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Nnedi Okorafor: Magical Futurism

Nnedi Okorafor was born April 8, 1974 in Cincinnati OH to Igbo parents who emigrated from Nigeria in 1969. She earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of Illinois in 1996 and an MA in journalism from Michigan State University in 1999. She attended the University of Chicago, getting her MA in English in 2002 and completing her PhD in 2007. She attended the Clarion writing workshop in 2001.

Her first SF story, ‘‘The Palm Tree Bandit’’, appeared in 2001, and story ‘‘Windseekers’’ was included in a Writers of the Future anthology that same year. Since then her stories have appeared in various anthologies, and some of her short work was collected in Kabu Kabu (2013). She also writes critical essays and was a newspaper columnist.

Her debut novel was YA Zahrah the Windseeker (2005), and YA The Shadow Speaker (2007) was also her PhD dissertation. Who Fears Death (2010), her first adult novel, won the World Fantasy Award, and was a Tiptree Award honor book and Nebula Award finalist; a prequel volume, The Book of Phoenix is forthcoming. YA Akata Witch (2011) was an Andre Norton Award finalist, and sequel Akata Witch 2: Breaking Kola is forthcoming. Her latest adult novel is Lagoon (2014). Her play Full Moon was produced in Chicago in 2005.

Okorafor has taught at Chicago State University and Governors State University, and is now an associate professor of creative writing and literature at the University of Buffalo. She divides her time between New York and Illinois, where her family (including daughter Anyaugo Okorafor-Mbachu) lives.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Who Fears Death was my first adult novel. My editor Betsy Woll­heim calls it ‘magical futurism.’ I’m happy with that. I started writing Who Fears Death after my father passed. I began right after coming home from my father’s wake-keeping. It was very difficult for me. My family’s very close. My dad suffered a lot. He had Parkinson’s and con­gestive heart failure and diabetes. He was a cardiovascular surgeon, and we’re talking about a disease that makes you shake. The thing that really took him was congestive heart failure. He repaired hearts for a living, and that’s what took him. I was very angry and there was a lot flying around in my head. He was eventually buried in Nigeria but they had his wake here in the states.

‘‘His wake-keeping was very painful. I cried the whole time. Near the end of it, I was in the room with him. Everyone was saying goodbye and I looked at him and thought it didn’t look like him anymore. I felt some­thing coming into me that was very powerful and strong, and it felt like it would destroy the whole room. At some point my mom and sister took me out of there. I went home and I wrote the first scene. Who Fears Death was one of the most difficult novels to write for many reasons. I started it to deal with the loss of my father. For me a lot of writing is therapeutic. I can let things out – all those things happening around me that I can’t deal with. I didn’t know I was writing a novel. I did not know what the story was about – I didn’t know any of it. I sat down and wrote the scene I’d dealt with at my father’s wake-keeping, and then I just kept writing. Soon I started hearing the voice of the character and I knew where she was com­ing from. That book took me about six years to write. The first draft was over 700 pages. I showed it to my agent and he said, ‘I love it. It’s really long. What you need to do is get this down to one book without changing any of the plotline.’ It had been two books. I was like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘This is what you’re going to do. Cut every word that doesn’t need to be there. Streamline it as much as possible.’ It took me two years. That’s why in Who Fears Death, the sentences are short and choppy. That was part of the pain – I had to keep revisiting things that were difficult. It was hard. There’s a lot of rage in Who Fears Death.”

*

‘‘I listen to the stories of the women around me. I listen to my aunts and my cousins. I listen and I watch because there are stories nobody else can tell. I pick those up and when I write about them, I write about them as honestly as I possibly can. I don’t worry about whether it looks good or bad. Family issues, gender issues, all these things became part of Who Fears Death. It went on to win the World Fantasy Award, which was wonderful in ways I don’t talk about often. I was opening up so many issues that I used to keep very quiet, especially about African women. I put them in that story in a really raw, naked way. I didn’t worry about how it was going to be received, about how people would react to the issue of female genital mutilation. I suffered some of the results of that when the book was published. I didn’t know I’d get some of the reactions I got. I had feminists who were angry with me for portraying the ritual sympa­thetically. Some people said I was pro-female-genital mutilation. I was accused of that several times by feminists.

‘‘I was just coming at it honestly. My attitude towards it is not your typi­cal, ‘This is bad and this is barbaric.’ I was looking at it from the inside. How do you change a practice from the inside? You can’t just tell people they’re bad, because they’re never going to listen to you. How about, let’s analyze this practice, truly. Alice Walker comes at it from the angle of, ‘This is barbaric.’ I understand that. She opened up the conversation. But I’ve always felt there’s a better way to discuss this issue. Feminists were coming at me, and I was like, ‘Aren’t we on the same side here?’

‘‘Then you have the traditional, older African audiences. Some of them were academics who came at me. They were a bit confused by Who Fears Death. For one thing, they accused me of washing our dirty laundry in public. They weren’t defending the practice, but they were saying, ‘We should discuss it amongst ourselves. Don’t bring this out in the open.’ My theory is that it comes from the suspicion a lot of African scholars and Africans as a whole have of me. They’re suspi­cious because I’m writing from an outside point of view. I was born and raised in the States, and I may have Nigerian parents and I may have strong connections to Nigeria, but they question my al­legiance. They don’t trust me.”

*

‘‘Whenever I see things happening in the news, the first thing I wonder is: how does that person live their daily life? I’m working on a story set in Timbuktu and I can’t find anything about daily life there. Usually one of the best sources of in­formation is Youtube. You can always find some amateur video, terribly shot, but showing you reg­ular people doing regular things. There’s nothing in Timbuktu. All you can find are the news things about Al Quaeda. You never hear the voices of the people who live there and their mundane, normal worries. Those are the stories I like to read. If I’m reading and the main character is a king, I want to close the book. I want to read about ‘common’ people, because they have some of the best stories. That person, right there, where does he go after this happens?’’

*

‘‘I knew I was not going to hold back when I wrote Lagoon. That’s part of why I did the mul­tiple points of view. I wanted some non-Nigerians in there. I wanted various types of Christians and non-Christians. There weren’t too many Muslims, but there were some. I wanted to run the gamut of these points of view. There’s a lot of truth in Lagoon. What am I going to do, sanitize Lagos? It would be unrecognizable. I don’t mind showing the negatives. In District 9 they can have corrupt Nigerians – there are corrupt Nigerians – but in District 9 there was not one single non-corrupt Nigerian. They were all portrayed as criminals, prostitutes, and cannibals, all of them. I think that putting the Nigerians in District 9 was im­portant. There’s a lot of static between Nigerians and South Africans, so he was hitting on some­thing that’s real. The year before the film came out there were riots between Nigerians and South Africans at a Nigerian market. When I went there, I asked some South Africans what was up, and a lot of them regurgitated the same stereotypes. It’s supposed to be the first science fiction film set in Africa. How come we can’t have a black main character? I gotta say that. South Africa is only 20% white/non-black.”

*

‘‘The Book of Phoenix comes out in May from DAW. It’s a prequel to Who Fears Death, set 300 years earlier, so maybe 80 years from now. It’s told from the point of view of the main charac­ter, Phoenix. She’s a woman who was grown in a place called Tower Seven. She’s an ABO, an Ac­celerated Biological Organism. She’s two years old and she looks 40. There’s a lot of genetic ex­perimenting being done in this tower. There’s a line in Who Fears Death that mentions it. Phoe­nix is one of the wards in Tower Seven. After the man she loves, who’s also a ward in Tower Seven, kills himself, she decides to leave the tower. She’s never left before, and even though they’ve been doing whatever they’ve been doing to her, she thinks her life is normal. She decides that she wants to get out. When she finally does, a lot of things happen. She discovers why she’s named Phoenix. It’s a blend of science fiction and fanta­sy. The illustrator’s name is Eric Battle. He’s done illustrations for D.C. and Marvel. He’s done 10 or 11 spot illustrations for the book. The Book of Phoenix started as a short story, but it kept com­ing. I wrote it as a novella called African Sunrise, published by Subterranean. For that novella, Eric did three or four illustrations, and my DAW editor saw the illustrations and said, ‘That’s re­ally cool.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t we have more?’ I like the idea of visuals for this type of story. It’s a unique book. It goes from New York, to Ghana, to Nigeria. It goes to many places.”

*

‘‘I have a children’s book that I just sold to a small British publisher. It’s called Chicken in the Kitchen. It’s going to be illustrated by an Iranian illustrator. Akata Witch Two: Breaking Kola comes out summer of 2016. I’m working on the edits for that. The title could easily be changed. It’s a sequel, and I know there’s a part three. I know where it’s going. I have some other things in the works but these are the main things. I’m sure I’ll write more blog posts in due time. They come up when something pokes me and makes me mad. Maybe tomorrow something will bite me on the nose.’’


Ken Liu: Silkpunk

Ken Liu (Liu Yukun) was born in 1976 in Lanzhou China. He moved to the US with his family when he was 11 years old, first living in Palo Alto CA before moving to Waterford CT. He was an English major at Harvard, and after graduation worked in technology for several years, including time at Microsoft as an engineer and working for a startup in Cambridge. He attended Harvard Law School, and now works as a litigation consultant.

