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Odd Lots

RIP BEA

BookExpo America (BEA) and BookCon are folding. The shows’ organizers are blaming the shutdown on SARS-CoV-2, but the mask slips a little when they add, “The pandemic arrived at a time in the life cycle of BookExpo and BookCon where we were already examining the restructure of our events to best meet our community’s needs.” That’s corporate doubletalk for “The shows were both in trouble before the virus, and the virus was a plausible excuse to shut them down.”
I used to go to BEA every year. (I’ve never been to BookCon, which is a sort of combined fan and publisher gathering in NYC, targeted at consumers and mostly about fiction.) BEA was useful in a number of ways, not least of which was to see how our competitors were doing in the ’90s. I kept going for a few years after Coriolis folded, just to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and spot trends. That pulse has been harder and harder to find in recent years. Ginormous publishing conglomerates are merging. This generally means that the smaller one is in trouble, and the bigger one wants their cash flow. Penguin Random House is buying Simon & Schuster, assuming antitrust challenges don’t emerge. What used to be The Big 5 is about to become The Big 4.
Two (related) things seem to me as behind publisher consolidation and the loss of big trade shows like BEA:
  1. The large publishers never wanted ebooks and don’t know how to deal with them.
  2. Independent publishing (indie) is catching on in a very big way.

The business model of traditional book publishing is complex, and weird. (Weird, even to me, and I worked in it for fifteen years.) The biggest single problem is that large and very large presses are fixated on hardcovers. This fixation goes back a very long way, and cooks down to the notion that hardcovers are books, and everything else (primarily ebooks and paperbacks) are secondary markets that depend on hardcovers to exist at all. It’s true that if you go back to the 1800s, vitually all books were hardcovers. Granted, there are exceptions: I have a paperback edition of Oliver Twist from 1882, which indicates that cheap books on cheap paper were there in the shadows all along, but were all too often slandered as “dime novels” that corrupted young minds. The money and prestige were in hardcovers.

Paperback originals emerged as a force in the 1950s, roughly concurrent with the emergence of the mass-market paperback (MMPB.) Because early MMPBs were reprints of hardcover editions, the notion of paperbacks as a secondary market was logical. When paperback originals emerged, larger presses used them to build the audience for their hardcovers, and to a lesser extent, a midlist from which promising new authors could be promoted to hardcover. Hardcover pricing was what kept the doors open and paychecks going out. Secondary markets were gravy.

Various forces are now turning the hardcover-centric business model on its ear. The single most important force here is not simply the ebook, but the fact that you can read ebooks on smartphones. Ebooks were dismissed early on because “nobody’s going to buy an expensive gadget just to read books on.” Well, dedicated ebook readers are no longer necessary. I have a Kindle Paperwhite because it’s easier on my eyes, but I’ve read plenty of books on my Galaxy Tab S3 and three different smartphones. Today, everybody has a smartphone, which means that everybody can read ebooks. It’s no longer a niche market.

This scares the crap out of traditional publishers. They have kept the cover prices of ebooks close to (or in some crazy cases higher than) hardcover prices, insisting that it costs just as much to create an ebook as it does to create a hardcover, dodging the truth that it’s all about physical inventory, returns, and unit cost. The unit cost of an ebook is zero. Inventory and returns no longer exist.

The second most important force is, of course, Amazon, home of The World’s Richest Man. Amazon did not create the notion of ebooks or ebook readers, but the Kindle Store allowed the emergence of independent publishing, more on which shortly. And the smartphone, in turn, created the market for the Kindle Store.

Amazon has systematically undermined the hardcover price point by allowing a nearly frictionless market for hardcovers that were read once and then sold through associate accounts for a third the cover price–or less–of the same book new. Amazon Prime created all-you-can-slurp shipping, and with improvements in logistics allows a book to be ordered in the morning and delivered in late afternoon. Why bother fighting traffic to get down to the last Barnes & Noble in town, when you can get the book just as fast (and more easily) with a few taps on your smartphone? (Yes, I’ll miss bookstores. But I won’t miss tchotchke stores.)

And last but by no means least, we have indie publishing. There are a number of platforms on which ebooks may be published, but realistically, it’s Amazon plus debris. They have wisely combined ebook and POD print book publishing into one entity. (90% or more of my sales are ebooks.) The system is straightforward enough to allow anybody with half a brain to publish their own books and short items on the Kindle store.

This means that a great deal of what is published isn’t worth looking at. We all worried a lot about that. But as it happened, people are discovering ebooks they same way they discovered print books in the old days: By word-of-mouth, which these days includes word-of-Web. Discovery sites like Goodreads help a great deal, as do Web forums with a topic focus. Amazon’s reviews are generally good, though you have to read a lot of them and average things out in your mind. Some people are hard to please, and others please way too easily. All that said, I’m very surprised at how few Kindle ebooks I have bought and then hated. Sure, some were better than others. But I did an odd kind of crosstime quality spot-check on marginal ebooks and SFF MMPBs from 50-55 years ago. Pull a passage from a 55-year-old no-name SF potboiler (easier now that the pages are coming loose as you turn them) and compare it to a no-name ebook SF potboiler you took a chance on for $2.99 based on Amazon reviews. The Amazon book wins almost every time. Why? Automated discovery, via reviews and recommendations. All we had to go on 50 years ago was the back cover, and a quick flip through the pages. Now we can be as fussy as we like, or at least as fussy as we have time for.

