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K.W. Jeter: Rockin’ in the Steampunk World

Kevin Wayne Jeter was born March 26, 1950 in Los Angeles. He attended California State University of Fullerton with classmates Tim Powers and James P. Blaylock, where he also met his wife Geri, and graduated with a degree in sociology. During the ’70s he became friends with his literary hero, Philip K. Dick. Since then he has led ‘‘the ramshackle writer life,’’ residing up and down the West Coast until moving to Ecuador a few years ago.

His first published novel was Seeklight (1976), followed by Dreamfields (1976), Morlock Night (1979), and Soul Eater (1983). The first novel he actually wrote, Dr. Adder, appeared in 1984, followed by sequels The Glass Hammer (1984), Dr. Adder in Death’s Arms (1987), and Alligator Alley (1989, co-written with Ferret). With Infernal Devices (1987) Jeter became a pioneer of the steampunk subgenre – a term Jeter coined in a letter to this very magazine that same year. Farewell Horizontal (1989), Madlands (1991), and Noir (1998) are SF thrillers, but he turned increasingly to horror with titles like Mantis (1987), Dark Seeker (1987), In the Land of the Dead (1989), The Night Man (1990), and Wolf Flow (1992). He wrote four-volume comic Mister E (1991), and wrote many novelizations in the ’90s, including Star Wars and Star Trek volumes, plus three novel sequels to the film Bladerunner, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

After a hiatus of some years, Jeter has recently returned to the field with Fiendish Schemes (2013) from Tor, a sequel to Infernal Devices. He began self-publishing the Kim Oh thriller series with Real Dangerous Girl (2013), with four volumes out so far.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Fiendish Schemes is the long-delayed (as they tell me) sequel to Infernal Devices, so I’m picking up the steampunk thread that so many others have done fabulous things with. I jumped back into that pool and am having a fine old time.

‘‘When I wrote Morlock Night I hadn’t traveled to England. Before I wrote Infernal Devices, I managed to get to London and I could see all the things I got wrong, of course, but gratifyingly there were at least a few things I got right. In terms of influence, I’ve always been a stodgy old person (even when I was young) and so I read a lot of Victorian literature. Not just the obvious stuff, Dickens and that sort of thing, but the more obscure people, like George Gissing. He was a literary writer, a friend of H. G. Wells. He’s just about the grimmest writer you could ever imagine. There are a bunch of his books I’m glad I read, but would never read again because they’re so depressing. There were also great Victorian thriller writers like Harrison Ainsworth, probably best known for his novel Rookwood. He was the Stephen King of his day in terms of writing pulse-pounding thrillers. I always recommend people read Harrison Ainsworth. I’m also a one-man anti-defamation league for Lord Bulwer-Lytton. A lot of people make fun of Bulwer-Lytton, but he was actually a good writer, except for his poetry, which is dreadful. His novels are quite good. I think he’s unfairly ridiculed, so I’m constantly recommending him. Of course, people just assume that means I’m as crazy as he was.”

*

‘‘The characters in Infernal Devices use a machine that gives them fragmentary glimpses of what will happen in the future; that’s something I return to in Fiendish Schemes, only now I have a lot more hindsight about what the future turned out to be, from the perspective of the Victorians. Infernal Devices was designed to be a lighthearted comedy, with a sad-sack central character who gets swept up in events. Fiendish Schemes turned out a little deeper and darker because of that additional hindsight I have now about what the future became. What I didn’t have a clear picture of when I wrote Infernal Devices so many years ago, but other writers have picked up on since, was the ability to use this crazy anarchic ahistorical approach that steampunk has become, and do some really interesting things with it. In a lot of ways, I’m influenced by the younger steampunk writers who came along after me and by what they’ve accomplished, taking this crazy notion and doing anarchic things with it. That’s been exciting.”

*

‘‘Being down in Ecuador, traveling is a little more involved for us. We were either going to go to Worldcon in San Antonio or to Brighton for World Fantasy Con. We decided, because we wanted to see all of our British friends, that we’d come to World Fantasy. Then I read a lot of people’s blog posts and things, friends of mine, when they came home from San Antonio. Of course they had a great time, but people were saying, ‘Gosh, it seems like everybody was so old.’ I said, ‘Go to a steampunk convention, because that skews way younger.’ A lot of the wildness makes some dismiss it as just people running around with goggles on their top hats and corsets on the outside of their dresses. But it’s also this anarchic approach to history. In steampunk, historical accuracy doesn’t matter. There’s a bunch of stuff happening in South America too, in Bogota, and in Brazil it’s huge.”

*

‘‘I’m making an effort not to shackle myself to steampunk. I’ve got a bunch of stuff sitting out with my agent and my editors now, which will be a continuation of the noir crime thriller orientation I had in books like Madlands, Farewell Horizontal, and some of my horror novels. I’m trying to keep the bifurcation going with the steampunk projects here and the crazy noir there. I’ve got a thriller series of short novels, as e-books, revolving around a young woman named Kim Oh. There are four of them so far. They’re not SF, they’re pretty larky. At one point I called them ‘absurdist comedies of violence.’ She does kill people, and she becomes quite good at it. A big part of the story is a Bildungsroman about her educating herself as a killer. She approaches it as a young businesswoman. Those are fun to write, and we’re still seeing what the ultimate home for them will be. Right now they’re solely available online, but we’re talking to some publishers.”

*

‘‘It ties back to the Victorian novelists like Mrs. Gaskell and Mrs. Humphrey Ward. They were concerned about the corrosive effect of the modern world on both men and women, worried that men would become harder and crueler because they wouldn’t have the civilizing effect of women anymore. The great instance of this that many people talk about is the British crusade against slavery that came out of a group of people usually referred to as the Clapham Common group. Everybody knows the names of William Wilberforce and the other men, they were leaders in the Baptist and Methodist churches. Nobody knows the names of their wives. But if you read the correspondence of Wilberforce and the other great anti-slavery crusaders, they were constantly referring to the influence of their wives. They were doing this abolitionist work because their wives said that it was how they would achieve personal salvation, by undertaking this great crusade against this terrible evil. There’s really moving correspondence that still survives between some of the Clapham Common group and their wives, where they say it was all because of the women: ‘People are giving me the credit, but it was all because of you. You made me a better man through your wise feminine influences. Because of you I have a chance at heaven.’ It’s absolutely true.”


Jeff VanderMeer: South of Reality

Jeffrey Scott VanderMeer was born July 7, 1968 in Belfont PA, and grew up in the Fiji Islands (where his parents worked for the Peace Corps), Ithaca NY, and Gainesville FL, where he attended the University of Florida for three years. He went to Clarion in 1992.

VanderMeer’s first story of genre interest was ‘‘So the Dead Walk Slowly’’, appearing when he was in college in 1989. His first book was self-published collection The Book of Frog (1989), and other collections include The Book of Lost Places (1996), Secret Life (2004), Secret Lives (2006), The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories (2007, with Cat Rambo), World Fantasy Award finalist The Third Bear (2010). His novelette The Situation (2009) was a Shirley Jackson Award nominee, and was adapted as a web comic with a script by VanderMeer and art by Eric Orchard. Some of his poetry was collected in Lyric of the Highway Mariner (1991) and The Day Dali Died: Poetry and Clash Fiction (2003).

VanderMeer’s pioneering New Weird series, Ambergris, began with Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning novella Dradin, in Love (1996) and continued with World Fantasy Award winner ‘‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’’ (1998), novellas ‘‘The Strange Case of X’’ (1999) and ‘‘The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek’’ (1999), all collected in City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris (2001; updated with new stories in 2002). Other works in that world include Shriek: An Afterword (2006) and World Fantasy and Nebula Award nominee Finch (2009). He also published World Fantasy and Bram Stoker Award nominee Veniss Underground (2003), and a tie-in Predator novel in 2008. His newest fiction project, the Southern Reach trilogy, has garnered impressive commercial and critical attention, including publication in 16 countries and a movie deal from Paramount Pictures. The Southern Reach trilogy began with Annihilation (2014) and continues with Authority (2014) and the forthcoming Acceptance.

