On whale oil and lifestyle choices

Today is Earth Day, a day that, weirdly enough, I feel somewhat ambivalent about. This isn’t because I have problems with the planet Earth – that’s where I keep all my stuff – but I have some problems with the cultural sustainability movement itself.

I can distill my problems down to one moment: walking through Dillard’s and coming upon a line of bamboo products. They had bamboo cutting boards, bamboo cups, even bamboo bedsheets, actual sheets made of intensely processed bamboo. This was being sold as a highly green, sustainable product, because it’s made out of bamboo, which grows super-fast, and it also benefits from what I suspect to be an Asian Exoticism – to folks in the US, anything slightly Asian is mysteriously better. Because of these collective influences, bamboo is a hot product in the green market.

But here’s the thing – just earlier in the year I’d attended an architectural materials seminar discussing the specifications of building materials in depth, and I was aware that bamboo was actually not a very sustainable product at all.

First of all, most of it’s grown and shipped out of China. So almost all of the agriculture and collection was coal- or oil-powered, and then they had to put it on a bigass ship and send it across the ocean over here, which uses God knows how much oil. Secondly, bamboo is not like pine or other conventional woods: it’s tough to work with and it frequently takes a not-insignificant amount of chemical treatment to make it pliable. And thirdly, holy shit, you want to make bedsheets out of wood? (I know bamboo is technically a grass, but still.) Do you know how much energy that takes to do?

But bamboo remains a hot commodity for people interested in sustainability. And that’s my problem with the sustainability movement: to a certain extent, it’s a culture. For its purchasing demographic, sustainability is not a series of technological developments, but it’s a lifestyle choice, almost verging on being a religion.

And that means that it’s not for everyone, it’s for my people, and the real problem is that there are people who aren’t your people whose only choice is to become your people. “If you were smart,” you’d say to those Others, “you’d convert.”

And that’s really easy to turn down.

*             *             *

The upshot is, there are a lot of exciting things happening right now. All of them are good for the majority of people. Some of them, if not most of them, also align with the sustainability movement.

The big winner, as innumerable financial and economic forecasters have noted, is solar power, which has had an unprecedented drop-off in price, coupled with a marked increase in efficiency. If experts are to be believed, by 2020, and without tax credits, solar power will be as cheap as coal, if not cheaper. Here in Austin it’s already cheaper, albeit with tax credits.

(To those who decry governments propping up ridiculous energy sources, please consider this.)

And not only is the cost of solar plummeting, but the efficiency is still improving every monthwith some pending advances that could make solar panels generate well over twice as much energy.

The remaining issue is storage – what do you do when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing? – but the tech industry is anticipating this. Between Elon Musk’s Tesla battery factory, the new, cheap, flow battery, and significant advances in graphene (which Samsung and researchers in Ireland are figuring out to produce in industrial quantities), the storage market is looking to mimic the solar photovoltaic (PV) market in increased scale, decreased cost, competitiveness, and consistent technological advances. And with the plummeting cost of solar PV, there’s plenty of reason to try to stake out territory.

*             *             *

So things are changing. These changes are technological, and they’re chiefly self-interested. I mean, these people aren’t making these investments out of the goodness of their hearts: they’re making these investments because if someone can figure out how to harness, capture, and utilize all the energy falling out of the sky, then they could make a metric shitload of money.

In other words, these advances in sustainability are, in some part, occurring independent of the bamboo-enthusiast wing of the green movement, the hyper-critical Greenzos of the world. And I think it’d cause active harm to lump these huge advances in with the cultural sustainability movement.

Making sustainability and technological advances of this kind a lifestyle choice, an explicitly cultural domain, would be akin to saying that only white people use bank accounts, that that’s a white people thing to do. Essentially, it’s restricting what potentially could be an enormously helpful mechanism into rigid cultural boundaries. And that sucks.

But though energy has become a partisan and cultural issue over the past 50-75 years, it can’t stay that way. Mainly because the market won’t tolerate it, even if you try and use the government to stamp it out. (A curious tactic from players who are frequently anti-taxes and anti-government meddling in the market.) If something’s reliable, useful, and dirt cheap, then people will want it.

Try and imagine a counter-smartphone movement in the early aughts of this century, a political organization focusing all of its strength on ending the proliferation of smartphones. Try and imagine a counter-computer movement in the 80’s and 90’s, lobbying groups focusing to prevent increased electronic data storage. Unimaginable, right?

It’s tech, just tech. It’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a device, a tool. And tech will always keep getting better and cheaper, and people will want to buy it more and more.

*             *             *

If you didn’t know already, I think about science fiction a lot. And a big part of science fiction is changing a rule in the world and trying to predict how the world would react to that change. What if people could, say, teleport? Or clone themselves? Or upload memories into one another’s brains? What would the short-term exploitations of this new rule change be? How would it change everyday life? What would the unintended consequences be?

So the idea of solar intensely intrigues me, because, well, it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. Energy has always been a hugely centralized industry: it takes money to find fossil fuels, money to buy the land, money to dig them out of the earth, money to transport them, money to refine them, and finally money to distribute them. It’s an enormous chain of supply that can only be shouldered by someone with a lot of money. So to a certain extent, energy has always been about depending on a few very wealthy players.

(And in case you’re wondering, I’m not one of the self-flagellating types who condemns all of humanity for using a resource to the greatest extent it possibly could. I don’t believe that humanity or nature ever existed in a perfect Garden of Eden state: I think nature’s always been in flux and that we, as a species, are kind of an anomaly, a breed of creature that became exponentially adept at finding exceptions to every natural rule. Other species existed before us that were in the right time and the right place to reproduce to the extent that they had consequences on their environment. We’ve just hugely, hugely, hugely scaled that up.)

But the recent technological advances suggest a state of human civilization that’s never been around before: a distributed energy system, where someone could theoretically be able to afford cheap solar PV and storage, and live on their own without having to depend on someone to provide fuel and energy for them and manage the energy market. It might not happen for decades, but it could, theoretically, eventually come about.

