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Friday, August 31, 2007

Attack of the Return of the Son of the Friday Challenge!

Breaking News from Hollywood! George Lucas and Peter Jackson have just announced that they have acquired all rights to that 1942 Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca, and will be applying their combined cinematic genius and the full resources of both Industrial Light & Magic and Weta Digital to producing an all-new, fully restored, and completely digitally remastered version of this beloved timeless classic! They're calling it, "The Casablanca you always wanted to see!"

Just kidding.

But semi-seriously: given the advances in digital and cinematic technology, along with the apparent complete and utter dearth of new ideas in Hollyweird, just how long will it be before they do stop making mere remakes of old movies, and start digitizing old footage and using it to make entirely new movies? It's already happening in comic books, pop music, and advertising. (Remember that Audrey Hepburn Gap commercial from last year?) How long will it be before the powers that be in Hollywood cease to be content with mere Ted Turner-ish paint-by-numbers colorizations of the old B&W classics, and start using this technology to really remanufacture and update their products? And what sorts of horrors will they visit upon us when they do?

That's today's challenge. Imagine Lucas's "improved" Casablanca. (Or if that thought is simply too awful to contemplate, pick a different director and a different movie.) What will we see? A bunch of Gungans in the back of Rick's, singing along with La Marseillaise? Sydney Greenstreet digitally replaced by Jabba the Hutt? Dooley Wilson digitally replaced by Snoop Dogg, with "Knock on Wood" replaced by a big-budget rap video? (Or has that been done already?) Worse yet, how about if, in the final scene, Rick does not shoot Major Strasser in cold blood, but rather Strasser shoots first, and Rick guns him down in self-defense! And then, instead of the local police showing up, a whole company of hardened Afrika Korps storm troopers burst into the scene, and Rick and Renault narrowly escape to the Nazi bomber that just happens to be warming up on the tarmac outside, where Indy — excuse me, Rick — gets on the MG-15 in the tail turret while Renault, in an exciting action/comedy scene, gets on the flight controls and then is finally forced to admit that he has no clue how to fly a plane! And then

You get the idea. That's the challenge. You have until next Friday to post your ideas here. Entries will be measured in the common measure of awfulness, the SGU (Standard Groan Unit), with the winner to receive either a signed copy of Rebel Moon (I still have 7 crates of the things to get rid of) or a book to be named later.

Ready? Set? Go!

(P.S. Thanks for the idea, Knarf!)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9.2)

All these years later, I still don't know how to talk about "Cyberpunk." Do I talk about the original short story, which you can find online in one of my all-time favorite Internet destinations, the Infinity Plus story archives, with all of its original glaring technical stupidities intact? Do I talk about the novel that resulted from my association with Baen, which you can click on this link to download in PDF format if you're so inclined? (If you do download it, though, I'd appreciate it if you'd also take a peek at the Notes on this web page sometime.) Or better yet, should I talk about the novel I intended to write, back in the mid-1980s, when I first started work on the story cycle?

When the 1990s Internet explosion first hit, and sophomore literature students all over the English-speaking world discovered it was possible to actually find my web site and email me the same six questions they all wanted answered for their term papers on "cyberpunk," I wrote The Etymology of "Cyberpunk," and for a long time tried to let that be my last word on the subject. But alas, it seems that was not to be.

One of these days I will have to write the full, complete, and tragic story of the book I meant to write, including the original outline and pitch proposal and as much of the original manuscript as it's still possible to salvage. But not tonight. No, tonight, I just want to take a moment to think about some of the things that were in the story cycle that I'm still proud of. For example, grid computing. This was in Mikey's world from the very first draft in 1980; the idea of achieving the power of a supercomputer by using a wide-area network to link together hundreds of processors over a distributed geography. Mind you, I visioneered this two years before Cray released the X-MP, the first real multiprocessor supercomputer; thirteen years before the release of the Cray T3D, the first successful MPP (massively parallel processing) machine; and a good twenty years before grid computing became something of a limping and hobbled reality, if you are feeling generous and want to call it that.

Likewise, the idea of bot-nets was in there from the start; of using large networks of subverted computers to apply enormous processing power for illicit purposes. Of course, I didn't call them bot-nets in my story, and right at the moment I would probably rather not be known as "the guy who invented the bot-net." But the idea is there.

There were other things in Mikey's landscape that I really wanted to explore, too. For example, The Breakup Wars: sometime in the early 1980s I came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union could not possibly survive the information revolution that was about to happen and I visioneered the end of the Soviet empire, not in a nuclear holocaust, but in a social and economic implosion, to be followed immediately by the eruption of long-suppressed ethnic hatreds throughout the former empire. This logically led me to project a civil war in what was then Yugoslavia, and then a chainfire of low-level guerilla wars that spread throughout all the 'stans.

The corollary to this, of course, was that without the Soviet Union to act as a foil, and absent a new enemy (I considered Islamism a possibility, but a long-shot), the United States had at best another forty years before it too collapsed into a patchwork of squabbling regional powers. For a time I entertained myself by drawing elaborate maps working out the details of what Vox now calls the North American Union, and I called the Federacion de la Americana Norte, but while this thing I called post-American history is hinted at lightly in Cyberpunk and shows up in the backstory of Rebel Moon, I've only succeeded in selling one story explicitly set in this milieu: Mark Dreizig, which is another of those obscure stories that is now impossible to find and too good to leave mouldering in the archives, so I suppose I should post it online one of these days.

The third idea that shows up in all the fragments and false starts is the idea of "the Net" as a software ecology, replete with autonomous and not always benign synthetic life. This idea was most fully developed in my short story, "Worms!" — and the story of why this story is now so hard to find chains into another Baen anecdote, so I'd best let it drop for now. Maybe I'll put it in the comments.

There were other ideas that ran throughout as well; for example, what I called "ruxpoids," which ranged from being simple robotic pets to full fledged A.I. familiars that sat on your shoulder and whispered advice into your ear. One of them makes a token appearance in the novel as it exists now, but there were meant to be a lot more of them, and I meant to take them to a whole new level when Mikey returned to the world.

And that is my biggest gripe with the novel as it finally came to be: Mikey never returns to the world. My original intent was to take this technically facile, ethically vacuous kid, extract him from his comfort zone, disconnect him real good and shake him up a bit, and then throw him back into his world with a whole new perspective. The last third of the book, as originally sketched out, was to be the story of Mikey's finally recognizing Rayno for the parasite he was, and then engaging in a sprawling battle through cyberspace and VR for what amounted to control of the city, in a sort of high-tech civilization vs barbarians way. (Some of these battle scenes later reappear, in highly modified form, in Headcrash.) And that, in a highly compressed and somewhat distorted nutshell, is the book I originally set out to write.

Baen wasn't interested in any of that nonsense, of course.

Remember way back in Part 4, when I talked about how Scithers said Asimov's readers would never accept a story that ended with the punk winning, so I slapped on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance and gets packed off to a military boarding school?

That is what Baen wanted: a 21st century military boarding school novel. The cyber stuff, the social stuff, the political stuff? He wasn't interested. He'd given up on me as an editor, but apparently thought I still had some promise as a writer, so he kept coaching me on how to turn Cyberpunk into the book he wanted to see. And throughout all those phone calls, the two touchstones that he kept coming back to were Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, and George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels. He wanted a sci-fi military boarding school novel. Better yet, a funny military boarding school novel.

Better still, a funny military boarding school novel that ended with Mikey killing someone.

Baen was a genuine fountain of ideas, always calling to suggest ways to improve the book. In my later years, I came to realize that what he kept steering me towards was I've come to call the Frazetta cover ending: you know, the Hero, center-stage, with a mighty weapon in his hands, a half-naked babe cowering at his feet, and the blood-smeared corpse of his greatest enemy at his feet. Real 14-year-old boy empowerment fantasy stuff.

I kept sending him chunks of the work in progress; he kept sending it back and telling me to put in more about the military academy. Mikey was 15 years old at the start of the original short story, but eventually I had to regress him to 13 years old in order to fit in everything Baen wanted to see take place at the Academy. In the end, I agreed to give up on my idea of taking Mikey back to the world and completing the rondo, and we got down to the job of settling out just how the book should end. Baen suggested that it might be okay for me to take Mikey back to the world at the very end, provided Mikey then immediately tracked down and killed his father.

I said no way.

Okay, how about if he tracks down and kills Rayno?


All right, how about if Mikey gets recruited for a secret government task force that tracks down and kills cyberpunks?

I didn't like that idea much, either.

In the end, we were in agreement right up through Chapter 19. Baen, in his words, "really liked the way [I] turned the Academy into a real shithole at the end." And then, in a moment of pure inspiration, he gave me my ending.

Mikey goes postal and kills everybody in the Academy who's ever pissed him off.

I figured that was just a momentary lapse of reason and went on to write the ending that you'll find in the manuscript now. With high hopes and a certain amount of expectation that I might have to tweak it some, I turned in what I called the final draft.

