February 2012 Archives

A month ago, while I was camping out in a hotel in Colorado Springs, a copy of USA TODAY slid under our hotel door in the night. A question — does anyone actually read that thing? I look at the front page and all I can see is "Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit..." in turgid American journalese. The so-called "stories" on the front page are not news; they're perfectly shaped pieces of text that outwardly conform to the aesthetic of modern American journalism while actually containing nothing of any significance.

Let me anatomize:

Just upgrading the blogging software to address a security issue. Commenting may be difficult for a while. Nothing to see here, move along please: everything should be back to normal tomorrow.

Subject says it all. Actually, I had about three blog entries planned; a Gadget Patrol item on the subject of the Kindle Fire, a bookish chewing-over of David Graeber's Debt: the first five thousand years, and a random semiotic grenade ... but it turns out that the Kindle Fire is a paperback-sized tablet that does what it says on the tin (essentially more of the same), I haven't finished the Graeber book yet, and I am come home from Satellite III to find the page proofs to the next Laundry novel awaiting my urgent attention. And I am completely exhausted. Haven't had time to write any fiction for a month, either.

So I am about to duck out for a while and (a) sleep then (b) work. And in the meantime, I leave you with this question: what is money?

Thus does my time as a regular presence at the mic here come to a close. It's been an amazing month, and I've learned a lot from you guys--I hope you've all gotten something out of my posts here. It was a strange cross-pollination of ideas, given that I live on a very different patch of the genre farm, but I think a fascinating one.

If you want to follow my fiction work, I have an extensive website with a lot of free material on it as well as my own blog. You can find me in print or digital form anywhere you usually go to obtain books. I'm on Twitter at @catvalente.

I'd like to leave you with my favorite comic about the future.

It seems so incredibly true to me, not least because I do knit and garden and make my own pickles. It speaks to the essential humanness and strangeness of the future, the impossibility of predicting even your own timeline. The future is code and it is robots and it is virtual environments--and it is also raising chickens and growing food and forming collective communities in real, physical space. It is creating a more interesting hybrid of wild science fiction envisionings and, well, the dream of the 1890s.

The future, God willing and the robots don't rise, is a table where we choose what we want from a vast array of dishes. Some are set high up, out of our reach unless we have the money, the right connections, the right name, the right nationality, the right gender. Some are hidden, some glisten before us with all the plenty we ever imagined. What we desire, what we reach out our hands to take and what we reject, will be different for everyone. We take weird slices of skills and cultural memes from the past and graft them onto the distributed network of our current technological lives and this thing is created, this very old, very new culture, and that will never stop happening. Some of the leftover scrap-code of the old world--and the world, she is always ending and starting again, just about every year, just about every month--are terrible and harmful, and some are good and necessary for social primate satisfaction. That's part of life in the postmodern dire-circus. You pick and choose. A little of this religion, a little of that science, a dash of machine-automation, a pinch of making it from scratch with your own hands. It must, of necessity and by nature, be a patchwork of human ambition and human failure and endless, endless iteration--and it's really hard, most of the time, to tell which is the zenith and which is the nadir.

The future is a fairy tale. The past is exposition. And I, a poor player upon the stage, exeunt left, and if I am very lucky, I will find myself pursued by a self-programming, cybersentient autobear. Who knows how to knit.

A couple of commenters indicated interest in hearing my thoughts on the blistering array of publishing options currently fighting it out Pon Farr style in the contemporary world of letters. Before my time here comes to a close, I'll try to address it in some way I haven't before. I sometimes feel that with every post on self-publishing we draw closer to some millionth-customer trumpeting confetti-strewn alarum announcing THE INTERNET HAS HAD ENOUGH, NO FURTHER COMMENTARY IS NECESSARY. KEEP CALM AND PUBLISH HOWEVER YOU WANT.

Wishful thinking.

