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.

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Why publish with Baen?

I am among Baen’s newest authors. My first Baen novel, The Chaplain’s War, was contracted in July of last year and will see print in October of this year. It’s got a cover from Dave Seeley and it’s got a release date listed on Amazon.com, so I think I can safely say a few things about the decision-making process that went into my choosing to work with Baen:

1) Industry expectations.
2) Word of mouth.
3) Company culture.
4) Face time.
5) Business model.
6) Author fit.

Industry expectations.
One of the things I found most unsettling about the novel publishing landscape were the numerous first-person accounts I was getting, from authors not too much further down the tracks from myself, about how it was a feast or famine business. You either hit home runs immediately, or you got dumped. It didn’t seem to matter who you published with, if you couldn’t show a substantial profit for the publisher, and do it very quickly, you were done. Likewise, if you were on the midlist and you weren’t showing bottom-line numbers indicating you were trending towards bestseller status, you were done. And not always explicitly either. Often people knew they were dumped simply because responsiveness from editors dropped to little or nothing, and contracts which had been previously promised, never showed up. There was no door being slammed, rather the dumping was done quietly. Sort of like having your utilities turned off at the street.

Word of mouth.
There was one publisher, however, who was getting consistently good marks: Baen. Authors — even new authors — were reporting that this publisher didn’t expect immediate grand slams. Instead, this publisher would work with new authors over time to grow and develop an audience. Not having landslide sales your first time out of the gate was not going to ruin you. Likewise, this publisher had a very respectable and healthy midlist, while also having very good brand label loyalty among readers. The latter being rare in an era when almost all readers are either loyal to a specific author, or loyal to a specific series and/or franchise. Thus it would be easier (for me as a new guy) to develop an audience, and I wouldn’t necessarily be doomed if I wasn’t cracking the top ten on the New York Times list with each subsequent book. There was the promise of breathing room!

Company culture.
Having met and befriended a few Baen authors, I really got to see (from a keyhole perspective) what it might be like if I were to become a Baen author. If other publishers operated very much according to corporate sensibilities with a corporate mindset, Baen still retained something of the personal touch. A smaller, almost family affair. Editors were congenial and approachable. You could converse with the editor-in-chief on a personal basis. The contracts were straightforward and possessed minimal legalistic jargon. Thus you could work successfully with Baen without relying on an agent or an IP lawyer to run interference for you. The company had absolutely no political or ideological litmus tests. And once you had been accepted into the fold, as an author, the company would really work with you to help you become successful. Not just because it was good for the company, but because the company really did care (as a company ethic) about what it was putting out into the world. Ergo, the company wanted to do right by the fans who had given the company their loyalty for many years.

Face time.
And so I got to meet Ms. Weisskopf at the 2011 Worldcon in Reno, Nevada. Larry Correia introduced us; Larry being my roommate for the con, and a friend from the Utah science fiction scene, where we’d become acquainted. Toni was likable from the first moment I shook her hand. We took an hour-long stroll around the immediate area close to the convention hotel. We talked about everything but business. Which suited me fine, as there were several other authors, aspiring authors, and other editors following the same route. And we all sort of mingled in and out of different discussions about different things, while logging some solid exercise for the day. If it was a job interview, it was the most informal job interview I’ve ever experienced. And it was also a two-way window, in that not only was Toni getting a feel for me, I was also getting a feel for Toni. Her extant authors had always spoken highly of her, but getting some face-to-face time sold me on the idea that Toni was not just a good businessperson, but a good person in general. Meanwhile, Toni herself (I am told) had some face-to-face time with my then editor at Analog magazine, Stanley Schmidt. Who gave Toni a glowing estimation of my abilities, based on my work he’d bought and published; including one piece that had gotten a readers’ choice award, and another piece that went on to be nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula award.

Business model.
Having returned home from Worldcon in 2011, what remained for me then was to put a book together that would display my craft at its best. I started working on several different ideas, scratched a few of them, and ultimately settled on developing a project built from the bones of two short fiction pieces that were connected: a short story that had previously been published in Analog and a sequel novella that would, I was sure, also be published in Analog. (And I was right about the latter, too.) Meanwhile I began doing more research on Baen’s precise business model, to see what I’d be getting into in the eventuality that Baen picked me up. The runway lights were certainly lit, and I had my plane in the air. I just had to land the plane. After that, what would happen next? The answer was that I’d be seeing modest initial advances for my first books, but with greatly increased potential for sell-through. Sell-through being that percentage of books which actually goes to print and which are eventually purchased. In the industry as a whole, 50% sell-through is considered good. Baen, meanwhile, tended to report a much higher sell-through rate. Even for authors who were not lead authors. The key dividend being that it wouldn’t be impossible for a new or relatively fledgling novelist to make good on his first few contracts. Indeed, Baen’s whole approach seems predicated on the idea that the easier it is for an advance to be earned out, the better it is for author and publisher alike, because then it’s a question of raw royalties; and royalties are where the publisher and author both make money. I liked this very much, because it explained — in business terms — why Baen had such good word of mouth from new authors and also from Baen’s midlist. You didn’t have to be an instant rock star to be making money; either for the company, or for yourself.