When Baen phoned, he was furious. His words, again: "When I read that last line, 'Mission complete, Colonel,' I figured that was your way of saying, 'Fuck you, Jim Baen.'

"I told you how to write the ending. You didn't write it the way I told you to."

And just like that, we were done. Baen wouldn't talk to me again. He wouldn't take my phone calls. I got my agent to call him, but there was nothing to discuss or negotiate. He was done wasting his time on me. The contract was dead. He would never publish Cyberpunk, and he would never work with me again.

Now, the standard operating procedure in situations like this is that the publisher makes the writer sign a promissory note, essentially guaranteeing that any monies advanced by the publisher will be repaid out of the writer's next sale, and then the writer is released from the contract and allowed to seek his fortune elsewhere. In my case, Baen refused to accept a promissory note, refused to issue a waiver or otherwise give me any kind of provisional release from his contract, and insisted that the entire advance be repaid in cash before we could negotiate a release from the contract. I, of course, didn't have the cash, and so we floundered on in this state for a while, with me trying to find some kind of compromise and getting nowhere. Then one day my Oompa-Loompa advised me to do something that was clearly, even to my untrained eye, actionable. (His argument was, "You know how much a New York lawyer costs? Baen will make some threatening noises, but in the end, he won't really sue you.")

That's when I fired my agent.

And then I started asking around with other publishers and other agents, and discovered that my contractual situation with Baen made me untouchable.

And then, on May 15, 1991, my company reorganized, and I and everyone else who worked in new product development got laid off.

And then my wife kicked me out of the house and filed for divorce.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sidebar: A Few Words About Literary Agents

People keep asking me, "How do you find a literary agent?" Actually, it's remarkably simple. As we all know, the easiest way to find a hot hook-up on a Saturday night is to be young, pretty, blonde, and female, and then to stand up in a crowded room and loudly announce, "I feel so drunk! {- giggle! -} Can somebody please take me home?"

Likewise, the easiest way to find a literary agent — assuming you are not young, pretty, blonde, female, and already famous for that Internet video you made as a result of that hot hook-up back in the first paragraph — is to attract interest from a publisher, and then to stand up in a crowded room and loudly announce, "[publisher name] wants to buy my book, but I don't have a literary agent. Can somebody please help me?" Before you know it, you will have collected enough literary agents' business cards to completely wallpaper your office and get a good start on the den.

That, thanks to Byron Preiss and the Robot City deal, is essentially how I got my first literary agent. This agency — let's call it The Willy Wonka Literary Agency — was headed up by an Important Big Name: by a man who was widely loved, respected, and admired throughout the field, and had been for decades. During the courtship phase I was glad-handed, wined, and dined by Mr. Wonka Himself, who really made me feel as if I was something special, and with a true master's touch painted a glorious word-picture of the marvelous future that awaited me, once I made the decision to entrust my career to WWLA.

After I signed the contract, of course, I learned the truth: that Mr. Wonka Himself only handled the top ten-percent (by income) of the agency's clients, and my career was in the hands of an Oompa-Loompa.

Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some agencies, sadly, treat their Oompa-Loompas as fungible. (And no, this does not mean that fungus grows well on them. If you don't know what it means, look it up.) The agency employee who is representing your interests today may be simply the result of whichever poor s.o.b. drew the short straw and got phone duty while everyone else went out to lunch. But WWLA at least assigned me a permanent case worker, and I had the good luck the first time around to draw one who was talented, ambitious, and eager to make a name for himself. My first Oompa-Loompa was very good for me.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the whole adventure with Baen, my guy got fed up with doing ungodly amounts of work for cacao beans and quit, to take a job with the rival Peter-Paul & Cadbury Literary Agency. Whereupon I was assigned a new Oompa-Loompa, and this time had the bad luck to draw one who, in his previous career as a literary critic, had famously slagged off The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in print, calling it wretchedly unfunny and predicting that this new guy, Douglas Adams, would soon vanish back into that dismal anonymity he so richly deserved.

This was a change in circumstances that was to contribute much ungood to the Great and Final Conflict With Baen, which was shortly to erupt.

But before we get to that, let's review the rules for dealing with agents.

1. An agent is a commissioned salesperson. He or she works for you, selling your work and getting paid only when he or she sells your work to a publisher, and then only when the publisher remits payment, whereupon the agent skims a previously agreed upon percentage off the top and passes the rest on to you.

2. Unless you are already an established author, are already famous for activities in another field, have already seen a nibble of interest from a publisher, or have had the incredible good luck to find an ambitious Oompa-Loompa who is looking to build a new clientele and start his own agency, any agent you can get now is most likely one you don't want. Yes, I know, this is a Catch-22, but that's the way it is. You must make that first break all by yourself.

3. Any fool can hang out his or her shingle and claim to be a literary agent. You will find a tremendous number of frustrated editors, frustrated critics, frustrated publishers, and worst of all, frustrated writers, currently working as agents. Avoid these people, unless what you really want is a nanny looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do.

4. Remember, you are hiring an employee to represent you, so always check references. Ask for the names of current clients and the titles of recent book deals. If the prospective agent will not provide information of this nature, be suspicious. Most agents can't wait to brag about their success stories. If a prospective agent plays it too close to the vest, he or she may not have any success stories to brag about.

5. Review Rule #1. Given this principle, any prospective agent who demands a reading fee before he or she will even deign to look at your work is either a.) not really interested in adding new clients at this time, or b.) a parasite preying on the gullibility of would-be authors.

6. Any so-called agent who reads your work and then tells you that it is not marketable as-is, but he or she happens to know a "professional editor" or "story doctor" or some such similar creature who can, for a price, make it marketable, is at best a parasite preying on the gullibility of would-be authors, and at worst something much worse. This sort of business activity is often prosecuted as mail fraud, but not often enough.

7. Finally, always remember that if there was one perfect agent, we'd all sign with him or her, and all the rest of them would be out of work. The same agent can be brilliant for one writer and a disaster for the next. (Except for those few poor sods who are a disaster for everyone they touch, but you can usually suss them out by applying Rule #4.) Take your time; talk it over; decide whether the working relationship feels right before you sign anything.

Any more questions?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9.1)

They say hindsight is 20/20. When I was a younger man, my vision was actually 20/15. Sadly, my eyes are no longer anywhere near that good, but my retrospective acuity has only improved with age.

In hindsight, Jim Baen clearly saw something he thought was worth developing in me, because otherwise he wouldn't have wasted his time and energy trying to develop it. In hindsight, he didn't need to make all those phone calls to try to coach me and teach me how to be a Baen contract editor, by telling me exactly what to do and how and when to do it. In hindsight, by his standards, he was being incredibly patient with me.

In hindsight, too old was I to Baen Jedi training begin.

If he'd caught me when I was, say, 25 years old, single, and floundering for direction, his efforts probably would have paid off for both of us. But he caught me when I was 35 years old, married, with three kids, and working as a very well-paid technical professional. Worse, while I was not currently in a managerial position, I'd already had several years of management experience in previous jobs, and I'd already planned, budgeted, staffed, and run development projects that, frankly, had far larger budgets, much tighter schedules, and a whole lot more at stake than the Bolo books.

So when Baen called me — and he could call at any time between 6 a.m. and midnight — to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to change it, in hindsight, this was intended to be friendly and educational. And not, as I interpreted it at the time, common garden-variety browbeating, meddling, and micromanagement.
"Once a chieftain has delegated responsibilities, he should never interfere, lest his subordinates come to believe that the duties are not truly theirs. Such superficial delegation yields fury in the hearts of subordinates."

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Chapter 11

As regards the Bolo books, we started to clash as soon as I turned in the first batch of writer's pitches, along with my recommendations. For example, the knock-out proposal from the experienced writer of battlemech and armored cav books?

You can't use him. He's not a Baen author.

The pitch from the Hugo- and Nebula-award winning writer?

You can't use him. He's a pacifist!

But he's an award-winning pacifist with a great story idea.


The pitch written in crayon, from someone I'd never heard of before?

You have to use that one. I just signed [author] to a three-book contract.

But it's a dumb idea, badly written.

That's your job as editor. To keep working with [author] until it is a good story.

Baen took a particular liking to one of the soggy-bar-napkin pitches from one of the Big Name old pros. I want you to be his co-author on that one.

But it's so trite, it's beyond cliché.

You're a pro. Fix it.

Besides, I wanted to co-write a story with Phil Jennings.

(skip a beat) You know Phil Jennings?

Sure. I've known him for years, and we've worked together before. In fact, I helped him write the pitch for Tower to the Sky and wrote the rough drafts of the prologue and first chapter.

[SFX: stony silence. Sound of crickets, chirping...]

Sometimes Baen would reject a pitch with the simple comment, Keith didn't like it. Per the contract, Laumer had final executive approval over everything that went into the books, and so sometimes I'd wind up waiting while Baen took it to Laumer. In hindsight, I realize now that I never once had actual direct contact with Laumer, and given how sick people say he was then, I have to wonder now whether those occasional indirect communiques were actually from Laumer or merely Baen channeling for Laumer. But in any case, Keith didn't like it was always the final and non-negotiable stake in the heart for a story.