But it's true that I've published with the Big Six and I've published on my own damn website, I started out in the small and micro press world and I've experimented with all the methods of getting my words into people's heads that seemed to make sense to me, so I do have A Perspective. I've talked before about my thoughts on the writing life in this age of uncertainty, innovation, and hyperbole--for never was there a post on why traditional publishing still has a whole lot to offer for those of us who never had any ambition to start a small press that only publishes one author that was not answered by gnashing of polearms and delighted furor insisting that Kindle will save us all, publishing itself is dead, or in some charming cases, that taking money from a publishing company in order to write a novel is akin to being a house slave in the American South.

I've also had incredibly negative publishing experiences and incredibly positive ones. I've had big giant presses treat me badly and drop my books down a Well of Forgetting that I'm convinced exists in the center of New York. I've had big giant presses stick by me and treat me like family. I've had teeny presses put out wonderful books and behave with kindness and professionalism; I've had teeny presses treat me like something to scrape off their shoe when no one is looking. I've had self-published projects that won major literary awards and literally made my name and ones that no one gave much of a crap about. You'll notice that it doesn't matter much what method was used to bring a book into the world--it can go poorly and it can go well in each and every camp.

Apologies for the long silence: let's just say that the cumulative effect of jet lag isn't just down to the number of time zones you traverse, but how long it takes. I live near a regional airport, and what was originally going to be a 90 minute transfer at the long-haul hub before my final sector turned into an 8 hour wait. As a result I got home with 36 hours of sleep deprivation and a nasty little cough — only five time zones on this trip, but it feels like I just flew in from Australia.

I acquired three notable things in the USA: an Amazon Kindle Fire, a small remotely piloted camera drone, and a sense of total mystification at current Republican politics ...

You know that wonderfully, wryly apt Gibson line: "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed"?

I came across this article a few days ago, detailing several self-cleaning fabric technologies, some chemical, some using nanotech. Some safer than others. It is pretty damned awesome. And it made me think of one of the particular vectors of uneven distribution. Bear with me for a minute, this is going to seem like a tangent, but it's not.

In a former life, I lived in Japan for several years, in Yokosuka, which is just south of Yokohama, about two hours by train east of Tokyo. Now, this was in the early naughts, so I'm willing to entertain the notion that it's all completely changed by now and what I'm about to say no longer applies. Nevertheless, moving there was challenging on multiple levels--personally, in terms of severe isolation, professionally, since I started publishing in America while living there and was far too broke to fly back to go to conventions or give readings.

But also, technologically.

Will be resumed eventually.

I'm flying home today, but won't arrive until Tuesday evening. Then, this weekend, I'm guest of honour at Satellite III in Glasgow. That gives me approximately 48 hours at home to get over the jet lag and run the washing machine until its bearings glow red-hot. Hopefully I'll have something to say in the meantime.

This will conclude my series of writing advice here--but I'll still be posting for another ten days or so, have no fear. (Or have fear, if you haven't dug this.) I'll be at Boskone this weekend if anyone wants to say hello. Thanks for sticking it out this long. I hope you've all gotten something out of these--it certainly grew in the telling since I meant to just do a quicky writing post and call it a morning almost a week ago. I promise some nice techy posts to cleanse the palette.

Funny how this turned out to be a list of ten. Talk about cliche.

I feel like the last two days should be one of the points about writing I've been making--you can't do everything all at once all the time. Being still sick while trying to turn around a copyedit on a dime mean propping yourself up by tying your spine to a broom, sticking your eyes open with tape, and running alternating coffee and cough syrup IVs for about 24 hours while you try to thing of actual English words to replace the one you somehow used four times on a page and slide off the blogging schedule you'd hoped to keep.

But at last, here is Part 3 of my series of thoughts on writing, and I think there's a part 4 lurking because these grouped around technical advice and there's a few last general things I want to say. Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about that thing I do every day. Since this is the technical section, I want to stress even more than usual that this is not prescriptive. It is what I have learned works and is interesting to me in seven years as a professional, full time writer. The only thing true for all writers is that we put words in some kind of order.

Idea ganked from elsewhere on the internet (yes, I am on a vacation from being on vacation, why do you ask?) ...

Political positions drift over time, quite dramatically, as the Overton window slides back and forth.

