Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Law & Order: Victims of Reality Unit

So Prozac and its ilk prove to be, for the most part, about as clinically effective as a sugar pill. Which kicks loose an idea for a story that's been rattling around in my head for a few years now:

A man diagnosed with terminal cancer is beating the odds with the help of a new drug recently approved by the FDA. The tumors have stabilised, perhaps even receded a little; he has already lived well past his mean life expectancy. It's a breakthrough, a miracle — until a couple of statisticians from John Hopkins publish an analysis proving that the effect is pure placebo. Our patient reads the study. Within a month, he's circling the drain. Within two, he's dead.

The next of kin charge the authors of the paper, and the journal that published them, with negligent homicide.

Placebos work, you see. The brain can do all sorts of things to the body; sometimes it just needs to be tricked into generating the right happy chemicals. Medical professionals know as much: it may not be the cure so much as the belief in the cure that does the trick, and when you shatter that belief, you are knowingly stealing hope and health from every patient who heeds your words. You are, in a very real sense, killing them.

Do we have here a legitimate argument for the perpetuation of ignorance? Medical professionals do not generally discourage the use of prayer in dire circumstance. It does no harm, after all. (Actually there's some evidence that it does do harm; let's set that aside for the moment.) But when you know that placebo effects are real, and you go out of your way to disillusion some deluded flake who shows up on the ward convinced that her crystals and magnets will keep the tumors at bay... well, maybe education of the sick should be a criminal offense.

I'm just saying.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

I've Just Handed My Pinball Crown To Him

I may have mentioned a fellow by the name of Dave Williams (maybe not here — I know I've mentioned him in interviews, at least). The guy came at me out of the blue a few years back via a mutual friend, and asked me to check out some skiffy prose he was working on1. His descriptions were great; his mood and atmosphere were perfect. His pacing kind of sucked, and what's with these chains on a prison ship on Titan? We can ship our evildoers all the way to the outer solar system but leg-irons are the best we can do for prisoner restraint?

Anyhow, Dave was a diamond in the rough but a diamond nonetheless, so we got to hanging out and mutual critiquing. At the time he was one of those jet-setting corporate whores, and whenever he was in town he'd take me out and get me drunk and expense everything to The Man, which made us both feel good. And he never stopped writing. And he never stopped getting better at it. I really should have seen those signs, and stopped him while I had the chance.

Because then the fucker quit his high-paying job, started writing full-time, and right out of the gate sold a trilogy to Bantam Spectra for a figure that made me stop calling him "Dave" and start calling him "Fucking Bastard" (in the friendliest possible way, of course). The first volume is The Mirrored Heavens, it's coming out in May, and you'd never know by reading it that ol' FB ever had any kind of problem with pacing.

But I hate him even more now. Because he always liked the rifters.com approach to book promotion — the whole alternate-reality-fly-on-the-wall approach — and he decided to steal adopt it to serve up the insanely-detailed backstory that informs his own world. (The draft of MH that I read came backloaded with all manner of technical appendices and historical timelines — think Dune, or Lord of the Rings — but apparently they got cut from the final edition.)

Except Dave did it better than me. Hired professional artists and webweavers to implement his ideas, instead of cobbling everything together in self-taught html. I note, a bit defensively, that my interactive geopolitical map offers more in the way of arcane region-specific details than his, at least. And his pages all come with little Amazon links imploring you to buy the book, which kind of compromises the spying-on-reality illusion if you ask me. But man, it's so much cleaner, so much more professional-looking. The art is outstanding. The military hardware and technical specs take my breath away. And this is only the first incarnation of the damn thing; who knows how deep his world will go when he's had a decade to build it?

Anyhow, it's right here. Go and marvel. I am equal parts honored that FB took inspiration from my own efforts, and pissed that he surpassed them so, but the rest of you are more mature than me so you can just stand in awe at the thought and talent that went into that delivery platform.

And who knows? Maybe this is the kick in the ass I need to start contemplating my own upgrades...