Author fit.
Ultimately, I was offered a contract. And as expected, the advance was modest. Which was not a problem for me, because I’d already become acquainted with the Baen business model, and I agreed with its logic. Saddling new novelists with disproportionately large advances is a bit like putting elephants on our backs: it’s going to take a miracle for us to earn back that money, even if our first (and second and third) books do well. Thus our editors aren’t going to want to keep investing, because the bean-counters — especially in corporate publishing — have the final say. Rare is the author who can survive one or more significant red ink baths, even if (s)he’s got a significant reputation. Baen, on the other hand, takes what I call the “slow burn” approach: modest initial advances, with an eye to growing audience and developing an author into a commodity. Tortoise, to the corporate hare. Set the author up for success, not for failure; as so often happens with other companies. This jives completely with my own personal approach, which has been to focus on publishers which match my taste and sensibilities (in extant editorial output) then get my foot in the door, and produce work that doesn’t just meet expectation, but grows above and beyond expectation. For both editors, and readers. Having done it previously with Analog, I plan to do it again with Baen. I believe I have the chops. All I have to do now is keep writing the books.

Which might, of course, sound like I am counting my chickens before they hatch. But I don’t believe in hoping against failure as much as I believe in planning for success. I know I can write, and that my writing has touched the lives and minds of worthwhile readers. I know also that the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, are the kinds of stories Baen likes to publish; and Baen readers like to read. As with Analog magazine, I believe firmly that Baen Books and I can do right by each other. I think Toni Weisskopf believes this as well, and my intention is to not let her — or myself — down.

Getting back to company philosophy, Jim Baen’s spirit remains in the publisher he founded. David Drake penned this very thoughtful coda after Jim Baen died. I think it says a lot about what kind of company Baen remains, despite the ever-shifting sands of the publishing world. I never met Jim, but I remember the first Baen book I ever bought. It was in 1993, from a bookstore in Park City, Utah. A paperback edition of the first Man-Kzin Wars book, featuring Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. I was barely 19 years old at the time. But I’d already determined that I wanted to be a professional writer. And as I read The Man-Kzin Wars and other, subsequent purchases from Baen, it became very apparent to me that I was on Baen’s wavelength, and vice versa. This was a publisher that could speak to me, as a fan. I’d like to think I can keep the Baen flag up, in this regard. Speaking to still more fans.

As Toni herself said so well:

In a time when the cultural divide in our country seems only to be growing, it gives me great pleasure to publish Baen Books, where readers and writers are united behind one idea: that science fiction is, and ought to be, fun.

Amen to that, Toni! And thank you for inviting me aboard the ship!

How to fix the SFWA

Because you’re all just dying for yet another post about the never-ending carnival of hair-pulling that is the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, right? Right. Or if you’re not, go read Sarah Hoyt’s post. Which is, arguably, the greatest post about SFWA in the histories of the forevers.

But, assuming you’re still with me, allow me to post my own opinions on how SFWA might be fixed. (And why these things are unlikely to ever happen.)

1. Set the bar high!
No membership for people not earning the greater bulk of their annual income through fiction writing. Also, impose an annual fiction writing income floor, below which members cannot fall without being placed on the inactive list, and therefore losing the ability to vote and/or participate in the org. Sounds harsh, right? Well, if you want to “professionalize” your org, it’s not a bad idea to force it to be composed strictly of professionals. Not amateurs. Not even pro-am. Professionals. SFWA most likely will not do this because the majority of voting SFWAns are amateur and pro-am, some of whom only ever make sales irregularly, and almost nobody presently in SFWA will vote himself/herself off the island. Even if it means improving the org’s professional clout.

2. Hire people to administer the org.
Elections get messy because elections introduce politics and petty side-taking. Plus, no member on a board or in an officer’s chair will likely risk his or her reputation with his or her publisher by launching an investigative audit and/or lawsuit. The people doing these things should not have publishing skin in the game. They should be hired to run the org and be business-minded, without having their income dependent on the business model itself. Who picks and hires these front men (front women?) is something the org would need to figure out. Maybe a randomly-selected body of 7 members would annually review the performance(s) of the front men and/or hire people on an as-needed basis? The front men would also be empowered to kick out members who don’t pay dues, don’t meet membership requirements, etc. This is unlikely to happen because there are many SFWAns who covet SFWA office and/or would cry foul if ever SFWA actually began to prosecute their publishers in court. And because they get to vote, such a sweeping change in org governance is liable to be voted down.

3. Get rid of the Nebula Award.
Like elections, the award introduces politics, pettiness, grudges, etc. Thus division in the ranks. And for what? At present, the award carries very little value — outside of prestige. And then, it’s a limited prestige, because very few people beyond the ghetto walls of SF/F even know what the Nebula is, much less consider it a hallmark of storytelling quality. Scrapping the Nebula will never happen because there are a great many current SFWA members for whom attaining a Nebula nomination and/or win is a treasured, highly emotional goal. If the Nebula went away, these people would die a little bit inside. So, because they get to vote, they will never vote away the Nebula.

4. Jack up the annual membership fee.
As with Item 1, this has the intended effect of keeping the bar high. Anyone capable and willing to contributing $500 or even $1,000 U.S. dollars (or more) per year, is unlikely to be an amateur, or a pro-am. Plus, it forces members to have actual skin in the game. Presently, the SFWA dues are a minor trifling that earn each member “achievement unlocked” bragging rights, but little else. What is there to hang your hat on when the great majority of the group are not precisely Name Authors? It’s a true arrival moment if/when you can meet Item 1 and Item 4. Then you know you’re Somebody. This won’t ever happen because (again) the bulk of present SFWAns will not vote themselves out of the club. Especially for the sake of a hugely increased membership price tag. Even if it enables SFWA to effect Item 2.