His first story ‘‘The Carthaginian Rose’’ appeared in 2002, and while he published a handful of stories in the following years, he began to publish more widely and rise to greater prominence around 2010, with scores of stories appearing in the past five years, including major award winners. Story ‘‘The Paper Menagerie’’ (2011) won the Hugo, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards, and ‘‘Mono no Aware’’ (2012) won a Hugo Award. Other notable short works include Hugo, Sturgeon Memorial, and Nebula Award finalist ‘‘The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary’’ (2011); Sturgeon and Nebula Award nominee ‘‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species’’ (2012); and Nebula Award finalists ‘‘The Waves’’ (2012), ‘‘All the Flavors’’ (2012), and ‘‘The Litigation Master and the Monkey King’’ (2013); Sidewise Award finalist ‘‘A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel’’ (2013); and WSFA Small Press Award winner ‘‘Good Hunting’’ (2012).

Liu is also a prolific translator of Chinese SF, including SF&F Translation Award winner ‘‘The Fish of Lijiang’’ by Chen Qiufan (2011) and Hugo and Nebula Award-nominated novel The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (2014).

Debut novel The Grace of Kings (2015) begins the ‘‘silkpunk’’ epic fantasy Dandelion Dynasty series, combining elements of traditional Chinese storytelling and Western epic traditions.

Liu lives in Massachusetts with his wife, Lisa Tang Liu, and their two children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I think any story that writers tell about how they came to the genre is likely a lie to some degree. I believe these origin stories are retroactive, neat reconstructions that leave out the randomness of actual experience. They’re instructive because the stories we tell about our own lives are revealing. They’re not ‘the truth.’ I can tell you my story, and it’s true in a sense, but that’s not the same as factual.

‘‘I think I got into writing because I like telling stories. When I was little, my grandmother told me stories she made up, and I liked making up new stories for my friends in class. These stories usually involved changing a classic story in some way that I thought made it better. Even in that experi­ence, I guess you could find a trace of what drew me to science fiction and fantasy: I wanted stories that were improved by speculation.

‘‘I’m writing novels now, trying to expand my creative approach to a longer format. Novels require a lot more planning and concentration than short stories. When I was trying to go from short stories to novels, the biggest trouble I had was with basic recordkeeping. A short story is like sculpting: you can keep the whole thing in your head and chip away at it. Novels feel more like architecture, with a grand structure and thousands of decisions to be made at every level. I started to keep a wiki to record the details about the world. Small decisions you make early on can have repercussions long down the road, so you have to track everything.”

*

‘‘The idea of silkpunk is to rely on organic building materials, material of historic importance to East Asia, but also materials of importance to seafaring cultures of the Pacific. Bamboo, silk, ox sinew, coconut, coral, feathers, things like that. All the machines are designed around principles based on biomechanics. For example, the airships in my novel are made of bamboo and silk, and they are not propelled forward by rotating propellers but by giant feathered oars. The lift gas bags expand and contract in the same way that a fish’s swim bladder does to increase and decrease buoyancy. There are other inventions based around this vocabulary that I think people will like. It’s a new look. It’s not a look derived from Chinese history. I wanted to create a look specifically inspired by East Asia, but that isn’t East Asian.”

‘‘I did not want to write a magical China story. I think magical China stories are difficult to do well, and even then they cannot escape the problem of the colonial gaze. China has been so steeped, since the days of Marco Polo, in a very exoticizing and subjugating gaze by the West, that it’s not possible to tell a story about China without invoking layers of Orientalism and colonialism. It’s in the very nature of the vocabu­lary used to describe China-related concepts. For example, the very important Chinese mythical creatures, dragon and phoenix, shouldn’t be called ‘dragon’ and ‘phoenix’ at all. The Chinese Long and Fenghuang have nothing to do with the Western creatures they are ‘translated’ into. The only reason they’re called that is because early missionaries got to China and saw these creatures, and, knowing nothing about their history and their meaning to the people, gave them the same names as similar-looking Western creatures. That means these creatures are being framed with a set of asso­ciations and meanings that have no justification in terms of Chinese culture. The dragon in the West is the wyrm, the devil’s creature, a demonic thing, and it breathes fire. None of these things apply to the Chinese dragon because it’s not a dragon at all. The dragon there is derived from Buddhism as well as native Chinese mythical influences. The Chinese fire bird also has very little to do with the Western concept of the phoenix. It’s impossible to write ‘‘magical China’’ without evoking these wrongful associations. Rather than struggling against that, I decided to create a secondary fan­tasy world that’s inspired by East Asia. I created an archipelago that’s as different from continental China as possible, and I created new cultures, new histories, new peoples. There are sometimes analogues to the original concepts, but they’re not exact ‘translations.’ That way a reader won’t fall into a trap of easily reading this story as tapping into that set of associated, accumulated layers of Orientalism that I’m trying to avoid. If I don’t do it that way, I think people will read it and start thinking, ‘This is like a samurai; this is like a courtesan; this is like a geisha.’ I don’t want that. This attempt to avoid the Orientalizing risk carries through in terms of the narrative techniques I use.

‘‘The Grace of Kings is written in a mixture of narrative techniques that I invented just for the novel. It uses a lot of techniques derived from Chinese oral storytelling techniques that I’m very familiar with, because I grew up listening to these stories. The way characters are introduced imitates classic Ming dynasty novels. There are characterization techniques taken from wuxia novels. At the same time, I deliberately wanted to make comparisons and evoke for readers the feel­ing of the other epic traditions. So there are tropes and narrative techniques taken from The Iliad, and The Odyssey, and Paradise Lost. There are Anglo-Saxon style kennings, for example, and catalogs like in oral epics. It is a deliberate meld­ing of epic techniques and traditions. The hope is that it will feel to the reader like something both familiar and strange at the same time.”

*

‘‘The next book will have some of the same characters and some new ones. It will happen some time after the first book’s ending. It’s not like everybody has died of old age and you have new characters coming onto the scene, but it’s also not like it’s the next day. It’s somewhere in between. The way I plotted these three books is that there is going to be an overall arc, or set of arcs, that will be resolved in the series. I tried to write the books so they’re each somewhat self-contained, and they also form an arc, more like the Dune series, as opposed to writing the trilogy as if it’s one book. This is not like The Lord of the Rings, where the books are one book that happened to be published in three pieces. My books are written separately. They have an arc that connects them. There is a rough draft of the second book but it’s not finished. There’s a lot more work to be done.”

*

“I’ve done a lot of studying and thinking about translation in general. In particular for The Three Body Problem, there are a lot of complications in the translation process. People give translators too little credit and too much credit at the same time. If you’re going to give the translator credit for doing something well, you also need to blame them for everything that’s not good in the book, and that doesn’t seem right in either case. I don’t think the translator should ‘improve’ the work beyond what it is. I know that a lot of people disagree with me, but that’s my belief.

‘‘One of the things that surprised a lot of American readers is the fact that The Three-Body Problem being translated into English and then nominated for a Nebula Award was such a huge deal in China. It’s inconceivable for readers here. Some reporters asked me, ‘Why are Chinese read­ers so excited about the Nebula Award? American fans wouldn’t be so excited if one of their books was translated into Chinese and won some award.’ I said, ‘You wouldn’t care. You’re coming from the modern Rome, the core of world culture, whereas China is at the periphery. For Chinese fans, something they love in their language is being recognized by readers in America, who are perceived as the prestige readers.’ One of the aspects of being from a prestigious culture is that you don’t necessarily per­ceive yourself as having power.”

*

‘‘Joshua Rothman from the New Yorker wrote a profile about Liu Cixin recently. He said one of the interesting things about American science fiction versus Chinese science fiction is that a lot of American science fiction is consciously or unconsciously reflecting on our own history. There’s a large concern about the frontier, and developing the frontier, which is reflective of our own experience with the frontier. There are also a lot of concerns about problems of democratic governance and how to develop a society based on the Constitution, and all these problems based on very American political and historical experi­ences. He says that’s natural, and that’s what you’d expect – we’re the American people and that’s our history. When we imagine the future, these things come through. What’s interesting about looking at another culture’s science fiction is that you see different experiences reflected. What I’m hoping is that by seeing more of Chinese science fiction published in English, people can get a sense of what Chinese writers, people who are steeped in postcolonialism, a cosmopolitan mix of native and Western influences, and the tumultuous experi­ences of the 20th century, what sort of concerns are reflected in their writing, and what kind of lessons those can teach us. That’s one of the things that The Three Body Problem and its sequels consider. They talk about the idea of first contact and aliens from a new perspective.’’


Cory Doctorow: Shorter

When I started writing, I thought I was talented. I was six, and I’d written something precocious that attracted praise from the grownups around me, and that praise included a descriptive dimension: I hadn’t just written something that was good – I was a good writer.

Talent is a destructive myth. To call someone talented is to imply that their abilities are intrinsic. Having written and taught for decades now, I’ve satisfied myself that the improvement of a person’s art isn’t drawn from the mystical well of their soul: it’s generated by practice.

Practicing isn’t always hard. At times, practice is joyous. When you are working at the edge of your abilities, acquiring mastery of something difficult that you value, practice is the best feeling. But if you only practice when it brings you joy, you won’t practice much. Logging the requisite hours inevitably involves some slogging.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmi­halyi (‘‘Me-high Chick-sent-me-high’’) is a leading authority on learning, practice and motivation. It was in his work that I encountered the idea that ‘‘ability’’ wasn’t made of some in-built talent, but repre­sented continuous reflection, feedback and refinement, over a series of attempts to master your art.