VanderMeer has been a prolific editor since the 1980s, when he founded The Ministry of Whimsy Press while still in high school, and in 1989 began publishing ’zine Jabberwocky, which ran for two issues. He co-edited three volumes of the Leviathan anthology series, including the Dick Award nominated and World Fantasy Award-winning third volume (2002, with Forrest Aguirre). He edited anthologies Album Zutique (2003), and Hugo Award finalists The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases (2003, with Mark Roberts), and Monstrous Creatures: Explorations of Fantasy Through Essays, Articles and Reviews (2011).

With wife Ann VanderMeer (née Kennedy, married 2002), he worked on the Best American Fantasy anthologies, which published volumes in 2007, 2008, and 2010. They have co-edited numerous anthologies and non-fiction books, including Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), The New Weird (2008), World Fantasy Award finalist Steampunk (2008), Last Drink Bird Head (2008), Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded (2010), World Fantasy Award nominee The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011), World Fantasy Award winner The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories (2011), Odd? (2011), The Time Traveler’s Almanac (2014), and feminist SF anthology Sisters of the Revolution, forthcoming. They co-wrote humorous volume The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (2010), and together run e-book publisher Cheeky Frawg Books and website Weird Fiction Review . They were nominated for a World Fantasy Award in the Special Award, Professional category in 2013.

VanderMeer’s non-fiction includes essay collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat & Other Nonfiction (2002), Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer (2009), and The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature (2011, with S.J. Chambers), and sequel The Steampunk User’s Manual, with Desirina Boskovich, forthcoming. His latest book of non-fiction is BSFA Award winner and Hugo Award finalist Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (2013). He has taught at Clarion and regularly teaches at the teen workshop Shared Worlds.

The VanderMeers live in Tallahassee FL.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Ideas creep in from all over the place, but for the Southern Reach there was a central dream that I had (which is the same way that almost all of my books have come about): I was dreaming of walking down a tunnel and seeing living words on the wall, and then eventually I realized I was going to see whatever was writing them… and I woke up. I remember distinctly that some part of my brain was saying, ‘If you see it, you’re never going to write the books.’ So I went back to sleep, and then in the morning I had pretty much the whole story in my head.

‘‘I had wanted to write about north Florida, and what came out of that desire through the dream is an idea about an expedition into an area that’s been cut off from the rest of civilization for 30 years, at the point of the first book, Annihilation. A secret government agency, the Southern Reach, has been sending expeditions into this ‘Area X’ to try to figure out what’s going on in there, but pretty much every expedition has come apart at the seams, and they haven’t found out what’s happening.

‘‘The setting of the Southern Reach trilogy is basically the 14-mile hiking trail that I do out at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. Somebody I told the plot of Annihilation to said there were much stranger things going on at St. Marks than I knew, and my novel was not very proactive in that department at all! The expedition in my book gets charged by a wild boar: that actually happened to me out there. So did seeing dolphins in the freshwater canals. All these things make the setting of the series very personal to me, and meant that I didn’t really have to think much about it, so that allowed me to relax into the situation.

‘‘The fact that Annihilation is set in the real world makes a big difference. A reader who might not pick up a literary fantasy set in an imaginary world is more likely to pick up something about a strange expedition in our world. It’s still basically the real world (as becomes more clear in the second book), but I think the main thing is, from the genre looking out, it may not look like as much of a shift in what I write as it does from outside the genre looking in. If you’re writing imaginary-world fantasy on a more literary (or even experimental) side, you’re in this position where you have to get readers from both mainstream and genre, but you’re not drawing from the core of either.”

*

‘‘The trilogy is basically three complete, self-contained stories about three different characters. Obviously, Annihilation will leave people who want everything answered wanting to read Book Two, but there are also readers and reviewers who have been perfectly satisfied with it as a standalone novel. The second book, Authority, allowed me to delve a bit into the small-town South and places like that, without ever naming them, and get their flavor. I’ve been chuckling over a couple of (very positive) reviews of Authority where they say, ‘How the hell can I possibly explain this?’ I think, ‘Have you ever worked for a government agency?’ That bureaucratic element draws on personal experience, since I once had to go to every branch of a particular agency, and those are usually in the most remote areas you can think of. I had a crap-load of adventures throughout my day-job phase, and that stuff eventually came out in these novels. The third book, Acceptance, is divided equally between the Southern Reach and Area X, and has four different viewpoint characters. You find out more about the biologist, and I promise that readers will get answers – the ones they deserve and the ones they’re looking for.

‘‘The other thing that I keep coming up against in my fiction is how people react to something that is inexplicable. We’re living on an alien planet to begin with, because we don’t even know this world that we are, in effect, colonizing, and subjecting to our will all the time. I really, truly believe that in order to survive as a species (and this is a very science-fictional theory), we need to be able to imagine the world without us in it. This isn’t to say I think the world should be without us in it, but that we have to get beyond the idea that everything is here either to serve us, or that we’re here to be a steward for it. That tends to be the major default position in books that are not really about nature but include nature. They can Disneyify everything to the point where it becomes dangerous, because that view of nature bleeds into their positions on various issues in the real world in ways that are detrimental to trying to find solutions.”

*

‘‘Although the books feature conspiracies, I’m not a conspiracy theorist at all. I actually think conspiracy theorists muddy the water regarding the true complexity of situations. Especially now, with social media and some news outlets starting to do joke stories, you don’t just have misinformation or biased points of view; you literally have ‘spam history’ out there! Individuals have to sort through everything and try to figure out what is closest to some kind of baseline reality or truth.”

*

‘‘The next book I’m doing is The Steampunk User’s Manual, with my coauthor Desirina Boskovich, out from Abrams in October. It’s kind of pushing the edge on retrofuturism – not really like The Steampunk Bible at all. It’s like a craft book that’s also for people who never wanted to do a goddamned craft in their lives, but would like to see how an impossible craft project can be done. You could build a giant steam-powered penguin after reading this book (if you had the resources); chances are, you won’t. Maybe it’s a little cynical to assume that many people just buy craft books to look at the pictures, but I thought, ‘Everyone is doing these craft books wrong. Some of it should be stuff no one could ever make.’

‘‘I am also working on a novel called The Book Murderer, which I’m having a lot of fun writing – though I don’t know if I will survive its publication, because (in altered form) it’s pretty much every horror story I’ve ever heard of or experienced in the publishing industry over the last 30 years. It’s about this guy who has the idea that he’s going to destroy every book in the world. He knows it’s impossible, but if he were to destroy just a certain number of books he’ll feel like he’s made his mark. He plays headgames with writers on the Internet, and he becomes an assistant to a writer on a book tour so he can learn what the enemy is up to.”


Cory Doctorow: Security in Numbers

Edward Snowden wasn’t the first person to leak information about US mass surveillance. The mass surveillance story has been unfolding since an AT&T technician called Mark Klein blew the whistle on the NSA in 2006, but the Snowden story is the first one that’s caught and held the public’s interest for more than a brief moment. I wish I knew why that was. I suspect that if you knew what made the Snowden leaks news for a year and more, you could use that knowledge to run the most successful political campaign of the century or found a global religion.

I know that, for me, the story has an incredibly compelling one-two, lurching rhythm. First, we learn about some new way in which the NSA and its allies have been invading our privacy on a breathtaking scale, say, by putting whole countries under surveillance. Then we learn about a new way in which the spies have sabotaged the security of some vital class of computers or networks. Ka-pow! Not only are you being spied upon in ways that make Orwell look like an optimist, but whatever tool you thought you could trust with your digital life has been compromised and has been abetting the surveillance. One-two.

 

But there’s good news in the Snowden story, and its longevity. The wider public seems to finally give a damn about security and privacy, topics that have been hopelessly esoteric and nerdy until this moment. It makes a huge difference in all kinds of policy questions. Back when AT&T and T-Mobile were considering their merger, the digital policy people I knew talked about how the new megacompany would be an irresistible target for spies, with a bird’s-eye view of who you were, where you were, who you knew, and what you did with them, but this argument got almost zero play on the wider stage. Back then, talking about how cops and spies might view a telcoms merger as a surveillance opportunity made you sound like a swivel-eyed paranoid loon. Today – post-Snowden – it makes you sound like someone who’s been paying attention.

