Saturday, May 22, 2010

A tale of a tale of a shareable future, part 1: Introduction

[Crossposted from]

So about a month ago one Jeremy Adam Smith(1), editor of, sent me a solicitation:

"I'm inviting science fiction authors to write stories of shareable futures, where technology has changed the rules of ownership and access, and people share transportation, living spaces, lives, dreams, everything and anything....As I told Cory and Bruce, I'm not looking for utopian propaganda--and indeed, I'd describe the stories they sent as counter-utopian. I'm looking for character and place, troubles and ambiguities, strong stories and intelligent speculation. Sharing solves problems--but what new problems could it create? What conflicts might it provoke?"

Now, here's something about living in a monetary exchange economy:

When I get such "would you write us a story?" emails, one of the first thing I scan for is pay rates. This is not because the money itself matters much. Given my sluggish productivity, my lucrative day job, and rates for short fiction nowadays(2), the check is not likely to have much impact on my finances. But for venues I haven't yet heard of, cents-per-word is usually a reasonable rough proxy for how interesting they're likely to be -- in terms of professionalism, prestige, audience, and presentation.

So what are money and exchange for? Well: by brutally simplifying and quantifying the complex and polyvalent, by imposing costs and forcing decisions, they make a large world with poor information transparency easier to navigate. Indeed you could almost say the entire world we live in, and all our human relations, are distorted by a system principally evolved to allow distant strangers to deal with each other.

As a science fiction writer I naturally think: could another system for allowing distant strangers to deal with each other displace it?

Jeremy was paying Clarkesworld rates, close to the top of the short speculative fiction market, which (along with name-dropping other authors I admire) enticed me to click through. And Shareable is interesting: sort of like what a glossy lifestyle magazine would look like if it were designed to encourage people to discard and scavenge things rather than buy them, to share rather than consume. (It is so slick-looking I thought it was a commercial operation, which I thought was a piquant irony; acutally it's a nonprofit, so that the irony is located in my misapprehension).

The solicitation also came at a time when I have been thinking a lot about speculative economics, about the degree of arbitrariness and contingency of economic systems(3), and the way our lives are molded by them:

  • The novel I'm currently supposed to be writing(4) is mostly set in a moneyless, panoptic global monoculture, a "pride economy" in which everyone's emotional state is subject to observation, bookkeeping, debate, and sometimes betting, in which sibling rivalry provides the conceptual template for all transactions, and in which there's only one monolithic medium for everything from how you obtain food and clothing, how you're getting along with your friend, and how much you trust a piece of information you read... and it's all falling apart.
  • I've been reading nonfiction about historical economy -- Before European Hegemony offers a fascinating survey of the 13th century's globalization boom, in which power was distributed roughly evenly among many competing economic regions -- until it fell apart under the stresses of the bubonic plague and the collapse of the Pax Mongolica, setting the stage for China's dramatic withdrawl and upstart Europe's domination from the 16th century on. In telling this story Abu-Lughod makes a compelling case for the contingency of economic history -- it didn't have to be the way it turned out, with one unlikely corner of Eurasia exterting hegemonic power over the rest of the world.
  • I'll be on a panel on Economics of the Future at Wiscon next weekend.
  • I've been talking to the kids a lot about money, work, and so on, and their insightful questions make me realize how odd and sort of suspicious the system in which we are embedded in. It is interesting how excited they are about people who intentionally live without money, scavenging the excess of our overstuffed drive to accumulate surplus; surely there's a clue there, about what money means to us, and does to us, psychologically.

So... as I think you may have guessed by now. I said yes. Specifically, said he could reprint "Falling" (a short about an adhocratic Frankfurt of the 2050s which appeared in Nature, and which Nature kindly and experimentally-for-them allowed me to put under Creative Commons By-NC-SA) and that I'd try to write a sequel to "Falling" for him on his rather tight deadline.

This may be tempting fate. I almost never write sequels -- or even set-in-the-same-universes. The only real follow-on that comes to mind that I've attempted is that very same languishing novel (it's a companion piece to my story "Droplet").

To make the time-crunch involved more dramatic (as if I weren't already away this weekend, travelling transatlantically to Wiscon right after that, wrapping up a product release at the day job, and then flying to the USA where I will be single-parenting kids on vacation, and as if I didn't already owe Tim and Ethan stories and Sharyn a picture book script), we decided that I'd do an experiment in public composition by blogging (more or less extensively) about my attempt to write the short story in question.

And that, dear unsuspecting readers, is what you are in for now. In part 2, hopefully soon, a little more about my muddled ambivalence about capitalism, and how I got nagged (not by Jeremy!) into cramming this blogging-series experiment into the already ambitious short story timeframe.