A belief in your own talent can be a powerful motivator. After getting all that praise, I wrote more, and was praised anew. So long as writing was fun (and it often was, and still is), I kept at it. When it grew choresome, I stopped. This is entirely consistent with the literature. One ingenious experiment divided high-performing students into two groups: the first was comprised of children who believed that their academic suc­cess was the result of practice; the other believed that their talent had taken them far. Both groups were given a test that was harder than they could possibly complete.

The ‘‘practice’’ students worked at their tests for much longer than the ‘‘talent’’ kids, who gave up quickly and were dispirited afterwards. After all, if you owe it all to talent, then when talent fails, there’s nothing to do except for wait for the fates to add more talent to your capacity. The ‘‘practice’’ group kept plugging. When they were done, they were of good spirits. If your ability comes from practice and you are assigned a task that is beyond it, then you just need to practice some more.

The best piece of writing advice I ever ignored was to write every day. Boy, did I ignore this advice. I heard it dozens of times, from writers I admired, but I didn’t start doing it until I got to my second or third novel. Writing every day is fantastic, because it habituates you to writing. Habits are things you get for free. As anyone who’s raised a child knows, there are a lot of boring things that we don’t notice because they’re such deep-grained habits that they happen as if by magic. I brush my teeth without having to think about it. My seven year old daughter practically needs to be arm-twisted to clean her teeth.

For years, I’ve been a repentant daily writing sinner, telling anyone who’ll listen to ‘‘write every day, until it becomes a habit, because habits are things you get for free.’’ It’s worked for me: despite a busy professional life involving a lot of activist work, freelance assignments, and several side-businesses, I have written or co-written about 20 books since 2000. I’m no Charlie Stross, but I’m hardly Harper Lee, either. When I have a book to write, I pick a schedule and a word-count – 1,000 words a day, five days a week, for six months, say – and get to it. There’s rewriting at the end of course – reading the book aloud to find infelicities in the language, ‘‘structural’’ rewrites to meet my editor’s requests, and fixing stuff the copyeditor, first readers, and proofers find.

Now I’ve had a revelation about prac­tice – practicing the kind of writing you’re good at can make you better at it, but practicing the stuff you’re bad at is even better.

About two years ago, we changed the layout for Boing Boing, the website I co-own and post to several times every day. The change gets more good stuff onto the front page, and lets the substantive pieces hang around longer without being pushed down by slight things.

The new layout means each story gets a brief teaser sentence – the lede – and a short headline, which has to be short enough to tweet with room left over for an image embed and a URL.

I hated this. I’d been used to assuming that readers would get five or ten times more text on the front page to help them decide whether to click through to the rest. Writing shorter – much shorter – meant that something crucial was left out.

But you get better at anything you do, especially if you get feedback. We get lots of feedback on Boing Boing, from comments, to analytics, to social media responses. Two years of writing 10-20 very short ledes daily, along with regular Twitter use, imbued me with a smooth facility for brevity that I find delightful and horrifying.

In January 2015, I finished the first draft of Utopia, an epic novel for adults, which ran to more than 220,000 words (!). After conferring with my agent, I agreed that I would shorten the book to 150,000 words. I sat down to re-read it, and as I did, noticed redundancies in the language. They leapt off the page. As an experiment, I took the first 5,000 words of the book and spent 45 minutes trimming them. When I was done, I did a word-count and discovered that I was down to 4,100 words.

Since then, I’ve peeled out the next 5,000 words every day and had at them. It’s getting faster – today took only 40 minutes. I’m cutting more, too. I ended with 3,968 words today. At this rate, I’ll excise 50,000 words from the book with line edits alone.

Cutting like this has made me a better writer, too: I catch myself when I’m about to write the prototypical excesses I’m finding in my prose, eradicate them before they’re even set down. I haven’t had a hint of ‘‘cen­tipede’s dilemma’’ from this (‘‘how do you walk with all those legs?’’ ‘‘I never thought about it’’ – and the centipede never walked again).

This isn’t surprising, exactly. It’s just what the theory predicts: prac­tice makes perfect, especially when it’s conscious, iterated practice with feedback.

But it’s vindicating. It also makes me understand why authors itch to release ‘‘preferred texts’’ of their novels decades later.

My experience contrasts with the moral panic over the decline in writ­ing standards due to the Internet. Those who wring their hands at the informality and vernacular of instant messaging and social media prose have missed the point: when we practice writing short, for an audience, as a kind of performance, it makes us better writers.


Melissa Marr: Otherworldly

Melissa Marr was born July 25, 1972 in rural Pennsylvania. She graduated high school in 1990 and put herself through college partly by working at biker bars. She earned a Master’s degree in Southern literature at NC State University, where she later taught English and Gender Studies.

She began publishing short fiction in 2005, and in 2007 published her debut novel, YA fantasy Wicked Lovely, which went on to become an international bestseller. The series continued with Ink Exchange (2008), Fragile Eternity (2009), Radiant Shadows (2010), and Darkest Mercy (2011). She also wrote the related Wicked Lovely: Desert Tales manga series in three volumes: Sanctuary (2009), Challenge (2010), and Resolve (2011). That was followed by YA fantasy Carnival of Secrets (2012, originally published as Carnival of Souls). She wrote middle-grade fantasy trilogy the Blackwell Pages with Kelley Armstrong (writing as M.A. Marr & K.L. Armstrong): Loki’s Wolves (2013), Odin’s Ravens (2014), and the forthcoming Thor’s Serpents. Her adult novels are dark Southern fantasy Graveminder (2011) and Old West-inspired portal fantasy The Arrivals (2013). Some of her short fiction was collected in Faery Tales and Nightmares (2011). Marr has co-edited anthologies, including Enthralled (2011) and Shards and Ashes (2013) with Kelley Armstrong, and Rags & Bones (2013) with Tim Pratt.

Her latest novel is a contemporary YA with paranormal elements, Made for You (2014). Upcoming titles include her first children’s picture book, Bunny Roo, I Love You, in April 2015 and YA fantasy Seven Black Diamonds in 2016.

Marr lives in Virginia with her husband and their three children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘A lot of the best literature has fantasy aspects. This is something I ar­gued as an academic. Speculative fiction is how we talk about things we aren’t ready to talk about in literal ways. Our literary ancestors did some amazing things by using speculative elements. That tradition, whether it’s folklore or literature, is what I want to be part of. Sometimes the most pressing issues are ones we can discuss best metaphorically, using otherworldly elements, be they magic or other types of beings. Look at Dracula and the fear of female independence. Look at Frankenstein and the fear of motherhood, and the fear of science. There’s so much richness there. That, to me, is what it’s all about. The best literature’s got SF and fantasy in it.

‘‘I grew up in a small, rural community where belief in the supernatu­ral was fairly normal. I belonged to a community that was Irish Catholic, but with strong pagan overtones. I grew up surrounded by religious tradi­tion, folklore, and storytelling. I was 12 when I decided I wanted to do three things with my life: I wanted to be a mommy, a teacher, and a writer. The hope was that being a teacher would enable me to afford to write someday. Then, as a teen, I had the misfortune of being raped, and was told I couldn’t have children as a result of the damage. So then the revised goal became teaching so I could afford to adopt. Jump forward a few years and I had an undergraduate and graduate degree in literature, and the only writing I was doing was academic, lecture notes and the essays. When I married a Marine who deployed, I went from working full-time to home-schooling my kids, teaching part-time, and not being able to sleep because my husband was being shot at – so I wrote my first book. It was horrible and has never been published and never will be. Immediately after that, I started writing what would become Wicked Lovely. Initially it was a short story, and in 2005 it became a novel which sold in a preempt within three days of submission. That was ten years ago last month. Then came other novels, so now I don’t teach. I write.”

*

‘‘My newest book, Made For You, is my first time stepping away from more strictly genre work to a book that is primarily contemporary. There is a supernatural element, because I can’t not have that. In part, it’s inspired by my own experience of having a stalker when I was in my twenties. This is one of the first times I’ve really put myself in the head of the antagonist in a novel, which is sort of what you do when you’re try­ing to understand why you’re being stalked. When my publisher invited me to write something more contemporary, it was clear this was the right book. I got to write from the perspective of a serial killer. I did research over the years, because I’m fascinated by crime, but some of that comes from having my own stalker. In fact, being stalked resulted in the first time I was quoted in a newspaper: ‘‘‘I got me a gun,’’ Melissa Marr, in­structor, English, NC State University.’ (I have to believe my rural/South­ern accent wasn’t quite that pronounced at the time.) Either way, though, I had a stalker, and the police recommended I have home protection, so I went out and bought a shotgun. I was curious then and now about what causes people to become stalkers. My stalker was a stranger – it wasn’t someone I had taught, or dated, or any of the things the police asked. The process of identi­fying the stalker was made even more complicated by the fact that I have trouble identifying faces. So for Made For You I used some of my own experi­ences for research in a way I’ve never before been able to do in a book.”