5. No politics, no politics, no politics.
SFWA should not, as an org, concern itself with who is sitting in the U.S. White House, nor the U.S. Senate, nor the U.S. Congress. It should not concern itself with overseas military operations, nor domestic social welfare programs, nor city and municipal elections. SFWA should also not concern itself with social studies and humanities department theory, to include sex and sexism theory, transgender theory, race and ethnic theory, and so forth. The SFWA ought to be a business org dedicated to protecting and expanding the business opportunities of its members. Anything outside of business concerns, would be strictly off the table. Something for individual members to pursue on their own time, outside the walls of the org. This will most likely not ever happen because the present SFWA body is increasingly dominated by amateur and pro-am voices who want to make SFWA into an explicitly political organ with explicitly political doctrines, to include the org’s own magazine — its content, its editorial slant, etc. Ideally, the SFWA Bulletin would be neither Mother Jones nor The National Review. Alas, the reality is that the Bulletin is going to reflect the loudest opinions and voices in the present org, regardless of whether or not these opinions have anything to do with businss, or whether the voices have any qualifications to speak on business matters.

There could be more done, but I think these five items cover it. Until or unless one or several of these items are implemented, I think it unlikely that I personally will renew my SFWA membership. Which is not a swipe at those present SFWA members and officers who have labored very hard (sometimes for many years) to make SFWA into an honorable body that does right by its authors. Rather, I have to look at SFWA in terms of its actual effectiveness in the field. For me, there is almost no function SFWA might claim to be able to carry out, which I could not carry out for myself. To include legal protection, health insurance, and me being my own best business advocate, where entering into (or severing) relationships with publishers is concerned.

Now, this might just be me being a self-starter who has independent access to things, via my military Reserve job and my full-time private sector job. And if you’re thinking it might be odd for me to want to see the SFWA bar raised to such an extent that I personally might not ever qualify for membership, I would point back to my military career. High bars don’t scare me. High bars are good. High bars make you work for a thing, and work to keep it after you’ve gotten it. I see no downside to a high bar, even if it means reducing the SFWA ranks to a couple hundred people, who all pay a lot of money to be members. I believe firmly that this would transform SFWA into an org capable of taking on almost any publisher, in court or out of court, and doing for authors what SFWA has, in its present form, been mostly unable or unwilling to do.

World Science Fiction Convention and Salt Lake City Comic Con

In 2012 I was fortunate to be literary science fiction’s triple-nominee: Nebula award, Hugo award, Campbell award. This means I got to go to Chicago’s Chicon 7 (World Science Fiction Convention) and participate on panels as a featured guest, as well as suit up for the Hugo ceremony proper. I had some good moments in Chicago. Mostly meeting old friends, and many new friends alike. I got to enjoy a slice of the Worldcon limelight. I didn’t win anything, but this was okay by me because the Hugo and Campbell are not cash prizes. Plus, the Campbell tiara certainly looked better on the female winner than it would have on me. So I left Chicago satisfied that I’d gotten the most I could out of it.

In 2013 I was fortunate to be invited to sit at Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire table at Salt Lake City Comic Con, in addition to sitting on panels as a special guest. This was Utah’s first ever Comic Con, and had been expected to draw as much as 30,000 attendees. That it drew an estimated 70,000 attendees was a complete surprise to even the most optimistic con-planners. Certainly none of us who were working the vendor tables expected so many people. And the panels were almost universally packed. Standing room only. It was a complete blow-the-doors-off five-alarm success story. Biggest inaugural Comic Con of any kind to have ever been held anywhere in the country. I left SLC Comic Con feeling like I got way more out of it than I’d expected going in.

Observations, from the pro side and the fan side:

Worldcon is smaller as well as older. Both in terms of its historical roots, and in terms of its total audience. I think the best estimates place Chicon 7’s attendance at around 5,000 people. A fraction of SLC Comic Con’s. So if you were a producer of product looking to move your wares, the Comic Con was definitely the place to be. SLC Comic Con also had youth. There weren’t a lot of younger fans in Chicago—at least not ones who weren’t joined at the hip to their parents. SLC Comic Con had piles and piles of families in attendance, but also a large contingent of teenagers too. Something I didn’t see a whole lot in Chicago.

Worldcon had editors and agents, whereas SLC Comic Con had actors. Anyone who came to SLC Comic Con hoping to find a literary agent or a receptive editor from a major magazine or novel house, went away disappointed. There were some people from the regional publishing scene in attendance, but nobody national that I knew of. Worldcon on the other hand had many editors and agents from magazines as well as novel houses, both large and small. It was definitely the better venue for prospective writers or new authors (like me) with a track record, and hoping to expand their professional contacts and/or secure interest from people with the ability to pay for work. Whereas SLC Comic Con was a great place to come and meet your favorite actor from any two dozen different television and movie franchises.

Worldcon had the traditional masquerade, but SLC Comic Con had far more costumed fans, per capita. Perhaps one in four SLC attendees was dressed up (or dressed down, in the case of certain people) for the event. Chicago did have some costume people, but they were much fewer and further between. And some of that costuming was definitely tied to after-hours parties—occasionally of the risqué variety. (aka: “Bar Fleet”)

As business ventures, I found both Worldcon and SLC Comic Con advantageous—just for different reasons.