At last, people who aren’t computer experts are starting to worry about the security of computers. It’s a glorious day, seriously. Finally, there’s a group of people who aren’t computer experts who want to use security tools like GPG (for scrambling e-mail) and TOR (for adding privacy to your network use) and OTR (for having private chats) and even TAILS. (Boot up a computer with this operating system and be sure that it’s not running any spyware, that your communications are private, and that whatever you do will be scrubbed when you turn the computer off again.)

That’s outstanding news. If normal people are using this stuff, it’ll start to get user-interfaces that are comprehensible to normal people – interfaces that don’t assume a high degree of technical knowledge. There’s a certain view that the reason these tools tend to be complex is that security is Just Hard, which may be so, but it didn’t help that everyone who knew enough to care about technological privacy measures was also someone who understood technology well enough to get past a clunky interface.

If you’re just getting to this stuff, welcome. Seriously. We need everyone to be worried about this stuff, and not just because it will help us get governments to put a leash on the spies. More important is the fact that security isn’t an individual matter.

A really good way to understand this is to think about e-mail. Like many long-time Internet users, I was suspicious of Google’s Gmail and decided that I’d much rather host my own e-mail server, and download all my incoming mail my laptop, which is with me most of the time (I also have a backup or two, in case I lose my laptop), but over time, lots of other people started using Gmail, including a large slice of the people I correspond with. And they don’t host their own e-mail. They don’t pull their mail off the server and move it to a computer that’s with them at all times. They use Gmail, like a normal person, and that means that a huge slice of that ‘‘private’’ e-mail I send and receive is sitting on Google’s servers, which are pretty well maintained, but are also available for mass surveillance through NSA programs like Prism.

Effectively, that means that I’m a Gmail user too, even though I pay to host and maintain my own mail server. This is a point that was well made by Benjamin Mako Hill in an essay in May, at mako.cc/copyrighteous/google-has-most-of-my-e-mail-because-it-has-all-of-yours, which introduced some research he’d done, mining the e-mail in his In and Out boxes to see how much of it had transited Google’s servers – it turns out that about two-thirds of the mail he sends ends up in Google’s (and therefore, potentially, the NSA’s) hands.

For me to be secure against a raid on Google’s servers, I have to convince you to take action. Ideally, we’d all host our own mail – and hell, we’d even reform the weird, old Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 that lets the cops do a warrantless request for any file that’s more than six months old. But even though that day is a long way off, there’s still things we can do today to protect our privacy, if we do them together.

Take GPG, the e-mail privacy tool I mentioned a few paragraphs back. If we both use GPG to encrypt our e-mail, the NSA can’t read our e-mail anymore, even if it’s on Gmail’s servers. They can still see that we’re talking to each other, who else is CC’ed, where we are when we send the e-mail (tracing our IP addresses), and so forth, but the actual payload is secure. For modern messaging, well, if we just throw away technologies that are proprietary (and should thus be presumed to have something wrong with them – if no one is allowed to see how they work, there’s a pretty good chance the company that made them is kidding itself about how secure they are), technologies that are known to be insecure, and technologies that are known to be compromised (like Skype, which is the electronic equivalent of wearing a CCTV that feeds directly to the NSA), then we’re left with stuff like OTR, which actually works. With OTR, there’s not even subject lines, CCs, and IP addresses to data-mine.

The fact that security can’t be an individual matter isn’t surprising when you think about it. Road-safety is collective, too: it doesn’t matter how defensively you drive, if everyone else is a lunatic. So is health security: as the anti-vaccination movement has shown us, without herd immunity, we’re all at risk. Even society itself can be thought of as a collective security exercise: through legitimate laws made by legitimate governments, we set out the rules, the administrative systems, and the punishments by which we’ll all be secure.

For example, the Framers of the US Constitution tacked on a whole Bill of Rights full of security measures that would keep people safe from their governments. There are ideas like the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These set out an unambiguous way in which we – the people – collectively opt to keep ourselves secure from abuses of authority. Now that the word about electronic security and privacy has started to get around, maybe we can get the NSA to start obeying the law.


Eileen Gunn: Other Lands

Eileen Katherine Gunn was born June 23, 1945 in Dorchester MA and grew up south of Boston. She attended Emmanuel College, a Catholic college, earning a BA (1967) in History with a minor in English, began working as an advertising copywriter, then moved to California to pursue fiction writing. In 1976 she attended Clarion, and afterward wrote while supporting herself by working in advertising. She was an early employee at Microsoft, where she worked as director of advertising and sales promotion in the mid-’80s, finally quitting because she couldn’t concentrate on writing while working 100+ hour weeks. In 1988 she joined the board of directors of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and in 2001 began editing online magazine The Infinite Matrix, which ran until 2008.

Gunn’s first story, ‘‘What Are Friends For?’’, appeared in 1978. Never a prolific author, Gunn produced only a handful of stories over the next decades, including two Hugo nominees, ‘‘Stable Strategies for Middle Management’’ (1989; also included in The Norton Book of Science Fiction) and ‘‘Computer Friendly’’ (1990). Collection Stable Strategies and Others (2004) gathered most of her prior output, along with several new stories, including Nebula Award finalist ‘‘Nirvana High’’ (with Leslie What) and winner ‘‘Coming to Terms’’; the collection itself was a finalist for World Fantasy and Philip K. Dick Awards, and was shortlisted for a Tiptree award. New collection Questionable Practices (2014) includes stories written in the past decade, plus two unpublished stories and collaborations with Rudy Rucker and Michael Swanwick. Her essay on science fiction and the future appears in the May, 2014 issue of Smithsonian magazine.

Gunn lives in Seattle with typographer and book designer John D. Berry, her partner of 35 years.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Just to be absolutely clear about it, science fiction does not predict the future. Science fiction may address the future, some stories may be set in the future, but it’s not about the future, although sometimes it’s about creating the future. When I interviewed William Gibson a couple months ago, I whined, ‘Why do people want SF writers to predict the future?’ I thought Gibson’s answer, which was edited out of the final article, was particularly informative: he said (and I quote): ‘I take it for granted, both as a reader and a writer of SF, that one aspect of the potential pleasure of the text may be pretending to believe the future as presented is a likely outcome.’

‘‘But the usefulness of science fiction is not that it predicts the future, and to come up to a writer afterwards and say, ‘You got that wrong’ is dumb – although, of course, everyone is happy to think they got it ‘right.’

‘‘What science fiction does, especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it. Change is all around us. Probably things change faster now than they did four or five hundred years ago, particularly in some parts of the world. As Gibson said decades ago, The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.’ And it’s uneven in interesting ways: there are people in some parts of the world for whom change is slow, and life is much the same as it was when they were born. But because they don’t have the old technology, the dead weight of the infrastructure (telephone wires, say), they can leapfrog ahead of us.

‘‘Writers don’t use science fiction to understand what’s going to happen. They use it to examine what’s happening now – and yet everyone’s reality of that is a bit different. We don’t live in ‘‘a science fiction age,’’ as the puffery goes: we live in the present. It’s always the present where we live.”

*

‘‘All fiction has value, whether it’s science fiction or not. It helps people deal with their lives in the present, helps them understand their own emotions and the emotions of people around them. All fiction can take you to other lands, and introduce you to people whose lives and struggles and opinions you can’t even imagine until you read their stories. It’s not just science fiction that does this. But science fiction editors have certain goals, and the audience has certain expectations, of what kind of imaginings they’re going to read, and hard SF offers a special –- even peculiar – view of the universe and how it works.”

*

“The novel I’m working on is based on an idea Michael Swanwick sent me in the mail. (We’re not collaborating: he just said, ‘Write this!’)

‘‘It’s set in the 19th century in the US and Canada, and involves chattel slavery and gender relationships. What do those two things have in common and how do they differ?

‘‘In writing this, I am working well outside my comfort zone: there are so many things to overlook or get wrong, in terms of historical and cultural detail and of complex interpersonal relationships. But there’s a lot of historical source material out there, and a huge body of work by black writers –- history, memoir, and fiction – that explores the complex social aspects of being enslaved and recovering from it.