*

‘‘One of the things I get out of short stories is the way I can play with different voices and styles that I don’t have to sustain for 80,000 words. My readers are more forgiving of me going in totally new directions in a short story, so it lets me exper­iment. With short stories there is also something palate-cleansing about it. Every year I have one or two stories that I write in between books or in my off time, or if I’m stuck on a book, I have this little gem that’s just mine. Some of them I sell, and some of them I don’t. Some I don’t share with anyone. The short story is my private space where I can be the kind of writer I would love to have the leisure to be. People talk about how they want to retire and write a novel. I want to retire and write short stories! That and poetry. That’s my retire­ment fantasy. I write poetry now, but I don’t share it with anyone. Oh, and I’d also like to do the sort of literary things that I once taught! But those aren’t going to pay the bills for my children’s pas­sions. I’ve got a teenager working on his private pilot’s license, and a daughter finishing a univer­sity degree in archaeology and anthropology, and in her free time going off to live in the jungle and work on Mayan ruins. Adopting a baby with my youngest’s health issues cost more than some of my book deals. Children are expensive. The kind of literary novels I fantasize I will someday be able to write aren’t going to allow me to be the sort of mom I want to be for them.”

*

‘‘My drive is definitely characters. If I don’t have a character, I don’t know what the plot’s going to be, because I believe plot is a result of characters and their individual motivations being in conflict. Everything I write has multiple points of view. I think that’s life. Understanding who we are and where we’re going is often done in the context of those around us. Sometimes things that seem reprehensible make sense if you get into the other person’s shoes. I think when I figured that out… well, as my first editor was fond of putting in my biography, I ran a biker bar in North Caro­lina. That was how I paid the bills. Those people were a gift to know. One of the things that became very clear to me is that, when you work in a place with a different set of social rules, your sense of what is ‘right’ will shift. Working there made me realize how much the objective idea of right and wrong is not possible. Things that were right in most circumstances would not have been right in that bar, and things that were right in that bar would not have been right in the university where I was teaching. That experience had a big impact on how I see the world and how I write, because I know that people others might see as villainous don’t think of themselves in that way. If we boil down their motivations, we can see where they’re coming from. It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of acts that are reprehensible okay, but it does make them comprehensible.”

*

‘‘My next YA, Seven Black Diamonds, which I just finished revising, comes out January 2016 with HarperCollins. It’s the first in a duology, faery series. Now that I have a few books between the first faery series and now, I felt comfortable going back and writing another faery book. ‘Faery sleeper cells’ is the premise. With my environmen­tal concerns, it seemed like faery terrorists would be fun to explore. Look at the way humanity is destroying the earth. What happens if you have supernatural beings who require healthy nature to thrive? Basically, I took the concept of guerilla warfare and applied it to angry faeries in a near-future setting.”


Spotlight on: Alyssa Wong, Author

Alyssa Wong is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction has appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, Black Static, and Tor.com. You can find her on twitter as @crashwong and tumblr at www.crashwong.tumblr.com.

You’re a Nebula Award nominee for your story ‘‘The Fisher Queen’’. Tell us about the piece.

‘‘The Fisher Queen’’ is about the dark side of the mer­maid fishing industry on the Mekong River, and the painful, personal damage of systematic, multigenerational violence against women. It’s a story about growing up too fast, and about having an intense, deep love for your family, only to find out that they’re the monsters they were supposed to be protecting you from.

I originally wrote ‘‘The Fisher Queen’’ as a wedding pres­ent for a friend of mine, since I’d promised her a mermaid story. It’s not terribly romantic, so some days I wonder if I should’ve just gotten her a very nice blender instead.

What’s the particular appeal of SF/fantasy? Why do you write that instead of, say, literary fiction or mysteries?

The fantastic is beautiful and terrible, and I love the way it can be used to highlight and heighten people’s very real experiences. Also, I like ghosts, magic, and molecular reconstruction. With science fiction and fantasy, your limits are only as far as you’re willing to push your imagination, and figuring out how to interface that kind of potential with the story you want to tell is the best kind of challenge.

I love hybridized stories. I mean, my brain is hybridized as hell; I enjoy literary fiction and narrative non-fiction, but I also can’t get enough of police procedural thrillers and fan fiction, so I read them all. SF/F is my first love, and it’s definitely ingrained in the way I think about narrative. Figuring out how to marry it to the other genres and structures I like is really fun.

You’ve described yourself as being both honored and humbled to become the first Filipina Nebula Award finalist, and you often discuss the need for more diverse voices in SF. How’s the field doing in that regard? Are things getting better?

I think they are. It’s been heartening to see #WeNeedDiverseBooks sweeping children’s publishing, and with Kickstarters like Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction! and Queers Destroy Science Fiction!, it’s become evident that there are good people in genre championing diversity. However, I think it’s important to remember that diversity is intersectional: it means making a consistent effort to seek out stories by and about people of color, people who identify as QUILTBAG (queer/undecided/intersex/lesbian/trans/bi/asexual/gay/genderqueer), writers from underrepresented socioeconomic classes, and/or writers from non-Western countries.

I do think that the field is becoming more and more globalized, and the awards slates – with stories by diverse writers from all over the world, and novels in translation like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem – are starting to reflect that. But diversity isn’t a trend; it’s a constant battle to change an existing culture that shuts us out. It’s not about pushing people out of the market, but about expanding it to make space for a myriad of underrepresented voices. And for editors, publishers, and agents, being committed to diversity means reaching out to people who might not have the resources to find you and encouraging them to submit their work. It’s a long fight, but it’s worth it, and it means so much to those of us who are watching.

Any plans to write a novel?

Definitely. I’m working on a few projects right now, including a Southern Gothic YA and an adult science fiction noir novel. I do best when I’m working on multiple stories at once, with one in high focus and the others simmering on the backburner.

My top priority right now, though, is a sci-fi novella, and I love short fiction too much to give that up.

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your work?

I’m a sucker for weird biology stories, as well as stories about ghosts, poison­ous friendships, and deep-seated regret. Someday I’ll find the core of a story with all of these things in it and I’ll be able to write what I crave.

I was eligible for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, as were many fantastic, diverse writers like Usman T. Malik, J.Y. Yang, Isabel Yap, and Sam J. Miller. Their stories this past year have consistently impressed me and torn my heart to pieces. You should definitely check out their work!


Christopher Barzak: Visions & Voices

Christopher Michael Barzak was born July 21, 1975 in Warren OH, and grew up in Kinsman OH. He attended Youngstown State University, graduating summa cum laude with a BA in English and a minor in Psychology in 1998, the same year he attended the Clarion writing workshop. He lived in Carlsbad CA for a year after graduation, then worked as a clerk at a bookstore and library in Lansing MI for two years. He moved back to Youngstown in 2001 for an MA in English and Creative Writing. In 2004 he moved to Japan, where he spent two years teaching English in elementary and junior high schools. He returned to Youngstown in 2006, where he now writes and teaches fiction writing at YSU and in the Northeast Ohio MFA program.

He began publishing with ‘‘A Mad Tea Party’’ in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (1999). ‘‘The Other Angelas’’ (2004) was on the Tiptree Award longlist, ‘‘The Language of Moths’’ (2005) was a Nebula finalist and winner of a Gaylactic Spectrum Award, and ‘‘Map of Seventeen’’ (2010) and ‘‘Paranormal Romance’’ (2013) were Nebula Award finalists. Some of his short fiction was collected in Birds and Birthdays (2012) and Before and Afterlives (2013), the latter a Shirley Jackson Award winner.

His story ‘‘Dead Boy Found’’ (2003) was the basis for first novel One for Sorrow (2007), winner of the Crawford Award for best first fantasy. The book was adapted as film Jamie Marks Is Dead in 2014. Second book The Love We Share Without Knowing (2008), a mosaic novel inspired by his experiences in Japan, was a Nebula Award finalist, and on the Tiptree honor list. His first YA novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, is forthcoming this fall.

Barzak lives in Youngstown OH with his partner Tony Romandetti.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘The new book is called Wonders of the Invisible World. It’s about a 17-year-old in rural Ohio. He discovers that there’s a whole lot about himself and his family’s history that he didn’t know, and that his history and parts of his memories have been obscured by magical means. He discovers this when a new student approaches him in a hallway at school his senior year and remembers him from their childhood, and says they were best friends. This person seems to know things about him that he doesn’t recall. Very quickly after that, the spell that he’s been under starts to unravel. He begins putting together pieces of his life that come to him in visions, and discovers there’s an entire invisible world he belongs to. It’s a metaphor, in some ways, for the experience that young people go through, where you kind of awaken and realize there’s a much bigger world that you’re a part of, larger than the small world you’ve been operating in. It happens as you reach the end of adolescence and your time in the high school prison system. You face the question, ‘Who am I after this?’ I wanted to rephrase that question, which is often asked in young-adult fiction, and instead ask, ‘Who am I, in the context of the past I might not know about?’ Both in terms of personal, family history, and the cultural, national past. You are already part of something you don’t understand and never knew existed.”

*

‘‘Transformation is something that obsesses me. What is the soul? Is there a difference between something like a soul and something like a self? Is our identity something we construct, or is it organic and natural? There are all kinds of theories. It’s interested me from a young age. I remember being a very small child and climbing up to look at myself in the mirror – I had to be four or five because I remember the struggle of climbing up onto the bathroom vanity – and looking at myself and asking, ‘Who are you?’ I look back and think, ‘You are such a strange little boy.’ It was a moment when I tried to make sense of my existence in the world. I’ve always found being alive a really strange situation. I’ve always questioned it. I’m always asking: ‘Who are you?’