In the meantime, I kept soliciting pitches and forwarding them with my recommendations. I got one that was really solid, from a Baen author who was able to present credible evidence to support his claim that he was the ghost who was brought in to finish writing Rogue Bolo.

No! Why do you think his name isn't on the cover? I'll never work with him again.

[Shrug.] Okay, here's the next one. It's from [author] and it's not great, but it's pretty good.


But you just published a novel by him last month.

Right. And now he's done, and I'll never work with him again.

Baen had a long list of people he would never work with again.

People have asked me if Jim Baen played favorites. I don't think so. Rather, I tend to think of him now as being the Bobby Knight of sci-fi publishing. He knew the game inside and out, and he knew not merely how to win, but how to stomp your opponents into a wet greasy smear in the process. Moreover, he knew one of those truths that all writers secretly suspect, but don't want to admit to knowing: that writers are fungible.

I think he honestly believed that everyone deserved a first chance, and that those with unusual promise sometimes even deserved a second chance. I believe that if he liked what he saw, and you were willing to commit yourself completely to his program and do just exactly what he told you to do when he told you to do it, he could work wonders.

But if you didn't hit the hoop by the second shot, and you were not 110-percent committed to his program — well then, sayonara, charlie, because there are hundreds more where you came from, and they're all just itching for a crack at the opportunity that you just blew. In hindsight, then, he was pretty much just like every other publisher out there, except perhaps a bit more honest.

Honesty is often uncomfortable.

In the end, like a bad marriage, we finally broke up over money — and it wasn't even my money, it was how I wanted to spend the money he'd budgeted to buy content. Baen insisted that I tell my prospective authors that the advance would be divvied up on a pro rata basis and leave it at that. I argued that this wasn't fair to the younger authors who were actually writing most of the content and that I wanted to pay out based on a word rate. Further, I argued that his definition of pro rata, while grammatically accurate, was not one that had been in common use since the 16th century, and bordered on being deceptive.

For those of you keeping track of my major self-inflicted CLMs (Career-Limiting Moves), this was Number 2: arguing with Jim Baen about his business practices.

For what it's worth, the SFWA Grievance Committee did eventually go after Baen for his usage of pro rata, although I had nothing to do with that and have no knowledge of how that case was or was not resolved. But given that I was on the SFWA Board for two terms, it must have looked like a connection in his eyes.

Ergo, one day he called me up out of the blue and said, "This isn't working, so I'm going to offer you the take the money and run option. I want you to keep your on-signing advance, as payment for your work so far, and just walk away from this project."

(Shrug) Okay.

"Good, that's settled. Now, let's talk about Cyberpunk."

To be continued...

Monday, August 27, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 9)


Some people believe that Jim Baen could walk on water. I am not one of those people. If you are one of those people, you'd best stop reading now, as you might otherwise read something that might upset you.


To the best of my knowledge, I have no connection whatsoever to the series of Keith Laumer's Bolo books that were later released by Baen Books. I have not looked at those books; I have not wanted to look at those books. My comments pertain only to my personal experiences in working on a similarly named project covering similar subject matter circa 1990. Any inferences you may choose to draw from the following comments are yours and yours alone.

For a long time, I blamed Baen for the failure of the Bolo project, but that wasn't fair. My oversized ego and I bear at least equal culpability. There is no arguing with results: the Baen method works, insofar as it produces commercially viable literary properties and writers with long and successful writing careers.

But like Amway, Clarion, or for that matter, Six Sigma Management, the Baen method works only if you are receptive to it in the first place, and then only if you are willing to make the total commitment required to really work the method.

In my case, once Baen signed me to develop and edit three new Bolo anthologies — and made it clear to me that this project was to take priority over any further work on Cyberpunk — I started off with high hopes and great enthusiasm. I re-read everything that Laumer had ever published involving Bolos. (Luckily, most of it was already on my bookshelf.) I put a lot of time and effort into writing a series bible, in an effort to collect the background information in concentrated form and establish some useful continuity between what were originally a bunch of one-off stories published in different venues over a span of decades. By this time I knew a sizable number of people in the sci-fi writing community, so I put out a lot of feelers, calling in every favor and presuming upon every friendship and acquaintance I had in an effort to attract top-notch writers to this series.

The results were... interesting. I got one stunningly infantile and angry reply from a Big Name pro from whom I expected at least a polite "thanks but no thanks." I got a lot of soggy-bar-napkin coauthorship pitches from other Big Name pros, along the following lines. (Paraphrasing now from some unforgettable pitches I actually received. I still have the original letters in an archive box up in the attic somewhere but don't feel like looking for them now.)
"I don't have time to write a Bolo story, but if you can find me a co-author, I'm in. Here's my idea: rewrite the old Ted Hughes children's story, "The Iron Man," only instead of a giant humanoid robot, the kid finds a lost Bolo. The rest of the story procedes the same from there."
(If this "old" (1968) Ted Hughes story sounds vaguely familiar, it's because you're probably thinking of the movie based on it, The Iron Giant.)
"Retell the story of the 47 Ronin, only make it a squadron of Bolos out to avenge the dishonorable death of their human commander."
(What was that about sci-fi being the literature of new ideas?)
"Do an SF version of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, only instead of Jimmy Stewart talking to John Wayne, he's getting advice from the old Bolo in the town square that everyone else thinks is a decommissioned war monument. In the end, the fatal shot is fired by the Bolo."
Somewhat more interesting were the responses I received from my contemporaries. It turned out there were a lot of writers out there like me, who had grown up on the Bolo and Retief stories and felt genuine affection for Laumer, and they sent in some terrific pitches. Well thought-out, imaginative, creative; stories that reflected recent advances in cybernetics and A.I., as well as military tech, and really would have taken the Bolos to a whole new level. In particular, I got one absolute drop-dead knock-out of a pitch from a writer who already had three novels in print for a different publisher and who had already proven beyond doubt that he knew how to handle battle-mech and armored cav action stories. I got a terrific pitch from a multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner who surprised me by being really eager to write for the series; a truly poignant pitch from a writer whose name you'd never associate with military SF but who was eager to prove he could work against type; and plenty more "pro" grade pitches, besides.

And then there were the ones that came in over the transom from people I'd never heard of before and had never contacted, and which I wouldn't have accepted for a high school newspaper literary supplement.

Nonetheless, my instructions were to forward copies of everything I sent out and everything I received to Baen, so I dutifully did so. And boy, were my eyes opened.

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Ten Worst Movies Ever Made

Okay folks, since you've got quite a thread going over here, let's make it an official topic. What are the ten worst movies ever made?

As a former disloyal subject of Jesse "The Windbag" Ventura, I wanted to nominate Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe, but then I realized that that was doing DuPont fishing in a barrel. On further thought, then, we need some rules to keep the list down to a manageable size, and I propose the following:

1. It must be a movie made within the last 50 years. It's too easy to slag things older than that for technical or cultural reasons the filmmakers couldn't help.

2. It must be a big-budget film by a major American or U.K. studio. It's too easy to heap abuse on low-budget indie and foreign films.

3. It must have been the subject of an advertising campaign all out of proportion to the movie's quality.

4. It must involve at least one major name either in front of or behind the camera, or preferably both. Warren Beatty directing Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy is already on the permanent dishonor role.

5. It must not merely stink, it must be an indelible stain on the resume of everyone even remotely associated with it. Except if it's Wild Wild West.

6. It must not have the redeeming virtue of being "so bad it's funny." We're going for pure badness here. The movie must be a true ass-killer. (Ass-killer: a movie so bad, you spend the entire time squirming in your seat and begging God to make the torture stop.)

7. No movies intentionally made for children, as they're too easy to target — unless it's both made for children and an ass-killing stinker, like Bugsy Malone.

8. Anything starring Ben Afleck, Barbra Streisand, or Paulie Shore is already on the permanent dishonor role. Anything starring Adam Sandler is campaigning for a spot on that list.

And with those rules established: ready? Set? GO!

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Some questions continue to pop up in my email. For example, "Will Vox Day ever show up in this narrative?" Yes, but kindly remember that the series began with the twin questions, "Why do you continue to associate with that Vox Day character?" and "Don't you realize that being connected with him will ruin your writing career?" Ergo, my entire point from the beginning has been to communicate that a.) I'd already spent quite a few years riding the career roller-coaster long before I ever met Vox, and b.) I'm perfectly capable of ruining my own writing career without his help, thank you very much.

The next question that pops up with surprising frequency is, "Do you still drink like that?" The answer is, thankfully, no. While I can still remember how much I used to enjoy a good single-malt scotch, my gastroesophageal junction has since transformed itself into a purge valve, and whenever I attempt to drink hard liquor now it goes straight to Condition Red and starts screaming EJECT! EJECT! EJECT! Two beers is about as much as I can handle these days, or maybe a glass or two of red wine, but only if consumed slowly and with food. Therefore, like Bruce Wayne, I have mastered the art of going to a cocktail party, ordering one mixed drink, and then holding it in my hand and keeping it going with fresh ice and ginger ale for the rest of the evening.

