Friday, June 16, 2017

Giving up SFWA

June is when I traditionally renew my membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  But this year, for the first time in approximately three decades, I plan to pass.

SFWA is older than the vast majority of its members, and for good reason.  For a certain kind of author, the venerable organization has accomplished quite a lot.  I'll even say that each newly-minted professional should pony up the dough, feeling proud about his or her inclusion in the club.  But for three years only.  Of maybe seven years.  No investment should turn into an annuity for the organization receiving your money.  After the initial honeymoon, the author needs to look hard at  benefits and costs, and if the gains are inadequate, then those funds should be shipped somewhere else.  To your website, to a new Chromebook.  To the rice and beans that you'll need over the next couple weeks.

I'm not using SFWA.  And sure, that underscores my limits as a professional.  I don't nominate works or vote on the Nebula ballot.  I'm miserable at networking, and I certainly don't haunt the websites associated with SFWA.  From conversations with colleagues, I imagine that there's quite a lot of chatter going on day and night.  Writers are battling over politics and the value of recent works, they make or lose friends with a single posting, and if some of these people spent as much fuel on their own work, they would have quite a bit more work.  But I don't involve myself with any of that, because I don't see any way to win at this game.

The SFWA suite at conventions.  That's the most tactile benefit accrued from my membership.  For years, there was no better place to meet other writers for the first time, and hear rumors, and culture the image that I belonged to a small organization that had some power inside a small corner of the shrinking publishing universe.  But the last several conventions have proved less than satisfying.  Some of the friends aren't coming to WorldCons anymore, shouting at strangers is less fun than it used to be, and not being involved with the on-line scene puts me at a deep disadvantage.  But mostly there's the problem that I don't have plans to attend any future conventions.  Which kind of makes the free pop and chips to be less of enticement than it used to be.

Good old days.  For me, the glory time in SFWA was in the late '80s, early '90s.  News came in the form of small cheap and charming booklets filled with minutes from meetings and letters from disgruntled writers.  Harry Harrison was a fountain of angry noise, constantly complaining about how we were idiots to work for so little and we were ruining the business.  There were always a few angry letters, and that's what I adored.  Drama.  The taste of discord.  Which is the last thing that the Internet can supply.  A taste.

SFWA can help with publisher troubles.  But I don't have many publishers, certainly none that my agent isn't suited to handle.

SFWA manages to fill its offices, but those ballots are barely more interesting than the Nebula ballots.  One candidate for every post, and maybe the wild card that nobody wants.  Which is understandable, since being an officer sounds thankless and occasionally grim.

The Nebula is a major award.  Ideally, the best works should be found and every voter should read everything nominated and vote only for the finest reasons.  But we don't and don't and don't.

Years ago, I was called by a fellow writer who wanted my vote.  It was a pretty ballsy act, I thought at the time.  And ever since.  I don't remember which way I went with my vote.  But the poor fellow didn't win, and I heard that he was furious after the award ceremony, complaining about all the butt-kissing that didn't pay off in the end.

Friends vote for friends, and that means everything in a club with a few hundred avid voters.

If I was Emperor of SFWA, I'd start a 5-year moratorium on the Nebula.  Nominate nothing, vote on nothing.  Then relaunch the trophy by judging the works still available five years after their first publication.  That gives the world time to assess, and what seemed valuable and wise in the past may have vanished altogether.  Or it's genius has only grown.

But even if this is a good idea, it won't happen.  If any President makes such a creatively radical proposal, he or she will be the first SFWA president to be cooked and served in the suite at the next WorldCon, alongside the chips and dip and little green florets of broccoli.

And maybe that's the best reason to give up on SFWA.

It's not half as creative as it believes itself to be.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Giving Up LOCUS

Until very recently, I paid 10 dollars each month for my own locker at the local YMCA.  Which I assume isn't very much money for a full-sized locker in a typical downtown health club.  But I also had a second locker that comes free with membership.  It's big enough for shoes and toiletries and the long basket holding my smaller treasures, and because my Y happens to be the oldest, smallest, and least important child in our local family of Ys, there's a considerable shortage of members.  A lot of the old guys are missing.  Which means an abundance of empty lockers labeled "Day Lockers."  Respectable volumes of cheap, lockable metal that can be had for nothing, and why am I paying 10 dollars a month?