‘‘I’ve written about 35,000 words of the novel, and the two protagonists in it, one white and one black, are coming forth and talking. (But not yet to one another.) I think the characters you write are always reflections of yourself and of how you see other people, whether through reading or social interaction. You don’t write other people any more than you predict the future. These characters who come out of your head may do stuff that surprises you, but it’s all stuff from inside you. So in some ways, writing outside your own culture is impossible, as it’s inextricable from how you see the world. But it’s worth doing, if you, as a writer, can get past the fact that you’re a historical artifact, rather than a vehicle for creating the Truth.”


Kameron Hurley:
Busting Down the Romantic Myth of Writing Fiction,
and Mitigating Author Burnout

One of the most interesting parts of working toward being a career novelist is watching how many of your peers stay in the game. My first real brush with the death of the dream was after I attended Clarion in 2001. By the end of the workshop, we already had several folks who’d come into it with the expectation that they were ready to be career novelists, but who decided that no, actually, this slog wasn’t for them at all.

You might think that meant Clarion was a waste of time for them, but let’s put it this way: imagine how valuable it’d be to realize you didn’t really want to pursue a career, hobby, or passion that hogged all your time and headspace. Imagine having the freedom to put that energy somewhere else. For those folks, just knowing that writing novels for a living wasn’t at all what they thought they wanted was just as valuable as having the workshop experience validate their initial choice.

We’re raised on romantic writer myths. We learn this gig is all about toiling alone in a cabin in the woods, drinking and smoking too much, battling depression and insomnia and squeezing words onto the page like blood from a stone. It’s a solitary, transformative act. I see media perpetuate this myth quite a lot – there are obsessions over the writing ‘‘process’’ and writing ‘‘quirks,’’ trying to get every author to dish on how drinking a bottle of aloe juice while doing jumping jacks on top of a car is the only way they can kickstart their creativity in the morning.

Throughout my teens, I endured writing workshop after writing workshop where people talked about their passion for writing. It was a compulsion, a need, something they could not stop. That was all very well and good, I thought, but people are driven to compulsively drink alcohol, too. I was more interested in learning how to get better at writing than defending the passionate, unknowable mysticism of how the sausage got made.

What I’ve found over the years is that there are various checkpoints along the writing path that lead to a writer dropping out of the game – low sales, bad business experiences, health and personal issues, financial issues – but most of all, what leads people to quit is general burnout. It’s burnout on the whole thing: the rigorous deadlines, the disillusionment with publishing, the failed expectations, bad reviews, and constant criticism and self-doubt.

Sometime during the extensive rewriting of my fourth published novel, writing fiction ceased to be fun for me. Not just ‘‘not always fun,’’ but really, 24/7 not fun. It had become pure, unadulterated grind. I’m used to writing for a living – I’m in marketing and advertising, writing all the spam e-mail that clutters up your inbox and the junk mail you toss into the trash. I had no expectation that I’d be in love with writing those all the time. I expected to be burned out on writing marketing copy all the time. But not fiction. Because… romance?

The fantasy I sell with spam e-mail – easy money, an escape from 9-5 living, attractiveness to your preferred type of human (in four easy payments!), and insurance against impending apocalyptic disasters – isn’t something I have to be romantically passionate about to do well. I also came at it with the expectation that it wasn’t something I did all by myself in some mystical way. I worked with a team of folks – creative director, designer, production manager, account manager, marketing managers, product managers – to make great work. It wasn’t just me chugging back cocktails at midnight in the office like an episode of Mad Men, coming up with something brilliant. It was a process. It was work. And when the work got too suffocating, there were always my colleagues to commiserate with.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I transitioned from being a hobbyist writer to a book-a-year writer that I realized the different expectations I had for my fiction writing, compared to my marketing writing, were actually toxic to my career. I expected that writing fiction would always be fun – it was my passion, the one thing I’d always done. When it wasn’t fun anymore, I’d just stop, right? The ‘‘I’ll write when it’s fun’’ mantra is why my first published book took four or five years to write.

Enter deadlines, and you kind of have to throw that foolish idea out the window. Deadlines required that I come up with words even when they weren’t there (especially when they weren’t there), even when it wasn’t fun. So my second book took just 16 months, and the third 14 months. I rewrote my fourth from scratch in nine months, and I’ll have written my fifth in 11 months, if all goes as expected.

It’s hard to have a joyful, fun-making experience 100% of the time when you’re working at that pace and holding down a day job. I enjoy the writing I do for my day job, too, but I’ve learned to recognize over the years that there are two types of writing there: big, fun, challenging campaigns where I get to solve clients’ problems, and boring, nonsense, paint-by-numbers crap that pays the bills.

I’ve learned to expect it. I take the joy when I can.

Yet when I started to lose my joy in fiction this year, I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I feared burnout. I wondered, just as those folks must have at Clarion, if this was really the right thing to be doing in my spare time.

What I had to come to grips with is that writing novels wasn’t a magical merry-go-round of nonstop fun. More often than not, just like any other job, it was a mix of joy and grind, incompetence and compassion. What set me up for the burnout was the mythology we’ve created about the transcendent power of the written word, about writing for ‘‘passion’’ and about how loving what you do somehow means it’s no longer ‘‘work.’’

The most dangerous lie we tell ourselves is that writing novels shouldn’t feel like a job. It encourages younger and newer writers to work for little or no pay. It convinces those with a book or two under their belt that there’s something wrong with them when the writing is no longer fun all the time. Worst of all, when we hit bumps along the road, we’re convinced we’re the only ones to feel this type of burnout, and that there’s something wrong with us because of it.

One of the most powerful things I ever did for my career, and my continued sanity, was to get to know other writers facing the same challenges. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook, supplemented with the occasional convention, have connected me with incredible people willing to share their own fraught publishing journeys. What stunned me more than anything else is how each of us thought our experiences were entirely unique, when it turned out we shared many of the same fears and frustrations.

What will keep me writing far longer than I expected is not, necessarily, my passion, my talent, or the romantic story of how stringing together words will help me transcend the mortal plane. No, the deeper I get into the publishing game, the more I realize that what will keep me going when everything crumbles around me is the incredible support, advice, and commiseration I’ve gotten from other writers. It’s that camaraderie we should be celebrating, and talking more about, instead of doubling down on the myth of the lone wolf writer who conquers the world with pen in one hand and whiskey bottle in the other.

I may often run around my house with pens and whiskey bottles, but writers are not sustained by whiskey and romantic myths alone.

We’re sustained by one another, and our fantastically true stories of the oftentimes funny – and sobering – reality of our chosen profession.


Joe Abercrombie: Fiction on the Edge

Joseph Edward Abercrombie was born on New Year’s Eve 1974 in Lancaster England and lived there until going to the University of Manchester, where he studied psychology. He moved to London and worked in television until taking up prose writing in his mid-twenties.

Though he sometimes publishes short fiction, Abercrombie is best known for his gritty, complex ‘‘grimdark’’ epic fantasy novels. His debut The Blade Itself (2006) was shortlisted for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel, and launched The First Law trilogy, which continued with Before They Are Hanged (2007) and Legend Award finalist Last Argument of Kings (2008). His next books were standalones set in the same world: revenge fantasy Best Served Cold (2009), war novel The Heroes (2011), and fantasy western Red Country (2012); all three were British Fantasy Award finalists and Legend Award finalists.

He recently embarked on a new young-adult fantasy series, set in a new Viking-inspired fictional universe. The first volume, Half a King, is out in July.