When I went to Renovation in 2011 and Chicon 7 in 2012 I was there strictly as a new pro writer, looking to making connections. Meet old friends and make new ones, sure, but the business connections were the key. Talk to agents. Secure open doors. Etc. SLC Comic Con on the other hand was a chance to actually put finished product in front of brand new eyes. People who’d never heard of me before, and who were coming from outside the somewhat insular community that calls itself “fandom” in the parlance of Worldcon. These were general audience consumers. The kind of “big tent” audience I ultimately want to reach, because that’s the kind of audience I came out of as a teenager. And that’s where the vast bulk of the money is too.

Oh, sure, as a teen, I probably read more SF/F than many similarly-aged fans who were strictly television or movie fans. But I still came into the genre “sideways” as a writer, because I didn’t do it coming up through the traditionally inculcated ranks of “fandom” which still consider film and television to be separate and apart from Science Fiction (capitals) as we know it. Therefore I think I felt much more comfortable at SLC Comic Con. I recognized myself in the young eyes of the many teenaged boys tromping past the WordFire table: just out with their buddies, having fun, sneaking peaks at the more scantily-clad female costumers, picking up game stuff, maybe buying some comics or books, and just generally enjoying being part of the event—utterly oblivious to Hugos or Nebulas or Campbells or anything else associated with Worldcon.

Which is not a putdown of Worldcon. Really, it’s not. I’m just noticing the differences. I thought Worldcon was pretty good, as a business trip intended to establish connections. I met my editor at Baen Books because of Renovation 2011. I got to sit on a panel with my editor (now retired) at Analog magazine because of Chicon 2012. There was solid value (for me, as a new pro writer) in Worldcon as a result.

But as a seller of merchandise, and as someone who was a fan of Star Trek and Star Wars in my youth, and who wore those stripes proudly when I broke into writing science fiction in 2009, SLC Comic Con definitely felt more homey. More crowded, true. But more homey. I was a comic collector for a few years as a teen. Aliens and X-Force and Sandman. I remember those days, and I remember my enthusiasm. I’m still an enthusiast (albeit older) for certain beloved animation franchises, such as Robotech. There was nobody dressed like Rick Hunter or a Zentraedi warrior at SLC Comic Con, but if we’d been holding SLC Comic Con in 1986, there might have been. (May still be?) Gotta see what kind of costumes come out of the woodwork for next year. And there will most certainly be a next year, based on 2013’s receipts.

Looking to the future, I do have to wonder about the long-term prospects for Worldcon. In the 1950s and 1960s Worldcon could count on a steady stream of young fans and aspiring writers to bolster the ranks of established fans and pros. Now, the large bulk of young fans and consumers flock to the general interest cons (such as Comic Con) or the many special-interest anime and gaming cons—which didn’t exist when Worldcon was the con.

Just as newspapers have suffered in the era of instant world-wide internet media, Worldcon has suffered in the era of fan-interest diversification and mainstreaming of the genre as a whole. Ergo, sci-fi isn’t just something restricted to your parents’ basement anymore. It’s a multi-billion-dollar enterprise spanning games, movies, television, comics, and literature alike. The genre has left the nest, so to speak. And it’s doing very, very well.

The Hugo award could continue without Worldcon, assuming Worldcon folds up. One of the more well-known genre cons (such as DragonCon in Atlanta) could adopt the Hugo. Or Worldcon could simply shrink down to become a purely professional event for lit industry insiders: writers and agents and editors, much like World Fantasy con is now. In which case the Hugo would become a truly niche literary award, like the Nebula. Meaningful to those of us on the “inside” but otherwise unknown to consumers and fans on the “outside,” which (based on conversations I had at SLC Comic Con) isn’t much different from the way things are now. Of the hundred or so people I engaged in conversation longer than one minute—while I was working at Kevin J. Anderson’s book table—perhaps ten of them knew what the Hugo or the Nebula awards were. I had to explain it to the rest because my short story collection Lights in the Deep has the words, “Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee” emblazoned across a gold banner right at the bottom of the cover, under my name.

Now, I understand that there are a lot of people who are defensive about Worldcon’s purpose, its prestige, and also its future.

I am not writing this as a criticism of fans of Worldcon, nor is this a criticsm of those who volunteer to produce the yearly Worldcons. I am writing this as an observation and evaluation for the many fans and prospective writers who have all asked me (usually quietly) about my experiences. Ergo, which con(s) offer the most bang for the buck?

So, these are my observations. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. I’m very much about the bang-for-your-buck conversation, because it’s the one I have every year when planning my calendar.

I do think every new writer (especially Writers of the Future winners) owe it to themselves to go to at least one Worldcon—for as long as Worldcons exist. As the most venerable of the cons, it’s still an experience to go and rub shoulders with the many great writers in the genre, meet editors, and make yourself into a known quantity on the radar of those who consider Worldcon to be a focal point of the SF/F publishing industry.

Then, if you can, the next year, go to DragonCon or a Comic Con. San Diego. New York. Salt Lake. Seattle. See if you can arrange to be on panels and have some product to sell at a table. Evaluate for yourself which venue works best for your career goals and interests, not to mention your personality.

Writer Dad: Mike Resnick

author note: as excerpted from my pending short story compilation, Lights in the Deep . . . .

I spent a long time laboring anonymously—without publication—before I broke into the field with my first story sale: a win in the prestigious L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers and Illustrators of the Future Contest. If my ego in my late teens was big enough to make me think that I could be a professional science fiction man, that same ego had been pummeled and punished enough (by the time I was in my mid-thirties) for me to be grateful for any and every scrap of success or assistance I could lay my hands on.

Which is why I was both floored and delighted to receive the unexpected tutelage of a man named Mike Resnick.