Well, I gave up that fat-cat indulgence.  For now, the windfall is being spent giving the family commercial-free Hulu and CBS All Access.  Although once SURVIVOR is done, the CBS service may vanish.  At least for the summer.  At least until Star Trek arrives.  Which is another 10 bucks that has to be added to the family's monthly budget.

My growing need for frugality:  Here is a topic for quite a few blogs.  But I promise that I won't keeping talking about stashing my spare underwear and socks.


LOCUS MAGAZINE is considered a linchpin of SF and Fantasy.  And I've let my subscription lapse twice.  The first time came when I was a frustrated young writer.  I'm sure that I was partly motivated by saving money.  But what I remember best is the monthly frustrations, how this semi-pro journal would come to me, its only purpose to remind me about all the great book deals out there, and the young faces who were doing better at the job than I presently was.

Eventually I returned to the magazine, and I remained loyal for decades.  During that span, one of my stories won a Hugo, others were nominated for the usual major awards, and some little prizes too.  LOCUS reviewed my novels, and my stories were reviewed, and I can't complain about any critical opinions that disappointed me.  This is the game.  The critic reads too much and too quickly, and then he or she is paid for what they think, and I have zero right to take exception to anything.  Or for that matter, claim too much pride in anyone else's praise.

I was interviewed once in LOCUS.  Charlie Brown hit me at the end of a long convention, and I felt like shit and nervous, and I don't think either of us had much fun.  But my main takeaway is what the late Jim Turner told me afterwards.   When my interview was published, my photo was framed and set on the wall of another author, a woman with a reputation.  "The way they treated you on the cover," he said.  Or words to that effect.  "You should yell at them until their ears bleed."  Or something like that.  This was years ago, and Jim wasn't long for the world.

In brief, this is my relationship with the PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY of my small field.

I've let my subscription lapse again.  Money is part of the story.  But this time around, it felt more as if the yearly fee was short of value.  An annuity given to former associates who were never all that involved with me.  The typical issue would mean reading a few of the general news articles.  From those, I gathered that the industry seems unhealthy, and I don't just mean in terms of sales and numbers of readers.  Publishing houses are few, and they act scared.  Booksellers are few, and only one of them is successful.  (I'm looking at you, Seattle.)  I would feel more invested in this magazine if there was an editorial component to the writing.  But I don't recall seeing those articles.  LOCUS has never had the resources for real in-depth reporting.  It is a home for press releases, and for long, long lists of books that I never intend to read, and there's chatty news about editors who I will never meet, and foreign news that might be important to me, but how can I tell what matters?  And since we're living in a science fiction world, the big breaking stories can be found on the LOCUS website and around the Internet.  Why bother with another 20th century magazine?

I gave up LOCUS a little more than two years ago.  They did have one window to win me back.  When the Hugo controversy was at its height, I could have bitten on a source that had a strong-minded, entertainingly offensive editorial tone.  You know, a voice that would say, "This Puppy group is so fucked up that we should burn science fiction and start the fuck over again with a new name and a freshly scrubbed aspect."  I want a controversial voice that would do anything to win a much larger audience.  Because there was a brief moment when the larger world gave a shit about the Hugo.  Suddenly people who didn't care about the best novelette or short-form dramatic work were asking me about the award and the general business of SF writing.  LOCUS could have turned itself into that large smart voice that the New York Times and Huffington would regard as first on the list to call whenever any controversy broke.  If I was in charge, I would have given it a shot.  And when I failed, which is almost certain, I would have retired, handing the keys to whoever was standing closest.

I don't even glance at the LOCUS website daily.  When I do, my first task is to see who has died.  My second job is to look for the next interesting controversy.  I used to read the website's short-fiction reviews, and I'll admit that's because there have been nice things said about my stories.  But they don't have any resident critic anymore, and I certainly wouldn't want the job.  Eating thousands of stories a year, and from every publication and would-be website...that's a tough trail to walk...

When I do glance at the website, I see that science fiction and fantasy and horror are extremely good at the production and polishing of awards.

This is what my old business has come to.  People giving each other trophies.