Next, a question closer to my heart. "Did you really go cold-turkey and completely quit doing music?" Why, thanks for asking, because the answer is a resounding no! While I've long since sold off all of my amps and P.A. equipment, and in one heart-breaking incident had to sell off all but one of my vintage Gibson guitars to cover a family financial emergency — and I'm afraid that the osteoarthritis does mean my fingers are no longer nearly as nimble as they once were — I do still own a few instruments, and under the right conditions (see BEER, above) have been known to pull out a guitar and perform that old Donovan classic, "The Intergalactic Laxative," or maybe even lead a group sing-along of everyone's favorite Weird Al Yankovic song, "Yoda."
To the tune of The Kinks hit, "Lola"

I met him in a swamp down on Dagobah
where it bubbles all day like a giant carbonated soda
S - O - D - A, soda

I saw the little runt sitting there on a log,
I asked him his name and in a raspy voice, he said, "Yoda"
Y - O - D - A, Yoda
yo- yo- yo- yo- Yoda!

(guitar riff, etc.)

As far as being a songwriter, though, I'm afraid that compulsion slipped away, quietly and unnoticed, sometime in the late '80s or early '90s. As best I can tell this is the last song I ever wrote, and I haven't played it in an age. I can't even remember all the chord changes, but imagine a sort of doo-wop C-Am-F-G progression and you're on the right track. It goes something like this:
The petite brunette with erect nipples
said, "I've read all your books!"
I tried to tell her that I only write short stories
but she had such an eager look.
And then she gave me a hug, and a lick on the ear,
and took me by the hand,
and led me over to the bar, to introduce me to her husband.

She said, "Let's go back to my room, and get acquainted, you and me."
I said, "What would your husband think?"
She said, "He wants to come along and make it three!"


When you put on a "pro" badge, you won't believe your eyes.
Women throw themselves at you, and so do half the guys.
And you don't want to be rude to total strangers,
but they push you to the brink.
And that's why so many pros at cons
just hide in the hotel bar
and seriously drink.

Next verse:

The obese dyke in chain mail
stuck her broadsword between my thighs

I said, "That's very — er, interesting,
I'd like to see it some day."


When you put on a "pro" badge, you won't know what to do.
Anybody who ever typed a paragraph wants to try it out on you.
And then they stand there with those puppy-dog eyes
and say, "Tell me what you really think."
And that's why so many pros at cons
just hide in the hotel bar
and seriously drink.

And once upon a time there was a third verse, too, but I no longer remember it. I think you get the general idea, though.

Catch you tomorrow,

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 8.1)

Papapete writes:
I find the contrasting images of Jim Baen fascinating. Several of his well-known authors praise him to the skies. You (and I suspect many others) have a very negative view of him. It certainly gives me food for thought.
In many ways, I still admire Baen. He was a very savvy businessman who knew exactly who his customers were and exactly what kinds of products they wanted to buy, and he had a very clear vision of just how to go about manufacturing and delivering those products. I also give him kudos for keeping many of the beloved old names in the field in print and earning money long after every other major publisher had given up on them. For example, because of my association with Amazing, I saw some of the rejection letters that went to Laumer in the mid 1980s, when he was still trying to shop around the last of the Retief stories. Believe me, they weren't pretty.

But in my case, in just about every way that mattered, Baen was the wrong publisher for me, and I was the wrong writer for him to try to recruit and enlist in his militia.

This is quite common in the business. You can get along spectacularly well with one editor and never once see eye to eye with another. Author/Agent relationships are especially are prone to this; the same agent can be a godsend for one writer and the kiss of death for another. In the final analysis, it's remarkable just how much of this business is built solely on gut feelings and interpersonal relationships — unless, of course, you're a Top 10 Bestselling author, in which case, yes, we can change the laws of physics for you. Exactly how soon and in what ways would you like them changed, Mr. King, sir?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 8)

Of necessity, there are questions I'm skipping in an effort to keep this moving. For example, was I still working for a bunch of meth-crazed bikers? No, by 1988 I'd long since quit that job and was now in the middle of a lengthy stint with UNISYS. What did I mean when I said that being compared to John W. Campbell Jr. was not a compliment? That is a topic for another time. How do you find a literary agent? That also is a topic for another time. What was it like to meet and work with Isaac Asimov? No comment. Are sci-fi cons really as weird as they say?

No. They're weirder. There are apparently many people for whom science fiction is not merely a subset of literature, but in fact a full-fledged alternate lifestyle, in which they get to act out their weirdest hedonistic fantasies and work out their personal psychiatric issues in the comfort and safety of a largely nonjudgmental and consequence-free environment. But most of the things I've seen at cons are way too weird to talk about in a blog that my children sometimes read, so let's stick to something fairly innocuous. For example:
When you are a "pro" at a sci-fi con, the fans will provide you with all the booze you could ever possibly hope to drink.

This is one of the reasons why I like Niven & Pournelle's Inferno so much. The first chapter is so absolutely true. And, I'm sorry to say, this is a part of the sci-fi lifestyle that I did get into, big time.

By the time we got to the 1988 WorldCon in New Orleans, then, my wife was getting pretty fed up with my behavior, and my marriage was coming apart at the seams. We went to New Orleans together, but since she was then five months pregnant with our third child, she and Phil's wife pretty much skipped the con and spent most of their time sightseeing around New Orleans, while Phil was off somewhere being very serious and literary, and I was off somewhere else, playing almost-famous pro author and mostly getting very drunk. I am told I went on some spectacular, near-legendary binges at that con. Luckily, I don't remember the worst of them — at least, I don't remember anything after that party where I tried to prove to a bunch of Japanese fans that I could pound down shots of hot sake just as fast as they could.

New Orleans was a dismal experience for another reason as well, which was that the political divisions between the Official Card-Carrying Cyberpunk Movement writers and pretty much everyone else were becoming clearly defined, and I had a number of irritating run-ins with pretentious gits who seemed to find my very existence inconvenient because it contravened their established orthodoxy and creation myths. In fact, I was so cheesed-off by one of these encounters that a few weeks after the con, I wrote a long letter to a sci-fi community friend, detailing my many and sundry complaints about "the Movement" and the people who belonged to it.

Bad move. Information never simply vanishes anymore. A couple of months later my screed showed up in a fanzine (with, I will admit, my permission to reprint it), which probably would have been the end of it except that a copy of the fanzine then somehow made its way into Jim Baen's hands. What got his attention was not any of the brilliant arguments I made in my whine, but my claim in the final paragraph that I had a fully written rough draft of my definitive cyberpunk novel already in hand.

It was sheer puffery, of course. What I had was the still-unfinished story cycle, which altogether ran something over 100,000 words, but of which only the first 40,000 or so words hung together like something resembling an actual novel.

Never mind that. Baen contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. I sent off the first hundred pages and a detailed outline of where I wanted to take the remainder of the story. He called me back, to spend half an hour on the phone telling me everything that was hopelessly wrong with my book, and then to tell me that he wanted to buy it.

Actually, no; what he wanted to buy from me was two books, one being Cyberpunk and the other being a novel to be named later.

With visions of Cyberpunk and a sequel dangling before my eyes, I chomped down hard on the bait, and he set the hook. Actually, he said, we weren't talking about a sequel; what he really wanted to offer me was his standard Rich & Famous deal. He wanted my original novel, yes — but for the second book, he wanted to pair me with an older and established Baen author, who would show me the ropes and guide me through the process of writing a co-authored novel in the older author's universe. (Apparently he'd learned from Tower and other similar experiences.) My big-name co-author and I would split the money 50/50, and I would enjoy the twin benefits of being mentored by a seasoned pro and of writing a book set in a world that the fans already loved. In fact, if it went really well, he might actually put that book out first and save Cyberpunk for later.

The scheme is called sharecropping. As with agricultural sharecropping, what it amounts to is that young, usually broke, and often darn near nameless itinerant writers are hired to sweat it out in the literary fields and add to the value of the intellectual property holdings of the old guys, who just sit back and collect the money and publication credits. Baen did not invent literary sharecropping, but he certainly raised it to an art form. While it no doubt worked as described in some cases, what I mostly saw was some old pro collecting a nice fat check for scribbling a few notes on a soggy bar napkin and allowing his name to be printed on the cover, while some poor young schlub found him- or herself stuck with the job of writing a full book from scratch for half the usual advance money. (It's being split 50/50 with the big name, remember?)

But this is hindsight speaking. At the time, it sounded like a decent deal to me, so I said it sounded great but I needed to bring my agent into the conversation.

Uh-oh. No agents. Baen hated agents. He kept trying to convince me I'd be better off if I fired my agent and negotiated the deal myself, but I insisted on keeping my agent. Eventually he conceded that point, and moved on to the next. Was there anyone in particular I wanted to work with? He had in mind a deal involving [name deleted].