In some ways, it’s a Libertarian dream come true. In others, it’s potentially a way to lessen inequality all around the globe. If just anybody can get their own electricity – if there are no gatekeepers, no one with their hand on the tap – who knows what we could do? Maybe irrigate developing countries for pennies on the dollar?

This has happened before to other industries, of course. Publishing, for example. The telephone system for another, as I mentioned above. This isn’t the first potential industry disruption.

And it’s not the first disruption the energy market’s ever had, either.

A couple of hundred years ago we depended on a very specific animal for energy. The world created a tremendous industry solely for hunting this animal, extracting the energy resource from the carcass, refining it, and shipping the energy all over the world. The capital of this industry was New Bedford, Massachusetts, and when the captains of this industry heard that a group of entrepreneurs believed it’d be possible to extract a new source of energy out of the ground, rather than extracting it from the corpse of this very specific animal, they laughed it off.

But no one uses whale oil to light their lamps these days.

We look back on that era and we find it odd and barbaric. The idea of human beings chasing whales across the sea, slaughtering them, and cracking open their skulls to access their oil – all so that humans could light their lamps ­– is unthinkable to us now. “How could they have done that,” we ask, “when we were sitting on vast oceans of oil, just a few hundred feet below the surface of the Earth?”

Sometimes I think we might one day find our current energy industry as strange and ridiculous as we do whale oil. “Why did they ever have to drill down into the earth and suck up goop made out of long-dead plants,” or children might ask, “when all around them energy was falling on their shoulders, every day? Why would anyone ever go to all that work?”

How to get an agent

My last post about writing advice came with a few questions – namely, if you can’t tell us how to write, then what the hell are you good for, anyway – so I thought I’d write a post about the one piece of advice I probably can give with good conscience: how to submit to an agent.

The underlying theme of this post, as you will see, is Be Professional. You know how the Cub Scouts have “Be Prepared”? It’s kind of like that, except elementary school kids have actually shown some success at being prepared, whereas most writers out there are seemingly allergic to being professional. This may have something to do with being stuck indoors all day making shit up, but it still speaks to the big point of this piece: there’s already lots of factors contributing to an agent sending you a rejection, you don’t want for your own damn self to be one of them.

Anyway. On with the listcicle, or whatever they call them these days.

1. Finish it.

Agents are, on the whole, busy people. Either they already have a full roster of clients, or they’re helping out their agency, or they’re trying to build their roster as much as they can. In short, their time is limited, and they aren’t going to want to spend their time on an idea. They’re going to want to spend their time on a book.

Yes, a real, finished book. Not an outline written on a church flyer. Not a handful of pages. If they’re gonna look at it, they’re gonna want to see the whole thing.

So, finish your book, first and foremost. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Not finishing it would be akin to trying to get investors to sink money into an innovation that you haven’t even gotten to work once yet.

2. Cut it. A lot.

Chances are, if you’re a burgeoning writer, you’re probably not too sure of yourself right now. No writer really is – writers are some of the most insecure people I’ve ever met, probably because of the alone-in-a-room-all-day thing I mentioned above – but when you’re first starting out, you haven’t had a myriad of people tell you with surgical, professional detail which parts of the thing you made are completely terrible.

As such, you’re probably not too sure of yourself, so you’re going to overdo it to compensate.

I want you to think of something: think of a mason building their first wall. They’re laying bricks, but they’re not quiiiiite sure if the bricks are sitting right. So what do they do? They slap on mortar. Lots of it. And then, you know, the mortar looks a little uneven, so what does the mason do? They slap on more mortar. More and more and more, because they’re really nervous this wall isn’t going to stand up.

So what do they have at the end? A lumpy-ass wall with hardly any brick visible.

There’s about a 60% chance this is what you wrote in your first draft. Probably greater, but I’m being nice here because you’re cute and I’m getting soft in my old age.

Here’s the thing: with writing, less is more. The reader is doing almost all the work for you. They’re the ones putting flesh on all the faces in their heads, they’re the ones coloring in all the CGI explosions. All the extra shit you’re throwing in there just to make sure they Get It? You don’t need it.

Cut it. Cut it all. Cut it to the bones, then cut some more. Keep cutting. As Le Carre put it, the point of writing is to distill the essence of a whole cow in a cube of bouillon.

3. Stick it away somewhere.

Okay, so you wrote a book. Yes. It’s a big deal, something most people never do, so pat yourself on the back. Seriously, give yourself a spiritual thumbs up. Have a second glass of white wine before reading the New Testament tonight, because you deserve to have a little fun.

Now stick the thing away somewhere in the dark and don’t read it for a month.

Now, I can hear you getting impatient – you want to be successful right now, I get it – but you don’t want to give your prospective agent a possible shitshow, do you? You want this to be totally and completely the best thing you’ve ever done, right?

Then you need some distance, especially at this stage in your writing career. You’re all bound up in this thing. You can’t be trusted to look at it with a critical eye – chances are, if you look at it right now, you’ll just slap on more mortar. You need distance. You need some breathing room.

It’s like a one-night stand or a whirlwind affair – take some time by yourself outside of this relationship before you return to it and decide if this is really something, or if it’s just meeting a base, immediate need.

And it’s okay if it is. Writing is like painting: the first few are likely stinkers. You’re not Creating A Novel, what you’re doing is building up your literary muscle and connective tissue. Because listen, you’re not going to just jump in a pool and perform a perfect butterfly stroke the first time out. This takes work.

Something to keep in mind during this Time Apart period:

1. DON’T get any bright fucking ideas for mixing up your novel. DON’T read something cool and say, “Yeah, I’ll throw this in, too!” It either stands on its own or it doesn’t.

2. DON’T start doubting yourself. You wrote a book. You must have thought it was good. It’s not like radioactive material, decaying and turning shitty in some cupboard in the dark.