So yeah, I stopped taking LOCUS.  And I've mostly stopped reading reviews of anyone's work, particularly my own.  Those two actions have freed up time in my day, and maybe that's the central reason behind most of my decisions at this point.

Time is short.

I've got work that needs to be done.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hand to the Heart

As a rule, and I mean as a tough, never-compromise-your-principles rule, I avoid placing my hand to my heart during the National Anthem.  Nor do I sing along or cast loving eyes at the rippling flag.

If people give me guff, I ignore them.

Or tell them that I'm Canadian.

But if someone persists, asking where this policy comes from, I'm prepared to explain that all of it is hollow posturing.  Paying your taxes and fervent respect the Bill of Rights.  Those are duties more important to the nation and its people than any quasi-religious event.  Which won't satisfy many in the audience, I know.

"But Bob, can't you put your feet in both boots?  Pro-BofR and pro-jingoism?"

Actually no, I don't think these are compatible faiths.  A feeling that comes in part from the obvious disgust of others.  While I act as if I'm dissing the stars and stripes, many of those in the hand-to-the-heart crowd are watching me, hoping to see my head explode.

Last year, for the first and probably only time in my life, I went to a NFL game.  Jingoism on steroids.  Servicemen and women were honored, because this is what you do when not enough citizens question the wisdom behind dangerous missions, or even the premise that soldiers stationed in foreign lands actually make Kansas safer.  Good Americans are supposed to bring out flags and beer and crisp uniforms and more beer, and to some degree, they feel happy because they aren't going into battle.  Because hopefully their kids won't have to either.  Although sure, a few of them have fought in a war, or they have lost a daughter or son.  But if that's the case, I doubt that a single fly-over by fighter jets puts any mind at ease.

And shall I mention the irony of a game that looks like ritualized war serving up an easy, deeply conditioned symbolism?

These last few months have helped my mood.  American actions and inactions are only increasing my commitment about keeping my hand away from my heart.  Watching my home take sides, and in particular, being reminded daily that different regions have very different politics, I find myself turning anxious in ways I never thought possible.  The remnants of the Old Confederacy were instrumental in electing the President and many of the Republicans in Washington.  Kansas City sits very close to the Rebellion from two centuries ago  And it doesn't very little imagination to picture America dividing in two unequal parts, then happily marching against one another.

And yes, each side with stars blazing on the flag.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Poor Korea

I'll begin with several admissions:  I am not Korean.  And I am not in a position to coax either Korea to move in any particular direction.  My father was a veteran of the Japanese-American War, and that experience was so fulfilling that he spent the Korean War cleaning latrines in North Carolina.  Or at least that's the story fed to me as a boy.  But as I say, I have no significant ties to the peninsula, or for that matter, to Japan.  I've read histories and I think Inchon was lucky hubris and the Chinese didn't so much catch us by surprise as they came across the Yalu when we had our eyes firmly closed.

North Korea is facing an onslaught of a super-industrialized nation.  But tough people know that civilization is frail, and nukes are knives ready to be used against weak necks.  An illustration:  One sharp proposal that I read some years ago--I don't recall where--had the North Koreans launching a big rocket.  The payload would be a dirty nuke that would have only one goal.  Make space.  Then it detonates a few hundred miles above the Earth, and the debris and radiation spread, doing their worst.  Low-orbit satellites are rarely hardened against this kind of abuse.  Entire networks of satellites would fail, and humans on the space station would have to come home, and we'd loose GPS and communications.  Sure, yes, North Korea would be struck hard as a consequence.  Our man in charge is a man of action, and he gets particularly pissed when anyone perceives him as weak.  But it's sobering to realize that one bomb can cost trillions of dollars.

But what if I was in charge of Crazed Korea?  Here's my  strategy.  Purely mine, I think.  (Writers are never sure what they've stolen from others.  Or we are sure, and we choose not to mention the crimes.)  Missiles are problematic weapons.  A couple dozen nukes, and possibly only a few are small enough to be carried over the ocean.  No, what North Korea needs to do is dig holes.  Ambitious holes, but not outrageously deep.  They should tunnel into the south slopes of little mountains near the DMZ.  Pick mountains with strong bones.  Give the tunnels angles, like a cannon barrel, and then pack them with nukes and the usual foul wastes that come with reactors working overtime.  And then like every evil character in a Bond movie, they need to monologue.  Explain to the world that if they are attacked, they will detonate.  If the wind is from the north, South Korea will be poisoned for centuries, ceasing to exist.  And if the wind isn't from the south?  Well, what's the worst that can happen?  A few million of my own people killed, and Seoul still left contaminated by the next shift in the weather.