1 Note to aspiring writers in search of feedback; the mutual friend was key. I obviously can't afford to invest time in everyone who might approach me with a manuscript in hand. (The only exceptions to this would involve unsolicited work that's distinctly better than my own, and then only because I'd appreciate the heads-up; it'll give me a chance to use my professional connections to crush the competition before it gets too strong.)


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Our Souls in a New Machine

A couple of items hit me within the same 24-hour period this week: a little humanoid robot that performs interpretive dance numbers based on the brainwave and REM patterns of sleeping humans, and a noncorporeal digital artiste that builds paintings inspired by phrases we meat puppets offer up to it. I've seen human paintings and dances that do a lot less for me than these curious bits of software.

So what are we witnessing here? Is this just business as usual, artists using tools (is there that much difference between writing code and wielding a paintbrush)? So far, I think that's the case. But I also think something more — I don't know, symbiotic — might be peeking around the corner. We're getting awfully close to the point where we stop using apps as tools and start teaching them to use tools...


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ducks, Squirrels, and the Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Many months ago now, sf überfan Jan Stinson interviewed me for the Internet Review of Science Fiction — just before IRoSF lapsed into dormancy. In all honesty, I kind of forgot about it in the meantime. But the chrysalis has hatched, the new glorious IRoSF is letting its new wings dry in the sun (and waiting to grow a couple of legs — the reborn site isn't entirely functional just yet), and there, in the resurrection issue, is Jan's interview. It was conducted in those heady days between my nomination for all those awards and my failure to win any of them, so I'm uncharacteristically cheerful throughout. I spout the usual thoughts about adaptive sociopathy, but with a smile.

I also cite a couple of classic examples of faux altruism in nature — one involving ducks, the other ground squirrels — that I recycled in my interview with Locus. I guess I got lazy. (Then again, they're good examples.) For what it's worth, I think Jan's interview contains the clearer summation, since that interview was done via e-mail and I could thus take time to edit myself into eloquence. The Locus interview was live, and I was, shall we say, less articulate — and while they gave me the opportunity to clarify myself post-hoc, the accursed BHO1 kept me from straying too far from giddy incoherence.

Anyway, check it out. Jan asked some pretty fresh questions (and forced me to admit that I couldn't come up with an original title if my life depended on it), so there might even be some stuff over there you haven't already heard from me a dozen times.

Oh, and to anyone still following the On Spec thing, Derryl Murphy — another OS alumnus — weighs in with an insider's perspective on his own blog. The whole thing even warranted a couple of mentions on Cancult.ca (I really owe that Darbyshire guy a beer or two next time I get out to the west coast...)

1 Baptist Honesty Override.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And Now, In Keeping With Our Policy of Giving Equal Time To Opposing Viewpoints...

Jena Snyder, another On Spec alumnus, posted a minority opinion following my last rant. This is not the first time she and I have disagreed; there have been sparks and brush fires over the years, and we have not always liked each other. We continue to see eye-to-elbow on some things (certain traits of the law enforcement community, for example), but unanimity is a poor prerequisite for friendship — and when the sun goes down at the end of the day, we are still friends.

That is not why I'm singling out her comments for special attention, though. I'm doing that because I suspect a number of folks might share her doubts and opinions, even if they haven't expressed them here; and because these doubts have some substance to them; and because I believe I can answer them, since I thought long and hard before acting as I did.

So here, to save you the trouble of hitting your backspace icon, is what Jena said:
Sure, pissing someone off to the point where they come after you with a gun is a dangerous *act*, but how exactly does a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit illustrate that the ideas in literary SF are free and unfettered and glorious and dangerous? All it says to me is "Hey, Muslims! Nyah, nyah, nyah, I wave my privates at you. I fart in your general direction." You might as well run a photo of a guy in a spacesuit skinning a live cat - it's controversial, it pushes buttons, and the spacesuit says SF.

Besides, it's been done. Not the spacesuit, but pissing off the Muslims. It's old, man. That button's as big as the one you have regarding cats.