3. DON’T start anything new. Usually what you’ll be doing is something similar enough to what you already wrote that the two will lean on each other like drunks at a bar, like chimera twins.

4. Cut. Again.

So, you’ve let it sit. You’ve got some distance on it.

Now come back to it and read it like a reader.

This is hard. This is maybe the hardest part. You’ve got to read the thing that’s a product of you as if you’re somebody else. It’s like watching a sex tape with you in it – you can’t get too embarrassed, and you can’t get too defensive here, either. You need to stay impartial and detached, and find the flaws in what’s on the page. (This metaphor kind of fell apart but I don’t care.)

Your instinct will be to add more. Don’t. Cut instead. Your instincts will find weaknesses, but don’t put on more words. You need to be a sculptor, shaving away excess to reveal the design beneath.

5. Let someone else read this puppy.

Now’s when you get it beta read.

If you’re having ANY doubts right now – any “I can’t let someone see this” kind of total panic attacks – you’re not ready to be a writer. Because if you actually break in to the industry, a whole, whole, whole lot of people are going to read your stuff, and they’re gonna read it hard. I don’t know if you need to take a spiritual journey to find your self-confidence, maybe go on a road trip or find your spirit animal or whatever, but if you can’t send someone who’s a good, hard beta reader your stuff, then you’re not ready for primetime.

Now, make sure to pick your beta reader with care. Absolutewrite.com is a great place to find someone who’s not a complete asshole, but also isn’t a total softy. In fact, maybe go get an account on the forums there now and just hang out for a year or two. That’s where I started.

Some bloggers beta read, too. In fact, they get requests nonstop. So, if you want them to beta read you, and take you seriously, read their reviews thoughtfully and engage them. Talk to them, leave comments. That’s crystal meth for most bloggers.

Now, your beta reader is going to come back with comments. And Neil Gaiman once said a very true thing:

When someone says there’s a problem with a book, they’re almost always right. That thing is a problem.

But when they say how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.

So take their concerns seriously, but take their advice with a grain of salt. Be polite, but don’t let them write your book for you. But the odds are, the solution is somewhere in what they’re saying. And sometimes you realize you’ve been thinking of the solution all along, you just didn’t know.

INTERLUDE: Being a worrywart

Okay, so you did some tough edits, you let someone beta read, you took their comments seriously.

Now, if you’re still uncertain, go through steps 2-5 ad nauseum. Do it until you’re confident of your work. You need to actually believe that the thing you wrote is The Thing, because that confidence will show through: it’ll make you research your agents more, it’ll make you make your queries more professional, it’ll give you the stamina you need to see this through to the end.

But don’t be too insecure. Some writers get stuck in this stage forever. Again, if you’re content to dither and fret, you’re not ready to be a professional writer. At some point in time, you got to cut the umbilical cord.

7. Research your agents.

Agents are sort of the border mavens of publishing, in a way: some edit, some don’t, but all of them essentially exist because their heads are (hopefully) giant rolodexes and encyclopedias of what editor is where, what imprint is looking for what, what did well, what didn’t, what overseas publishers are hungry for this, that, or the other…

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Editors are much tougher to pitch to. This is because editors are busy advocating for their books, and when they’re not doing that, they’re listening to agents. Agents are the personal advocates of The Writer, in any state – unpublished or not. Editors are advocates of The Book, but chances are they’re only advocates of The Book That’s Been Bought. The Book That’s Been Bought has gone through a lot of stages first. And a lot of those stages start with an agent. That’s why you need one.

Now, agents do a lot of stuff. Not all agents are right for you. This is when that confidence comes in: this is something you slaved over, right? You’re looking for the person who could carry not only your book but your whole career into the constellations themselves, and set your figure among the stars next to Orion, right?

So make sure you’re not picking a chump. You’re worth it.

Also, don’t try and bring someone something they don’t want to buy. Don’t bring SFF to a YA mainstream agent. Don’t bring a book of poetry to someone doing Weird Fiction. Agents multitask and sell a lot of things, yeah, but try and get their tastes down first. This is what they spend their days and nights on: they are almost CERTAINLY unlikely to make an exception for you. I know you’re a delicate, special snowflake and all, but the odds are very, very, very low that they’re going to undertake a book they don’t do just out of the goodness of their heart.

8. Follow the rules, and be professional.

Okay, you picked out your top 10 agents, right? Now’s when you start querying.

Agents will have explicit instructions on their website about how to query them. If they don’t, they’re not what you’re looking for. (Or they aren’t taking on any new clients.)

Follow those rules. Follow them oh, oh so carefully. If they say they want the first ten pages, give them that. If they don’t ask for those, don’t give them that. This SHOULD be simple, but most newbie writers are desperate, so they’ll do the equivalent of asking their classmate to prom by playing them a lute solo in the middle of lunch at the cafeteria.

You want to be totally radioactive and untouchable? Don’t follow the rules. Assume you’re special, and your book is special and you both deserve special accommodations by these seasoned professionals. That’s a great way to never get published.

This is when work experience comes in handy. Have you ever had to send an email to 15+ important, busy people about a big project? That’s how professional you want to be.

The problem is, most writers aren’t professional. Writers – even ones making money – seem to exist in a state of arrested development. They want to think everyone’s a fan of the stuff they like – and, sure, agents and editors wouldn’t be in this if they weren’t fans, but this is how they make their living. They have people gushing at them all over the place. What they want is something straightforward and by the numbers. They want to see that you know the rules and you’re willing to follow them. They want to see that you’re stable and dependable. No one wants their lawyer or accountant be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, so the same goes for you, Mrs. or Mr. Professional Writer.

Here are some pointers:

1. Don’t be cute. For the love of fucking God, don’t be cute. Don’t start your query with something like, “Darkness is falling in the realm of Cantilverde…” or any of that bullshit. Talk to them like a possible investor. This is a business proposal, not a performance or a god damned magic show.