My turn to say no. First off, I didn't much like the guy's books, and secondly, even I was aware that he was starting to become a joke inside SFWA. ("Oh look, a new [name deleted] book. I wonder who wrote it?")

Okay, no problem. Baen had lots more big names in the stable. He suggested a few; I was lukewarm. Finally he asked if there was anyone I would really like to work with, and I answered with the truth. Of all the big names he was then publishing, the one I would darn near sell my soul to work with was Keith Laumer. And specifically, I would dearly love to work with Laumer on a new BOLO book.

Baen's turn to object. Laumer was in poor health. It was extremely difficult to get Rogue Bolo out of him. He probably wasn't up to another book.

Okay, I said, how about something like the Man-Kzin Wars? The BOLO stories are widely loved. How about if we get a bunch of young writers together to do a sort of tribute anthology? Maybe we could even do two or three of them.

Baen said he'd think about it.

It took a few weeks, but in time Baen called back. He'd talked to Laumer, and while Laumer was definitely in too poor health to actively participate in the project, Baen had struck a deal with him to open up the BOLO universe to other writers. Instead of my being just one among many contributors, though, he had a new idea. How would I like to be the editor?

That was the deal now on the table. He was willing to double his original offer. He was also willing to commit to doing three new BOLO anthologies. I would not only get to write a new BOLO story for each book, I got to find, recruit, and ride herd on all the other writers working on this series! Why, if I played my cards right and everything went right, I'd have my name on the covers of four books, and between Cyberpunk and the BOLO books, I would make ten thousand dollars!

My agent tried valiantly — first to talk me out of it, and then, to negotiate the best terms he could. But there wasn't a lot of room for negotiation with Baen, who for some reason had also decided he wanted the Cyberpunk and BOLO deals structured as separate contracts, and in the end my agent called me up one day to say, "Well, the contracts are done. For better or worse, you are now a Baen author. God help you."

To be continued...

Vox Day and Me (Part 7.1)


Something didn't look quite right about that last post, so I went into the deep archives, started digging, and found that I'd gotten some of the dates wrong. I was first approached by the minions of Byron Preiss in late 1987. Therefore, when they dropped that Fedex package on me in February of 1990, the second installment of the advance was not merely months late, but well over a year late. No wonder I was so cranky.

It's been said that journalism is the first draft of history. Similarly, blogging is the first draft of autobiography. What you are getting here are my experiences, but only to the best of my ability to remember them offhand. If I were writing this for publication I would certainly engage in more rigorous fact-checking before committing my thoughts to print. Please keep this in mind as you follow along.

And with that caveat established —

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 7)

1988 was a watershed year. Of course, I've had so many watershed years, my history is starting to look like the Mississippi delta by now. While Phil Jennings scored first and big, by landing a contract with Baen for Tower to the Sky and a book to be named later, I scored later and bigger, by landing the contract to write an Isaac Asimov® Robot City® book.

At least, that's the way the minion of Byron Preiss who recruited me for the project pitched it to me. He told me I was just exactly the kind of rising new talent they were looking for to write this exciting new series exploring Asimov's world; bright, talented, energetic, young, just on the brink of launching a brilliant career.

He left out the part about, "and too naive to know anything yet about Byron Preiss Visual Publications*."

(* Generally known as BPVP, or "BeepVeep.")

Look, I have to stop here and throw in an aside to the audience. I've been writing and discarding this part of the story since Monday. I can't quite say why; Preiss died in a car accident in July of 2005, and I just feel weird writing about him. He was a brilliant guy, very charming, very likable. He was a writer, an editor, but most of all a book packager, who specialized in creating lucrative book deals for publishers, and he was a very successful one at that.

So obviously, he must have treated most of the people he dealt with ethically. The fact that he treated everyone associated with the Robot City project like a bunch of illegal migrant bean pickers must have been an aberration. Right?


Oh yeah, and as long as we're on the subject of disclaimers and fair warnings and all that: I realize that many people out there think Jim Baen could walk on water. I happen not to be one of those people. So if you are one of those people who thought Jim Baen was the second coming of John W. Campbell Jr., you'd best stop reading now, because what's coming up next will only upset you.

(By the way, I actually do believe Baen was the second coming of Campbell. But if you know anything about Campbell, you know that this assertion is not an unalloyed compliment.)

Tower to the Sky was released in March of 1988, to — er, reviews. For a time Phil was perversely proud of the one that said Tower was "either brilliantly obscure or just plain awful, I honestly can't tell which," but after awhile the thrill faded. He was delighted when Baen agreed to take a short-story collection, The Lingering I, in place of that second novel to be named. He was perhaps inordinately proud of the way he "maneuvered" Baen into releasing him from all the exclusive options language in his contract...

Another aside here. Baen was an incredibly astute businessman. So far as I've been able to tell, the secret of his success amounted to the consistent employment of four principles:

1. Identify old names with cachet who are on the far downhill sides of their careers, and lock up the rights to their backlist and intellectual property for cheap.

2. Identify promising new talents very early, and sign them for dirt-cheap when no one else is looking.

3. Lard your contracts with exclusivity clauses and right-of-first rejection options, so that the new talent especially is effectively prohibited from trying to sell novel-length fiction to anyone else.

4. If the new talent balks at being locked in to dirt-cheap rate, offer to extend the number of books covered by the contract and pay the on-signing advances for all those books now, so that the writer (being chronically broke) feels like he or she is getting lots more money, and only later realizes that he or she now has to deliver all those contracted books.

This, by the way, is how Baen managed to get all of those early and award-winning Lois McMaster Bujold books for scandalously cheap advances.

Therefore, when Baen allowed Phil to maneuver him into "granting" Phil a release from the exclusivity clauses, what Phil didn't realize was this was Baen's way of closing out the books and cutting him loose...

The Lingering I, renamed The Bug Life Chronicles and given a stock-art cover treatment to make it look like it was a sequel to Tower, was released in January of 1989.

In a sense, it is a sort of a prequel to Tower, as some of the same characters and situations introduced in some of the stories in Bug Life later reappear in Tower. (Heh! Looking at it now, I also realize that a "Dr. Bethke" appears in the story, "Trees." I'd forgotten about that! That was Phil's retaliation for my writing him into "It Came From The Slushpile!", a story which is, if I may be so bold, an absolute masterpiece, and which can be found in the anthology, The Best of Aboriginal SF, as well as in other collections.) If Amazon sales rankings mean anything, Bug Life remains a better seller than Tower, as it has a rank in the 2.45M range compared to Tower's 4.56M ranking.

Meanwhile, I was deep into writing my Isaac Asimov's Robot City novel, Renegade

— except that the guy who was on the hook to write an earlier novel in the series turned in a manuscript with an absolutely incoherent and very '60s New Wave title, so BPVP, needing a new title in a hurry, renamed that book Renegade, and told me to come up with a new title. Given that "Renegade" was not merely the title of my book but also the name of the lead character, this worked a certain hardship on me. Thank goodness for search & replace.

But in due time, I finished all the requested revisions, and turned in my final draft. And waited.

And waited...

The contract was structured as a 3/3/3 deal: one-third of the advance on signing, another third on delivery of the rough draft, and the final third on acceptance of the final draft. While the first payment had come through promptly, so far I'd had nothing but excuses for why I hadn't received the second payment (which was now months overdue), and my prospects for ever seeing the third payment were beginning to look pretty questionable.

And then, in one of those glorious sorts of moments that could only happen back in the day when writers and editors worked in ink on paper, BPVP sent me the only existing copy of the final copy-edited manuscript, with instructions to give it a final proofread and Fedex it back to them (at my expense) ASAFP.

The only copy.

I doubt they ever made that mistake again. Because what I did, frankly, was take the manuscript hostage, and fax BPVP a nice little note explaining that I would be happy to start proofreading it just as soon as my agent was in possession of a cashier's check for the remaining money due me, just as I would be happy to Fedex it back to them just as soon as they gave me their Fedex account number.

The check followed with amazing rapidity, and the book was slotted into their ridiculously long production schedule and finally released in August of 1990.

For more than 15 years now, I have refrained from commenting publicly on this book. It's not that I'm ashamed of it. In fact, there are some things about it I'm still very proud of, like the way that Jerry Oltion (another name your should have heard of but probably haven't) and I worked together, outside of the "official" channels, to coordinate our books, so Alliance (Book #4), Maverick (Book #5), and Humanity (Book #6) form a sort of mini-trilogy within the larger series.


But there remains one problem, and it's one I still have trouble talking about. The Robot City series has remained in print for close to twenty years. I continue to get kindly fan mail from all over the world about this book, because the series has been translated and reprinted in unknown numbers of foreign languages. For example, here's the cover of the recent Brazilian edition, which I learned about from a fan:

(Don't ask me where that giant laser-shooting starfish came from. It's not in the book.)

In a way, I'm quite pleased that this book lives on. But...


The book was not a flat work-for-hire. I was supposed to get royalties and a cut of the foreign sales and derivative works. But according to BPVP's accounting, despite being in print in one form or another for more than 15 years, this book has never earned out!