‘‘Our vision is limited by the fact of our biology, and we know that on a scientific level. We create technology in order to see things we can’t perceive on our own, in other spectra. That fact leads to the idea that there are things we’ll never be able to observe, at least not with the tools we have now. My hope is that there’s more to the world than we can see. I enjoy this world, and I’m grateful for it, but I hope it’s one stop in a much bigger universe. That’s wishful thinking. I always say I hope – I don’t believe there’s anything beyond this world. I don’t like to believe anything at all, because beliefs are just a feeling about something. We all have beliefs, and not just about spirituality. We have political beliefs, too. It’s an opinion, an idea, and they change. Beliefs change as well, so I don’t like to hold them close to me. I entertain ideas, but I don’t subscribe to anything. I was raised in this odd mix of philosophies, where my father’s side of the family was very grounded, all common sense and hitched to observable reality. They weren’t much for philosophical or spiritual thinking. It was more about doing what you’ve got to do to get by. My mother’s side was made up of more magical thinkers – her and her mother really did have this kind of magical system. They interpreted dreams, and it was their own dream system, nothing you could find in a book. I think it was a superstition my grandmother learned. Her parents were Polish immigrants. She grew up with old Eastern European ideas and beliefs. I’ve tried to track down some of her ideas, and they really feel invented, and not any part of a system I can locate. A very private family mythology. That worldview influenced One for Sorrow, but I expanded on it in Wonders of the Invisible World.”

*

‘‘I really do feel like I was born to write and tell stories. From a very early age I felt, ‘This is too rich, there’s too much good stuff going on here.’ My grandmother told ghost stories – stories that weren’t just invented, they were things that she saw, and she had these elaborate tales. I’m a slow-waker, and I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s a genetic predisposition and if it’s something that my mom or her mother did. Did they experience liminal dreamlike states, and this is how they made sense of it? Interpreting things they saw when they were technically awake but their brain was two steps behind, or ahead? I definitely had nightmares. I had a period when I would sleepwalk. Sometimes I still do. My parents would find me in different places, like the basement. One time they found me outside. Luckily, we were in the country; I didn’t walk out into traffic or anything. I was in the back­yard, which is next to a cornfield, just at the edge of it, standing and looking into the corn. This is our reality, and it’s as strange as that. That magical tradition is on my mom’s side, not so much on my dad’s. I was glad that I had both. Maybe that’s why I like magical realist fiction, because there’s this push and pull. I feel fortunate that I was exposed to both modes, and there are other modes, too. I was fortunate to realize from a young age that the things my mother and her mother experienced and believed were not common. I realized the stories our larger society and culture have accepted are just stories, too. I was really aware of that, and I think it was because of the personal, private beliefs and superstitions that my mom and her mom had. These are stories that other people would think are strange, and not necessarily true. What’s to say these other stories that large numbers of people believe are any more true? I felt good about that. It made me question everything from a young age.”

*

‘‘One for Sorrow was published in August of 2007. In spring of 2008, my then-agent e-mailed to tell me there was a director interested in my book. He told me his name, Carter Smith. … ‘‘We probably talked off and on for a couple of years. In the spring of 2012 it seemed Carter had a group of people, a production company was form­ing, and they were casting and location scouting. In December of 2012 they were ready to buy the rights completely. Three or four months later they were filming. My partner Tony and I went to do a set visit one weekend during spring break, so I got to see some of the scenes being made. I also got to see some stuff being filmed that didn’t make it into the final cut. It was fantastic seeing things from my imagination being visually constructed, to step into my character’s house and see him and the ghost of Jamie Marks sitting together on a bed, saying words I’d written. Talk about liminal states. It was very magical.”
*

‘‘I have just completed a first draft of another novel called A Manual for the Most Effective Usage of Fallen Stars. I’m going to have to find a shorter title eventually. That’s a young-adult book. I’m still sitting on it, and it’s a first draft. I usually take them through a number of drafts. I always write whatever I want to write and hope that somebody will want to buy it. My editor at Knopf is eager to see the new book and she loves the title. Eventually when I feel confident, I’m going to look at it again and see what else I can do with it, and hopefully she’ll like it. I also have one more story to write for this collection of retellings and adaptations based on classic genre and children’s literature. I started writing stories in that vein a few years ago. The first one I wrote is ‘Invisible Men’, which was a finalist for the Million Writers Award, and was originally published in Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse Online, and reprinted in Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. It was meant to be a fun experiment for me, because I’d read H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. I was put off by the description of the rural villagers in the book. Wells made fun of them in a lot of ways, unneces­sarily. He clearly looked down on them. I felt badly about that; I’m from a rural background myself. So I started to write that story in the voice of a young girl who works as a maid in the inn where the invisible man stays for four months, trying to cure himself. I wanted to give her a voice. The story’s about that – who’s truly invisible in that book? I got really great responses to that story and I was invigorated by it, because I’d never done anything so consciously working with someone else’s material. I wanted to investigate other books that I loved. Sometimes there are wrongs I want to right, and sometimes I think there’s something the author might have had a hard time talking about in the period they were writing in. I have one more to write before the book is done. Then that collection will be finished, ten stories in all. I’ll give that to Barry, too, and hope for the best. I do everything on a wing and a prayer. Hopefully there will be a publisher interested in it.’’


Kameron Hurley: Who Are We Writing For?
On Knowing When to Listen to the Haters, and When to Laugh

I’m asked, often, what I feel about ‘‘the haters’’ or ‘‘the detractors’’ who don’t like me or my work, and I think it’s an odd question, because, to be blunt – I don’t care what those people think. Spewing unrestrained and unabashed vitriol across a page or in a public forum has always been a great way to call attention to oneself, and with the prolifera­tion of platforms we have today, it’s easier than ever to wander around kicking people in the face and congratulating oneself about sticking it to the man.

I have done it myself.

Yes, I say this as someone who has baldly stated my opinion about various works for over a decade online, generally thoughtfully, angrily, and always passionately. From hav­ing been on both sides of the divide, I can say this confidently – listen to the people who are your target readers, and forget everyone else. If you’ve done something to bump them out of the story, something that didn’t achieve what you intended, they’ll let you know, and you should listen. But the people who think your work is unabashedly a ‘‘jumble of words’’ or ‘‘nonsen­sical,’’ well… these are not the readers you’re looking for.

One of the benefits of having done a series of workshops in my teens and early twenties is that I learned when and how to take criticism. Was the reader feedback pointing me to things I’d done that weren’t what I intended? Had I put in a lazy character trope or trait that not only bumped them out of the story, but was also not at all my intention? Then scrub it out – but when you have a reader who says, ‘‘I find it offensive and nonsensical that there’s a lesbian in this story,’’ well, that’s when I laugh quietly and put down my pen, because clearly this person is not my target reader. I’m not writing this book for them.

I am not writing this book for you, is a statement that often comes as a shock to readers. Writers are expected to be producers of widgets, and don’t we want to sell widgets to everyone? No. No, I do not.

There’s a quote attributed to Colin Powell that goes, ‘‘Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.’’ Not everyone is going to like your book. Not everyone should like your work. The worst possible feedback I could ever get about a book is that is roused no response in a reader, that they could take or leave it. Then I’ve written a middle-of-the-road, unremarkable piece of fiction that no one is going to read or talk about anyway. Hatred, at least, inspires conversation, which mediocre work won’t.

Once you’ve got a passionate group of fans and critics, you can also identity ‘‘ideal readers’’ for your work. These are the people you’re writ­ing it for. That’s not to say that they will always love what you write, but that your stories are tailored for readers like them. We tend to write books we like to read, and with upwards of six billion people on earth, there’s bound to be plenty of other folks who like the same things you do. The real challenge is finding them, and weeding through the noise to uncover them.

There are trolls who make it a point to hate everything, who delight in stirring up controversy, who live for the Author Behaving Badly moment that will spike their page views or get a tweet retweeted 1,500 times. Those are the people you need to ignore. Professional trolling is a real thing. I recommend folks read Confessions of a Media Manipulator to get an idea of how the modern click-for-dollars-outrage-machine works. Advertising models are not set up for constructive conversations. They are set up for pageviews. To achieve the pageviews that major media sites want, they must post either something salacious about a celebrity, or an outrage piece. Your author meltdown often qualifies.

Don’t allow people to make money off your meltdown.

Trolling is both a moneymaker and a game. Getting people to cry on camera, to talk about how afraid they are, to leave the Internet in a huff, to flee from their homes, is actually the end goal of this game. It in­spires a community of professional trolls to keep at it (we keep doing things only if they provide us with positive reinforcement, after all, and trolls have a culture, too). When you have little groups of people who congratulate each other every time an author says how hor­rible they felt about a blistering review or hate storm, there’s nothing to be won by sharing that publicly. Share the annoyance with your friends, at the bar, or on private listservs. Not online. The reality is that the person who gets the most emotional online is the one who looks the worst when the fallout is over.

What we tend to forget, when we’re in the middle of a hate storm, is that we are a passing fad; we’re not considered real people. We’re just the latest piece of content. Give it enough time, lay low, mute and block and don’t read the comments, and it will pass. Then you can surface, review any of the feedback that looks legitimate, and carry on with your art. It’s what we do. It’s part of the job, now.

In reality, I have a pretty fabulous life, so maybe it’s easier for me to take the nonsense most days, but I also don’t go out looking for it. I don’t read the comments. I mute everyone on Twitter who comes at me. I have all my e-mail screened, so I only have to glance over hate mail when I feel like it, or simply empty it as trash, unread.