2. MAKE SURE you get their name right. E-blasts will get you blocked, and rightfully so.

3. Practice your pitch. Pretend like you’re talking to someone at a party, and the subject of your book organically comes up. You like it, right? You think others should read it, right? So practice communicating what’s fun about it. OR: imagine you’re discussing someone else’s work, and you’re advocating on their behalf. That’s what you want to write in your query.

4. Don’t withhold the plot. Spoil away. Like I said, they want to see everything they could be buying.

5. Don’t talk about yourself or your family unless it’s really important. “My mom likes this” is such a turnoff. Unless you’re an Iraqi war vet or your dad was Ghandi or something, odds are no one cares.

6. Personalize your query. You’ve done your research, right? Mention the other books they’ve agented – which you’ve read now, right? – or some of the blog posts they’ve done. This is a professional way of saying, “You’ve attracted my interest because of your personal qualities and features, and because of this I have something that might be of interest to you.” Most will not do this. Most writers will come at them like, “I VAGUELY UNDERSTAND YOU ARE A GATEKEEPER TO PUBLISHING, PLEASE IMMEDIATELY MAKE ALL MY DREAMS COME TRUE.” This is a god damned working person on the other end of this email. Value and treat them like one.

9. Do whatever they hell they say. In the most professional manner possible, of course.

If they ask for the first three chapters, give them those.

If they ask for the whole thing, do that.

If they say no, don’t beg and plead and whine. It’s over: let it go, and move on.

And from this point on, act like a real professional, someone whose time is valuable and who recognizes everyone else’s time is valuable too. Be professional in how you treat them, how you respond to them shopping your book around – don’t call them crying on the phone – and in how you act online about this whole experience.

Writing means art, but professional means business. People want their professionals – in all industries – to be courteous, considerate, prompt, and dependable. They expect the best of you because it’s your job to give the best. It’s their job to give the same.

But don’t forget: being professional not only means that you understand other people are valuable, but that you are, too. You have something you do well, something you worked on, something you’re serious about. Don’t undersell it.

Good luck.

Making sandwiches

I don’t normally post about the writing process here – as in, like, detailed descriptions of characterizations, writing action scenes, etc. – because A. those sorts of workshop-guides weren’t terribly useful to me as a developing writer, but also B. I don’t really understand how to write those sorts of things for other people.

Writing questions in general, for me, are a lot like hearing people ask me, “How do I make a sandwich? What’s the way that I become a sandwich-maker, a person that makes sandwiches?” And they’re asking this as if it’s an exotic and difficult thing to do, like becoming a certified engineer or an architect or something.

So I’m always kind of confused about how to answer. To extend this metaphor, my answers are usually about as helpful as, “You just go into your kitchen and do it.”

And that’s it. There’s not really a right way or a wrong way to write, nor is there a right way or a wrong way to make a sandwich.

Like, some people ask me the equivalent of, “When do I become a For-Reals sandwich-maker? Is it when I make a sandwich I really like? Or one my family likes, my friends? One that another person buys from me? One that TONS of people buy from me, in stores across the country?”

I don’t know. That’s up to you. Figure it out for yourself, man.

Or, “What if someone doesn’t like my sandwich? What if they HATE my sandwich? What if they’re so upset by my sandwich that they tell all their friends about my bad sandwich?”

I dunno. Fuck that guy, I guess. It’s just a sandwich. He doesn’t HAVE to eat it. There’s a bunch of sandwiches out there, if he’s obsessing about a bad one then that’s his problem. It’s up to you as to whether or not you want to make it your problem, too.

So when it gets down to the nitty gritty of writing, the questions all sound like:

“Can I put ham before the cheese?”

“Yes.”

“Can I put ham AFTER the cheese?”

“Yes.”

“But how will that change things?”

“In that sandwich, the ham will come after the cheese.”

“Do I need a degree to make sandwiches?”

“No.”

“Will a degree help, though?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. Do you want to make the sort of sandwiches that you may or may not need a degree to make?”

“Can I do three slices of bread?”

“Yes.”

“What about pickles?”

“Those are also things that can go in a sandwich.”

“Will people like them?”

“If people like sandwiches that have pickles in them, and you put pickles in a sandwich, then odds are they will like that sandwich.”

And so on, and so on.

Do you want to make a sandwich? Just go in your kitchen and get some bread and try stuff out. No one’s stopping you.

In fact, in all honesty, no one will probably care if you do or if you don’t, beyond a small circle of friends that are sympathetic to your sandwich ambitions. That’s both a hard truth, and a freeing one. Once you realize no one will likely give much of a shit about what you put in your sandwich besides you, you can do whatever you want.

Do you want to make better sandwiches? Then eat a shitload of sandwiches that are better than yours, and pick them apart as you eat them, looking through the bread and whatever, and try and figure them out.

But you don’t have to make THAT sandwich.

Writing workshops and writing degrees, odds are, will tell you how to make a specific range of sandwiches. Maybe a big range, maybe a small range. But, again, you don’t have to make THOSE sandwiches. Might be helpful to know how, but you’re not married to those sandwiches or anything.

Seriously, why would you want to make the same sandwich over and over again? Try stuff out. If it tastes bad, it tastes bad, but so what? You can always just make another sandwich.

Just start doing it, a lot, and figure it out.

CITY OF STAIRS Advanced Review Copies are in

So the CITY OF STAIRS arcs came. Check em out:

cos giveaway

They look… small. Like, I know this book is about a third shorter than AMERICAN ELSEWHERE was, but it feels more like half. See? (Bonus excessive barware in the background.)

cos comparison

But I checked and made sure, and all the words are there. The magic of formatting, I suppose.

I asked awhile back if you’d like to receive an ARC of the book, and I think a lot of you have been patiently waiting. Now’s the time that you should be hearing from Crown about your copy. Sarah over there is doing a great job of working the list I compiled, but if you’re a reviewer and you completely missed getting on my list, post a comment to this blog post with your email address. I won’t publish the comment, but I’ll send your address along to Crown.