Oh, and if that isn't bad enough.  How about a suicide submarine off the coast of Japan, crewed by patriots, carrying a hydrogen-infused warhead and enough cobalt to sterilize a fat portion of Honshu?

See?  Simple crude and spectacularly destructive tactics are easy, and of course I don't want this to happen.  No, what I want is for every human with a spark of imagination to realize that a few kilos of uranium, used with flair, can define the next twenty years of life on this little world.

Which could be the last twenty years, sure.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Canned Goods

A good day spent writing means surprising myself.  Random shit happens inside the plot line, characters outsmart the author, or best of all, I discover that final scene that makes the entire audience, myself included, declare, "Well of course that's what has to happen."

In contrast, the bad days are canned and routine, full of words, yes, but in the long haul, deservedly forgotten.  But even with those limitations, I might do that kind of work willingly.  If there was a lot of money involved.  If I didn't have to do it for years at a time.  Which wouldn't happen, because after three weeks, I would grow bored.  I'd probably work on my own stuff on weekends and lunch hours.  Except that words are like miles for the runner.  Only so many of each can be managed in any given span.  Four months of extraordinary pay, and I'd still turn disagreeable.  Unwanted twists would be grafted into the plots, characters would reveal bizarre tendencies, and if that rebellion didn't manage to get me fired, then a crippling depression would take hold.  Probably by the seven-month mark.  Which is when I would quit.  I hope.  Otherwise something more grim would happen, followed by a brief eulogy by my former co-workers during at the next morning's production meeting.

I have never met a professional fiction writer who isn't a passionate consumer of media.  Books and stories, sure.  But also television series and movies, and that underrated source of dramatic tension, news stories in their myriad forms.

Fair or not, what I expect from the outside world is much like what I expect from my own work.  I want surprises.  I deserve tensions.  And more than most audiences and even quite a few SF writers, I expect the narrative to make some kind of sense.

I stopped watching The Walking Dead.  I stopped last year, just before the famous bat arrived.  I'm far from the only lost convert, judging by the plunging ratings, but my complaints are rather different from most people.  Yes, I'm tired of the shambling pace and the do-we-fight-or-not tone.  But those aren't the killers for me.  I'm tired of Carl growing tall and masculine inside the very limited time frame.  (A far more believable and compelling story is to make every year cover a year, pacing the story to the boy's maturation inside a new world that he will possess.)  I admit that I have no relationship with the original source material for The Dead.  What I know is the series.  And within that framework, I can see a host of production issues, not limited to budgets and sets and the dictates of a corporation where important meetings have only one point:  "Kill our profits and we'll bash in your brains."

No, the worst sins in this show is the clumsy stupidity exhibited by characters who are far more simple than genuine people of very average means.  Really, at this point in the apocalypse, why would any two people stand on a hilltop, in the open, debating important principles of life?  The audience knows that enemies and their rifles are lurking.  And any soldier from any war has learned the same lesson, or she's dead.  To my mind, the only way to carry on a conversation is to find cover and sit down back-to-back.  Whispers and watchfulness.  That's how you keep the walkers and the humans from getting the jump on you.

Here's another big failure.  Farming.  Late in a previous season, a lady who's written to be smart draws a fanciful map of her lands being turned to wheat and other crops.  By "written to be smart," I mean that she knows exactly as much about farming as the writers who made her waste her final moments of life.  The kind of farming that can feed hundreds and makes life easy is going to require thousands of acres.  Fertilizers need to be applied or lived without.  The same for pesticides.   And this farmstead needs impossible walls that can't be breached by walkers or by humans.  No, if I was in charge of rebuilding agriculture, we'd do it like the Native Americans on the high plains.  Plant tough crops and move on.  Then come back again at harvest time.  A large sloppy technique, and your wheat would get raided.  But potatoes are hard to find, and on a substantial scale, those white gems would help feed hundreds.

The list of complaints continues, and plainly I watched too many seasons before quitting.