I have spent a decade sifting through feedback on and offline, and the reality is that when you live and speak publicly, there will always be people who dislike what you’re saying. My surprise actually came when I realized it wasn’t so much what I was saying that people didn’t like – it was that I was allowed to speak publicly at all, as if there was a test one had to pass, a lofty measurement or set of traits, or a bestseller list, or some gender requirement. As awful as it can feel when the Internet comes at you, the Internet cannot stop you speaking. It can’t silence you. The worst of the trolls are a small group of lonely, angry people who feel they have no voice. Sometimes those voiceless people need to be listened to – they are pointing out real issues with your work – and sometimes they are professional rage machines.

Determining the difference will save you a lot of heartache in your career. It’s a skill I encourage every new writer to cultivate. If you have to, bring a common complaint you’re seeing to a few trusted friends. Ask if they feel it’s legitimate. And ask yourself: is this really what I meant to say? Have I said this as clearly as I could have and it’s being blown out of proportion, or did I need to communicate myself more clearly?

One of the reasons no one can silence me is not just my profound stubbornness and indifference in the face of rage mobs, nor my ability to find the signal in the noise. I stay in this game because I’ve met my passionate fans, my target audience. I get 1,000% more fan mail than hate mail. I get fan mail of the ‘‘You changed my life’’ variety. People who came out to their parents because of something I wrote, folks who found the courage to leave an abusive partner. Folks who moved across the country. Changed jobs. Went back to school. People read things I write and it gives them hope and inspiration and comfort, too; comfort that they are not so different. They are not alone. That the world can be really different.

It’s that love, that profound love, that will keep me here, that will keep me speaking, and that will keep me carrying on, long after the hate speech has been buried in an explosion of fragmented pixels.


Garth Nix: Back in the Old Kingdom

Garth Nix was born July 19, 1963 in Melbourne Australia and grew up in Canberra. He joined the Army reserve at 17 and served as a part-time soldier for five years. At 19 he began writing, and sold first story ‘‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo’’ (1983) within the year. He attended the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) and received a BA in professional writing in 1986.

His first novel, children’s dark fantasy The Ragwitch, appeared in Australia in 1990 and the US in 1995. Second novel Sabriel (1995 Australia, 1996 US) won Aurealis Awards in both the Best Fantasy Novel and Best YA Novel categories, and began the Old Kingdom series. Lirael (2001), set in the world of Sabriel though not a direct sequel, won Australia’s 2002 Adelaide Festival Award for Children’s Literature along with a Ditmar Award. Sequel Abhorsen appeared in 2003, and a companion novella featured in the collection Across the Wall: A Tale of the Abhorsen and Other Stories in 2005. He returned to the Old Kingdom in Clariel: The Lost Abhorsen (2014).

His third and fourth books were SF: Shade’s Children (1997) and YA novelization The X-Files: The Calusari (1997). Scholastic and LucasFilm in the US asked him to create the overall story and characters for a children’s fantasy series with possible franchise to other writers, which became six-book series The Seventh Tower (2000-01), comprised of The Fall, Castle, Aenir, Above the Veil, Into Battle, and The Violet Keystone.

The Keys to the Kingdom series includes Mister Monday (2003), Grim Tuesday (2004), Drowned Wednesday (2005), Sir Thursday (2006), Lady Friday (2007), Superior Saturday (2008) and Lord Sunday (2010).

YA SF novel A Confusion of Princes (2009) formed the basis for online roleplaying game Imperial Galaxy, co-created by Nix and playable online at .

With Sean Williams he writes the Troubletwisters YA fantasy series, with four books so far: Troubletwisters (2011), The Monster (2012), The Mystery (2013; as The Mystery of the Golden Card in Australia), and The Missing (2014; as Missing, Presumed Evil in Australia). They also co-wrote the third book in the Spirit Animals middle grade fantasy series, Blood Ties (2014).

Nix is an accomplished short fiction writer, writing mostly stories for children and young adults. Notable works include ‘‘Lightning Bringer’’ (2001), ‘‘Hope Chest’’ (2003), and Aurealis winners ‘‘Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case’’ (2005), ‘‘Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz Go to War Again’’ (2007), and ‘‘Shay Corsham Worsted’’ (2014). Some of his short work for younger children is collected in One Beastly Beast (2007), and three of his Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz stories were gathered in Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures (2013). His latest collection of stories is To Hold the Bridge, forthcoming in June 2015.

Nix worked in bookselling and academic publishing from 1987-1990, did a stint editing for HarperCollins Australia (1990-93); was a PR and marketing consultant to technology companies (1994-97); and was a part-time literary agent from 1999 to 2002, when he was forced to give up other pursuits to meet his various literary commitments. He is still a shareholder at Curtis Brown Australia. In 2014 he won the Peter McNamara Achievement Award for his contributions to the Australian SF field.

Nix lives in Sydney with his wife, Anna McFarlane, one of the children’s publishers at Allen & Unwin (married 2000) and their sons Thomas Nix, born 2002, and Edward Nix, born 2004.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Clariel has been in the works since 1998, just building up in the queue of books to be written. When I was writing Lirael, I made a note about one of the characters and that was the beginning of Clariel. It’s been lurking there, just waiting. I only work things out as I need them, typically. People often ask me, ‘So you left it for years.’ No, it’s always been in my head. But I did have to go back and reread the earlier books. I don’t like going back and rereading my work, but you have to some­times. In the Keys to the Kingdom books I had to consistently reread the old ones as I was writing the new ones and I had to do that for Clariel as well. I had forgotten useful details but also discovered things I’d set up, so that was quite good. I laid the groundwork without being aware I was laying the groundwork, years ago. Also because I’d written the books long enough ago, I could reread them without feeling I wanted to rewrite them – I’m never going to do that. I don’t believe that’s a good idea. Most of the time I was reading the old books and thinking, ‘Wow, I forgot I put that in there, it’s absolutely ideal.’ Even when I’m in the middle of writing a book I often find I’ll get to a point where I think, ‘I’ve got to set this up’ only to realize, ‘Oh, I have already set it up.’ I’m not saying my subconscious writes my books, though that would be cool – I could just go away, and have a Jekyll and Hyde thing. My alter ego who writes. That would be creepy, actually. Auto-written in the night by my other self. Why am I so tired? That’s a horror story in itself. That’s a Stephen King story. (He’s probably already written it, and I just haven’t read it.) Generally speaking, it’s interesting how your subconscious, if you’re working on something, does work out a lot of the things you need, and you put them in without knowing you’ll need them later on.”

*

‘‘We’ve come close to a Sabriel film a few times. It’s like a lot of things in the movie busi­ness, where it’s potentially exciting, things almost happen, and then fall apart. It came incredibly close twice, and the second time, the contracts were all done, the lawyers had been through ev­erything, and money had been spent. There were a lot of different parties involved. Everything was ready to go, massive paperwork waiting to be signed, when a question was raised about some of the funding for the film. Some of it was going to come from a tax break in Australia, and one of the producers had been one of the people who’d helped design that tax break, and he said we’d get it for sure, but another lawyer said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get it.’ It was like a house of cards. The card representing 20 million dollars got taken out, and the whole thing collapsed, just as we were ready to sign.

‘‘We did have at least one meeting with a to­tally ludicrous question: ‘Could we set Sabriel in contemporary America and could she be a kindergarten teacher?’ Why not just write your own story, why do you want to talk about buying my book? That’s typical of Hollywood as well. Everyone has stories about that, where they buy books for what’s good in them and then remove all of that, and you don’t even recognize the film.

“The reality is mostly films or TV don’t happen, and as an author it’s good not to be too invested emotionally or economically. The only thing you can control is your fiction, so focus on that. Write the next book, and write the next story.”

*

‘‘I think the reason New Adult exists is because there’s so much YA, publishers need some other means of separation. People reading it are prob­ably mostly 18 to 40, though like anything, it’s difficult to generalise. The publishers are just try­ing to create a niche for particular kinds of books. Categories are always about how you sell the books. It’s not really about what’s in the books, or who they’re for. Like the age-band thing in the UK. They wanted to have an age range displayed on every children’s book. Many people were against that, and rightly so, because children will look at that and think, ‘This is 9-12, and I’m 13, so I shouldn’t read it.’ Or, ‘I’ve got to stop reading this thing that I love because it says on the spine it’s not for me.’ Adults and parents and gatekeep­ers would say, ‘I can’t buy this book because it’s only for 9-12 year olds.’ It’s very prescriptive, and they wanted it on every book. People are influ­enced by categories. The whole young adult cat­egorization exists, to a degree, because the core demographic for YA seems to be roughly 16-35, and those people would not go into a children’s section to buy books. The publishers had to sepa­rate them out to make it easy for adults, so they wouldn’t feel peculiar. I’ll happily go into a chil­dren’s aisle to buy books – it never bothered me. But I know many people, particularly those who don’t have children themselves, for whom going into a children’s section is anathema, like they don’t belong there. That’s still a problem.”

*

‘‘I rarely teach workshops but I do every now and then. I think a lot of writing fiction is instinct, which you can’t teach. I agree with whoever said, ‘You can’t be taught how to write, but you can learn.’ When I do teach a workshop, a lot of it is trying to help people ask the questions that will allow them to work out how they should write, which could well be not like how anybody else goes about it. I also believe that writing is a craft and an art. You can teach the craft, and you can get better at it. The art side of it is the more amor­phous, difficult thing that involves natural talent and inborn imagination. But if you can make yourself better at the craft, you are increasing the chances that it will somehow mesh with your imagination, your talent side and improve the art aspect as well. If you haven’t got much of the talent, but you become a good craftsperson, that might be enough. It’s like making a chair. You can learn to make a chair, and with practice, per­haps even a really lovely chair. But without the natural talent, you won’t be able to make a beau­tiful chair that last hundreds of years and people instinctively respond to as a work of art.

