it be known to one and all that you have at least one former Worldcon Co-Chaircreature in support of the… underage dogs.

Ron Zukowski, ConFederation, the 44th WorldCon, Atlanta Georgia, 1986.

Posted in Sad Puppies 3, Science Fiction related, Tornadoes in Teacups | 201 Comments

SAD PUPPIES: some responses to the fallout

I am on duty this month. I was supposed to be on duty for most of the year, but the mission to West Africa has been off-ramped, and my active duty orders terminate at the end of February. So, for those of you who see me at LTUE while I am still in uniform next week, just know that I am squeezing the conference in around my Army time.

Now, to the matter of fallout; from the SAD PUPPIES 3 slate.

People always get upset when the status quo is challenged. Nobody has to like SP3. Many may even hate SP3, and in turn hate those of us who’ve chosen to participate as “faces of the movement” (though I detest the word ‘movement’ in this context.) What I see happening is a lot of people (loyal to what they perceive to be tradition within the field) standing up from their chairs and demanding, “STOP SAYING THE THING THAT IS BROKEN, IS BROKEN!”

Sorry, folks. I know it sucks having the cage rattled. If I thought some (necessary) freshening of the air (at Hugo awards time) was possible via less confrontational means, I’d happily go that route. But after 5 years of observing how this dog and pony show operates, I’ve concluded that there really isn’t a “nice” way to do this. We (the SP3) can either sit on our hands and pretend the broken thing is not broken — carrying on the with the status quo — or we can speak up; and take the heat.

Others (on the leftward side of the fence) make a great big fat noise about “Speaking truth to power.” Now, the shoe is on the right foot. For a change. Again, you don’t have to like it. SAD PUPPIES peels back the foil on the stale TV dinner. SAD PUPPIES says stuff that many people mutter in confidence, but few have dared speak openly; because they know it’s going to cause an uproar. SAD PUPPIES is specific in its intention: to alter the Hugo awards process such that artists and works which would otherwise be ignored, are not ignored. It’s not a “right wing” thing. It’s a make-the-field-live-up-to-its-reputation thing, by way of the field’s self-proclaimed, “Most prestigious award.”

And here’s the mind-blower: SP3 is not a same-minded collective. We’ve actually had a tremendous amount of internal debate about how to proceed.

For myself, and despite what some of my detractors may claim, I can say without reservation that I am not out to destroy fandom, nor the Hugos, nor do I wish to be an arsonist. In fact, I have argued (within the SP3 brain trust) that being arsonists is a terrible idea. I’d like to see reform, versus destruction. I also knew that being the “it” guy for this project this year (2015) would put my head on the ideological and rhetorical chopping block. Better men than myself have already mortgaged their reputations for the sake of change. I felt honor-bound to take my seat on the dunking machine chair.

Maybe this damages me eternally in the minds of some?

Those who actually know me and my work, know I am not a villain.

And for those who claim I run with villains . . . Larry Correia is my blood brother. I will not throw this man beneath the bus. Look, I get it. Larry is the kind of guy guaranteed to infuriate ideological progressives and leftists, and he makes no apologies. I understand fully that many people can’t stand him. Me? I see this man (in the flesh) all the time. I know his wife and his family. I can think of no one I would want more (in my fox hole) when the chips are down and the bullets are flying. Be they real, or rhetorical, bullets. Larry Correia is a tremendous individual who has taken the bit (of SP) between his teeth, and charged ahead with gusto. I can do no less, during this third iteration of the project.

And Vox Day? I already explained myself on that one, last year. Shunning and ostracisation are the activities of a frightened 13th century village, not the recourse of 21st century cosmopolitans.

Again, if I thought it were possible to freshen up the Hugo situation without ruffling feathers, I’d happily take that path. To echo myself (from 2014) sometimes the expected thing (in this case: going along to get along) is not necessarily the right thing.

Posted in Personal Thoughts, Sad Puppies 3, Science Fiction related, Tornadoes in Teacups | 53 Comments