As a note, while I know a lot of people want to read the book – something I’m very grateful for – at this time, we’re really only looking to give books to reviewers. We only have a handful of these, so unfortunately we got to make them count.

As this puppy doesn’t drop until September, I probably won’t be doing a giveaway until July or so. Also, the box of books had the misfortune of arriving during a bigass family event, so it got pounced on and raided immediately, so I’ll need a month or two to force all my relatives to please return my books.

In the meantime, CITY OF STAIRS has maintained a near-perfect rating on Goodreads.

I completely own up to being a geocentric crackpot

Well, it looks like I’m in the hot seat again.

Listen folks, let me just put this out here: last time I checked, we lived in a little country I like to call America. (Except for foreign people, who obviously do not matter.) And in this little place I like to call America, you’re allowed to believe whatever you want, even if you have no basis or even identifiable motive for doing so. And if anyone – particularly anyone in the minority – has any problem with what you believe, it’s my inalienable right to scream at the top of my lungs until my teeth bleed.

What am I talking about, here? Well folks, I’m coming under a lot of fire for a film recently made out of a collaboration I did with Robert Sungenis, Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right.

galileo was wrong

Haha, man, it seems like it was only a few years ago that we fired that sucker out. I still remember those days: me, trudging out of my mud shack in the desert, my nostrils lined with cocaine rime, and I saw ol’ Sungenis sitting on the ground, wearing nothing but his chinos and staring up at the cloudless sky.

I asked him if we’d found forgiveness yet – we did a lot of that out in the desert – and he said, “Forget that! Have you ever noticed that fuckin’ thing?”

He pointed up. It took me a while to realize he was pointing at the sun.

“What, the sun?” I said.

“You have a name for it?” he said. “When did that happen?”

“The sun, or me naming the sun?”

“Both.”

I scratched my head, causing some hair to fall out. Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember exactly when the sun showed up, or when I started calling it that. Sungenis quizzed me pretty hard on it, so much so that I threw up in my mouth a little.

“You know what I think?” said Sungenis as I lay on the ground, gasping for air.

“Something about the Jews being bad?”

“No. Well, yeah, I’m always thinking that,” he said. “What I’m thinking is, everything we know about that fucked up puppy up there is totally wrong.”

“I feel like people know a lot about the sun.”

“But have they ever seen it?”

“Yeah, probably every day.”

“No, I mean – seen it up close.”

I furrowed my brow. “Maybe someone has…”

“But have you ever met someone who has?”

“I… guess not?”

“Exactly!” he said.

And so we got to work, pounding away on typewriters on our book. For about a year or two, we made no progress. Then I had the smart idea to try and put some paper in the typewriters, and whammo, things just blew up. You can basically put anything on paper, if you try, and I guess that goes for the world, too – you’re free to say whatever the hell you like about it, and if someone disagrees with you then that’s the only thing worse than murder, I guess.

Those were the good old days: me and Sungenis, typing away, ranting into tape recorders, living with about forty-seven stray dogs who would just show up whenever they wanted. (Later when we parted it turned out the dogs were the legal owners of the shack.) It wasn’t exactly the healthiest living conditions – me and Sungenis both contracted the P.H.D., a disease so virulent we are now legally required to list it after our names – but I still look back on it fondly.

Since then, it’s been a long, hard road, trying to disprove a bunch of shit people have seen with their own goddamn two eyes. Sure, some fancy lad with long pants and all his teeth might claim that astronauts have been to space and actually, physically, seen the earth and the sun and whatnot – but have you ever met an astronaut? And if you have, did you ever see him go to space? And if you did, did you get to go to space with him, and see how all that crazy crap up there works?

No. You haven’t. And if you did, then I will scream at the top of my lungs every time you try to make a reasonable argument. That’s democracy, asshole.

So sure, I kept my side-living as a crazier-than-a-rat-in-a-tin-shithouse theological physicist on the DL while trying to make this whole SFF thing happen, but does that mean I’m ashamed of it? Am I ashamed that we duped the Start Wars lady into lending her pretty pipes to our antiquated rantings? Am I ashamed that me and ol’ Sungenis took a page from the Swift Boat dudes and basically raided the internet for public domain video of physicists reading excerpts that tangentially supported whatever the hell we wanted?

Hell no! Check out that Amazon page – three stars, motherfucker! 26 reviews! If 26 people agree on something, it’s got to be absolutely right (no I haven’t read the reviews and I refuse to do so).

(Hat tip to Felix Gilman for sending me the book link. His book is probably better.)

On Hannibal

When I first started watching Hannibal, I thought I would hate it.

There were a couple of reasons for this. On first glance it seemed to be yet another serial killer show, and also another crime procedural, with the slight twist that a serial killer was secretly helping the detectives. That just sounds bad. I’ve never seen The Following, but it sounds like that kind of bad.

I also initially thought the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter was kind of on the nose. He’s an actual, genuine Bond villain. Even though I was a fan of his – Valhalla Rising is a trippy, disturbing delight, and he does an amazing job grounding it (as much as this could ever be possible) without saying a word – it felt like NBC was just kind of rummaging around in a box labeled “villains.”

I didn’t know Bryan Fuller was doing the show. It probably wouldn’t have mattered much: I never got too involved in his other shows, despite my wife’s frenzied adoration of Lee Pace. I was just aware that Silence of the Lambs was a good movie with two landmark performances in it, and there’d been a noticeable trend of shitty, lurid spinoffs. This seemed like just another one of those.

But then I started hearing that Hannibal was worth.

No, not worth watching – that it was damn good.

So I tuned in. And though it started out as a guilty pleasure, it’s now one of the shows I most look forward to.