Abercrombie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008. He lives in Bath with his wife and their three children.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I thought I’d have a go at writing again, just out of curiosity, around 2001. I was straightaway much more interested in what came out. It seemed to have a different tone to it, and a voice of its own that it hadn’t had before. I was excited to experiment. A whole load of things were very serendipitous. It seemed to me I was doing something strange and unusual in writing something quite gritty, violent, and morally ambiguous. Just before that, someone bought me Game of Thrones and said, ‘You used to read this fantasy stuff, didn’t you? You should give this a go.’ I said, ‘Oh, God. I know exactly what’s going to happen. The noble guy will save the kingdom and then blah, blah, blah.’ So that book was surprising, and I saw expressed in it a lot of things I felt were missing from commercial fantasy, from epic fantasy. It demonstrated that you could do something recognizable as epic fantasy but still be dark and challenging and gritty. Game of Thrones was a big inspiration, making me think this might work. At the same time I wasn’t that familiar with the landscape of what was going on in the field as a whole. When I finished The Blade Itself and started thinking about trying to sell it, I felt it was too dark, too strange, too mixed in its tone. But actually fantasy had been moving in that direction for some time without me realizing it.”

*

‘‘I wrote The First Law trilogy, which is my Lord of the Rings, you might say. When you set out to write something that big as your first project, inadvisably – it was planned always to be a trilogy, roughly that shape – you never look past finishing that. The idea of finishing one book seems inconceivable, and you’ve still got two more to write, so you never look past the end. As I was writing the third one, my editor Gillian said, ‘So what’s your next one?’ I was like, ‘Oh, Jesus.’ It suddenly occurred to me that I might have to write 30 more books. What was left? I’d done torture, swords, axes, maces, spears. I’d mined that world. I thought I’d do some single books and I started thinking about films that I liked, and I thought I’d combine the fantasy thing with some more filmic ideas.

‘‘I thought about Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film. I like that a lot because it has this twist in the plot, and it’s a weird, interesting gangster revenge thriller. So I thought, that’s one plot line, and it became Best Served Cold. Then A Bridge Too Far was another. Fantasy’s always fascinated by war, but it’s often a very unrealistic, heroic faux version of warfare. It doesn’t show both sides. These war films that cover a single battle often cover both sides, and sort of analyse how warfare works and how these little twists of fate ripple out and have profound consequences. That was The Heroes. And Red Country was my attempt to do a western within a fantasy setting.”

*

‘‘All my previous novels were interlinked, but the YA series beginning with Half a King is in a totally different world. I wrote six books all in one world and felt I needed to try something different in order to keep the batteries charged. Also, although it’s great to have this wealth of backstory and characters that are established that you can reach for to fill slots in the book, it also becomes a burden as well, because there are all these old stories and relationships. You put two characters together and suddenly think, ‘Oh, well, they’ve met before. They met in that other book, didn’t they?’ There’s kind of a weight to drag with that stuff and I wanted to try something quick, very focused, very fast. I was interested in writing something for younger readers, as my kids are getting older. My children are seven, four, and two. I felt like it would be nice to have something to share with them. Doing stuff that’s very gritty and very adult, that was what felt natural at the time, but it’s not the only way to go. I’m not massively familiar with YA, so I wasn’t aiming to write a book that was in that category necessarily. I was just aiming to write a book of mine that might appeal to young adults.

‘‘I’ve written the first one in the series, and I’m halfway through the second one. It’s much shorter than some of the things I’ve written. It’s got a single young-adult point of view, which is a different thing for me. I’ve tended to have old, experienced, used-up characters. It’s set in a slightly Viking-influenced world, and it follows a character called Prince Yarvi, who was born with a crippled hand, so he can’t hold a shield or tie a knot or draw a bow, or do any of the things that are expected of a man in his society. He ends up training for a minister’s position, a sort of advisor and healer and diplomat, which is traditionally more a woman’s role. Then his brother and father are killed, and he’s thrust into becoming king himself. He doesn’t necessarily have the tools to make it happen, and has to use what he has, which are the tools he’s learned in order to be a minister, rather than a warrior. He has some hardships to negotiate, let’s put it that way – I won’t spoil anything.

‘‘They’re going to come out within a year: July, January, July. They’re short. I did the classic thing of saying to my agent, ‘I think I’ll have these finished by July. Then I’ll have all this time on my hands to get the next thing planned, because the books will be coming out yearly.’ As soon as we got into the meeting, he said, ‘How do you feel about publishing these every six months?’ I think that’s a healthy thing if you can do it, especially for a younger readership who haven’t got the patience to wait.

*

‘‘There’s no right way to do anything, particularly. There’s a way that feels right to you as a writer with a certain story. I never feel like anything I do is a manifesto of how it should be done. It’s healthy that we’ve got a bit more edge, a bit more range, in epic fantasy now. There’s no shortage of stuff that’s quite traditional if that’s your bag. I’m always surprised by people saying, ‘Fantasy’s so dark and horrible now. It’s really upsetting.’ I believe Tolkien’s still on the shelf if that’s what you’re after. You get people who complain about one thing or another. People complain about the cynicism of this kind of fantasy, who find it unrealistic. You get people who complain about the swearing. I had a guy e-mail me the other day and say that he was reading The Heroes and he was really enjoying it, but then he had to burn it. He was concerned his book group would see what he was reading and be upset by it, and he wanted me to know there are still people who can’t tolerate blatant sin. The great thing about book burnings is, they still have to buy the books. You get people who are upset because they feel they’ve been tricked, because they thought they were getting a story in which you had redemption, where these nasty things would come good, because that’s what they’ve got in similar stories. When they don’t get that, they feel they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them. Because you ‘pretended’ to be a fantasy story, and they know how those stories go, and you surprised them, and that’s upsetting. You gave them a can of Coke and it actually had piss in it – that’s their reaction. Some people don’t want to be surprised. I do want to be surprised!”


George Saunders: Irrational Skills

George Saunders was born December 2, 1958 in Amarillo TX and grew up outside Chicago, attending high school in Oak Forest IL. He earned a BS in geophysical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden CO in 1981, working in Sumatra as a field geophysicist for a year and a half before returning home and working various jobs, including as a doorman, roofer, clerk, and slaughterhouse worker. In 1996 he began attending Syracuse University, where he met future wife Paula Redick; their first daughter was born in 1988, and their second in 1990. He graduated with a MFA in 1988, and worked as a technical writer for a pharmaceutical firm and then an environmental engineering firm from 1989-96. In 1997 he joined the faculty at Syracuse as a creative writing teacher, where he still teaches today.

Saunders is a bestselling and critically renowned literary author who often writes work of SF interest, frequently for satirical ends. His first work of SF interest was ‘‘Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz’’ in The New Yorker (1992), and other notable short works include World Fantasy Award winner ‘‘CommComm’’ (2005) and Stoker Award finalists ‘‘The Red Bow’’ (2003) and ‘‘Home’’ (2011). Many of his stories take place in dystopian near-future milieus, and some of his short work is collected in PEN/Hemingway Award finalist CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), Story Prize finalist In Persuasion Nation (2005), and Tenth of December (2013). The latter won the first Folio Prize as well as the 2013 Story Prize. Other books include fantasy novella The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip (2000) and satire The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005). In addition to fiction, he is known for his travel writing. Some of his non-fiction work is collected in The Brain-Dead Megaphone (2007).

Saunders has received numerous awards and honors, notably a MacArthur Fellowship (or ‘‘genius grant’’) in 2006, a Guggenheim Fellowship that same year, and an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2009. He lives in the Catskills with his wife.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Tenth of December has gotten a lot of attention, but I just get to work. That’s how I deal with it. I started something new before the book came out; it’s so hard, and it’s just the right project – it’s challenging me on all fronts. That’s the best thing. It’s like an antidote. When I go out on the road and get an elated feeling, an agitation almost, it’s pleasant, but it’s like a sugar buzz. I like going back to my room, and there’s that stack of paper, and it’s like, ‘I’m over here, and I still suck.’ That is kind of grounding. I’m teaching now, so I’m reading Gogol and Tolstoy, and thinking, ‘Shit, I haven’t done anything yet.’ Turn that stuff off and get back to work. It’s good to enjoy the windfall, but it’s like a beautiful butterfly that comes along and lands on your head, and that’s cool. But if you mistake it for a hat, you’ll be disappointed – it’s not going to be there forever. Just let it go.