Who is Mike?

Mike Resnick’s been nominated for more science fiction and fantasy awards than practically any other living science fiction writer. He’s also won more awards than a dozen bestsellers combined. He’s published tens of novels and hundreds of pieces of short fiction. He’s one of the genre’s premier historians. And he’s got a terrific sense of humor.

Basically, Mike’s the kind of writer other writers enjoy being around. Because he’s not only good at what he does, he’s quite amiable too. And he tells amazing stories that seem to span the entire existence of written science fiction, from its origins all the way up to the present—as if Mike’s been there for it all.

Which, in a way, he has.

Like Shelby Foote from Ken Burns’s classic Civil War.

So what could a man like Mike possibly want to do with me?

When I first met Mike I had precisely two story sales under my belt: my Writers of the Future Finalist that won, and my Writers of the Future Finalist that did not win; but was purchased for the pages of Analog by Stan Schmidt.

Not bad, for a brand new kid (adjectives for seniority are relative in the written arts; a “kid” in the field stands a good chance of being somewhere close to middle age.)

Maybe it was the fact that Mike was arbitrarily assigned to be the Writers of the Future judge who handed me my trophy on the stage? Maybe it was because Mike is a compulsive collaborator who greatly enjoys “paying forward” by helping new and up-and-coming writers any way he can? Maybe it was (as Mike has often told me) because I was wearing my U.S. Army dress blues the night of the big awards ceremony, so that when Mike was later asked to write a military story for a war-themed science fiction anthology, he remembered me, and thought I might be able to bring my military experience to the mix—if we collaborated?

Of course, Mike doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He likes to work with beginners, but he prefers to work with beginners who are also winners. And by the time Mike and I got around to completing our first story together—picture Rocky Balboa and Mickey Goldmill, sweating it out—I’d already sold several more stories to Analog magazine, and had picked up an Analog Analytical Laboratory readers’ choice award for my first Analog publication. A rarity, given the fact that when my story “Outbound” was published, nobody knew who I was, and the story had to win the readership on its own merits. Something I am still proud of to this day.

Mike respects the science fiction digests. Thus I think he trusted my progress. I believe he looked at what I was doing, and he decided that I was the kind of guy who would be worth his effort.

That Mike and I would go on to build a genuine friendship was purely a matter of serendipity.

Not everyone in the genre—or the business—has the kind of personality that meshes with everyone else’s. In fact, there are times when it seems like the genre is filled to overflowing with personalities bound and determined not to mesh.

Mike was never like that.

So while I had managed to brush up against a few professionals who treated me like I’d crawled out from under a rock (you have to love people who pat themselves on the back for being “open minded” and then stick their noses in the air at the first sign of actual difference) Mike was one of the first noteworthy pros in the field to take a look at me, and reach out his hand. As if to say, “Welcome to the big leagues, kid, we’re glad to have you.”

And that’s been precisely Mike’s attitude with me ever since.

I can’t ever hope to repay him for how much he’s helped me. In big and small ways. By opening doors, passing along advice, teaching me craft, giving me caveats and fair warnings about the business, as well as nudging me into professional circles where I might not have had the temerity (or permission) to tread on my own.

I said before that Mike’s a compulsive collaborator who loves to help new people just coming into the field.

I learned that there’s a phrase for such people: Mike’s Writer Children.

Not bound by flesh or blood, we are Mike’s progeny just the same.

Because he has invested in us.

Time. Wisdom. Opportunities.

And a whole lot more.

Mike Resnick has literally welcomed me into his home, where he and his lovely wife Carol have treated me like a son.

I’ve sat in Mike’s basement office with him at four in the morning, watching old recordings of World Science Fiction Convention speeches by some of the lates and the greats in the genre.

I’ve sat on panels with Mike—as both a student and a collaborator.

I’ve walked across the “name bridge” that’s formed when I mention to other professionals—in passing—that Mike knows and has worked with me.

Thus the foundation of my career is one Mike Resnick has largely helped me to construct. And for no apparent reason other than the fact that Mike just likes to help. Because Mike loves science fiction the way a sculptor loves clay or marble. The way a horse racing aficionado adores the track and follows the Triple Crown. The way an outdoorsman loves fly fishing or the Autumn hunt.

Mike very much cherishes the field, and is concerned with ensuring that the field continues to be peopled with competent, capable, talented writers who can all keep growing the genre and making it wonderful. Even long after Mike’s gone.

So, in a sense, we are Mike’s legacy. As much as his own works and publications.

And for this reason I am proud to be counted among his kids.

Mike’s selected other Writer Children since he selected me.

I’ve met and become friends with several. They are, without fail, quality people. Like Mike himself.

If the genre tends to be a bit cliquish, I think the circle of Mike Resnick’s Writer Children is just about the best kind of club one could hope to belong to. For the simple fact that being Mike’s Writer Son demands that I keep up my game! Mike’s spent time on me. I want to make sure that Mike never has to regret it. That he never has to look at what I am accomplishing in the field and shake his head, thinking, if only that boy would work harder, make better decisions, maybe take better care of his opportunities . . .

So far, so good.

Thanks, Mike, for everything.

It’s an honor and a pleasure to have you as my Writer Dad.

▼ ▲ ▼ ▲ ▼

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Science Fiction’s political failure 3: Han Solo shoots first

My friend (and assistant editor at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show) Scott M. Roberts, posted this rather stunning piece of commentary to Facebook this morning. I’ve quoted him in blocks below, and added my own commentary. I’ve said some of these things in this space before. But I thought Scott’s wording was so spot-on and eloquent, I wanted to repeat them here — and add my own thoughts to his.