I wish they’d said right off the bat that Hannibal was, in some regards, a kindred spirit of Twin Peaks operating within the loose guidelines put forward by Thomas Harris’s books. That’s another thing I wish they’d mentioned: that Fuller was basically flushing all of the pre-Silence canon down the toilet and was starting over. (As a note, I have read Red Dragon and part of Silence of the Lambs, and I thought the former was decent and the latter so intent on being nasty that it was difficult to enjoy it, lacking all the subtlety of the movie.)

hanniofficeHannibal is a weird-ass dream show, a bizarre, surreal, hallucinatory vision-quest through the frozen wildernesses of the Rust Belt. It completely discards the blue collar stagnation so thoroughly examined in Silence of the Lambs,and instead explores impossibly ornate, baroque set-pieces, whether it’s the cauterized, sterile modernism of the FBI headquarters, the bleak and windswept winter fields of Virginia, or Hannibal’s living quarters, which don’t seem to exist within any reality I recognize and instead reside within the troubled human subconscious: where else could Greek myths, tangles of antlers, and endless library shelves clash so perfectly?

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The show moves between settings much like one does in a dream: quickly, naturally, and without explanation. This could be very well pointed out as a flaw: how exactly does one character get from Baltimore to Wisconsin so easily? And there’s also the eternal critique of the serial killer show, because boy howdy, there sure do seem to be a lot of serial killers within the jurisdiction of the leads on this show, and they sure do seem to kill a lot and kinda-sorta get away with it.

But what lessens this is that Hannibal couldn’t give less of a shit about crime procedural. It took about half of the first season for the show to figure this out (the first half was a bit wonky, I still feel), but Hannibal is more about examining the psychic damages murder and immorality inflict on human beings. This is unusual for what’s usually such gleefully lurid subject matter, but Hannibal might be the most soulful show on television right now, let alone the most soulful show about cannibalistic serial killers. Sometimes this show feels less like it’s taking place on television, and more like it’s taking place in some Boschian medieval woodcut: we are seeing human flaws and desires – and their consequences – hugely perverted and contorted over a dark canvas.

If anything, this show is about a war of psyches. The main conflict would be between the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lecter and FBI Special Investigator Will Graham. Both of these men possess impossible talents: one for perception, the other for illusion. Will Graham is an impossible creature, able to completely understand the most twisted of human souls simply by glancing at a murder scene and entering what can only be called a dream-state. Hugh Dancy does a remarkable job as will, and though Hannibal takes gruesome delight in marring and warping the physical bodies of the victims on this show, it’s in Hugh Dancy’s performance that one can see the spiritual pain inflicted: Dancy is nervous, sweating, unshaven, ill, trembling. The show depicts him as a man on a spiritual journey, burdened with incredible empathy (bordering on telepathy), sensitive to pain, yet only by exposing himself to this pain can he bring justice for countless victims. He’s picked a hard road to travel, like a dark, savage inversion of Pilgrim’s Progress, as you can see in the example, where Will, asleep, is persecuted by the show’s avatar of murderous evil:

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The question is, did he really pick this path? Or has he been forced onto it by someone else?

hannibalMads Mikkelsen deserves credit for perhaps the most stoic and understated performance this side of Don Draper. His strange, angular face is capable of attaining what is almost like negative space, a dead-eyed, stone-faced expression that somehow brings the entire room to a stand-still. And this may make his version of Hannibal Lecter so much more unsettling: Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter wanted to scare you, to disturb you, to reach out from his tiny cell and terrify you into submission. Mikkelsen’s Lecter, however, is indifference manifest. The impression one gets from his totally static, expressionless face is that he can only recognize other humans, appropriately enough, as flesh: he cannot quite bring himself to focus long enough to acknowledge there is intelligence, and perhaps a soul, within the mortal trappings of those around him. He is frightening in the same way an Elder God is frightening: he is remote, inaccessible, indifferent, and vast.

And it’s his character which, initially, was the most difficult for me. At first, this show was basically Hannibal Lecter Fucks With People. He did things, and it was difficult for me to understand why he would ever want to do them, why he would risk himself in this manner. He didn’t seem to have any motive.

But eventually, a motive, of a sort, became clear: he wished to create another human in his image. His goal, however, indirect, was to invade and pervert the psyche of Will Graham until he looked into Graham’s eyes and saw his own staring back. I say this like it was a personal mission for him, but that’s not the case: I feel as if Hannibal started on this grand plan of mental torture solely out of curiosity, a pleasant diversion in between his sprees. There’s something classically Satanic about that, beautiful Lucifer wandering through the vaults of Paradise, idly kicking out supports to see what will make everything fall.

As Will Graham finally put it on the most recent episode: “He wanted to see what would happen.” A simple motive, but perhaps the most chilling, when done right. And here, it is.

The trouble with zombies

(As a note, I am probably not saying anything terribly new about zombies here, but it’s something that struck my mind after seeing a comment on Twitter today.)

I’ve never been comfortable with most zombie apocalypse stories, but it’s always been tough for me to explain why. I definitely get the appeal: the me-versus-the-world aspect, the sudden transformation of a recognizable home environment into hostile territory, the whole of society turned upside down… That’s all thrilling stuff.

So why don’t I like modern zombie stories that much?

For a while I thought it was the idea that zombie scenarios put the audience in a situation where it’s acceptable to murder countless civilians and dodge all moral consequences. Ever wanted to shoot your neighbor, your boss, your coworkers, random people in the street? Well, now it’s not only okay to do so, but it’s demanded of you. You can’t not shoot random people – you have to in order to get by in this world, thus indulging, however peripherally, countless murderous fantasies.

But this conclusion felt rather trite, and I didn’t think it really scratched the surface of my issues.

Then today I read a tweet by John Perich that analyzed the zombie scenario in racial terms: to an affluent white person, a constantly hostile environment is a surreal nightmare. To a black person, or any other minority, there’s a much greater chance of it being a reality.

This struck me as somewhat right, but it was the subject of “nightmare” that I found struck a wrong chord: because the more I thought about it, the more I felt like the idea of a constantly hostile environment was less of a nightmare for the common affluent citizens today, and more of a paranoid fantasy.