‘‘This hard project might actually be a fiasco, I’m not sure yet. I started something like it about 15 years ago in a play format. It didn’t work, so I put it away and I’ve been thinking about it and making notes. I’ve actually been working on two other projects that I now see are just practice versions of this one. In a way it’s been 15 years, but in terms of actually writing this one, I started a little over a year ago. It’s good to keep trying to grow.”

*

‘‘My goal when I’m writing is to connect with you, the reader, in an intimate way that you can’t dodge out of, and then move you, because we’re talking about something really important in a really direct way. That’s the overt mission. The way I see this divide between genre and literature is, whatever I have to bring the table to move you, I want to be free to do it. As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I like pop culture and great literature both. I’m not of the generation that felt a real distinction between low and high culture anyway. I want to move the reader by any means necessary. If at a particular point that means going into the supernatural, and it’s the story saying, ‘I need you to do this,’ great. If the story needs to take place in a future time where certain things are allowed that don’t exist now, great. In that way I think there’s no difference between the genres. If someone consciously said, ‘I want to straddle that divide,’ it might be too apparent. But if that approach arises out of the needs of the story, then it seems just cool. I think sometimes of musicians I like. There are some musicians who define themselves as a heavy metal musician or a polka king or whatever. But others, like Regina Spektor, sometimes she’s a classical pianist and sometimes she’s a rock and roll singer. I feel like the song is telling her which approach to take. That’s how I think about genre now.”

*

‘‘What we want in art is to have something go in a way we don’t expect, that isn’t random, that builds on what we expected, and goes beyond. There’s something delicious about that. There’s no purpose in it, except the thrill. Secondary things can happen in the story that are instructive, but I think the first thing is, tell a story that’s thrilling. That’s what I tell my students. When you start teaching in the academy, you mostly start by focusing on the ancillary benefits, the thematic and political stuff. But what they’re really training to do is to be that tiny percentage of the population that can actually thrill you with a narrative. That’s almost like being a musician or an athlete. It’s an irrational or a super-irrational skill set.”

*

‘‘I was never a good engineer, either. I did it because I was floundering in high school and these two high school teachers that I loved basically intervened on my behalf and got me into college, with a phone call. It was engineering school. I felt like I’d been thrown a lifeline and I didn’t want to let go, so I struggled my way through engineering school. I liked it, and got medium good at it by the time I was done, and then used that degree to go overseas and work in Asia, which was a huge thing for me. But within that time I’d have these little moments where I’d read a novel and I could just feel my brain lighting up in ways that it didn’t with engineering. Plus, I was good at reading and writing. If I had an English class, it was so easy, so thrilling, whereas engineering was a slog. Those were hints that a smarter person would have noticed earlier.”

*

‘‘Real life is full of what we would call science fiction. The primary science fiction moment is a juxtaposition of things we have pronounced real and unreal. In actual life that happens every minute. The iPhone is a great example. If Ben Franklin had picked one of them up, it would have been a great sci-fi movie. The reasons we read sci-fi or genre and the reasons we read literary fiction are the same – to be reminded afresh of how crazy each moment of life is. Prose can do that, and one of the ways it does that is by allowing these weird juxtapositions. In my way of thinking, say you’ve got a story that’s told in realism that excludes sci-fi, and then suddenly into that moment you drop something that we recognize is overtly sci-fi. If you let those two things sit there, an intelligent reader will go, ‘Yeah, that’s how it is.’ I don’t read sci-fi actively, but I think you get it all the time so beautifully – turn on the TV and you get wonderful fun.”


Kathleen Ann Goonan: Designing the Future

Kathleen Ann Goonan was born May 14, 1952 in Cincinnati OH. At age eight she moved to Hawaii for two years while her father worked for the Navy, after which the family moved to Washington DC. She got a degree in English from Virginia Tech in 1975, and earned her Association Montessori International Certification in 1976. She taught school for 13 years, ten of those at Montessori schools, including eight years at a school she founded in Knoxville TN. She spent a year back in Hawaii and took up writing full time before returning to the DC area in 1988, the same year she attended Clarion West. She has taught at Georgia Tech since 2010, where she is a Professor of the Practice.

Goonan’s first story ‘‘Wanting to Talk to You’’ appeared in Asimov’s in 1991. Notable stories include ‘‘Kamehameha’s Bones’’ (1993), Nebula Award nominee ‘‘The String’’ (1995), British SF Award finalist ‘‘Sunflowers’’ (1995), and Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist ‘‘Memory Dog’’ (2008).

Debut novel Queen City Jazz (1994), a New York Times Notable Book, was shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Association Award, and launched her Nanotech Quartet: sequel Mississippi Blues (1997), Nebula Award-nominated prequel Crescent City Rhapsody (2000), and final volume Light Music (2002), also a Nebula Award finalist. Standalone The Bones of Time (1996) was a Clarke Award finalist. Alternate history In War Times (2007) won the Campbell Memorial Award and was the American Library Association’s Best SF Novel of 2007, and was followed by sequel This Shared Dream (2011), a Campbell Memorial Award finalist. Angels and You Dogs, a short story collection, was published by PS Publishing in 20l2.

Goonan and her work have been featured in venues such as Scientific American (‘‘Shamans of the Small’’) and Popular Science (‘‘Science Fiction’s Best Minds Envision the Future’’). As a member of SIGMA, she has given talks for the Joint Services Small Arms Project and the Global Competitiveness Forum in Ryhad. She has published 40 short stories, most recently ‘‘A Love Supreme’’ (Discover Magazine 10/12), ‘‘Bootstrap’’ (Twelve Tomorrows 9/13), ‘‘Sport’’ (ARC 2/14), ‘‘What Are We? Where Do We Come From? Where Are We Going?’’ (Tor.com), ‘‘Girl In Wave; Wave In Girl’’ (Hieroglyph), ‘‘Wilder Still, the Stars’’ (Reach for Infinity), and ‘‘Tomorrowland’’ (Tor.com). She is working on her eighth novel, The Blue Horizon: A Novel of Possibilities and concurrently finishing Hemingway’s Hurricane, a literary novel about the 1935 Labor Day hurricane in the Florida Keys.

Goonan lives in Tennessee and Florida with husband Joseph Mansy, married 1977.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘I enjoy teaching tremendously. When I started to write full-time in 1988, giving up teaching was just wrenching. I missed the kids, the parents, and the bustle of my preschool – basically, a world I had created, out of thin air, from just the idea that I could start a school, that eventually grew to include a hundred students.

‘‘I had to be really disciplined when I turned to writing. We had just moved to Hawaii, and so we had no friends. I realized I could take my guitar to preschools and get little fun jobs and meet lots of people, but then I thought, ‘No, I can’t do that if I want to write. I just have to write.’ That’s why I originally got Montessori training and opened my own school, so I could have control of my time to write, until I could support myself by writing. So, ten years later, that’s what I did. I wrote.

‘‘At Georgia Tech, the students’ minds are prepared for science fiction because it’s one of the top engineering schools in the world, so I also taught ‘The Short Story in Science Fiction’ during my first semester there. Since then, I’ve taught the SF Novel, and used Neuromancer, The Female Man, Dawn, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Lathe of Heaven, The Diamond Age, and Zendegi. It was a wild ride, a lot of reading, and very intensive. The students’ enthusiasm regenerated my interest in science fiction – its history, its long-running conversation, its boldness in bringing important issues to life. … This fall I’m putting together a class called Designing the Future. What will the world be like 50 years from now? We’ll start off seeing how people have thought about the distant future in the past, and how those futures were or were not realized, and why. Again, very science fictional.”

*

‘‘The subject matter of science fiction has changed a lot. In the ’70s and ’80s the biological sciences and psychology were not considered science fiction (though they were good enough for Mary Shelly). Any attempt to study consciousness was considered absurd. The amazing thing is that, because we now have new tools to observe the brain non-invasively with fMRI, we are learning a lot about how the brain works, in real time, in response to different kinds of stimuli. It’s still fuzzy, and not all that precise, but we are getting somewhere. In the United States, Obama has authorized the BRAIN Initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies.