If you couldn't win this battle by using a full-frontal attack, then why didn't you try a different strategy? And maybe a literary illustration - how about quotes from Sturgeon or Moorcock or Delany?

If you really want to take a stand on something, it's a hell of a lot harder to *stand* there and take a beating than it is to turn your back and walk away.
There are two issues here. The second concerns my choice of a specific image and the point I thought I was making thereby, and I'll get to that; but first and foremost is the nature of the AntiVeto Bomb itself. In the context of this larger issue, the reasons for any particular creative choice are irrelevant: the whole point of The Bomb was to override such arguments. The Bomb's very existence is an acknowledgment that there will be times when no agreement is possible; it was intended to keep us from always going the "safe" route in such cases. Some might point out — some have pointed out — that this means that I could, in theory, advocate genocide or child abuse or animal torture (instead of merely listing the major religions which have done so). But you might as well ban the use of hammers because I might use one to bash in some innocent skull. Implicit in The Bomb is the understanding that all those who wield it are responsible, intelligent adults, who will not invoke it for frivolous or hateful cause. In this particular case Diane seems to have thought that my (attempted) use was frivolous and/or hateful. I can only point out that a large number of mainstream media outlets did what I only tried to, and as far as I'm concerned that means we're talking about something well within the realm of reasonable disagreement.

The Bomb was intended to break the bottleneck at such times, and that's how I used it. For Diane to revoke it simply because she didn't like being overruled shows either a complete misunderstanding of what the device was intended to do, or a contemptuous disregard for that intension. (She has recently described the Bomb as "bait" designed to keep me from "resigning in a huff", which suggests a little of both. But she was there when the Bomb was designed, and I've kept her correspondence to me from those days, so I know her description is bullshit. I also know that she knows.)

There may be dispute over scope. The Bomb was designed to counteract editorial timidity: Diane thinks that should only apply to the selection of stories, while I maintain it should apply to editorials as well. But these are arguments over minutiae. The fact is, the only reason I've been at On Spec for the past seven years is because I believed a fairy tale I was told. The specific conditions that provoked my disillusion don't matter; what matters is that ever since Diane Walton has been General Editor, I have been serving under false pretenses.

Issue #2:

Why did I choose Mohammed in a spacesuit? Quite honestly, because I thought that was the safest of the available options. Does anyone really think that I'd have run into less opposition if I'd gone for an illustration of Sturgeon's incest society, or Moorcock's Jesus-as-congenital-imbecile? Would a thumbnail of Dhalghren's gay sexplay have passed muster? What about the more esoteric forms of radical idea-ness, the kind of stuff I've played around with on occasion: the nonexistence of free will, or consciousness as a maladaptive trait? I wouldn't have a clue how to iconise such things in picture form. But by now, pictures of Mohammed are embedded in the culture: they serve as an immediately-recognizable symbol for "risky territory", even though they're really not any more (or the National Post would not be running them). "Mohammed + space suit" says, to me, "controversy and science fiction". I dare anyone to suggest an image that more effectively thumbnails those sentiments.

Why do we need a picture at all? you may ask. Why not just let my words do the talking? Well, I could do that. But by the same token, one could ask why we need adverbs. Why adjectives? Why should an editorial be eloquent, or lyrically-written? Surely, we can make the point simply, and with minimal verbiage: Speculative fiction is good because it can deal with controversial ideas. The end. That says it.

But it's not very catchy, is it? It doesn't grab your attention. It doesn't engage your emotions. Visual icons are part of the tool set; and yes, you can always drive a wood screw with a dime turned on edge. You don't need to use a screwdriver. You just get a better end product when you do.

Am I just "waving my privates" at the Moslems, sticking out my tongue and going nyahh, nyahh, nyahh? There's no question that some people would find the picture offensive. But supposing I told you that I was offended by any depiction of, oh, politicians (let's say my religion forbids any depiction of Human leadership because it undercuts the supremacy of the Divine Creator). Are you sticking your tongue out at me if you go ahead and run a picture of Barack Obama? Are you waving your privates? Do you have to bend over backwards to respect every belief and ritual, no matter how stupid, just because it's framed in a religious context? How many of you cringed, just a little, to see me put the words "stupid" and "religious" so close together? Is there any religious tic so absurd that we can't ignore it without being accused of intolerance?