Continuing my series of thoughts on writing and the peculiar soup of skills and perspectives that go into it, I present to you points 3-5. These are not in any particular order, one is not more important than the other. It is not a top ten list, but numbers help me think in an organized fashion. Today's seemed to unintentionally group into a "Buck up, Camper" theme.

I'm teaching a lot this year, and thus having to think more about that old question: do you have any advice for young/aspiring writers? Since I'm still usually the youngest person on any given panel and not too long ago I couldn't sell a book to save my life, in many ways I still see myself as a young/aspiring writer. I wrote my first book when I was 22; it came out when I was 25. And I'll tell you, when it came out? I knew jackshit about writing. I did it because I wanted to and because I didn't know I couldn't. And I hit the ground running. But the result is that I'm kind of like a sitcom kid--I grew up in front of everyone. All my (ongoing) efforts to figure out life, the universe, and fiction have happened on paper, widely published, in more or less equal measure torn apart and loved. It's a harrowing, amazing, nailbiting way to spend your twenties.

You can find lists of rules for writers and advice and top ten dos and don'ts just about anywhere you care to look online. They're mostly of a kind: write what you love, follow submission guidelines, don't quit. Market yourself aggressively but not too aggressively. Write every day. There, I've saved you at least the cost of two books on writing. I've always been uncomfortable with telling people how to do these things we do, in part because I don't really see myself as an authority--why would anyone want to do it my way? And in part because good writing is a moving target, and what's more, no one agrees on where the target lies. But it is Friday and I am almost over my cold and I have students this weekend, so I'm going to drop some knowledge--which you should pick up, brush off, squint at dubiously, and only take home with you if you really like it and are willing to feed it, walk it, and pick up after it. Since I don't believe in soundbites and even two entries on the list is bordering on the epic, this is going to take a little while, so I'm splitting up the entries over the weekend and hopefully some of you won't vanish into the pre-Valentine's Day thrill ride.

Let's all repeat the holy refrain: Your Mileage May Vary. I am assuming here a level of desire to write interesting, chewy, risky fiction that is awesome after the fashion of the submission guidelines I wrote when I was editing Apex Magazine. Those who aren't into that sort of thing will find many other bloggers to guide them on their way. I can only attest to what I've learned, I can't mama bear every kind of writer there is.


Brief reminder: I'm going to be doing a reading and signing this Saturday at 7pm at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge (Mass, not UK) — that's at 4 Pleasant Street Cambridge, MA 02139.

I'm then planning on having at least one beer in the Cambridge Brewing Company on Kendall Square, from 9pm onwards — that's at 1 Kendall Sq, Building 100, Cambridge, MA 02139. This is, in my case, to celebrate having killed the monster handed in the copy edits on "The Rapture of the Nerds".

Books! Beer! What else is best in life, Conan?

I am incredibly sick at the moment, will all the exciting respiratory pyrotechnics that implies, so today I'm going to Think Real Hard about Star Trek, that old SF past-time. It's like playing on your childhood swingset. It's a little small for you now, but it still makes you smile.

Like many, I've been slowly rewatching Deep Space Nine ever since it popped up on Netflix. It's been fascinating. On the one hand: Oh 90s! YOU WERE THE BEST! With your adorable WE ARE SO DARK plots that seem like Strawberry Shortcake Goes to Space by today's standards. On the other, in many ways 2012 has already overtaken DS9 as The Future goes, barring, of course, space travel and replicators. Culturally, though, we've zoomed right past the 24th century by the second decade of the 21st.

I've been struck particularly by two things missing from the DS9 universe--one unpredictable in the 1993-99 span of the series, and one predictable but unattractive from the creators' standpoint.

Nobody uses social media, and nobody wastes time.

Just chirping up to say: I'm now in Boston.

I'll be doing an event for the MIT SF Society this Friday; and next Saturday the 11th, I'll be doing a reading and signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge; full details here.

I'm also going to announce a pub meet early next week (once I've settled on a venue and, this time, warned them to expect us).

We now return you to your regular scheduled tumbleweed while I wrestle with the copy-edited manuscript of "The Rapture of the Nerds" (which landed in my inbox — with Cory's updates — yesterday evening).