The bottom line on ebooks is that with automated discovery and online recommendations, you no longer need traditional publishing at all. I’ve bought some ebooks from the few traditional publishers (like Baen) who embrace them. But at least 75% of the SFF I’ve read in the last year has been from indie authors. Some books were better than others. Remarkably, all but a couple that I took chances on were worth reading.

I’ll miss BEA–a little. I had fun there and met some interesting people. I will not miss hardcover culture and its attendant weirdness. If the Big 5, er, 4 can’t shed that weirdness, the reading public will shed them, sooner than later.

In the meantime, it’s a marvelous time to be a reader–and an even better time to be a writer.

Firejammer: Go Get It!

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I’m not the fastest writer in the world. If I were even modestly faster than I am, I would be a lot better-known. So as a side project while I hammer on my new fantasy novel Dreamhealer, I went back to a short novel that sat in a box for forty years. After rather more work than I expected, I uploaded it to Kindle yesterday, and Amazon approved the ebook edition last night. (The print edition is still awaiting approval, since I had to fix an issue with bleeds and the cover image.)

Behold Firejammer. I hate to call it my “new” novel, but I’m sure it’s new to all but a vanishingly small number of my readers. $2.99 from the Kindle Store, no DRM. It’s a humorous romp very much in the style of Keith Laumer, the author I imitated heavily while just getting out of first gear as a writer, back in high school. I dedicated it to him, since no other writer (with the possible later exception of Larry Niven) influenced my fiction as much as he did. Firejammer‘s mission is pretty much the same as the mission of most of Laumer’s writing, especially his Retief stories: Give the reader a wild ride, with some laughter thrown in for good measure. No sermons. No literary pretensions. Just good crazy fun.

As with most of the things I write, the story has a backstory. In 1977, I began selling stories to the late George Scithers, editor at Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (IASFM). Some time in 1978, he told me that he and his publisher were about to launch a new SF magazine, one slanted to a slightly younger audience, and intended to capture the atmosphere of some of the better SF pulps, like Planet Stories. It would be called Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. He asked me if I had any suitable concepts. Inside my head something was screaming hell yes!!! but I politely answered that I did, and would get to work on it immediately.

I did. I had gotten an idea in high school while turning into the parking lot at a Target-like store called Turn-Style (now long extinct) at Harlem & Foster Avenues in Chicago. (Yes, I remember the moment that clearly.) I was 16 at the time, and took some notes on it, but never actually started writing.

Now that I had a nibble on it, I started writing. I wrote. I wrote. And I wrote some more. I was still writing when the first issue of the new magazine appeared. I was still writing when the second issue appeared. I finished it in early 1979. I sent it to George Scithers, who informed me that, alas, the magazine had been canceled. I did due diligence and sent it to all the other existing SF magazines, all of which rejected it. The reason (where stated; I got a form slip from Fantasy & Science Fiction) was that it was just too long, by about, well twice. Maybe more. And yes, at 27,000 words, it was sitting square in the middle of what I would come to call “that hideous length.” It was too long for the magazines and too short to call a book. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. However, in 1979 I had other things on my mind: Xerox had offered me a promotion and relocation to Rochester, NY. So it went into a box of manuscripts and didn’t see daylight again for a long time.

It came out of the box in 2000, when POD services like Lulu.com began to appear. I trimmed it down to about 25,000 words and did some heavy edits. I even started talking to artists about a cover, figuring that I could throw in enough of my previously published short works to bring it up to a book of about 70,000 words or so. I played with that idea for a year or two. Then Coriolis collapsed, and once more, I had other things on my mind, like moving to Colorado. So back in the box it went, where it stayed until several years ago. I did some more rewriting, then had to set it aside (back into the box it went) because we had decided to move back to Arizona. That was a multi-year endeavor, and so totally involving that I had completely forgotten I rewrote the story in Colorado in 2015. I expected to take a piece of what (by now) I considered juvenalia, and rewrite it for the modern market. When it came out of the box earlier this year, I realized that I had already rewritten it.

So what was I waiting for? As time permitted, I created a print book design, tinkered with the layout, made some more edits, laid it out as an ebook, and finally found a cover image on WikiMedia. The image is an eruption of Stromboli, in Italy. Stromboli is my all-time favorite volcano. (Can anyone guess why?) I resisted my temptation to keep tinkering with it, but resisting temptation slows me down even when successful. So more tinkering happened.

Which brings us to yesterday’s uploads. Amazon approved of the ebook cover and body. I’m still waiting for approval on the paperback. The ebook is up there on Kindle and ready to (molten) rock.

Now it’s back to work on Dreamhealer, which is well on and should be finished this summer. So in the meantime, have fun–and don’t forget to leave a you-know-what.

Thanks!

Rant: Do You Like Kippling?