Look: by definition, any controversial idea is potentially offensive to someone. And nobody on the planet is willing to admit that they find something "offensive" because it challenges their beliefs; they'll find it offensive simply because, well, it's offensive. It's against God's Laws. It's AntiAmerican. Please, won't someone think of the children!? Case closed. And if you question those feelings, or ignore them, then yes: some will feel the breeze of my mighty testicles wafting across their faces. But that doesn't make my actions "old" or immature. It just means I can't be bothered to kneel and scrape before some altar that says we're not allowed to say anything that might hurt anyone's feelings, anywhere.

People say nasty things about me all the time. People hurt my feelings. People even wave their privates in my face. I've learned to deal with it. (In the latter case, I've even learned to enjoy it more often than not.)

Finally, Jena suggests I should have stayed and fought. How was I supposed to do that, exactly? Use my eloquent powers of speech to gather popular support? I did that. A majority was already in favour of running the picture: Diane told us that OS is not a democracy, imposed her will over ours, and then (ironically) referred to me as a "bully". She simply shut down any and all discussion. Am I supposed to grab the purse strings from three provinces away? Am I supposed to somehow wrest financial control of the magazine back into more reasonable hands?

Steve tried to heal the rift, before he left. He tried to be the diplomat, while at the same time making it clear he thought Diane was completely out of line. Diane told him that I was "a liability", and made it pretty clear that she considered my departure to be a good thing. So sure, it's harder to stand and take a beating than it is to walk away. But there has to be some reason to take that beating. There has to be the chance that some good might come from it. And the only good scenario I can envision now is one that gives my nose a chance to heal. And allows me to sleep at night.

BTW, that wonderful LOLprophet remix at the top of the post is courtesy of Yuval Langer, and is posted with his permission.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Don't get the idea that On Spec is a democracy."

Regular visitors to this site may remember that for a number of years now, I've been one of the fiction editors at the Canadian SF magazine On Spec. They first approached me back in 1999; I've served pretty much continuously since, except for a brief hiatus back in 2001 when I felt that the fear of losing government funding had made the magazine too timid. But we worked it out. We cobbled together something called the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti-Veto Bomb: if any of us really fell in love with a piece, really fell in love with it, we could force it onto the schedule even if all the other editors hated it. Each editor was allowed only two bombs annually, so we wouldn't waste them on anything we weren't willing to go to the mat for.

While that Bomb has been dropped since, I have never felt the need to invoke it myself. It was intended as a last resort, after all, and truly controversial stories don't come our way very often. But if they did, I knew we were ready. The Bomb gave me comfort. I slept soundly at night.

Time passed. Some terrific stories appeared in our little rag. On Spec gave a home to the likes of Holly Phillips, Catherine MacLeod, Hayden Trenholm, Elaine Chen, Leah Bobet. I am so fucking proud to have helped showcase these people, and more others than I can count (Mrissa, you there?). Cory Doctorow even nested in our pages — before he ascended into heaven with the angels — and Cliff Burns returned to grace us with a tale or two (albeit not the one which had inspired the bomb in the first place).

The world turned; so did the masthead. Fellow scribes Holly Phillips and Derryl Murphy came and went. Susan MacGregor came and went and came back again. Steve Mohn came and stayed (you may remember the running debate he and I got into over Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years back). Jena Snyder, Editrix from the start (think of her as Ian Anderson to On Spec's Jethro Tull) — gave heart and soul and midwifed a thousand literary births. But On Spec is a hungry bitch as well as a beautiful one, and Jena had her own tales to tell; eventually she had to take back her life and her passion for writing. Diane Walton replaced her as General Editor a few years back.