Think about it – most affluent Americans live in the suburbs today, so think about how the suburbs are structured: they’re advertised and designed to be communities separate from the city. Some of them are gated communities, but even if they aren’t, that gate is often metaphorical: there is some kind of barrier there, keeping strangers out. I grew up in Houston, where many suburban communities are ringed with high, high stone walls, with only a handful of entrances and exits. These rare apertures suggest, however subtly, that you wouldn’t think of coming in unless you knew you were supposed to – unless you’d been invited, in other words.

And on the inside of these larger barriers, what do you see? Fences, and lots of them. Usually smaller ones, cordoning off each plot of land. And though we might like the idea of looking over your fence and having a conversation with your neighbor, I think to most people this might feel like an intrusion: “This is supposed to be my space,” they’d think. “I don’t want just anybody sticking their head in here.”

That’s why people buy houses and yards, of course: to have a piece of property that’s their own, to do with as they please. It’s the American Dream.

But ingrained in this perspective of “my own” is the concept that you have to keep the world out. To express true ownership, true control, you have to wall yourself off, draw firm boundaries around your property, and you have to be ready and willing to defend it. Your home is your kingdom – why else do the wealthy buy ranches, besides to maximize this desire and create their own independent fiefdoms? (Imagine the signs at the fences: “Trespassers will be shot!”) A home and a yard is a sovereign nation in miniature. And in this idea is the assumption that, at some point in time, your nation will be invaded, attacked.

“But by whom?” you might ask.

The answer is, “Anyone. Everyone.”

And that’s the raw nerve that I think the zombie scenario massages: this idea of your home or your world as a fort that you have to defend, the idea of the entire nation full of hungry assailants chasing you, tearing down your walls, suddenly obsessed with capturing and abusing you. It all beckons to a deep-seated mistrust of humanity and the larger world that lies in the foundation of this zealous, jealous guarding of personal property: “I have to keep everything I have safe,” it says, “because they’re coming.”

Sometimes this is used for satire, but this is less common in the past five or ten years. The popular explorations of zombies entertain the idea that the average Joe is something worth chasing – which is, of course, delusional fantasy. As if you, Just Somebody, have something on your property or on your person that could cause a giant crowd to chase you or come beating down your door.

It’s almost like a persecution complex, and it’s laughable in that the very idea is vain – why, exactly, would the whole wide world want to spend two seconds thinking about you, let alone chase you through the streets? – and the endpoint is preposterous: the idea of the common man suddenly discovering the tools and the fortitude to transform himself, overnight, into a combat machine capable of stemming back a flood of assailants. Much like how a wealthy oil man might buy a ranch and immediately feel he is transformed into John Wayne, patrolling the borders of his country with a rifle, protecting his property.

It’s that pessimism that I think zombie scenarios indulge, that mistrust and paranoia… all of that puts a bad taste in my mouth. It hugely inflates the powers and judgments of the individual, and it rewards suspicion and savagery: you have to defend your castle, and if you invite anyone in, you have to check them for bites – and you must be ready at any time to shoot them down if they show any symptoms.

Perhaps we value individualism so much that we condemn the whole of humanity, to the degree that any property owning person must reasonably explore a scenario in which they justly kill their neighbor. And zombies allow us to execute that scenario without any hint of recrimination. Though these scenarios, where one civilian expects another to suddenly exhibit murderous behavior, and acts accordingly, are all too real life these days.

Zombies force you to imagine that anyone at any time could become a slavering animal – which suggests that, deep down, that’s what we were all along. Whether zombification is caused by infection, by magic, by radiation, or by nanites, whatever their cause, zombies allow us to entertain our worst impulses as human beings, always ending in the fantasy of putting a human face in the sights of a gun – man, woman, or child – and feeling totally righteous in pulling the trigger.

Library Journal mention of City of Stairs

Barbara Hoffert from Library Journal has cited CITY OF STAIRS as a top pick for September of 2014!

Bennett has won the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and a Philip K. Dick citation of excellence, which gives you a sense of how his fiction crosses borders. His new book is being billed as purely high fantasy and promises fine writing that should intrigue even those who don’t routinely read in this genre. Once a conquering city, Bulikov has been reduced to mere colonial outpost when Shara Divani is sent there by the ruling powers to take up a modest diplomatic post. Actually, though, she’s a top spymaster, tasked with investigating the murder of a milquetoast historian.

 

Creating a Culture, Part 1: The Protagonist

Every once in a while you get a moment of intuition. There are a lot of words for this: an ah-ha or eureka moment, a feeling of being “in the zone” where all your mental pistons are firing perfectly. What it really is, I think, is a moment of connection, a point where your mind somehow – usually by random chance, or so it feels – slips into the perfect perspective to not only view the pattern and similarities of a larger picture, but also the possibilities.

It’s a moment, in other words, of understanding what something is, and what you can do with it.

This is kind of what it felt like when I had the idea for City of Stairs. The moment when everything came together for me for this book remains quite clear in my memory.

(Of course, this is the hard part: ideas never feel like they had a single origin point. In some fashion, every story or idea you have was bubbling away in some protean form for years and years and years. It just takes you a moment, perhaps, to realize that the idea is now ripe. But I digress.)

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I’d been reading Dark Star by Alan Furst, a terrific spy novel about a KGB agent in Nazi Germany, and I thought the Eastern European perspective was a really interesting and rare one: it explored how Poland was just wildly unprepared, operating as if this was still the 19th century, with 20th century warfare bearing down on them. It was an aspect of a major historical event that was often unexplored to Americans such as myself: we prefer to approach World War II from the avenues of British or French participation, rather than consider the Poles or the rest of Eastern Europe. (In other words, from a Non-Western perspective.)

Then one day I was vacuuming the house and Turner Classic Movies was on, showing a 1930s satire about the nobility of a fictional Eastern European nation. It was a mildly amusing little movie – an English tourist who just happened to look a lot like a frivolous king was forced to stand in as him, under ridiculous circumstances – and I thought it’d be interesting to write about a diplomat trying to maneuver this densely complicated and Balkanized area, navigating the echelons of a foreign elite; someone dealing with both the dreary slog of bureaucracy, while also managing the terrifying spycraft going on in the background.