For instance, where can I buy a car that can sit for years and start with a turn of the key?  And how can any abandoned car still have air in its tires?  And for that matter, why hasn't the gasoline evaporated down to varnish inside the unused fuel lines?

Why in hell are the cities still standing?  Abandoned buildings practically want to burn; Atlanta and Washington DC should have turned to pillars of smoke and heavy falls of ash.  And the countryside wouldn't be spared.  Living and dead mouths have eaten every deer and presumably most of the mice.  That's why the underbrush would grow up thick, waiting for the next lightning strike and the resulting wildfire.

And now back to the daily business about avoiding starvation:  Insects should be on the regular diet.  Cicadas are a time of wealth.  And think of every funeral from this series.  Having life experience when it comes to digging holes, I know there's treasure in the ground, and the mourners aren't going to hesitate grabbing up the night crawlers, then sucking them down like pasta.

Finally, why doesn't anyone ask the obvious questions about this impossible disease?  Not that there's any virus or bacterium that can turns corpses into slow forces of nature.  I'm not saying that an origin should be found, or that the ultimate cure needs to be perfected.  I'm just proposing that smart people who dream about three acres of wheat might be more likely to spend time and risk death trying to make sense of a world-ending plague.

For some of these problems, there is an answer.  It's my writer's answer, assuming that I was hired to help find a suitable end for the shuffling the Dead.  We know everybody is infected.  We know because Rick learned that from a CDC doctor and then didn't mention it to anybody for a very long time.  Because he's a sensitive leader, I suppose, and he didn't want his people getting depressed.  Or for whatever other reason there is.  But what if it isn't just that Rick is infected, and Carol is infected, and one-eyed Carl too?  What if everybody who appears alive is not.  Our characters are already a little bit of a zombie, stupid and primal and at a loss to find answers.  Which has a historical precedent, as if happens.  A 19th century British venture, the Franklin expedition to the map the Northwest Passage, was lost.  And by lost, I mean that everyone died, and some died doing very curious nonsense.  For instance, after their ships were locked into ice, when they had no choice but to walk, they dragged a piano with them.  And why?  One factor was that this state-of-the-art mission that carried canned food, and the cans were improperly soldered.  As a result, everyone was suffering from lead poisoning.  Which is rather like a universe of full of walkers and foolish people who haven't quite turned yet.

Now that would be a very tragic turn inside a story that otherwise makes zero sense.

And sure, I'm fired.  But with my last paycheck, I hope.

Friday, April 7, 2017

I Have Stopped Reading Dilbert

I stopped reading Dilbert just after New Years.

My reasons lack a political angle.  I was aware that Scott Adams wrote and spoke in ways that offended large portions of the civilized world.  His particular crimes didn't stick with me.  Call me uninformed or lazy, or maybe I'm subconsciously part of his camp.  A comic strip read while eating cereal was not a rousing celebration of one man's beliefs, and it certainly didn't help Mr. Adam's bank account.  I got to laugh.  Sometimes.  I rather liked Wally.  And Dilbert himself was a good illustration of the "engineer's mind" applied in the setting where the engineer does his best work.  You know, inside simple systems, with four panels and minimal drawings and the circumstances under the tight control of one man making tidy lines.

Engineers can be brilliant, no doubt about that.  But it's a genius that thrives in the narrowest of circumstances.  Some big brains are very good at assembling tidy stacks of principles.  If-this-is-true, then-this-follows, and that-means-such-and-such.  That's why bridges rarely collapse.  There are rules, and every engineer can apply those rules, and the great ones can do it with creativity.  And sometimes, yes, there's real beauty in the structures.  Though I suspect most of that is the result of the mathematics buried inside the arches, plus the lovely red that comes when the iron rusts.