And all this time the Clifford Burns Memorial AntiVeto Bomb sat snuggled safely in the back of my mind, never to be used except at the utmost end of need...

The Present Day. Diane Walton asks me to write an editorial for the next issue of On Spec. I mull over themes, decide: I will write a celebration of the one thing Hollywood and Electronic Arts has left us after they kicked sand in our faces and stole all our shiny spaceships and Big Dumb Objects and Bug-Eyed Monsters. Multimedia has taken away our special effects, you see. The galactic tour, the epic sensawunda vistas: you don't have to squeeze those images from rows of black type anymore, like some pagan divining meaning in rows of ants. You can sit back and let Spielberg show it to you, big as life. You can live it, thanks to Valve and BioWare. People don't have to read for their eyeball kicks any more. There's purer product as close as the nearest torrent.

So what did those big bullies leave behind? What did they value so little they didn’t even bother to steal? Why, ideas. (Take your average Hollywood fx blockbuster, turn it upside-down, and shake it. See any ideas come out?) And not just any ideas. Radical ideas. Dangerous ideas. The kind of ideas that timid, bottom-line bean counters would never risk letting into their big-budget movies for fear of losing some vital demographic. Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?", exploring the ramifications of a human society with no incest taboo. Moorcock's "Behold the Man", a searing time-travel odyssey in which the search for faith leads to Mary on the make and a drooling, idiot Jesus. Delany's Dhalgren, about — well, actually, I'm still not sure what that one was about, but it had a lot of gay porn and Bellona stays stuck to the roof of my mind like peanut butter...

That is where literary sf retains its edge. That is the high ground the lowest common denominator hasn't yet stolen along with our lunch money. So that's where we plant our flag, that is what we celebrate: dangerous ideas. And we at On Spec have got the right to celebrate it, by Jove! We don't just walk the walk, we put our money where our mouths are! We've got the Clifford Burns Memorial Anti Veto Bomb!

And Diane Walton says, Yes, Great! Good subject for an editorial! Just don't do anything that would make it, you know, controversial...

Because you see, I'd wanted to take a token back from the visual arts. I'd wanted to illustrate my editorial with a picture of Mohammed in a spacesuit.

No, Diane says.

Well, wait a minute, say a couple of the other OSers (not me; I'm on the road at this point, and only intermittently online). Why not? It fits. We should go with it.

No, Diane says.

By this time I'm back online, and I say "I'd rather everyone was on the same page on this, but I suppose I could just invoke The Bomb."

Now Susan MacGregor weighs in. Susan and I have always got along despite her misguided devotion to imaginary friends, but now she's saying we should just revoke the Bomb altogether. She calls it "juvenile". She invokes the spectre of an editor using On Spec to promote the rape of children, and of all the other editors having to nod and act as though they agree. (You ever notice that the folks who invoke victimized children whenever their beliefs are challenged have a certain — er, how to put this — common mind-set?)

Oddly enough, this is all going down one year to the day after that Danish newspaper originally published those Mohammed cartoons that started the whole kerfuffel. The same newspaper is reprinting some of them, to commemorate the anniversary and to celebrate free speech. So are a number of others, one being Canada's National Post — hardly a bastion of radical thought. I try to point this out: we're not even talking about doing anything especially provocative at this point, we're talking about jumping on a bloody bandwagon. OS doesn't even have the yarbles for that? But before I can hit Send, Steve jumps in and rebuts Susan's argument. Someone else says Hey, I know a couple of Muslim academics, I could always get their take—

At which point Diane, evidently realizing that three out of five seem to be in favour of running with the Mohammed riff, puts her foot down:
"The CBMAVB is a joke," she says, and

"Don't get the idea that this magazine is a democracy. There will be no "Mohammed" or "Jesus" or "Buddha" or any religious icon you care to name cartoon on our editorial page."
The thing is, I'd always been under the impression that our little magazine was a democracy. And I rather got the impression that the others thought so too. And I can't help noticing that Diane Walton has taken this opportunity to preemptively veto not just icons of Mohammed, but of any religious personality, period. Which I guess means we won't be running any pictures of L. Ron Hubbard in the near future either.