The more I hear the term “cultural sensitivity” lauded in the context of artistic expression, the more I’m reminded of the thousands of wailing mothers who annually strive to ban Huckleberry Finn from schools for using the n-word.

Speaking as a parent, I find myself constantly in a tug-o-war: how much of the world do I expose my daughter to, and how much of the world do I keep hidden? On the one hand I have a protective instinct (rooted culturally in my Utah LDS background) that is quite strong, and there have been many times when I’ve seen my daughter watch something on television or listen to something on the radio, and I’ve cringed. Do I really want my daughter to be seeing or listening to some of this stuff? She’s only 9 years old.

Just the same, what good does it do to shield her from reality? The world is not sanitized. She’s going to get an eyeful (or an earful) of life sooner or later. Hence my wife’s frequent assertion that it’s better to have our daughter exposed to some of these things while she is still in our orbit of influence, and we can provide context and, hopefully, guidance. An assertion with which I am almost always forced to agree. Not because I like it, but because it seems to be the truth.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no need for racial/cultural sensitivity. But there is a definite need within the speculative fiction community to take their sensitivity with a grain of salt. Or pepper. Or cumin, ginger, or really, any spice. (I prefer cayenne.) The current vocality sometimes seems to strive for worlds populated with impossibly fair-minded secular protagonists — inoffensive, liberated, sensitive protagonists whose obedience to modern cultural mores is strident and undeviating. Inevitably, the antagonists of worlds populated with such men, women, and children are stereotyped fat cat institutions — repressive governments, corrupt corporations, blind-minded religions.

I suspect part of the issue (as outlined above) is that many writers and editors believe that the purpose of “scientifiction” (to use Uncle Hugo’s old word) is to portray people — and the world around us — not as how we truly are, but as how we ought to be. According to a given editor’s or writer’s own assumptions, preferences, tastes, ideals, et cetera. Thus if the real world is too racist, we will create a future world that is un-racist. Or at least, where our un-racist protagonist(s) struggle against racist evil-doers. If the real world is sexist, we will again create a future world populated with un-sexist “good” people and sexist “bad” people. And so on, and so forth. All the deadly sins (ist and ism) will be clearly signposted and our heroes will know them well, and demonstrate proper fidelity to the un-sinful, un-ist, un-ism virtues of tolerance and sensitivity.

Let me hasten to add that I think modern cultural mores are absolutely wonderful. Liberty, equality, brotherhood, huzzah! I’m even wearing a red cap as I write this.

But I do not have that red cap pulled down over my eyes.

Cultural sensitivity, as praised by the modern vocality in the speculative fiction genre, is no substitute for truth. I have more respect for stories that stay true to the world they inhabit than I do for stories that stay true to the ideals of the author. In other words:

Give me Conan. Keep your John Galt.

Like Scott, I’ll be the first one to heartily support a society in which egalitarianism is championed. I am an equal opportunity guy who thinks a world where everyone can rise to the level of his or her ambitions, work ethic, and aptitudes is a worthy thing to strive for. Is this not the keystone principle of the United States? To free the human being from his or her “designated slot” in the old hierarchy? So that men and women may create and strive and work and invent as they please, building for themselves whatever kinds of lives they see fit?

But I agree with Scott: imposing blinders — for the false hope that somehow ignoring reality will make reality better match our desires — isn’t what science fiction is for. Or at least, this isn’t what science fiction is for when science fiction is firing on all cylinders. As my friend and mentor Mike Resnick has often told me, science fiction is not even necessarily about science, but about the human condition. And the human condition is a flawed thing, replete with bumps and bruises. Many of which may not be to our taste. Many of which may even make us recoil in shock or horror. To accurately portray this fallen state while also giving the reader bona fide heroes and heroines who accomplish laudable things despite themselves, is one of the great tricks of any good story. After all, Han Solo did shoot first. And he really was a scoundrel. A scoundrel who went on to help defeat the oppressive Empire because while the New Republicans had no love for smugglers, they did have common cause with Solo against a suffocating, conformist, crushing orthodoxy. Thus Solo is in many ways one of the more compelling and enjoyable heroes in the Star Wars saga precisely because he isn’t clean, pure, or righteous. He’s just a guy trying to make his way in the world. And he also happens to have a seedling of honor in his heart, which sprouts into a sapling by the time the third (sixth) movie has elapsed.

This isn’t a paen to gritty or shocking stories. This is a plea for the speculative fiction community to stop obsessing over race, sexuality, gender, and political affiliation and which author (and which characters) are on the right side of the dividing line between moral bankruptcy and sainthood. The obsession with correct political belief and expression in art is stultifying the genre as it is necessarily exclusive. We are losing our voice in artificial, forced homogeny posing as tolerance. Propaganda-disguised-as-story drives readers away as agenda takes the place of wonder, excitement, character. and conflict.

I cannot laud the above paragraph enough. It is something I’ve beaten my pots and pans about since I began publishing a few years ago. There is a reason science fiction is on the wane, with pop readers. Science fiction is supposedly the “dangerous” genre, but I’ve found this to be a largely toothless claim, based on past glory. Science fiction in the 21st century doesn’t want to be dangerous. Science fiction wants to be safe – at any speed. Heroes and heroines must not be scoundrels. As I noted above, all the sins are clearly signposted. Worse yet, let any author or editor fall foul of the signposted sins – ist and ism — and it’s a cause for significant outrage. How dare someone let a scoundrel into our beloved genre!? Someone fetch the smelling salts! Vapors! Gnashing of teeth!