And then, in July of 2005, Byron Preiss was killed in a car accident, and within a very few months the entire house of cards that was BPVP and iBooks came a-tumblin' down into Chapter 7. And there was much litigation...

But I've broken out of my chronology here, and I need to get back into it. Because, in the spring of 1989, at the same time as all of this other nonsense was going on with BPVP, I signed the deal with the devil, and became one of Jim Baen's new talents.

To be continued...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 6)

By the time I discovered there was such a thing as SFWA, I'd already sold enough short stories to qualify for full voting membership. By the time I discovered those small chunks of very alternative and temporary reality known as "cons," I was already being invited to them to appear on panels and be comped in as a pro. And while it's tempting to go off now on a riff about the utter weirdness of sci-fi cons — and maybe I will, some other time — I'd rather take these next few minutes to remember some of the terrific friends I made through cons and SFWA.

Any such list is of necessity far too short and riddled with omissions. Some of the folks I got to know and admire were already the elder statesmen and women of the field: Ben Bova, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen (who was den-mother to so many of us), Anne McCaffrey, Barry Longyear, Gordy Dickson, Hal Clement, Algis Budrys, Roger Zelazny, Fred Pohl, Fred Saberhagen... Meeting Arthur C. Clarke was awesome. Meeting Ray Bradbury was stunning beyond words, because he recognized my name and started to tell me how much he liked a story I'd just had published. I think I managed to find my jaw on the floor, get my mouth closed, and stammer out a few words beyond, "Uh, uh, Bradbury!"

I never met Heinlein. I never got up the nerve to approach Madeleine L'Engle, even though I had my old hardcover copy of A Wrinkle in Time in my hands and ready to be signed.

Other old friends I can only think of now with a twinge of sadness, because they checked out far too soon: the troubled George Alec Effinger, the ever-entertaining John M. Ford, the generous-to-a-fault Marj Krueger, the astonishingly patient John Brunner — I was drinking with him the night he died, which still creeps me out a bit — and most of all John Sladek, who I still miss and really wish I could talk to once in a while. Then there were the up-and-coming 900-lb. gorillas in our midst: David Brin, Rob Sawyer, Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear... Most of the latter qualify as "near-friends" or "professional associates" or something like that. Brin and Sawyer will still talk to me, once in a while, but Greg's been noticeably cool ever since I cracked a mild joke at his expense about Rogue Planet.

The lists go on and on. There are the candidates for sainthood, like Patricia Wrede and Lois McMaster Bujold; the utter geniuses, like Robert Metzger; and a whole host of people you should have heard of but probably haven't, because they just didn't get the breaks, like William Barton, Jennifer Roberson, John Barnes, Mickey Reichert, and Chuq von Rospach. There's the adorable Hillary Moon Murphy; the sparkling Laurel Winter; and the sadly miscast Eric Heideman. There's Joel Rosenberg, who, while I wouldn't exactly want him walking point for me — he's kind of on the large and noisy side — there is no one in the world I'd trust more to watch my six.

And then there's Phil Jennings.

Phil and I had led bizarrely parallel lives, up to the point when our paths finally intersected. We met in a writing group that Eric Heideman organized in Minneapolis in the early '80s, right after Phil had just made his first pro sale to F&SF and I'd just just made mine to Amazing. After that we quickly became both best friends and toughest critics. Our kids were in overlapping age ranges; our wives got along well. For most of the '80s we were in a kind of friendly competition, critiquing the hell out of each other's work and dueling to make short story sales. The one noticeable difference between us was that Phil was selling regularly to Asimov's, while I couldn't get into that magazine on a bet — but I didn't care, because everything I was writing was selling anyway, usually to Amazing or Aboriginal. (In hindsight, this was a bad strategery on my part.) Sometimes we critiqued and revised each other's work so heavily that it was hard to tell where the Jennings story left off and the Bethke story began, or vice versa, but the only official collaboration we ever did was a story I wrote and Phil touched up, that we sent off to Asimov's, to test the theory that a story coming from Jennings' return address would make it to Dozois when a story coming from Bethke's return address wouldn't get a first look. To this day, "The Death of the Master Cannoneer" remains my one and only appearance in the pages of Asimov's.

As the '80s wore on, though, the truth began to become apparent to both of us. While short stories are cool — they're the hit singles of the literary world — novels are where the careers and money are at. So we got into a novel race.

I had a rock & roll novel I'd been beating on for years, but had gradually come to accept the truth of Frank Zappa's observation, "Rock journalism is people who can't write interviewing people who can't speak for the benefit of people who can't read." I also had a lousy military SF novel that was going nowhere, because it was being written from the wrong political point of view for that subsection of the market, but bits and pieces of it would later be recycled to become part of the foundation for Rebel Moon. I was working on the story cycle that had evolved from the original "Cyberpunk" and would eventually become the novel, Cyberpunk, but at that point in time it really hadn't gelled into anything resembling a book yet.

Consequently Phil scored first, in late '86 or '87, with Tower to the Sky:

The demented part is that was not the original title. I can't remember what it was when Phil showed me the manuscript that he was just about to send off to Jim Baen, but I do remember that I didn't like it, and suggested that he change it to something more blunt and direct that got the core concept of the story, "Like, oh, Tower to the Sky." I also wrote a few paragraphs of sales pitch for his cover letter, which ultimately became the back-cover jacket copy, and in a final jab told him he'd started the story in the wrong place, and needed to back it up and start it just a little earlier in his lead character's narrative. Then I wrote a rough draft for a proper beginning to the book, which he rewrote and assimilated into the manuscript as the prologue and first chapter.

All of this was to cause much trouble just a bit over two years later, when Jim Baen finally figured out what we had done.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Plans Change

So I spent a relaxing evening sitting out on the deck enjoying the summer weather, and it's darned lucky I did, because right about 3:30 AM there was a sudden —


— and instantly I was wide awake and standing there in my bedroom, without any memory of having spontaenously levitated out of bed, but apparently I must have done so. This was followed by the traditional, "Oh, crap!" and then the mad dash around the house to shut down the network and disconnect all the computers, seguing into the secondary mad dash to make sure all the windows were closed down to narrow slits.

Many years ago, I lost several computers to a nearby lightning strike that overpowered my surge protectors and fried the power supplies and mobos. So I got religious about disconnecting wall power during severe electrical storms, only to catch a lightning-caused surge through the phoneco twisted-pair that blew my DSL box, my print server, two hubs, and every Ethernet card connected to those hubs. (It also took out the cordless phone, two VCRs, and one television. Apparently the VCR acted as a big fuse to protect the second television.)

Ergo, in extreme weather conditions, I now shut down and disconnect everything.

This morning dawned sweet, bright, clear, and quiet — because all power was knocked out east of Century and north of 10th street. There are downed trees all over the neighborhood; I lost two sizable limbs off the poplars, a good chunk off the willow, and possibly the plum tree, but I can't tell yet.

The power just came back on a little while ago, hence this post. Whatever else I had planned for today, though, it's deferred. Instead, today's recommended reading is: It Takes a Village (of Lumberjacks).

If you're looking for me, I'll be outside somewhere, helping out with an axe and a chainsaw.

(Everybody sing! "I'm a lumberjack, and I'm okay...")

Friday, August 10, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 5.1)

After careful consideration and due deliberation, I have determined that rather than sitting in my office and working on the next installment in this series, this evening will be far better spent sitting out on my deck, enjoying the summer weather and working on a cold six-pack of la cerveza mas fina.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Previews of Coming Attractions

Okay, this goes against my grain. I had a planned progression I intended to follow as I developed "Vox Day and Me," but since some of you apparently have Internet attention spans, I'm going to tip my hand and show you just a few of my cards.

"Vox Day, Writer," did not spring full-grown from the brow of Zeus. He is in significant part the product of a network of friends and connections — and mistakes — I have made over the course of the past twenty-five or more years.

Without Rebel Moon, there would be no "War in Heaven" series. And without Dafydd ab Hugh, there would be no Rebel Moon. Dafydd runs the Big Lizards blog. If you like Vox's writing, you really owe it to yourself to check out Dafydd's blog.

Vox and I first got to know each other because of Headcrash. Without Joel Rosenberg, and to a lesser extent William Quick, there would probably be no Headcrash. In addition to being a bestselling fantasy writer, Joel is one of America's foremost authorities on concealed carry. If you care about this issue, check out Joel's blog.

Similarly, Bill Quick is the host of Daily Pundit, and he is the guy who named it the blogosphere. Bill's site is a bit slow-loading and chaotic for my tastes, but he is the godfather of us all. If you are looking for good political commentary, check it out.

Finally, this entire cascade of causality all has its point of origin in 1989, in Keith Laumer's BOLO, and in the biggest C.L.M. of modern literary history, which if you've been following the story so far I am just about to make.

And with that said, you're just going to have to hang tight, and trust me a little longer...

Vox Day and Me (Part 5)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

(Hmm, nice opening. I wonder if anyone else has used it?)