And The Bomb — the very reason for my continued presence at On Spec, my first, last, and only reassurance that we will not shy away from provocative ideas — is "a joke". On me. Evidently it always has been.

Back in the day, On Spec had the balls to publish good stories, period, even those deemed too controversial for other markets. I know this, because they published such work from me before I joined. And there were a lot of those good days. On Spec approaches its twentieth anniversary, its legacy significant and undiminished by recent events. Its cover art continues to kick the asses of much larger magazines. And there are many serviceable, safe, inoffensive stories in the world; as long as 80% of them are Canadian, On Spec will continue to play a valuable role.

But it is not the role I was told it would be, nor one I can get behind.

Understand this: good people work at On Spec, and they work hard. Current policies in this regard are not based on consensus: they have been autocratically imposed by someone with no significant writing credentials, but through whom vital funding passes. She controls the purse-strings; this puts her in de facto control. My fear and my expectation is that as long as that's the case On Spec will blend ever further into the background, forever unwilling to risk notice for fear of losing the government teat. Or perhaps just out of fear of offending the sensibilities of Diane Walton. At this point I don't really know which.

In either case, I'm outta there. I resigned on Saturday.

Update 2211: Steve Mohn has now also resigned in protest over Diane's behaviour. He did ask, first, that she reverse her decision over my editorial, and that she reinstate The Bomb. Also that she ask me to return to On Spec. She refused on all counts. At which point he walked.

I have to say I'm really touched by Steve's support. My whole damn life I've been accosted by people who sidled up to whisper their admiration for my principled resignation from this job, or my public stand on that issue — only to follow up with a plea to not tell anyone they'd said that, because they didn't want to make waves. Steve (whom I've never even met face-to-face) is one of the few who actually climbed down into the trenches with me. A single ally can make all the difference.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Green Spine

So the trade paperback edition of Blindsight showed up in my mailbox yesterday. Not bad, I guess. You've seen it before: they truncated the teaser text on the back, but that left room for more blurbage (which, I'm pleased to note, was actually about Blindsight this time around). I'm a bit doubtful about the presence of that virtually incomprehensible quote from John Clute inside the front cover (seriously, guys, what is "a great, granulated, anfractuous rat king of shrikes", and would you pay good money to have it goose your midbrain?), but okay. No big surprises on the front cover: catchy title font, way better than on the hardcover, and they lost that lurid red border, but — oh wait a minute, what's this on the spine....?

Ah. Lurid green border this time. Perhaps it is meant as a symbol of growth and rebirth, a signal that the bloody days of the revolution are past and now it is time to rebuild. Or something. Wish I knew what it was with these guys and borders. But at least they kept it off the front panel.

Anyway, here's some good news about the paperback, especially for those who read Blindsight for free online and now want a hard copy for their very own, but don't want to spit on the very soul of the Creative Commons by actually paying for it. Patrick St-Denis, of Pat's Fantasy Hotlist — the guy who brought you the infamous "Angry Man Interview" — is giving away three copies of the paperback, just as he did with the hardcover when it came out. Go over there, check it out, give him your hits.

Oh, and according to Leonard Nimoy on The Colbert Report last night, poor body-images in today's teen girls are causing them to opt for oral sex over the intercoursal kind, because blow jobs don't require them to be seen naked. I'm not really sure what that has to do with anything, but I thought I should pass it along.