And I remember thinking, “Well, all these countries are mad at this diplomat. But why?”

And the answer came back immediately: “Why, because her country killed all their gods, of course.” And, as I’ve told others, that was that.

The idea kept boiling in my head, this idea of broken nations and dead gods and burgeoning imperialism and colonialism, and I started to imagine a history of this world, a history in which every year and every major event was shaped and formed by the presence of very active gods.

This presented both a challenge: if a god is truly omnipotent, or so close as for the difference to be immaterial, how definite can a history or reality be? If a god wishes for, say, five years of a history to have never existed, wouldn’t it be possible for them to wish it out of existence? How would the citizens of this world even know that their reality had been edited, overwritten?

I realized pretty quickly that though I’d felt “that was that,” that was not, actually, that. This was going to be a second world fantasy, and I’d never written something like that.

But then, every challenge is an opportunity.

***

Most fantasy stories are not escapism. This is because most fantasy stories are about us, about the real world.

Well, every story is about the real world, sure: all stories are built in reaction to our understanding of our reality. But some fantasy stories are more about us than others.

For example, most fantasy stories, it seems, will prominently feature a Caucasian bearded man holding a weapon. The nature of this weapon will vary – in some, a sword, in others, a steampunk-like firearm – but it will always be there, as will be the beard (sometimes more of a dense stubble) and his often-undeniably Caucasian background.

One could say, perhaps, that this fixation in fantasy is truly about us. One could say that these stories are really about our own masculine wish-fulfillment, in which manly men with manly weapons do manly deeds, engaging in royal skullduggery and leading armies of other manly men across vaguely North European battlefields. These are men with important lives doing important, violent deeds, and this world is largely about their will and how the world is subjected to it. These are men living in a mythical, primeval state from which our current culture is theoretically derived – that is to say, a culture that is both male and white – a violent, messy, gritty Garden of Eden in which things were real, things were authentic, where everything  mattered, and though things weren’t perfect, they were imperfect in the right ways.

One could say that. This is, I gather, a not uncommon criticism of fantasy in general, particularly epic fantasy.

However, when I debated writing the story that would be City of Stairs in this manner, I realized that the main thing I could say about this is that I thought it’d been done a lot.

A whole lot.

I mean, seriously, I’ve been reading those stories since I was a kid. I spent years and years and years in those worlds – so, really, I didn’t want to spend any more time in one with the purpose of writing it. I wanted to go someplace new.

So what to write?

***

Here’s the thing about diversity: a lot of people will attach a certain degree of morality to it, a sense of moral obligation, that one should include others because to not do so is an indecency.

I think this is completely true. I think there is a morality in acknowledging and accepting the human condition, no matter what form it may take. It’s perhaps the only morality. I think challenging and reconsidering what you consider to be the “default” nature of humanity is perhaps the key to spiritual and intellectual growth.

However, I’ve found that moral righteousness is frequently not a very good way to entice people to act about anything. Approaching morality from this perspective sometimes has the same attraction as Sunday school: a thing you really ought to do, but you’d really prefer to be doing something else.

People are selfish. They will do things for moral reasons, true, but I think that’s not usually the biggest carrot to dangle from the metaphorical stick.

For example, take environmentalism. Sure, we all support sustainability. However, for about the past fifteen years it’s been pretty expensive to do so. Some people will spend that extra dollar out of a sense of moral obligation, sure, but most won’t.

However, if sustainable energy grows to be less expensive than non-sustainable … Why, then it’s suddenly so much easier to support sustainability. Selfish reasoning, sure, but that tends to be the kind that works.

So here’s what I think is the totally selfish reason some people (I hope) gravitate toward diversity:

Because it’s interesting. And a lack of diversity is hugely, cripplingly boring.

There is a point, I think, when someone realizes that confining one’s self to stories about one single culture is, in effect, denying one’s self the vast riches this marvelous world has to offer. Realizing that you’re being trapped in a hermetic little cultural bubble is often the hard part. Realizing that there is something outside of it, that there’s always been lots of things outside of it, going on for years and years and years, is a tantalizing and exciting epiphany. And it makes you want to plunge through the bubble’s wall, and out into the rest of the world.

This is a very selfish decision to make, and, true, it can encourage a sort of arriviste voyeurism, in which one feels free to cherrypick from other cultures and histories without any attention to the real human experience of those who actually live in those cultures and histories. However, anything right can also be done wrong, and so long as one anchors one’s perspective in the human element – acknowledging that these are not stories or tropes you’re playing with, but people – the result is not so much akin to sampling dishes at a buffet, but rather a massive shift in self-regard, where one realizes one’s tiny, insignificant, arbitrary vantage point in a huge, ancient world.

It’s the difference between being entertained and learning. One involves change on your part; the other does not.

When I had that first idea for City of Stairs, so far I’d written three novels about white dudes. Two of them tough white dudes with guns (one of which, eventually, had a beard). I’d written one book featuring a woman of color, but she was so deeply alienated that it would be difficult to say she belonged to any single culture.

Writing books takes a very long time. You are going to spend a lot of time in this place you’re making. And I knew I did not want to spend it with the sorts of people I’d written about or read about before. I want to meet someone new. I wanted to look at humanity from a new vantage point, through a new lens.

And when I started finishing up on that day when I first had the idea for City of Stairs, putting up the vacuum cleaner and dragging out the mop, I realized who I wanted my protagonist to be.

I wanted her to be a woman. She would be a woman of color. And her primary weapons would be books and a terrifying ability to manipulate bureaucratic and governmental institutions.

Enter Shara Komayd.

(This will be an ongoing series I’ll be writing, exploring why I chose to make the world of City of Stairs as I did, what was difficult, fun, and unexpected about it, and how I felt I succeeded and how I felt I failed. Stay tuned.)