It was the 1980s, and we were doing some enormously cool and exciting work at Passport Designs — right up until we went broke doing it, because we were at least ten years ahead of both the supporting technologies and the market demand. It was not a total waste, though. I got to spend a few years working alongside the brilliant John Borowicz, who thus far is turning out to be a lifelong friend; the amazing Phil Farrand, who is one of those rare authentic geniuses I have had the good fortune to meet from time to time; and the disturbing "Chuck P.", who later became the living prototype for the character Gunnar LeMat in Headcrash.

I do this often. I absorb something; I internalize an experience which may not necessarily be my own; I let it gestate, grow, and mutate; and in the fullness of time it bursts out of my chest, in the form of new fiction. My life in Los Angeles eventually re-emerged as the short story, "Buck Turner and The Spud From Space," which is really too good to leave mouldering in the archives so I suppose I should post it somewhere. All those long hours of talking over coffee and cigarettes with Thomas R. Smith, listening to his tales of adventures in Amsterdam and London, eventually coalesced into the Nebula-nominated story, "The Skanky Soul of Jimmy Twist," which you can find online in the absolutely marvelous Infinity Plus story archive. The Passport Designs experience is what ultimately shaped "Jimi Plays Dead," which remains one of my personal favorites. Perhaps the reason for this is that twenty-some years ago, when I wrote it, the idea of a heavily modified Fender Strat that was more insane A.I. than guitar was really wigged-out science fiction.

Today, if you have a few grand to spare, you can buy the real thing at Guitar Centerwithout the suicidal insanity, of course. (I am strangely pleased, though, to see that just like my fictional one, the real one has an insatiable addiction to batteries.)

By the time Passport finished twitching, I was pretty much done with the music business. I now had two young daughters, and the idea of staying out 'til three in the morning to play rock & roll for drunks had somehow lost its glamor. I'd quit doing theater work; I was tired of being the token straight guy at the cast party, and besides, AIDS was hacking a terrible swath through that community. My brilliantly witty gay friends were no longer quite so gay, witty, or brilliant; in point of fact, some of them were dying, which is a hell of a thing to cope with when you're only in your 30's.

I'd quit chasing after grants and commissions; I'd gotten fed up with all the penny-ante backstabbing politics of the arts "community," and besides, my unindicted co-conspirator for much of this work, D.J. Olsen, had decided to move out to Los Angeles, to take his shot at the quest for the One Ring. Deej did have some success out there — his work can be heard on the soundtracks of Demolition Man and Batman Forever, as well as a few others — but in time he got fed up, too, and the last time I heard from him he was still living in Hollywood, but now happily employed as a master chef.

My next company after Passport was a Harley-Davidson aftermarket parts manufacturer and distributor, where my job was to attend, patch, debug, and periodically resuscitate a dying Honeywell mainframe and its enormous stack of spaghetti-code COBOL. Up to this point I must have really led a sheltered life, because I had never worked with tattooed women before, and had never even imagined there was such a thing as jewelry to wear in your nipple and genital piercings. This experience was regurgitated as a couple of stories for Easyriders magazine, which if God is truly merciful will never see the light of day again, and contributed to the creation of the character Max Kool, who also appears in Headcrash.

As a short story writer, then, the '80s were very good to me. While "Cyberpunk" was not an immediate hit — in fact, Kiel Stuart, who sometimes posts here, sent George Scithers a letter telling him how much she hated the story, and that letter was published in a later issue of Amazing — Hi, Kiel!

But by '86 I was selling stories pretty consistently, and I had changed jobs again and was now working for a software development company that was not run by a bunch of aging meth-crazed bikers, and most importantly, I'd found I was starting to get the same buzz from having a story published as I'd previously gotten from writing or playing music. Unlike music, though, you did not need to book a hall, do rehearsals, or perform a story, and after it was out there, the fans could actually give you intelligent and articulate reasons for why they liked it!

[The Downside: as the '80s wore on, I also discovered there were such things as cons and sci-fi groupies, and the groupies could also give you articulate and seemingly intelligent reasons for why you should go to bed with them. I was often tempted, and I'm sorry to say that I did flirt outrageously, which took a considerable toll on my marriage. But when one of the groupies got quite adamant about my following through and delivering on what she felt I'd promised, I asked her if she really thought it was a such good idea to have unprotected sex with near-total strangers. She replied, "Oh, fandom is very clean. Only gay men get AIDS." Which kind of shoots the theory that sci-fi fans are any smarter than anyone else.]

By the end of the '80s I was selling every short story I finished, usually on the first submission. I like to think this was proof of my growing maturity, but the evidence suggests I was mistaken. Gardner Dozois had succeeded Scithers as editor of Asimov's (just as Patrick Price and then Kim Mohan had succeeded Scithers as editor of Amazing), and I used my growing success as an opportunity to start a really stupid feud with Dozois. It seemed Gardner was taking enormous pride in billing himself as "the man who created cyberpunk" — and in all fairness, he had published most of the stories that defined the post-Neuromancer cyberpunk movement — but I was getting a little testy about seeing my work credited variously to Gardner, Bruce Sterling, Bill Gibson, John Shirley, or any of a number of other people. So I started to get pretty noisy and obnoxious about it, calling attention to the fact that Gardner was working as a first-reader for Asimov's when I first submitted the c-word story to that magazine back in 1980.

Mmm, yeah. Pissing off the editor of the most influential magazine in the field. This, my friends, is what is known as a C.L.M.: a career-limiting move. And it wasn't my biggest one, but it sure was a doozy.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 4)

So I wrote the story, and spent a few weeks polishing it in a writing group being run by old friend Thomas R. Smith. Then, in March of 1980, I typed up a clean copy and sent it off to George Scithers at Asimov's, who to my delight did not send it back with the usual "thanks but no thanks" rejection, but rather sent it back with a letter saying he would very much like to see it again, provided I fixed the two things that made it unacceptable. These were:

1. He'd consulted a computer banking expert, who assured him that there was then and always would be a paper trail to back up all electronic transactions.
"Oh really?" said The Time Traveler, as he checked his online Visa card e-statement, and then logged into his online bank account to pay bills with e-checks.
2. Asimov's readers would never accept a story that ended with the punk winning.

So I went back and rewrote the ending, slapping on a coda in which Mikey gets his comeuppance, and resubmitted "Cyberpunk" to Asimov's. This time it stayed away longer, but when I did hear from Scithers again, the news wasn't good. In the meantime, he had consulted a real mainframe computer expert, and was now convinced that the whole idea of punk kids running around wreaking havoc with cheap, powerful, portable computers the size of small notebooks was just too far-fetched to be credible. That, and on further reflection he'd decided the message of this story was, "In the future, teenagers will find new ways to get into trouble," and this idea just didn't seem science-fictiony enough to be worth publishing in Asimov's. So thanks, but no thanks.

Eh. What do you do? You pick up, and carry on. Through the rest of 1980 and into 1981, I shopped "Cyberpunk" around to all the other magazines in the field, starting with the majors and working my way down to the long-shots. Every time it went out, it came back with a "nice try, kid, real close" rejection — until late Spring of 1981, when it went out to Amazing Stories, and instead of a rejection I received a letter from Assistant Editor Britton Bloom, telling me the story was being held for a second reading.

Well, this was something new. So I waited...

And waited...

And eventually grew concerned, and sent a letter asking what was going on, and in reply got a nice letter assuring me Amazing did want the story and the contract would be forthcoming shortly. So if I would just be patient, and wait...

And wait...

And along about Christmas I sent them another letter asking what the heck was going on, and in reply got a nice letter assuring me the contract was all drawn up and they were going to send it out Real Soon Now. So if I would just be patient, and wait...

And wait...

[This was my first experience with The Big Stall. I've gotten it from small-press publishers operating on the bleeding edge of bankruptcy; I've gotten it from multi-billion-dollar multinational media conglomerates. For reference, the lamest excuse an editor has ever used was, "We've run out of blank checks and have to special-order them, but it takes a couple of weeks to get them printed, so as soon as we get more blank checks we'll send you the payment for your story."]

Meanwhile, I was still waiting...

In the early Summer of 1982, I sent Amazing Stories a letter saying that if they didn't cough up the contract and check right now, I was pulling the story and submitting it elsewhere. In return, I received a nice letter from the new editor of Amazing Stories, George Scithers, just hired away at great expense from Asimov's, who told me that Amazing Stories was now owned by TSR (the original publishers of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game), the entire former editorial staff had been fired, and all the manuscripts they were "holding for a second reading" had disappeared. But if I was willing to consider resubmitting my story, he'd be happy to give it a look.

Okay. He obviously didn't remember me from the first time around, so why not? By this time I was doing all my writing on an Apple ][+ computer, so, wanting to make an unforgettable impression on Scithers (my first attempt at doing so clearly having failed), I ran off a fresh copy of the story, sent it off as a 25-foot-long strip of unburst greenbar dot-matrix printout, and waited...

For a remarkably short span of time, as I quickly received a letter from Scithers saying, a.) he loved the story and was going to buy it, b.) could I please write lots more stories just like it, only different, and c.) would I please promise to never send him a printout like that ever again?