I maintain that cultural sensitivity should be replaced by cultural awareness. Awareness implies research, consideration, thought, and judiciousness. Sensitivity looks at the n-word and immediately wails, regardless of context; awareness takes into account the modern reader’s reaction to the word, then balances it against the reality depicted in the story, and determines whether the usage is valid or not. Sensitivity denies equal access to language. It segregates and censors based on the background of the writer rather than the content of the story. No society can embrace cultural sensitivity and retain full capacity for freedom of speech.

Yes, in triplicate. The quest for tolerance has lead us down a very odd road where the proper enacting of tolerance is to be, well, intolerant. To not tolerate the “intolerable” according to trendy or arbitrary or otherwise assigned values of correctness: correct thought, correct speech, correct action. Not only must the stories themselves hew to this rigid correctness calculus, authors themselves must hew to this rigid correctness calculus. There is no room in 21st century science fiction for real people. Because sooner or later the ist and the ism are exposed — both real and, as often as not, imagined — and the evil-doer is punished and/or cast out.

Thus the genre slowly homogenizes and inoculates itself against reality. And the stories (and the personalities) become more polarized, polemicized, and monotonous. A robust genre which actively fostered a more robust ideological spectrum might be more able to pick up on and defend against this disease. But the denizens of the “ghetto” can’t seem to get enough of it. They want more conformity and less diversity in politics, opinions, and ideas. Because true diversity means inviting in and even protecting the scoundrels — Han Solo has no place in a properly, piously “sensitive” science fiction. Han Solo shoots first. And he is a greedy capitalist to boot.

Cultural awareness denies speech to no one. It justifies (or condemns) artwork through context.

And context is king — something I’ve found myself trying to inexpertly explain a lot these days. If we judge generations past according to our ever-evolving modern standards, those generations will forever be found wanting. Yet it cannot be denied that we in our sanctified time of sensitive propriety owe most of what we have to those rough-necked ruffians of yesteryear who somehow muddled through their ists and their isms to bring us to where we are today. And to provide us with some of our most timeless, everlasting stories. Stories that speak to the eternal truths of the universe, and show us honor and dignity and humility and adventure and sacrifice, despite the flawed nature of the world(s) and character(s) portrayed.

Sensitivity serves ideology; awareness serves the story. Sensitivity defaults; awareness decides.

Quite so. I would add that “sensitivity” as currently practiced in the genre is an entirely reactionary thing, predicated on avoiding and assuaging offense — be it real or imagined. A genre that makes its choices according to who it wishes to avoid offending can no longer claim to be a dangerous genre. Dangerous genres shoot first, and ask questions later. Science fiction too often doesn’t even want to ask the question, nor pull the trigger. Science fiction wants to punish the trigger-puller and throw the laser blaster into the molten pit — because guns are bad.

Carter Reid’s “The Zombie Nation”

It’s amazing how many people in my little neck of the woods (northern Utah) are leading secret bat-cave lives as creative writers and artists. Like, at a professional level. Today I had a chance to chat with Carter Reid, who unbeknownst to me has been doing The Zombie Nation web comic for, oh, the last year. Holy smokes, I need to talk to my neighbors more! Carter is a graphic design by day, and does freelance illustration to boot. I took a look at his web comic today, and found myself chuckling out-loud at several of the panels. It’s zombie-gore lore, with a modernized, humorous twist. Monster Hunter fans especially might get a kick out of it, so please take a look!

NASA’s death — voters caught red-handed!

To paraphrase something once famously written on a white board by a U.S. Marine, “America is not in space. NASA is in space. America is at the mall.”

In other words, don’t blame the President. We must blame ourselves.

It’s been 49 years since U.S. astronaut and Navy officer Alan Shepard made his historic suborbital flight aboard the NASA Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7. At that time, the United States was behind the power curve in the so-called Space Race with the Soviet Union. Having been consistently beaten to the punch, first by the Sputnik satellite and then by the Vostok flight carrying cosmonaut and Soviet Air Force officer Yuri Gagarin, the United States was rather desperate to push its fledgling space program into high gear. Shepard’s flight lasted just over 15 minutes, but it — along with President Kennedy’s seminal space speech before Congress just 20 days later — signaled to the whole world that the United States was determined to be a dominating, elite player in the new frontier of space exploration.

The zenith of that national ambition occurred on July 20th, 1969, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin touched down on the lunar surface in their landing craft, appropriately named Eagle.

It’s now 2010 — over forty years since those breathtaking words, “The Eagle has landed,” — and NASA’s stand-alone ability to put people into space is drawing to a close. With no viable Shuttle replacement on the horizon — the STS fleet is being mothballed after three decades of remarkably steady service — NASA will soon have to rent seats on Russian missions, if it wants to keep Americans onboard the International Space Station. The replacement for STS — Ares/Constellation — is being canned, and debates rage in the space-geek community over who to blame.

The usual target is Mr. Obama, but I am not sure I can fault Barrack on this one.

Because Obama is just doing what every politician has done since Apollo 11 put the first humans on the moon. He has decided to talk high, and shoot low. The space program is given lip service, because people still remember NASA for that single, shining moment when it beat the Soviets and accomplished something which had never been accomplished before, in the entirety of human history. But now, nobody really cares. Moon landings were cool, but we’ve moved on. The voting public has declared NASA and the space program to be of little interest.