Monday, February 11, 2008


Just a few bits of miscellanea on my way out the door:
  • The disgustingly-but-unforgettably-named "Puppy Buckets" has posted a review of the soon-to-be-resurrected Starfish — although if you hang out here regularly you'll already know whether the book's any good.
  • We're less than a month away from the paperback edition of Blindsight, and to drum up reader interest Amazon.com has taken down the much-improved cover design for that edition and replaced it with the crappy hardcover layout. And can anyone tell me why that page keeps listing Blindsight as "popular" in the category "Short Stories —> Canadian"? (It was also listed as popular "World Fiction" a few days back, but the world seems to have since come to its senses.)
  • Have officially started writing Dumbspeech. Completed the first draft of the Prelude just yesterday. God, it sucks.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

Athieist Group Born Again

Pursuant to Monday's post, that MySpace athiests group is back up and running. According to a comment on Charlie Stross's blog, MySpace never deleted it in the first place; rather, it was hacked out of existence by some third party. Anybody have any further info on this? According to the story I linked to before, the group had been hacked in the past but this was a whole different thing. Perhaps said commenter was confusing the two events — or perhaps, as he claims, the original report was "grossly inaccurate".

"Thanks to Myspace for restoring our group." appears on the group's splash page, which doesn't tell me much. I've applied for membership to look further inside, but it's one of those moderated thingies so I have to wait until they get back to me.


Friday, February 8, 2008

The Frogs Are Swarming in the Milk

Going over the transcript of the Locus interview I did last July. I am grateful that Locus gives its interviewees the opportunity to "clarify or expand upon" aspects of such transcripts; I had no idea that such a smart guy as myself could be so inarticulate and unfocused. During the course of the actual interview I thought I was performing pretty damn well — at least, everyone in the room was chuckling at all the right points. But either they were just humouring me, or digressions and clever dives down irrelevant alleys don't translate well onto paper. Not to mention the number of sentences I evidently finished with nonverbal gestures. Either that or I'm some kind of closet narcoleptic in denial, with an unfortunate tendency to nod off in mid-sentence. You’d think someone would have mentioned it by now.

Anyway, "clarify and expand upon" I did, to the point where I now seem both profane and articulate. The only problem that remains has to do with Locus's standard policy of formatting these interview things — to wit, they omit the questions to which the interviewee is responding, printing instead an extended monologue innocent of context. And of course, because different questions provoke different answers, said monologue tends to take sudden and aerodynamically-impossible turns in weird directions with no warning. For example, take the following snippet:
... which would, of course, explain the underlying Native-American subtext of the rifters trilogy. The whole saga can be seen as an extended metaphor for the history of Inuit seal-hunting culture in the eighteenth century. The frogs are swarming in the milk. Which at least is an improvement over those big hairy bats, I guess. At least you could hit those with rulers...

Locus assures me that their readership is used to interviews with authors who are apparent victims of multiple personality disorder. I'll take their word for it. But I'm still a bit worried that all you'd need to do is insert a couple of outbursts of cackling hysterical laughter into the transcript to turn me into Tom Cruise.

Anyway, I don't know when the interview goes to press, but here's a snippet to tide you over:

I've tried to create villains. Once I tried to base one on a specific guy I knew in real life, but when my real-life perceptions ended up on the page they seemed more caricature than character; the dude was such a smarmy dick that I might as well have given him a mustache to twirl. The only way I could make him believable on the page was to make him more sympathetic than he actually is in real life, to give him enough depth that the reader would say, 'Yeah, you can kind of see why he's the way he is.' I wish I hadn't had to do that; he really is a complete dick here in the real world.

I of all people should know that moral convictions do not improve one's fitness. Ethics are not an evolutionarily stable strategy. Every time you look closely at altruistic behavior in nature, you find that it's ultimately selfish. A ground squirrel who sees a threat will raise the alarm when there are relatives around, but not otherwise; he's saving his own genes, even if his alarm call draws lethal attention to himself. Animals do fairly sophisticated subconscious processing in their heads. Take ducks. Ducks sometimes adopt ducklings from other broods, which seems counterintuitive; why would any creature in Darwin's universe take a competitor's genes under its wing? But it turns out that the adoptees are always kept in this outer buffer zone, and the parent's real kids are kept in closer. The adoptees are thus more vulnerable to predators; they're being used as cannon fodder (although I guess we'd call them National Guard these days). Every time we see an act of altruism in nature, it ultimately comes down to inclusive fitness.

"I really should learn to internalize that. I need to become more opportunistic, more of a sociopath. Sociopaths tend to make a lot more money than I do."