‘‘I am a born-again science nerd. I have a degree in English, mostly epic Medieval poetry, Virgil, stuff like that. I was fascinated by the middle ages – the religion-driven history, the changes in language and in thought – and I immersed myself in the literature. It would have been a great preparation for writing fantasy, although I wasn’t even goal-oriented enough at that time to consider writing fantasy; I was a poet, and had some successes. But after Clarion West, at Greg Bear’s useful suggestion to a class of writers who wanted to write SF, I started reading more science-oriented books and journals and got hooked. I am pretty much an autodidact, anyway, so I read voraciously and extensively. And heavily, literally. My car is always filled with 50 pounds of books. (My Kindle has been nice. There are reasons I don’t like it, but there are reasons I do like it.) We are living in an age rich with talented scientists who are also good writers. I’d say that books written by scientists – lately, those in the neurosciences – now take up about two-thirds of my library. (Another huge portion is jazz, and another, WWII) I’ve noticed that in Science News, Scientific American, all those science journals and magazines, there are waves of research that they all cover simultaneously, which I find interesting.”

*

‘‘This Shared Dream is related to In War Times in the sense that the family members, as well as the continuing exploration of how we might bring an end to war, are the same. I planned to do a lot with Bette, Sam Dance’s wife, who was in the OSS. I wanted to really go into her background, because a lot of people who wrote fan letters wanted to know more about her, and about the mysterious Dr. Hadntz. The book begins with a scene from Dr. Hadnz’s childhood, and I wrote several chapters, probably a third of the book, about Betty and Dr. Hadnz, which I had to cut. Contractually, the book was way too long. I should have been paying more attention when I wrote. When it came time to cut, the easiest way to do it without rewriting everything was to take out these chunks of Betty and Hadnz. The novel reads just fine – Ursula K. Le Guin, Connie Willis, and Eileen Gunn contributed blurbs, and Michael Dirda gave it a marvelous, full-page review in the Washington Post Bookworld. I’m the only one that feels the loss, because I’m the only one who knows about it. I have the British rights, and I’m thinking about maybe publishing the complete version in Great Britain. Or perhaps publishing those chapters, with a little bit of reworking, in other venues.

‘‘The novel is also about memory and consciousness. For a long time we had no tools to study the brain, so consciousness was a subject for religion and philosophy. I minored in philosophy because I was so interested in not only the mind, but in what is going on around us – everything. I started from the ground up, I suppose, since gaining the tools to see what is very small or very distant is what moved humanity from religion and philosophy as explanations for phenomena to careful observation – science. Philosophy and religion, disciplines that examine questions like what is free will, what is life, what is really going on? They fascinate me. That is why my own interests turned from pre-science philosophy and religion to science.

‘‘What we think of as ‘reality’ is the brain putting together an idea of what’s happening around us, and we base our behavior on that interpretation. We live in a shared reality. That’s what the title, This Shared Dream, means to me. What we think of as the familial past is actually a lot of different people’s versions of the past. Every child in a family has a different idea family history, depending on their birth order, because their very presence changes family dynamics. That’s another thing I wanted to explore, because it echoes the concept that consciousness has much to do with how we perceive time.”

*

‘‘I plan to write about what it meant to be human before and after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and explore how Darwin’s ideas changed what people thought, how they felt, and how these changes were reflected in art and in the lives of those who considered themselves intellectuals, and how it impacted those who were not at all involved in the worlds of art or science. Once we had photography we didn’t need to paint perfect replicas of landscapes or people in order to remember them, but could instead use paintings non-representationally, intellectually, or abstractly. I’m interested in the intellectual currents of that age and of our present age: what are the links between what was going on science in art and society back then and what is happening now?

‘‘I think I’m finished with my recent spate of short stories – mostly, novelettes – now. I want to get to work on that novel and also a novel that is historical, about the 1930s, and not SF. It’s called Hemingway’s Hurricane and it takes place in the Florida Keys. It’s about unions, the depression, veterans, and jazz, of course.’’


Cory Doctorow: How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance

There’s a popular forum on the Reddit online service called ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five,’’ in which redditors pose difficult and esoteric questions whose settled answers are beyond their comprehension, and ask their fellows to simplify these answers to the point where a five year old could follow them.

Parenting is a long-running game of ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five’’ (actually, it starts with ‘‘Explain like I’m a pre-verbal infant,’’ and I imagine it ends somewhere around ‘‘Explain like I’m a post-adolescent young adult’’). My daughter, Poesy, is six, and she’s turned me into a skilled player of ‘‘Explain Like I’m _______,’’ starting when she was about two and a half and found out about death and was consumed with existential terror. For about a year – a very long, very difficult year – I found myself explaining death and the circle of life, over and over again, to my kid. It’s the only time I’ve ever regretted being an atheist. I’m pretty sure that if I’d floated the idea of harps and robes and eternal paradise in a cloudy heavenscape, I could have avoided a lot of grief. But it was worth it, if only for the weird misunderstandings that my attempts engendered, like when we visited a friend’s farm and Poesy explained that the celery in the garden was made of dead people.

Since then, we’ve tackled a variety of substantial topics, from globalism, to climate change, to racism, to the Holocaust, to evolution, to the Enlightenment, to monarchism, to cosmology and quantum uncertainty. We talk about Ukrainian politics and we talk about global aviation logistics. We talk about Chinese labor migration and we talk about proportional systems of governance.

While these conversations are often a lot of fun, I wouldn’t say any of them are entirely successful. For one thing, I don’t think I can really claim to fully understand any of these subjects (I’m not sure anyone does). But the real limiting factor is the ability of my six-year-old to pay attention and actually grasp the highly abstract ideas under discussion. Certainly, there are some explanations that quickly and obviously bore the heck out of her, and others that she can grasp right away. Six years into the Explain Like I’m game, I still can’t predict which will be which with any accuracy.

But this week, I struck gold. My daughter has recently figured out that when I go away to ‘‘give talks,’’ that I’m actually talking about stuff and has started to ask where I’m going and what I’m going to say when I get there. As I write this in March 2014, I am about to board a plane for Austin TX, where I’ll be part of a day-long program at the SXSW festival on surveillance, sharing a stage with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is videoconferencing in from Russia.

So I explained to my daughter that there was a man who was a spy, who discovered that the spies he worked for were breaking the law and spying on everyone, capturing all their e-mails and texts and video-chats and web-clicks. My daughter has figured out how to use a laptop, phone, or tablet to peck out a message to her grandparents (autocomplete and spell-check actually make typing into an educational experience for kids, who can choose their words from drop-down lists that get better as they key in letters); she’s also used to videoconferencing with relatives around the world. So when I told her that the spies were spying on everything, she had some context for it.

Right away, we were off to the races. ‘‘How can they listen to everyone at once?’’ ‘‘How can they read all those messages?’’ ‘‘How many spies are there?’’ I told her about submarine fiber-optic taps, prismatic beam-splitters, and mass databases. Again, she had a surprising amount of context for this, having encountered digital devices whose capacity was full – as when we couldn’t load more videos onto a tablet – and whose capacities could be expanded with additional storage.

Then I talked about not reading everything in realtime, and using text-search to pick potentially significant messages out of the stream. When I explained the spies were looking for ‘‘bad words’’ in the flow, she wanted to know if I meant swear words (she’s very interested in this subject). No, I said, I mean words like ‘‘bank robbery’’ (we haven’t really talked about terrorism yet – maybe next time).

And immediately she shot back, ‘‘That silly! What if I just wrote ‘I played bank robbery this afternoon’ in a message. Why should a spy get to read it?’’

Following her lead, we dug deeper and deeper into the subject, talking about what a reasonable standard for surveillance might be, the problem of police deciding you’re suspicious and then going through your stored communications looking for evidence, and finding it because we see whatever pattern we expect to find. These subjects resonated with her in a way that surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. Kids are both continuously surveilled and sensitive to surveillance. My worst parenting moments (so far!) have been when I’ve paid too much attention to the kid doing something at the limits of her abilities, only to make her so self-conscious about failing while someone else looked on that she moved on to something else.