The contract and check came in July of 1982. The story was published in the November 1983 issue of Amazing Stories, which per TSR's practices of the time was actually on the newsstands in September. And once again, my fingers brushed across the One Ring, but I failed to recognize and seize it.


Well, in SFWA's typically myopic way, "Cyberpunk" was considered my first professional sale, and Scithers was quite clear on the point that he wanted me to write lots more stories just like it. Had I recognized the monomaniacal gonzo loon principle then, seized the opportunity, and written nothing but more stories strip-mining the cyberpunk vein, no doubt I would have had some kind of really interesting literary career in the 1980s, and would now be a highly sought-after futurist with a truly great Wikipedia entry.

But consider it from my point of view. By the time I sold "Cyberpunk" to Amazing, the story was already two-and-a-half-years old. By the time it finally appeared in print, it was closing in on four years old. And in the meantime, I had, as they say, moved on. To be specific, I had:

1. Gotten married, and fathered my first daughter.

2. Continued selling non-fiction, as I had been doing for years before I wrote "Cyberpunk."

3. Continued selling short fiction, to small-press and regional markets, which paid in bird seed and contributor's copies.

4. Been commissioned to produce full electronic scores for two professional theatrical productions.

5. Done two small and forgettable art film soundtracks.

6. Bounced through three computer-industry job changes and relocated to another city, where I ended up working in Software R&D for Passport Designs. In this job, I was part of the design team that:
a. Wrote the MIDI 1.0 spec.

b. OEM'd all the first-generation MIDI interfaces and software used by Yamaha, Kurzweil, and Korg.

c. Developed lines of education software that were used in schools nationwide.

d. Developed the first generation of the music transcription and notation engine that is currently being marketed as Finale.

e. Developed a series of CMI synthesizers that were sold under the "Soundchaser" brand name.

f. Interacted with a plethora of Big Names, most notably Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck (who was a gentleman's gentleman), and Danny Elfman (who was not).
7. Landed my first significant arts grant, for a proposal that was, frankly, ten pounds of conceptual art B.S. in a five pound bag.

8. Oh. And continued writing non-cyberpunk short stories, in SF, mystery, and other genres, most of which eventually sold to other markets.

So you see, by the time "Cyberpunk" finally appeared in print, I was kind of like: "Wow. Cool. Neat. I finally got the story published. Next?"

To be continued...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Vox Day and Me (Part 3)

"You're making the musician's mistake," another record company executive once told me. "You think a song is words and music and chord changes and all that. It's not. It's three minutes of s--t whose sole purpose is to keep teenagers from switching radio stations between Clearasil commercials."

Two years later I was back in River Falls, Wisconsin, back in college, back hanging out on the distant periphery of the Minneapolis music scene, and back to going off in sixteen different directions at the same time and consequently getting nowhere. I was too weird for the straight-ahead rock 'n' rollers; I could fake it for a little while, but in the end I just couldn't pretend that Rush or Styx was making interesting music for long enough to matter. I kinda sorta almost fit in with the punk and New Wave crowd, but had trouble with the emphasis on piercings and weird clothes and hairstyles, and was too serious about my musicianship to get into the whole noise, anarchy, and nihilism thing. I was closest of all to fitting in with the serious arts grants and commissions people, over on the far New Music end of the continuum, but every time I got almost within reach of making substantial progress in that scene, I'd slip up, and let my sense of humor show.

Never let your sense of humor show. Never admit that you are being anything other than absolutely, utterly, 100-percent excruciatingly serious — at least, not if you're hanging around with a bunch of painfully insecure people who are not themselves sure if what they are doing is actually art or merely pretentious bulls--t.1

So I kept floundering on, and kept adding acquaintances to the curriculum vitae. I'd already met or otherwise spent quality time with Aaron Copland, John Cage, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Libby Larsen, and especially Laurie Anderson. (And Gene Roddenberry, Dr. Seuss, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Leslie Fiedler, too, but those are all stories for another day.2)

Now I got to know Buddy Rich, much better than I wanted to, and got in a great photo-op backstage with DEVO, and got to know Morton Subtonick, on what seemed like fairly good terms at the time although I doubt he'd remember me now. Subotnick suggested that I apply to Cal Arts and come out to California to study electronic music under him, but I was fed up with life in California, so once again, I let the One Ring pass by.

Sometimes, though, the mind does wonder...

The really funny part is, as a musician, my Muse3 already had been whacking me over the head persistently for some years, trying to get my attention, but I wasn't listening. For example, back in '76, this band I was in —
Note: I have an enormous repertoire of funny, strange, and disturbing stories, all of which begin with — no, not, "This one time, at Band Camp" — but with, "This one time, this band I was in..."

So. Back in '76, this band I was in got signed to do a gig at a "supper club," and the contract specifically stated that we had to do at least one set of 50's music. Now, the lead singer was adamant that he would never stoop to singing such rot, and the lead guitarist was equally adamant that he would never stoop to playing such rot, and the rest of the lads in the band were at first highly confident that once the club owner saw what a terrific, talented, and progressive group we were, he'd forget all about that 50's junk. But as the opening date grew closer, the booking agent kept asking for a copy our playlist, and he kept making increasingly anxious calls to confirm that, "You are working up a 50's set, right?" And so finally, having a soft spot for Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, and Carl Perkins, not to mention a sizable rockabilly record collection — it's not all Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen4, and Frank Zappa, you know — I volunteered to step out from behind the heap o' keyboards, and with the drummer and the bass player work up a rockabilly set as a trio, "just in case."

I'll spare you the rest of this story. If you've seen The Blues Brothers, you can imagine it. Only without the chicken wire. But the ironic twist on the ending is, while I'm only a competent guitarist, and barely an adequate singer, it turns out that when it comes to retro roots rockabilly, I have a real knack. And over the next few years, and through the next few bands, there were many times when being able to cut short whatever we were playing and jump right into a Buddy Holly or Everly Brothers tune saved our butts.

Again, the mind can only wonder. If I had but chosen that path...


Meanwhile, while all of that was going on, I was also following my interests in electronic music deeper into computer science5, and having a brief flirtation with linguistics and anthropology, and still writing stories. Thanks to the success of Star Wars there had been a fresh infusion of vulture capital into printed science fiction, and while several of the old-school pulp magazines such as Galaxy, If, and Fantastic were dead or dying (and the first and oldest magazine in the field, Amazing Stories, was coughing blood and not looking at all well), ANALOG and F&SF were both still going strong and growing in circulation.

Better yet, Bob Guccione was pumping stupid amounts of money into OMNI6 in an effort to prove that he was not a pornographer; PLAYBOY had recently opened itself up to unsolicited sci-fi submissions, a decision which Alice Turner quickly came to regret7; and there was a new big dog in the neighborhood: ASIMOV'S.

The first successful sci-fi pulp magazine to be launched since the 1950 debut of GALAXY, edited by the remarkable George Scithers, ably assisted by Gardner ("Jabba") Dozois, Darryl Schweitzer, John Betancourt, and a host of others whose names I should remember now but don't, ASIMOV'S went with astonishing rapidity from being a quarterly startup to being the premiere magazine in the field. More importantly to me, in that same time period my submissions to Asimov's went from getting bounced with form rejections to coming back with actual letters telling me why my story sucked.

And then, in February of 1980, without even realizing it, I finally wrote my big hit single. And to what has proven to be my enduring surprise, it was not a song, but a story: one that tried to grok the juxtaposition between the punk scene I was leaving and the electronic frontier I was facing. And because I wanted Scithers to really notice this story, I put a lot of time and effort into coming up with a snappy title. I knew it had to be one-word title; I knew that the word had to be a new word, to express a new concept. So I spent a lot of time putting together the bits and phonemes and trying out different syllable combinations, to see how they sounded and rolled off the tongue, and then I picked the one that I thought sounded best and would make the strongest and most lasting impression.

And so, from the very first rough draft, this story had but a single word for a title, and lo, the word was —


To be continued...

1 Unless of course you are doing stand-up comedy, in which case you should laugh at everything you say, no matter how stupid or insipid it is or how many times you have said it before. Most audiences are insecure in their judgement and depend upon the performer to let them know whether they should laugh or not.

2 Oh yeah, and once I got drunk with Charlie Daniels, but that is really a story for another time!

3 After decades of confusion, I've finally realized what my problem is. I've always thought my Muse was Euterpe, the Muse of Music. Now that I look at their pictures, though, I realize my Muse is now and always has been Thalia, the Muse of Comedy.

4 In case anyone cares, Stockhausen's son, Markus, is very much alive and doing music that is very different from that of dear old dad.

5 Even going so far as to write a primitive space-battle game on my TRS-80 Model 1.

6 Another fine product of the PENTHOUSE publishing empire.

7 When word got out that Playboy paid as much for a 5,000-word short story as most sci-fi publishers paid for an entire first novel, all eyes in the sci-fi world turned towards Ms Turner's office in Chicago. Being on stalks helped.