  1. It wasn't until composing this blog entry that I realized the irony implicit in writing a postcapitalist heterotopia for someone with that name; if he were a fictional character, my critiquers would make me take out the cute in-joke.
  2. You can live from short fiction in 2010, if you are also on the state roadkill registry and fish really well
  3. Such systems are not wholly arbitrary, of course; it's like with biological evolution. Given a certain technological and environmental framework and set of initial conditions, systems may be strongly driven to certain states. But on the other hand, like with biology, the full range of what's in principle possible is immense -- and small changes can develop into large ones.
  4. What's going on with my novel? Why thank you for asking! I was trucking ahead at 200 words a day until last October, when I passed 100,000 words total, and hit a wall; I had no idea what was supposed to happen next, I had created all this clever plotty foreshadowing and conundrums for the characters to resolve and building tensions, but I had no idea what I was leading to. I was just trusting myself to pull a rabbit out of the hat at the right time. Reached in: no rabbit. And I think it's not entirely unrelated to the topic of this post: I had unleashed a revolution (or uprising?) in an ambiguous heterotopia, and I had no idea how to follow it up. Since then I've been trying to overhaul it in synopsis form, and also working on a few other things. It's such a relief to have short stories at various stages in the pipeline again, I can't tell you.
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Friday, May 14, 2010

potentially counterproductive lullabies

When Noah and Aviva were babies, any sufficiently downtempo, soothing, ideally minor-key tune would work to conk them out. Now, of course, they are very sharp and pay attention to lyrics.

Not long ago, while I was singing him to sleep, Noah brought it to my attention that almost all the lullabies I sing have pretty disturbing themes, such as:

Only the standbys -- "Summertime", "Dream Fairy Dear", and the Shema -- are reasonably upbeat thematically.

In my defense, they do eventually go to sleep anyway.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Editorial Cartoon

Having been caught unawares by the minaret ban, I did not want to make the same mistake now that the same losers are talking about banning burqas.

Once again, the official political center is against it, and it would be easy to be lulled into regarding it as a far-right publicity stunt. But it is a far-right publicity stunt that could easily win. The most galling thing is the SVP and the neo-nazis piously claiming that it's feminism that motivates them, and not hatred of Islam, brown people in general, and people who look funny to them in even more general.

Because, after all, nothing says "feminism" like demanding that women remove their clothing until you are happy about the way they look, right?

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"The Orange" on a rooftop in New York City

If you are in NYC on May 14th, apparently you can see Nick Fox-Gieg's award-winning film of my story "The Orange" at Rooftop Films' 14th Annual Summer Series.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Noah's apprenticeship

I suspect Noah may have been calling Skip Moles again: he and his minions have taken to building a robot army....

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Thursday, May 6, 2010

The "Oeuvre Crit"

There's something that Mary Anne Mohanraj and I did a few Wiscons ago that I'd like to propose, and popularize, as a general practice. I call it the "Ouevre Crit."

Here's what we did: we sent each other pretty much our entire work to date, or at least a representative slice. In my case it was pretty much every short story I'd written (much of which became part of "The Ant King and other stories" later). In her case it was, if I'm remembering correctly, "Bodies in Motion" and at least summaries of her novels-in-progress (which, though it excluded a lot of her poetry and erotica, was, I think, most of a certain variety of her writing).

We had several months -- and possibly a whole Wiscon-to-Wiscon year -- to read these. Then we met and had a conversation that went, in my memory, from dinner until about 5am. We took turns; first Mary Anne told me about my work, then I told her about hers.

In the literary precincts where I roam, the most common kind of critiquing is on the level of the work -- commonly the short story, less commonly the novel -- and, specifically, the pre-publication work. This is Milford critiquing, Clarion critiquing. Its purpose is, generally, to inform the choices the author will make in final revisions of that story -- to make it the best story, of the kind it wants to be, that it can be, in the time remaining before (externally or internally imposed) deadline.

It's reasonably clear, in this kind of critiquing, that you don't want to spend too much time at the finest granularity of issues: "I found some typoes, I've marked them on the manuscript" is acceptable, but a long discussion of the uses of "effect" vs "affect" is probably out of place.

It's also the case -- though perhaps less often remarked upon -- that one doesn't spend a lot of time at the highest granularity either. The story has already been decided on; it has a direction. It's poor critiquing form, if common, to try to make the story what you, the critiquer, would want it to be. Sometimes -- and this is good critiquing -- you may nudge the author to move away from what they want it to be -- their conscious preconception of the story's intent -- and towards what you think the story wants to be. But in any event your critiquing needs to be constrained to the story already begun, and what will serve it.