*

‘‘My favorite book is always the one I haven’t written yet. Because they’re always much more amazing in my head. Which is true of all writ­ers, I think. The unwritten books really are much more incredible. I’m proud of my books, you know, but they never capture what’s in my head completely. I always think, maybe next time I’ll get closer. Of course, you never do, but it keeps you going.’’


Stephanie Burgis: Masks & Shadows

Stephanie Burgis was born May 28, 1977 in East Lansing MI. She attended Michigan State University, and was assistant to the director of the Clarion workshop there in 1996. She transferred colleges to the Oberlin Conservatory of music, studying French horn performance and music history. She spent a year at the University of Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship, and got her Master’s degree in historical musicology at the University of Pittsburgh. The following summer, in 2001, she attended Clarion West. In 2002 she began doing PhD work at the University of Leeds, relocating to England in part to be with her second husband Patrick Samphire, also a writer. They were married in 2004, and have two children, one born in 2008, and the other in 2013.

Debut novel A Most Improper Magick (2010; as Kat, Incorrigible in the US, 2011) launched The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson series, middle-grade fantasies set in Regency England. Other books include A Tangle of Magicks (2011; as Renegade Magic in the US, 2012), Stolen Magic (2013), and a YA novella about Kat as a teenager, Courting Magic (2014). Her first novel for adults, a historical fantasy tentatively titled Masks and Shadows, is forthcoming in May 2016. Burgis has also published extensively as a short fiction writer and book reviewer.

Burgis is now a dual American/British citizen. She lives in Wales with her family.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I went to Clarion West in 2001 and I came out of the closet about wanting to be a writer more than an academic. At the workshop I met Patrick Samphire, who I later married. My life plans changed drastically that summer. I came back to Pittsburgh and immediately started applying to universities in England, where Patrick lived. In 2002 I started doing a PhD at the University of Leeds on opera and politics in 18th-century Vienna. I did a lot of research. My book Masks and Shadows, coming out next year, is my PhD research turned into a novel.

‘‘When I was a kid, my dad read to me and to my brothers every night for years and years. Obviously, it would have started out with picture books and chapter books. Then it turned into Roger Zelazny and all the others. He read to me every night until I was 12 or 13. It was great. The two books that were seriously influential when he read to me were Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice. Those were my big impact books. I came out of childhood and my two obsessions were fantasy adventure and Regency England. The Kat books combine them both, so they make me happy.

‘‘I started out writing adult books. I had a really good time writing some of them. I’d gotten close to publication without quite getting there, and I thought I had to keep writing that same kind of book: for adults, fairly dark, fairly serious. Then I was diagnosed with ME (myalgic en­cephalomyelitis). I got sick in 2005, and got my diagnosis in 2007. When I finally got the diagnosis, that was the hardest. Until then I was waiting, thinking I’d find the right medicine and I’d get better. I got the diagnosis and they said it was incurable and I’d have it for the rest of my life, proba­bly. I lost my job with the opera company because I couldn’t get to work. It was the wrong time for me to be writing dark, serious fiction. It was not an escape for me. I ended up giving in and writing something lighter.”

*

‘‘I was always obsessed with opera, which explains why I studied it at university for so many years. I fell in love with it as a teenager the first time I went to see an opera, Madame Butterfly. Operas didn’t come to my town that often. I went along, not sure what I would think, and I was just bowled over. It was amaz­ing. Then I went to music school and played in the orchestra pit for some operas. I went on into music history and that was my focus, and I worked in an opera company.

‘‘One of the best things that happened in my writing career was when I came to Leeds and was introduced to another Clarion West gradu­ate, Justina Robson. She became my landlady for most of the time we were in Leeds. We lived just down the street from one another and had coffee most days. She’s amazing in many ways. She said to me, ‘Why on Earth aren’t you writing about the stuff you’re really interested in?’ Meaning my geeky obsessions. Masks and Shadows is my way of bringing together fantasy and opera. It’s set in the 18th-century palace of Esterháza in Hungary, part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This is the pal­ace where Joseph Haydn worked as the court composer. It’s a historical fantasy novel with alchemists and mystery and a plot to assassi­nate the emperor and empress, who are visiting. It’s extremely romantic. The romantic hero is a castrato opera singer, which was a hot political issue in the time period. In the same way peo­ple are debating gay marriage nowadays, there was court case after court case about whether it was legal for castrati to get married. A whole bunch of people said it wasn’t legal because they couldn’t have children, and ‘‘obviously’’ women can only be married to ‘real’ men, etc. My agent called it a ‘wildly romantic histori­cal fantasy in which music, magic, and black­mail meet, and one of the most famous castrato opera singers of the 18th century must come together with a very proper widow to prevent the assassination of the Hapsburg emperor and empress.’ The book is extremely operatic and over the top. It’s divided in acts like an opera, with multiple point-of-view characters. It’s like an 18th-century Downton Abbey with magic.”

*

‘‘The Kat books are adventures set in Regency England. I love, love, love Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. One recurring thing in several of their books is the romantic heroine, who is the star, and who has a snarky little sister who pops in and is not all that relevant to the plot. I wanted to know about her – to write the book about the snarky little sister who’s rolling her eyes about her older sister’s romantic misadventures and hav­ing more exciting magical adventures of her own. Every day before writ­ing I would read Jane Austen’s letters to get myself in the headspace of the time period, and get a sense of the style. I based a lot of the details of Kat’s family situation on Jane Austen’s family, which is an homage because I love Jane Austen. Kat lives with her genteel but impoverished vicarage family. Her father takes in students. A lot of the research came out of time that I should have spent doing my PhD work. I was supposed to be doing late 18th-century musical research, but there were a lot of days and weeks when I threw it all over for the section of the library where they had letters and diaries of 18th-century women, because they were just so interesting. By the time I started writing the Kat books I’d done a lot of research by accident.

‘‘The trilogy takes place over the course of about a year. During that year, Kat catches spouses for all three of her older siblings, much to their chagrin, sometimes, in the ways she manipulates their relationships. She’s certain that she knows better than her brothers and sisters. The trilogy finished and had some lovely reviews, which is very nice, but it was definitely done. Still, I kept getting letters from readers asking who Kat ends up with, because she made romantic matches for every one of her siblings. What about her? I kept thinking, ‘I can’t sell a book about grown-up Kat – these are children’s books.’ So last year I wrote a novella, Courting Magic, about Kat’s romance, and I put it out myself. That was a really fun experience. It was nice to do something as a ‘thank you’ to the readers who responded so generously to the Kat books. It was a huge gift to myself because it was like writing fanfic in my own world. I call it my young-adult novella. It’s supposed to stand alone. Obviously, you get more out of it if you know who these characters are and their history, though.”

*

‘‘I can’t imagine writing anything without magic because it wouldn’t be fun for me. I love the sense of wonder in fantasy. Even in dark fantasy there’s a whole opening-yourself-to-wonder when magic is a factor. It gives me a sense of wonder when I write, to have a fan­tasy element. In general my philosophy of writ­ing is I want to write smart, fun books. I want them to be both. I want them to be escapes for people. I really mean that. Escapist fiction is used as such an insult by so many people. But I would say, having been through some seriously bad times, I feel such gratitude for the writers whose books let me escape and feel a sense of wonder, even if in my own life I was going through a very dark moment, like when I was diagnosed with ME, when I felt my life closing down and becoming darker. Even my lightest books have a real emotional heart in them. The emotions are always true. There’s always go­ing to be positivity. I’m never going to write grimdark. There’s always going to be hope, and that’s because I need it in my own life. I want to provide that to other people.’’


Cory Doctorow: Stability and Surveillance

In Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking 2014 economics blockbuster Capital in the 21st Century, the economist carefully documents the increasing wealth disparity around the globe, a phenomenon that has animated the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Pope Francis, and political activists around the world. Some of Piketty’s critics have tried to call his math into question, but on this front Piketty seems most sound. The data-set he worked from represents an astonishing work of scholarship, and the raw numbers are online for anyone to download, along with copious notes about the assumptions Piketty made in normalizing disparate data-sources in order to form a coherent narrative. Piketty is a quant’s quant, a man with a lot of extremely defensible numbers.

Then there’s the other criticism of Pik­etty: ‘‘So what?’’ So what if rich people are getting richer and poor people are getting poorer? As Boris Johnson, the Eton-educated mayor of London, quipped: ‘‘The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.’’ In other words, if capitalism is making the rich richer, it’s because they deserve it, a fact that can be demonstrated by how rich they are. If you’re a crumb at the bottom of the box, you must be a crumby sort of person.

Piketty addresses this criticism less explicitly, by oblique references to ‘‘social instability.’’ He frequently compares contemporary wealth disparity to that of the eve of World War I (cast as a kind of turf-war among the super-rich about who would pocket the ongoing wealth from the colonies, now that there were no more new territories to conquer) and to the time just before the French Revolution, a comparison that presumably sends shivers up the backs of his fellow French citizens, but probably seems a bit abstract to the book’s English-language audience.

Here’s what he’s saying, when you read between the lines: when the gap between the rich and the poor gets too big, the poor start building guillotines. It’s probably cheaper to redistribute some of your wealth, deserved or not, than to pay for all the guards you’ll need to keep your head affixed to your body.