My wife sent me the above link this morning.  I finally read the blog a few minutes ago.  Am I surprised that the author is alt-right?  Not much.  And on a different topic:  Do I believe there's any truth in what he's claiming?  No.  Using nerve gas in a battlefield is complicated.  Using it on civilians leaves evidence beyond the useful bodies.  This is a small neighborhood littered with warring, deeply paranoid powers.  Russians and Turks, Israel and the US.  If I'm in charge of this elaborate operation, my first second and fourth concern is that everybody believes the false story, not the real one.  (My third concern is that I don't kill myself by mistake.  Sarin is famously amoral.)  But if I'm Assad, one gas bomb gives me distinct benefits.  First of all, I'm not killing my own people.  These are vulnerable sacks of meat that my sworn enemies cannot protect.  On this war's scale, the attack is little more than a well-placed barrel bomb.  It is a message of intent.  I killed more than a thousand people back in 2013, and the last President didn't attack me.  I want to scare two million refugees into Turkey and points north.  Meanwhile, the new President has been making sweet noise about me and my fight against terrorists.  Who look a lot like the people who are foaming at the mouth, I might add.

So no, I don't buy any self-serving notion that pretends to be theory.

Is Scott Adams stupid?

Probably not.

But the engineer's mind has limits.  To him and his species, there is a knowable logic to the universe.  There are rules to learn, and the engineer doesn't just master these rules, but he also learns that he's very good at this specific kind of thought.  Belief will eventually become just as strong as any good bridge.  To the engineer, only idiots and the weak-willed let themselves break under the weight of too much information.

Trump is not an engineer.  Not even close.

But Steve Bannon might be.  Since he doesn't draw a comic strip, I don't know much about him.  But I wouldn't doubt that he's a very bright fellow who holds a few key faiths, and each of those faiths felt so true when he acquired them.

And what about me and Dilbert?

I stopped reading the comic when 2017 began.  I quit reading the last five strips that I remotely cared about, and for no reason except that nothing seemed to change in any of their stories, and the laughs were getting scarce and stale, and it is amazing to realize that your day is made better when you stop doing one little thing that isn't paying dividends.

I'm not an engineer.

My mind, for better or worse, wants to change.

Friday, March 10, 2017

I'll tell you what good writing is

Good writing is unusual.  Even among professionals, there are very few complex stories populated with three-dimensional characters.  Of course a lot of fine careers depend on cliches.  Mansions and motion picture studios have been built because the authors had simplistic notions about human behavior and moral consequences.  Yes, that is a snob's attitude.  But my particular attitude is a little more nuanced than that.  You see, I don't believe that our species will ever be truly good writers.  And that includes me.  We also aren't gifted when it comes to thinking about imaginary numbers or making plans for future generations.  But we like to congratulate ourselves for being natural story tellers.  That's because each of us inhabits a personal and rather epic life.  This is a trick of the mind, and maybe it isn't just a human trick.  Maybe hawks and fence lizards think the same way.  But the life-as-story narrative does allow each of us to walk through random crap and odd know, everything that happened in life today...and it gives all of us a sense of structure.  Maybe we even find purpose, if that's what we need.  It's the skill that gives us the confidence to imagine our enemies cowering and taste our certain victories.  Even though most battles don't go as predicted, and few of our triumphs play out in ways we would never envision.

Humans are not stellar writers.  But we have a dangerous gift for strong first paragraphs, and sometimes a powerful chapter or two.  Which gets us into so much trouble.

"Our government is corrupt.  We need an outsider who's going to break the wheel.  Mathematics and kindness can be ignored, and the world will turn back to a better age when men were noble and women pure."

This is the story that got us where we are today.

Emotional claws.  They will trap every person.  Particularly those who believe they are too smart or too skeptical to be fooled.

The trouble with story, real story, is that it has no end.  That's what we can't appreciate.  And include me in that ignorance, please.  Real life has too many plots and billions of characters, and each of us is frantic and sloppy and tiny, trying to steer this world where we can only wish it would go.

If I was in charge of education?  I would give up trying to teach calculus to the masses.  Statistics is the better use of neurons.  People who understand odds don't waste their nights in Vegas or deny global warming.  And we must must must be kind to those in need, if only so we don't trigger the kinds of wildfires that make history so bloody and wicked and sorry.  And finally, I would mandate the writing of fiction, but only to the point where people would discover their utter weakness in this critical subject.

Hammer out a good sentence, and another, and ten more.

Finish your first chapter, if you can, building a handful of authentic humans out of old words and ancient hope.

But no author lives long enough, much less can find the necessary wisdom to give those new people the capacity to cast their own shadows.

This is what I'm saying.

Every person is a mystery, and every mystery is painted thin across the endless universe.