Monday, August 18, 2014

A Difficult Admission

Since joining the 1632 team when first invited by Eric back in 2001, I've had fantasies of being an SF writer. To an extent that I never thought would happen, those fantasies have come true. I have published SF fiction in hardcover anthologies from a major publisher. I receive regular (small) royalty checks, I present popular crowded presentations at SF conventions, my publisher sends me Christmas cards and invites me to authors dinners. I've moved from outside looking in to inside looking out.

But in the past thirteen years, I've discovered something very surprising about myself. I am not, in any normal sense, a fiction writer. When presented with a character and a setting, when presented with the potential for a story, when I need to answer "what comes next?" my mind goes blank. The longest sustained fictional setting I have managed just barely scraped past 5000 words, and that very nearly tore my mind apart.

On the other hand, I'm quite a good writer, fast and prolific. I can produce 5000 words of text in a short single sitting, and can turn that out day after day without stress. I just can't do first or third person fiction that way. My special gift is elsewhere.

If you look back over the posts on this site, if you look at my published work in the 1632 universe, if you visit any of the Weird Tech sessions at the 1632 minicons, you will figure it out for yourself. I'm very good at explaining complicated things in a way that is both interesting an understandable. I'm not Carl Sagan or Neil Tyson, or Issac Asimov, or frankly any of the people listed in the appropriate Wikipedia article. Still, I'm pretty good.

What I can frequently manage, that those folks don't even try, is explaining science fiction from the inside. What are the limits and potentials of a slower-than-light multi-stellar civilization? What happens to radio in a time travel story to the 17th century? How do you make records in the 17th century? What is the likely social impact and the biological effect of the English War Unicorn on 21st century warfare?

Wood Hughs took the three part radio FAQ for 1632 and produced Turn your Radio On. Gorg Huff and Paula Goodlett took the non-fiction piece on record production I wrote with Chris Penycarte and gave us Trommler Records.

We've published a lot of non-fiction in the Gazette over the years.  Some of it, including most of Iver Cooper's work is essentially reference work, pieces that establish a basis for people who need a fact or a tidbit for the universe. Some, and I think most of mine, on the other hand are written from within the universe. They are non-fiction, but further the story by setting up the characters and the mechanisms that happen. What they lack, and why we publish those as non-fiction is that they don't have plots, they don't have character development. That doesn't mean they can't be entertaining. See Father Nick and Brother Johann's piece on fluidic computing.

In the future, I plan to put some of my original non-1632 pieces here. Sometimes (as in the case of those English war-unicorns) I get a universe, and sometimes characters and vignettes dumped on me. I've struggled for years to drag them into stories in short or long form. Sadly, it just doesn't happen, and there appears not to be a market for universe building.

On the other hand.  If there are any of you who have universes of your own, and who would like to let someone else play in it and to explain things, anyone who would like to have the numbers run, the t's dotted and the i's crossed for your story universe, let me know. If there's a place in an anthology or a place for an addenda to a novel or a novella, if you're not the sort of author who thinks that explaining things takes away the wonder, then have I got a deal for you!

Rick Boatright -- SF Universe popularizer for hire -- cheap.

Meanwhile, back to the trenches. There's a whole lot of complicated things out there that folks don't understand, and apparently it's my job to fix that. :-)

-_ Rick

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Yet another fisking of John Scalzi and Toni Weisskopf

Recently, Toni Weisskopf the publisher at Baen Books wrote a guest post at Sarah A. Hoyt's blog, a re-post of an essay she posted on Baen's Bar, a forum that requires registration so Sarah's repost is the public link.

This post has had a lot of responses ranging from acclaim to hate. That means that in some sense, it's important.  IMHO, the most interesting response was by John Scalzi in his blog:   It's that post I want to try to comment on.  I choose to do it here rather than in the comments there because there's a zillion comments on it already, and I'm writing to my friends, not his readers.