In other words, a big gap between the rich and the poor destabilizes societies, and it’s hard to be really rich in a society that’s in chaos. Unless the people around you buy into the legitimacy of the system that made you rich, they will not be bothered by the spectacle of you having all your stuff taken away, and they may even help do it.

Historically, there have been two kinds of very stable societies: highly redistributive ones, like the Scandinavian countries (in which the gap between the rich and the poor is closed through taxation, laws that favor employees and tenants, and extensive social programs), and totalitarian ones, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, where, instead of redistributing a lot of money from the ruling elite to the rest of the people, the ruling elites spend somewhat less money on a huge coercive apparatus made up of soldiers, spies, police officers, snitches, propaganda, and surveillance, using all this to identify agitators fomenting political change, then neutralizing them through imprisonment, smear campaigns, exclusion from employment, exile, blackmail, torture, and murder.

Samuel Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, uses the term ‘‘guard labor’’ to describe all the activities used to coerce social stability out of people who question a society’s legitimacy. In the absence of an ethical framework that says poverty and its associated suffering is wrong, a rational ruling elite should pursue a policy of using a combination of redistribution and guard labor to attain social stability. If a tiny minority of society are rich enough, and everyone else is poor enough, it will cost the rich minority more to hire guards to keep the starving masses out of their palaces than it would to feed and educate some of those people, creating a middle class, some social mobility, and the sense that the rich are rich because they’ve earned their station, and if you buy into the system, you might join them.

There are lots of examples of this, but my favorite is the tunnels that Jo­seph Williamson paid to have dug under Liverpool after the Napoleonic War. Williamson was a local tycoon who understood that the return of armed shell-shocked infantrymen from the battlefields of Europe into a city where no work awaited them was prob­ably going to be bad news for that city’s stability. So Williamson hived off a sizable fraction of his enormous fortune and paid veterans to honeycomb the ground under Liverpool with miles and miles of tunnels from nowhere to nowhere. Williamson reasoned – probably correctly – that it was cheaper to give these veterans a wage and the dignity of work than it would be to hire enough security to defend himself from a demobilized army who felt that the nation had turned its back on them.

Not all guard labor is overtly coercive. Some of it is persuasive. The post-Reagan boom in wealth disparity also coincided with massive media deregulation, both in terms of consolidation of ownership and in the extent and nature of public service pro­gramming obligations that came along with a broadcast license. The result was a huge economic and technological revolution in media, ending in the creation of the five vast media empires that own virtually all the music, movies, news broadcasting, print journalism, publishing, and cable/satellites in the world, and in many cases these companies also own the pipes – the telephone and cable wires.

This has made the conveyance of socially stabilizing messages more tractable than ever. Study after study has found the press to be sympathetic with the narrative of the deserving rich, equating taxation with theft, and hostile to labor and regulation. The rise of Fox News and its global counterpart, Sky News, as well as the collapse of the newspaper industry into the hands of a few companies that are largely owned by hedge funds and billionaires, means that messages questioning the legitimacy of great fortunes are thin on the ground.

The telecoms and media revolution of the late 20th century made guard labor cheaper, changing the balance between spending on redistribution and force to attain social stability. When guarding your fortune is cheaper, you can afford to piss off more people by getting richer instead of sharing with them.

The 21st century has been very kind to guard labor. In addition to great leaps and bounds in making military tools available to local police depart­ments, the 21st century has seen the rise of the Internet, and, thanks to loose regulation over telecoms and consolidation, the rise of a tiny number of Internet giants who are privy to every single action and transaction of practically everyone on Earth, all seven billion of us.

The massive Internet surveillance revealed by the whistleblower Edward Snowden showed that governments – and the rich people who dominate policy circles in direct proportion with how much of the national wealth they command – have figured out that all they need to do to put the whole planet under surveillance is to subvert those Internet giants, either overtly (as when the spy agency GCHQ pays BT handsomely for letting it wiretap the fiber trunks that land on British shores) or covertly (as when the NSA secretly tapped the fiber links between the data centers used by companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook).

It’s hard to overstate just how efficient surveillance has become in the 21st century. Critics of mass Internet surveillance like to compare the NSA and its allied spy services to the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany, who were notorious for the pervasive and suffocating blanket of surveillance with which they smothered the country. But the Stasi were engaged in pre-Internet surveillance, and they were very expensive guard labor by modern standards.

In 1989, the last year of the Stasi’s operation, there were 16,111,000 people in East Germany, and 264,096 operatives of one kind or another in the pay of the Stasi, including 173,081 ‘‘unofficial informants’’ (snitches). That’s a ratio of one spy to every 60 people.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people work for the NSA – so much of its budget is black, and so many of its operations are carried out by its pri­vate enterprise partners, like Booz Allen, Edward Snowden’s former employer. But we do know how many Americans have security clearance (4.9 million), and how many of them have Top Secret clearance (1.4 million), and so we can be pretty sure that it’s less than 1.4 million people (because the people with Top Secret clearance also need to be apportioned to the CIA, FBI, DOD, etc.). In addi­tion, NSA surveillance is assisted by foreign spies, especially those in the other ‘‘five eyes’’ countries (Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand), but all of those spies will be a drop in the bucket compared to the US surveillance apparatus – the US alone accounts for a third of the world’s total military spending, and only two of the remaining five eyes countries (the UK and Australia) even appear on the top-fifteen list of military spenders.

Being generous, though, let’s say there’s 1.4 mil­lion NSA spies and associated staff, including in the five eyes – 1.4 million people to surveil seven billion humans, give or take a couple.

That’s a spy:subject ratio of 1:5000 – two orders of magnitude greater than the Stasi. The Stasi used an army to surveil a nation; the NSA uses a battalion to surveil a planet. Compared to the NSA, the Stasi were artisanal craftsmen.

And while it’s true that the US surveillance ap­paratus has grown mightily since the Reagan era – some agencies have had their budgets increased fourfold since the Berlin Wall fell – it certainly hasn’t grown a hundredfold. Even with the budgets obscured and shrouded in deception, it’s clear that the geometric rise in spying volume was accompa­nied by a merely linear increase in spying resource expenditure.

In other words, the cost of one of the crucial pieces of guard labor is in free-fall, and has been since the Internet started to take off.

Here’s where we get back to Piketty and social stability. Rich people need stability, at least enough to keep banks and commerce humming.

Wealth gaps destabilize society, and restabilizing society is a choice between the cost of lifting people out of poverty, or making sure you can head them off before they bust out the guillotines (or knock down the Berlin Wall).

When guard labor gets cheaper, the sustainable gap between the rich and the poor gets wider. A two order of magnitude drop in the price of separating the wolves from the sheep amongst the have-nots is a powerful argument against providing social programs, or labor laws, or tenants’ rights – sure, deprivation makes the population restless, but we can pinpoint whom to arrest, or discredit, or blackmail, or render, with incredible reliability for pennies. Let ’em eat social media.

This is bad news, because huge wealth disparity doesn’t just destabilize society due to poverty – it also destabilizes through corruption. In a society where lawmakers must raise tens of millions to take and hold office, the influence of the wealthy grows. This is pretty clear in autocratic regimes – you can go to jail in Thailand for criticizing the royals; exposing slave labor conditions in Qatar is likewise an offense.

But it’s also true in the USA. In April 2014, aca­demics from Princeton and Northwestern published ‘‘Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens’’, in the journal Perspectives and Politics. It was a massive study of 20 years’ worth of policy battles in the US Congress and Administrative Branch, and it concluded that these policy outcomes favored the richest 10 percent of Americans nearly all of the time – policy outcomes that favored middle earners were so rare that they didn’t even register above the level of statistical noise.

In a society of extreme wealth gaps, the only policies that flourish have to have a business-model. They have to make someone outside of Congress or Parliament rich, so that a person can spend some of the money she’s taking home on influencing politi­cians to maintain and expand the policy.

There are probably some things that states do that can produce surplus capital for a few people and still do good, but there are other areas where this is certainly untrue. Education, for example – you can certainly run a school like a business, using ‘‘accountability’’ as your main metric, with standardized tests and attendance scores instead of the judgment of educators, or scholarly evidence about real learning.

Using this methodology, you can produce hand­some profits for companies that figure out how to improve standardized test scores and reduce absenteeism (for example, by cramming students for tests instead of giving them arts and physical education instruction, and by kicking out students who have problems with this regime, or whose per­sonal problems make them frequently absent from school). This will make your quarterly reports rise and rise in a way that will warm the heart of any Wall Street analyst, but good luck finding someone with any pedagogical credibility who will say that the kids are doing anything like ‘‘learning.’’

I’ll level with you: this freaks me out. The expan­sion of surveillance means that the natural checks and balances on inequality, already insufficient, have been shuffled around to favor true oligarchy. It’s yet another reason to get your friends using cryptographic tools, especially those that run on free and open source software. As I write this in January 2015, Obama, the New York Attorney General, and the head of the FBI have all called for bans on the civilian use of crypto, as has the UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Banning crypto is an ambitious project that’s unlikely to succeed – it combines all the dumbest aspects of the War on Some Drugs with the War on File Sharing – but that doesn’t mean that the move to make us all vulnerable to surveillance won’t do real damage.

Time is running out. It’s five minutes to midnight. Have you encrypted your hard drive yet?



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