Occasionally you might say "this is a departure from what you usually do, in a good way" or "you're often so witty, you could deploy that productively here." But those kinds of remarks -- remarks drawing on the broader context of the author's work in general -- are going to be a small percentage of time spent. In this most common kind of critiquing, comments will cluster heavily around the middle level of granularity.

In the oeuvre critique, in contrast, the mandate is different. The stories, the books, are either published, or on their way thereto, but the emphasis is not on whipping them into final form. The focus is not on the revision of an individual work. The focus is, instead, on the entirety of the author's work. What's there? What's missing?

In the oeuvre critique you might say, of an unpublished story, "by the way, I think you could cut that some at the beginning." But that's analogous to pointing out a typo, in the story critique: helpful, but ultimately beside the point.

In the oeuvre critique, instead, the point is to tell the author about themselves, their work. What are they good at, that they may not realize? What do they keep butting up against and need to tackle and learn? What errors do they seem to keep falling into, and why do you suspect this is? What are their greatest successes, that they should build on -- or move on from? What are their themes, their obessions? What is manifestly missing, its absence glaring? What do you read them for? What do you wish they'd write?

Obviously you want to be choosy who you swap oeuvre critiques with. It's a time investment, and also an invitation to presumption bordering on hubris. You want someone, ideally, who is deeply in sympathy with your work, and can think very well and intelligently about it, but who is also different than you are, as a writer -- standing somewhere different, so that they can see what is in your blind spots.

You need another person for an oeuvre critique for much the same reason as you need one for a story critique: you are too close to your own work, and to your own nature as a writer. To be critiqued is, ideally, not so much a matter of fixing errors -- it's not just bug-hunting. It is being offered a reflection of yourself -- distilled, simplified, and articulated -- which you can actually, because it is distanced and reimagined, see.

Mary Anne's oeuvre critique of me was hugely helpful: one of the things I remember her saying was, "you write a lot about parents; and they're all good parents. You should write about bad parents." This was the genesis of "The House Beyond Your Sky". A good oeuvre critiquer sees where you are afraid to go, and pushes you there.

The oeuvre critique is not something I see done very often, certainly not in any organized way -- not in the paraliteratures that I work in. Maybe in academia it gets done, in a one-way fashion, like by your MFA thesis committee? But there's something very useful, I think, about doing it two-way -- about the parity of swapping oeuvre critiques.

Have you seen, done, something like this? Do people do it in other art forms?

Well: consider it as a possibility, the next con or other writer-fest you go to. Pick a partner, someone different enough but in sympathy enough. You need to be mutual fans of each other's work. Bring everything you've got published (or at least an extremely representative sample -- yes, obviously this works better if you are still vaguely neopro, and not crazily prolific; unpublished beginners, and ancient veterans who harbor ego rooms instead of ego shelves, should each work out their own versions... and tell me about them, in the comments).

Swap manuscripts and books. Give yourselves a year to read. Think deeply about each other. Schedule a bunch of hours with each other afterwards -- perhaps at that same writer-fest, in 2011.

Let me know how it goes.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Wiscon Schedule 2010

I'll probably have to leave the SignOut early to make my plane. Anyone heading back to Chicago by car around noonish?

1:00–2:15 pm
Conference 2
Haddayr Copley-Woods, Theodora Goss, M Rickert, Benjamin Rosenbaum
2:30–3:45 pm
Room 629
"While it's important to raise our daughters to respect themselves, our sons also need to learn how to treat women as equals. This can be especially tricky if they are exposed to more sexist ideas in the media or from other children/adults. What are some techniques for raising feminist boys—and which ones backfire? What are the different challenges at each stage of a boy's life?"
Moderator: Katje Sabin. With Kate Bachus, Heather, Karen H. Moore, Benjamin Rosenbaum
1:00–2:15 pm
Room 629
Moderator: Benjamin Rosenbaum. With Victoria Gaydosik, Yoon Ha Lee, David D. Levine, Derek Molata
4:00–5:15 pm
Conference 5
"Science fiction has posited a wide range of economic models, from total abundance to mean scarcity, from plutocracy to collectivism. What happens when goods are freely available to all? What happens when long–lasting food rations are worth killing for? Which books actually talk about economics (whether capitalist or socialist or some other sort) without handwaving it all away?"
Moderator: Benjamin Rosenbaum. With Fred, Christopher Davis, Gayle, Yonatan Zunger
11:30 am - 12:45 pm
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