Scalzi summarizes Toni's post as follows:
“Once upon a time all the fractious lands of science fiction fandom were joined together, and worshiped at the altar of Heinlein. But in these fallen times, lo do many refuse to worship Heinlein, preferring instead their false idols and evil ways."
Let me make myself perfectly clear. Of all the styles of argument that you can engage in, this sort of straw man argument pisses me off.  It offends me. It makes me want to stand up and scream. The problem is, John's failed both at the art of summary and at intellectual honesty.  He's set up a target that he claims is Toni's work, and then shoots at it, but if you're going to try to tear apart a writer's work, it's important to actually tear apart what they wrote.  John didn't do that.  He exclusively comments, at length on his summary, not on what Toni wrote, never citing her words or thoughts. This is unjust and unfair.  As I said, it pisses me off.

What Toni said was:
"The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture."   
She then goes on to enumerate the nature of the divide that concerns her. -- It's possible to draw many many different divides, but Toni is focusing on one, that traditionally fandom, and even more specifically fandom in the form of science fiction conventions traditionally has __nothing__ to do with greater world politics. The rule for more than seventy years has been "leave your politics at the door" -- that fandom was an open culture.

The problem is, in any group there are those who have a profound interest in the thing the group is about -- science fiction, pomeranians, geneology, whatever -- and there are those who have a profound interest in THE ORGANIZATION, WorldCon, The Pomeranian Society, the geneology club, whatever.  For a shorthand, call these people bureaucrats.

Lately, the bureaucrats have been pushing people out of SF groups, including SFWA, conventions, etc. based on their politics or even worse, the political leanings of the characters they write about. The bureaucrats are closing the open culture of SF and attempting to define "right thinking."

Toni then uses the example of Heinlein fans.  It didn't /need/ to be RAH, it could be almost anything. Specifically, she says:
"For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein."  But please note later in the very same paragraph she says: "...these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers."
Toni then asks the critical question about those who criticize the people who want to exclude them from SF groups and from conventions.
"So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.
And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them...."
John jumps on that. As a matter of fact, basically all of his essay pivots around that last sentence. He asserts that Toni is calling for Heinlein fans to be acclaimed as the "true" SF fandom to the exclusion of others.  The problem is, that's exactly the opposite of what she wrote.  Toni continued:
"There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction. Artists, readers, authors, editors, all united in discussing the things that are cool and wonderful, together. "
Thus the divide.  In the rest of her essay, Toni gives further examples of this divide and further examples of why it is hard to bridge. In short, it's very difficult to have a conversation with others when you share no common experience and even harder when you, and those with like views are excluded.  John closes with a statement that both minimizes Toni's concerns and once again accuses her of refusing to participate in the larger SF community:
If the Baen folks do, in fact, decide to contract into a little defensive ball in which only the pure of heart shall be admitted into Bob’s sight, the impact on the rest of the science fiction and fantasy field will be pretty much exactly nothing. The rest of the field will chug along in its myriad ways, happy not to be bothered by a small and shrinking group yelling at them you aren’t the true fans, no not at all, why aren’t you listening to us. 
Baen and its fans and writers are what any of us in the genre are: a constituent part, something the makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a shame so many of the people who identify with it — the publisher included — appear to be yelling at the rising tide of the current field to keep it from coming in. I imagine that Robert Heinlein might have something pungent to say to them about it. Maybe he already did. I’ll have to check the notebooks.
The problem, once again is that John's shooting at his straw-man.  Toni's conclusion is directly opposed to the idea of "contracting into a little defensive ball:"
And I think again SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.
And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.
 So.  Scalzi says if Toni and the Baen readers go away, no one will notice, and that we should not worry about what they have to say.  Toni says that suddenly, in a change from tradition, SF is excluding people based on what they think, and that SF traditionally thrives on conflict, and that because of that, those who are being excluded should fight to stay.

Yep.  Straw man.  Damn John, I respected you for a long time.  Why John Scalsi, why?

Me,  I just checked to make sure I had made my hotel reservation for Libertycon.