But the drive for privacy is, it seems, innate – and it manifests early. Oh sure, kids may over share on social networks, but that doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to privacy. It just means that they’re not very good at it. Of course they aren’t – privacy is a hard and subtle problem, and kids are still learning. As sociologist danah boyd – who did more than a decade of fieldwork examining kids’ online habits – points out in her brilliant new book It’s Complicated, kids put extraordinary effort into being private online in relation to their parents, their enemies, their teachers, and school administrators. They often get this wrong, and generally totally miss how important it is to be private from future employers.

boyd makes a good case for abandoning the idea of ‘‘digital natives,’’ a label often applied to kids born after about 2005. She says that thinking of kids as digital natives ascribes an unrealistic level of technical mastery to them, leading us to believe that every weird and dumb thing that teenagers do on the Internet must be done on purpose. As boyd points out, teenagers screw up a lot, and when we see them doing something messed up, the most obvious explanation is that they’re messing up – not that they possess some kind of preternatural technology jungle-sense that lets them understand the exact and perfect way to relate to Internet privacy.

Kids care intensely about privacy, because kids make a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is how you learn not to make more mistakes in the future. Making mistakes while someone else watches is a qualitatively different experience from making them on your own. Kids know, intimately, why privacy matters.

So I’m not surprised that my kid wants to talk about surveillance with me, and that this subject has grown to eclipse all others during our talks: ‘‘Daddy, let’s talk about the spies some more.’’

Snowden’s revelations haven’t created a post-surveillance world. But I think they have knocked us into an orbit that intersects, eventually, with the post-indifference-to-surveillance world. We sleepwalked into the surveillance society, one minute degree of privacy at a time. Our species has a well-documented inability to notice dramatic changes when they are undertaken gradually enough – until we get a shock that awakens us to their full scope. Think of a crowded party where everyone talks louder in stages, until it becomes a roar that we don’t even notice until we step out into the ringing silence of the night.

All of a sudden, people are waking up to the full extent of surveillance. Like my six year old, we’re having our eyes opened to the reality that all our communications are monitored under the thinnest of pretenses, and without any real safeguards or transparency.

A September 2013 Pew research report called ‘‘Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online’’ found that 86% of American Internet users have taken a (mostly useless) step to protect their online privacy. The reason their actions were useless is that nearly all their tools are designed not to protect their privacy – or worse, to actively attack their privacy. But 86% is a big number and a lot of businesses and foundations are going to work on simplifying the notoriously hard-to-use suite of standard cryptographic tools like PGP/GPG, OTR, Tor, and all the other noodles in the crypto alphabet soup.

I’m volunteering for some of these foundations, including the End to End Foundation, which just held its inaugural retreat in London. One thing we discussed was the toxicity of the way we talk about simplicity in tool design, specifically the oft-repeated phrase: ‘‘simple enough for your mother to use.’’

Not only is this gratuitously insulting to mothers everywhere, it’s also massively inapt. The people who violate security protocol most often aren’t harried stay-at-home moms: they’re bosses. Every CIO knows that the person most likely to demand passwords to get into every system and then totally fail to keep those passwords secure, the person most likely to ignore protocol and hook up an insecure device to the secure network, the person most likely to log into a sensitive system from a public terminal is the CEO.

That’s not because CEOs are jerks: but because they’re busy, and they have to get stuff done. In our lives, we all have to wear an ‘‘executive’’ hat a lot of the time, trying to figure out what to pay attention to and how much attention to pay to it. It’s our internal CEO who violates our own security protocol most often, deciding that strong passwords aren’t as important as getting time-sensitive, important stuff done.

So the End to End Foundation has decided that its mission is to make security tools that are ‘‘SO EASY, YOUR BOSS CAN USE THEM.’’ We’re going to help you encrypt like a boss.

The Snowden era has sparked debates on whether the Internet is good for freedom or bad for it. The reality is that the Internet is both good and bad for freedom, depending on how it’s used and regulated. The right question to ask isn’t ‘‘Does the Internet make us free?’’ The right question to ask is ‘‘How can the Internet make us free?’’

This is how I’ve explained it to my six year old and how I will explain it to my bosses.


Amish: Humility of a Witness

Amish Tripathi was born October 18, 1974 in Mumbai, India. He grew up in the eastern part of the country and went to boarding school in Tamil Nadu, in Southern India, before returning to Mumbai for high school and college. He got his MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, and worked in finance for 15 years.

Amish writes in English, and began self-publishing his Shiva trilogy in India in 2010. It is published by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK. Book one, The Immortals of Meluha, appeared in the UK in early 2013, followed later that year by The Secret of the Nagas, with The Oath of the Vayuputras forthcoming in June 2014.

He met his wife Preethi as a teenager and they married in 1999. They have one young son.


Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘My books began as a pure philosophical thesis, nine or ten years ago. My family and I were watching a TV program. We discovered something very interesting. In the ancient Indian pantheon, which exists today as well, Indian gods are called devas and demons are called asuras. What we discovered in this TV program was that in the ancient versions of the religion, the gods were called asuras and demons were called devas. The exact opposite! Which started a very interesting debate in our family. If the ancient versions and the modern versions met, they’d probably call each other evil, because my god is your demon, and your god is my demon, so they must be evil. Who’d be right? The obvious answer is neither – they’re just two different ways of life. If neither of them is evil, what is evil? Is evil something bigger? Is evil something beyond this?”

*

‘‘I don’t think of them as three separate books. It’s one continuous story broken into three books for convenience. Before the first book was released I had the entire story clear in my mind.

‘‘For me, it’s a mix of fiction and history. Some of the historical interpretations aren’t the official ones, like the Aryan invasion theory, which in India, at least, the official historians still believe. The theory is that the Vedic people were descendants of central Asians who conquered India three and a half thousand years ago and forced the original inhabitants to move down south. These central Asian leaders became the Vedic Aryans. Many Western historians have started junking the Aryan invasion theory. They say there isn’t enough evidence to back that idea. Migrations happen all the time, but the Vedic civilization was an indigenous culture. These things are being backed by genetic researchers – if there was a massive invasion of central Asians three and a half thousand years ago, then the gene pool should have shown an infusion of central Asian genes or gene mutations. When the Aryan invasion theory first came up two hundred years ago, there was no genetic research. The research today is a pretty serious blow to the Aryan invasion theory. In India this historical discussion is heavily politicized. The left-wing guys back the Aryan invasion theory, and the right-wing guys question the Aryan invasion theory. You cannot have a rational discussion in India on this topic. If people would just look at the facts!”

*

‘‘My book was rejected by every publisher I sent it to. One publisher explained in very clear terms why the book had no hope. He said that it’s on a religious topic, and the youth are not interested in religion, so I’d alienated that market segment. They don’t want someone talking down to them. (I don’t think it’s a religious book, I think it’s an adventure book. It just happens to be based on Shiva, a religious figure.) The assumption was that young readers wouldn’t be interested, because religious books weren’t selling at that time in India. The second thing was that I have a different take on religion, not in line with the official version, which means the older religious people wouldn’t be interested. The third thing is that I insisted on writing in modern Indian English, which means the literary elite in India wouldn’t be interested. They like British-style writers, they’re still stuck in that era, and they don’t want modern prose. Basically I’d alienated every single reader segment. I told him, ‘I didn’t do market research, I just wrote the book.’

‘‘So I’m self-published. …”

*

‘‘I don’t use my surname, Tripathi, on the cover of my books. It’s a caste surname, and I’m against the caste system. I have to use it for legal purposes, obviously, but on my books I don’t use it. The way the caste system exists today is not the way it was originally supposed to be. Today it’s based on birth, which is wrong. Originally it was a hierarchy based on karma, on merit.”

*

‘‘Book three has now been released in India. I have various other book ideas, all based on mythology and history, some Indian, some based on Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Turkish history. I have enough ideas to keep myself busy for the next 20 years. I only resigned from my finance job after my second book. (I couldn’t tell my kid to starve because Daddy was discovering himself.) I resigned only when I realized I could meet my responsibilities with writing. Hopefully it won’t happen, but if my next book flops, I can always go back to banking. But I’ll continue writing. Even if the only people reading my books are my family, I’ll continue writing. I love it. I was 29 or 30 years old when I started writing. You are never too old to chase a new dream. I always believe that.”



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