Easier — by far — to go to the 3D theater and take an imaginary space flight with Avatar than worry about the real space flights launching from Florida.

We — meaning the United States and its citizens — didn’t have to stop going to the moon. In 1970 we had a fully-functioning domestic industry ready and prepared to produce every piece of hardware and software necessary to take three men into lunar orbit, and land two of them on the moon’s surface, returning them later to lunar orbit, then all three back to Earth.

But we shrugged our shoulders, said, “Whoopee, we won!” and the space program has been cruising on inertia ever since. So please, before we fault Obama for only doing what previous men and women have done, I’d like us as voters to take a long, hard look at ourselves and what we’ve done to our beloved and now-atrophied space program.

There’s a line in the marvelous historical drama film, The Right Stuff, that says, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.” It was true in 1959, it was true in 1979, and it’s been true through 2009. Everything that happens — every body, bolt and circuit board that goes into orbit — relies on money to get it there. NASA, as a federal agency, thus needs tax dollars to function. And the politicians in Washington D.C. don’t give NASA money unless the voters demand it.

But who, beyond the previously-mentioned space-geek community — mainly men, sadly aging — is going to make any such demand?

Pause for a moment. When was the last time you watched a Shuttle flight on television? Either the launch, or even a news bite about goings-on in orbit? A landing? Did you watch any of the amazing footage of any of the Hubble repairs? The construction of the Space Station? Were you alive to watch the historic first launching of the STS-1, Columbia, with its white-painted fuel tank and a veteran Apollo astronaut at the control stick? I was. I got up extra early that morning and was allowed to go late to school, just so I could stay home and watch on color TV as Columbia rode into the history books and, I was told at the time, a brave new era in American space exploration.

The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger was the first true sign of the inevitable. Even the pyrrhic deaths of the Apollo 1 crew didn’t slam America’s space confidence in the windpipe the way the so-called “Challenger Disaster” did. Everything was put on hold. Everything. And by the time the STS came back on-line over two years later, many people had started to ask: what is space good for any way? Was the Shuttle even worth it? How about the lives of the men and women who rode it?

And budgets continued to shrink. Having reached a high water mark of roughly 5.5% of the total U.S. Federal budget in 1966, the NASA budget shrank along a bumpy slope to its current resting state of roughly 0.5% of the total U.S. Federal budget.

Want to know what gets more money than NASA? Take a look at this pie chart for 2009.

Three of the top six ‘slices’ are purely social in nature, and Defense — where some have insisted NASA belonged the whole time — is smaller than Social Security, while being not that much bigger than Medicare.

NASA is one of the itty bitty slices, competing with all the other little itty bitty — but important — slices; for the scraps.

There are no more production lines producing the Saturn IC main stage, nor the II second stage, nor the IVB third stage. North American doesn’t exist, and cannot build Apollo crew or service modules. Grumman cannot build the Lunar Module. The lone intact examples of the rocket that took humans to the surface of another world, exist as historical displays only. None of them could be retrofitted for flight because we just don’t make “moon rocket” anymore! We can make a fucking MP3 device that can hold all the symphonic classics of the 17th through 19th centuries, but we don’t build moon rockets. We have gigabit-WAN that spans the globe, delivering high-speed, high-bandwidth fetish porn to every sweaty-palmed on-looker in every office and bedroom in the world, but we don’t make moon rockets. We have a national cow if some sports star cheats on his wife — like that’s original — but we didn’t give a hoot when they shut down the assembly lines and factories of Apollo, then wadded up the plans and threw them away.

This didn’t happen on accident. This was planned. Premeditated. Cold-blooded. We as voters were very clear in our priorities. Even now, the two issues most occupying public discourse — the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the National Healthcare debate — are nowhere close to being space-related. Oh, teeny bits of defense-focused technology are space related. And the U.S. Air Force does have its own rockets and capability of putting stuff into orbit. But neither the Air Force nor the Navy can put a pilot up there, nor do they have the spacecraft with which to try. Because the civilian government took that away when it formed NASA, and all attempts in the years since to build in-branch manned space programs have been quietly (and not so quietly) snuffed.

So now NASA itself is practically snuffed. But I am not sure voters care. As noted at the beginning of this article, voters aren’t in space. Voters are playing Warcraft, or surfing Facebook, or watching American Idol, or cruising down the grocery aisles dumping kilotons of high fructose corn syrup products into their swollen grocery carts. Americans would rather watch a bullshit make-believe movie about a fake planet, than fund a real space mission capable of taking us to a real planet.

Not a pretty picture, is it? No, I don’t like it either. And I wish to heck I knew the magic “switch” to pull to get other Americans — beyond the space-geek culture — to give a damn.

Maybe it’s never going to happen? Maybe it’s up to Richard Branson — Heinlein smiles down upon Virgin Galactic — to keep humans in orbit, or beyond? There are more than a few people who advocate precisely for the privatization of space exploration — because the Feds in true Fed fashion can’t manage their way out of a paper bag without going ten years over timeline and ten billion dollars over budget. It is the nature of the Federal beast. Spend more, take longer, produce fewer and fewer results. And nobody in the voting body seems to really give a damn if NASA is gradually phased out of the business of putting and keeping people in space — really, the most compelling reason for its existence in the length of its storied history.

I wish it weren’t so. But I think it is. And the future for America and Americans in space, is more clouded than it’s been since the end of World War II.