I think every writer has a genre or subgenre that they admire, but find baffling. Like a snake charmer watching a trapeze artist. Yeah, yeah, the snakes are poisonous, but you've been handling them for years. But that flip? Those heights? That drop? That's scary.

Well, for me, one of those genres is post-scarcity SF. To my mind it's one of the most difficult to pull off. Scarcity has been a fact of the human condition for more or less ever, and once you remove it you have to figure out what it means to be human aside from that endless parade of want. Before you start chapter one. On top of that, it's damnably hard to fashion a sympathetic protagonist out of someone who has never struggled in the way we struggle in our own lives, to present someone who does not come off as a monster of privilege. My hat is off to those who can manage it, to me it seems a miraculous mid-air twist without a net.

Yet I've been thinking about it constantly, as even this morning the lead news story on the radio are about tens upon tens of thousands of jobs being vanished as a cost-cutting measure for American Airlines, who surely have not lost ten billion dollars in the last ten years due to cargo carrier and flight attendant salaries. As automation, lay offs that land in the job market like shark bites, and industrial obsolescence evaporate whole professions, let alone individual jobs, the idea of a post-work culture seems like something we must address--at least in the first world.

But here's the thing--in most (not all, of course) post-scarcity SF, the fact of post-scarcity is a given. The Culture exists. The question of how we got there might be alluded to or skimmed over in an infodump, but I have so often been left feeling like there's us here, and then SCENE MISSING, SCENE MISSING, transeconomic future humans. Like the opening credits of Enterprise--I see all the steps in the space travel evolution chart, but there's a big gap between the space shuttle and Zefram Cochrane. I am a snake charmer--I can't see how we can get so high, in such spangles, how we can fly with such daring.

I think it's a slightly less murky path in Europe than it is in the US right now. Our powers that be would rather drink cognac on a pile of our bones than even give us health care. The word "socialism" might as well be "Voldemort": it which must not be named. For a whole host of sometimes terrible, sometimes merely stupid, reasons, we are apparently going to argue about abortion, contraception (not actually the same thing!), and gay marriage until we're bartering sex, guns, and stories about how it was before the fall for potatoes and uncontaminated water. It's not even a matter of how might it evolve here, but how might it overcome the tremendous entrenched resistance to the very concept of living comfortably without a wage.

It's not even that there's not enough work for everyone--our infrastructure is falling apart. There's a lot of people in this country who'd be happy to work on a bridge, but nobody wants to pay them for it. There will be no new public works act, and one day most of our bridges and the better part of our electrical system is just going to peace out.

But you know all this.

When Charlie first asked me to post I thought immediately: oooh, I get to ask my question. There is no commentariat more perfect to present it to.

Call it worldbuilding, call it a crystal ball. But what I really want to know is: how do we get there? What's the missing scene? There are a whole mass of possibilities (and I really think most of them are: not developing a post-scarcity culture) and I want to chart some out. Barring aliens landing with manna-dispensing replicators, how do we actually progress, both technologically/economically and as a culture to the point where a job is not the measure of a man? Because the cultural bits are a thorny, thorny business. Pursuing any field without immediately applicable utility seems to be seen as a particularly baroque form of suicide these days, both in the top-level political conversation and online. And all that bootstraps and a hard day's labor will straighten you right out, punk stuff doesn't just evaporate. In a very real sense the truly rich are already living in this world, but that doesn't keep them from telling the rest of us what is and isn't real work (plumbers, I guess. That seems to be a synecdoche for "honest" labor in the current rhetoric) and a real life, doesn't keep them from propping up the idea that yes, in fact, you are your fucking khakis.

I'm a skeptic. The Diamond Age is one of my favorite novels of all time, but I make my living in the folklore mines. That story about the cauldron of plenty that is always full of food or gold or silk or wine and never goes empty? It always ends badly. The cauldron is always a trick, or a trap, or it's real and precious beyond measure and ends up in pieces on some witch's floor.

But I also grew up with Fox Mulder as my moral compass. I want to believe.

So let's play. It's like the opposite of an zombie apocalypse plan. What's your plan for outliving lack?



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