Monday, February 4, 2008

In Defense of Scientology

Yeah, I kind of thought that might get your attention.

Don't worry, it's not what you're thinking. Nothing exists in isolation; every object stands in contrast to its background, every thing is relative to everything else. So when I take a stand in defense of an admittedly pernicious, powerful, and downright idiotic cult, you knows that it is not that I love L. Ron more, but that I love Rome less.

Specifically, Constantine-era Rome, just around the time of the Nicene Creeds.

These Anonymous folks have been getting a lot of attention lately. They hates the Scientologists, my precious, they hates them forever. They release Hawking-voiced manifestos accompanied by Master-Chief knock-offs and time-lapse cloudscapes. They tell us all about how bad Scientology is. They launch DDoS attacks, and organize protests; they live in the wires. They are Max Headroom made flesh.

But what exactly is so bad about Scientology? What do they do to get people so riled up?

Well, let's see. They expect their followers to believe really stupid things about the universe, things that fly in the face of pretty much every scientific discovery ever made. They extort money from their parishioners victims. They litigate, harass and intimidate those who challenge them from without; they stifle, brainwash, and (some say) even kill those who question them from within. They do not tolerate dissent. They decide how and when women will be allowed to reproduce, strip away a woman's control of her own body. And they are growing; before long, many fear, they will have their hands in the back pockets of governments the world over. Who knows how many politicians and power brokers already suck at L. Ron's teat, while some radio-controlled jester gibbers and capers and leaps around on Oprah's couch to keep our attention off the guys loading up the truck in the back alley?

Is it just me, or are these guys complete fucking amateurs?

You think the Hubbardheads have political power? There's a word for the electoral chances of any political candidate who admits to being a Scientologist: "negligible". By an odd coincidence, the same word describes the prospects of any political candidate who doesn't admit — nay, proclaim — that they're a Christian.

Litigation? The crushing of dissent? Only pussies run to the courts. The largest atheist group on the planet — 35,000 members — just got deleted from MySpace. They violated no terms of service. They committed no offense. But they were found offensive, nonetheless; some Christians complained. Now they are gone.

Not even academia, the self-proclaimed haven of free and enlightened discourse, escapes the shadow. Wilfrid Laurier University, here in Ontario, just denied official recognition to the Laurier Freethought Alliance because the promotion of "a fulfilling life without religion and superstition" would be potentially offensive to the believers on campus. (Note that in this case, nobody even complained. Nobody had a chance to complain, because the whole damn group was aborted before it even came to term.)

I'm not reading about this in the media. Feeding '"Atheist and Agnostic Group" AND myspace' into Google News nets me two measly hits. "Laurier Freethought Alliance" gets me none at all. The only people who seem to even be aware of this, much less give a damn, are the biologists and atheists themselves. You gotta read the science blogs to even hear about it.

No lawsuits. No messy publicity. Just a few complaints, and *poof*. As if we never existed. Now that's power.

Oppression of dissidents? Demonization of outsiders? Institutionalized violence? Penetration into the highest levels of societal control? Rs and Ks, there is just no comparison.

Don't get me wrong. I've got no more time for the Scientologists than I have for any other religion1. (Actually, now that I think of it, sometimes I have quite a lot of time for the Jehovah's Witnesses. I even invite them in and ask them questions. More often than not, they're the ones who ask to leave.) Superstition is a really lousy basis for figuring out how the universe works. But going after the Scientologists in a world full of Christians, Muslims, and Trekkies is like surveying a world ravaged by AIDS and devoting yourself to the eradication of the hangnail.

I don't know who these Anonymous people are. But I think they should stop picking on someone their own size.

1There was a time when I would have simply dismissed the whole thing by pointing out that anyone stupid enough to buy into that crap probably deserves to be exploited. I still believe that, but the problem is the world is evidently cheek-to-jowl with people who are that stupid, and the smarter folks who raise and butcher them use their herds to do an awful lot of damage to the rest of us.

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