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I’ve been busy here, fighting entropy. (Yes, you can fight entropy. You just can’t win.) The fight’s even harder when you move from a largish house to a house that can (at best) hold about two-thirds the entropy. I’ve never done that before. Now I know why.

I used to have a 12′ X 12′ book wall with a rolling ladder. Book freaks can do the math in their heads; there were a lot of books on that wall. We did a very aggressive book purge before we shoveled the survivors into boxes, and we may have given away books enough to fill about a quarter of that wall. We had some empty space on the numerous other movable bookshelves around the house up north. No more. Empty space is just about gone.

And then, a week or so ago, we had the last of the storage containers delivered. It wasn’t large; just one of those “pod” things you see advertised. I knew it contained the bulk of my electronics and ham radio books and magazines. What I’d forgotten is that it also contained six or seven boxes of “ordinary” books on history, psychology, religion, and weirdness. So after I took a few days to empty the electronics and radio collection onto the two big particle board shelves I’d built specifically for that purpose (including shelves spaced for both the old and the new ham radio magazine trim sizes) I realized that I still had eight or ten boxes to deal with. (More on this later.)

Dealing with the radio stuff was tricky enough. I had bought the full run of Ham Radio back in the early 90s from a friend of an SK in Mesa. The mags were all neatly placed in those spring-rod magazine binders. It quickly occurred to me that the binders rougly doubled the space that a year’s magazines occupied on a shelf. (See the photo above.) It took half an hour of sitting tailor-style and yanking spring rods, but I reclaimed most of an entire shelf by dumping the binders.

That was easy, compared to the next decision: What to do with Wayne Green. He’s dead, as is 73, his iconic ham mag. There’s nothing quite like 73. I took it for many years, and bought the issues that predated my license at hamfests. I enjoyed reading it. Green was certifiable, but he wrote entertainingly, and did gonzo if tasteless things like publishing a rear view of a (male) streaker holding an HT on the cover, as well as any number of scantily-clad women, generally holding ham gear as fig leaves. Some of his technical articles were useful. A lot of the construction articles were sloppy, and some of the designs (pace Bill Hoisington K1CLL) were just, well, nuts. I built a 1-tube converter from 73 back in the mid 1970s. It actually worked, more or less. Most of the others smelled like trouble. I tried a couple of K1CLL’s VHF projects, both of which immediately cooked themselves in their own parasitics. The late George M. Ewing WA8WTE wrote ham-radio oriented fiction (often with SF & fantasy elements) for 73. It was a ginormous, engaging, and practically indescribable mess.

So. Keep or recycle? Tough call. Having just saved several shelf-feet of space by dumping the HR binders, I punted and piled ’em all back onto the shelf. After all, I have a soft spot in my head for Wayne Green, because in 1973 he bought the first piece of writing I ever sold for money. (He then sat on it for more than a year before publishing it.) So I’m conflicted.

Philip K. Dick coined a term for the sorts of things that accumulate in odd corners during a life of anything other than abject asceticism: kipple. 73, in a way, is kipple. So are malfunctioning (but fixable) gadgets, functional (but obsolete) gadgets, parts that roll under your workbench or fall behind shelves, and the peculiar things that lurk at the bottoms of cardboard boxes at hamfests marked “Whole box – $5.” Every time I’ve moved my workshop, I end up with a couple of boxes of stuff I’ve picked up off the floor or out of coffee cans and ratty, ripped-up cardboard boxes piled where piling was possible. I’ve always called them “hell boxes,” but kipple is what they are. Kipple, like wire coathangers, is said to breed when nobody’s looking. Having had a workshop of one sort or another since I was 13, one would get that impression.

My already-tight workshop here still has three substantial boxes of kipple for me to sort through. I’ll do that another time. For now I’m faced with a slightly different problem: Passing judgment on books that are obviously not kipple. How does one make decisions like that? I’ve spoken of this before, but have not solved the problem.

The base issue is this: How do you know what you’re going to have to look up or quote in a year, two years, or five years? How do you even know what you’re going to be interested in? How can you tell where the rabbit hole leads before you dive in? One thing leads to way more than another.

I’ve long since gotten rid of all my DOS books, as well as my Windows 2000 books. I made a special effort to get rid of obsolete books that were thick. Other categories are tougher to figure. Are books on weirdness even necessary? Well, hey, I’m a writer, and fiction is made out of nonfiction, even if the nonfiction is nonsense. Besides, how can I make fun of things like zombies and vampires if I don’t know anything about zombies and vampires?

One solution is to buy a few more shelves for the Closet Factory buildouts in our three walk-in closets. I’ll probably do that. Another is to look critically at the usefulness and/or quality of the books I still have. That would also be a good strategy, if it wouldn’t take such a huge chunk out of however many years I have left.

So I suspect there will be boxes of books here and there around our house, hidden wherever hiding is possible. As I abandon certain tracks of thought (how can there be trains without tracks?) the boxes may shrink. They will do so slowly.

There was a joke once, long ago when I was an undergrad English major:

Q: Hey, do you like Kipling?
A: I dunno, I’ve never kippled.

Well, I have. I’ve been doing it for almost two years now. It hasn’t gotten any easier. And truth be told, I don’t like kippling at all.

Review: Junk Box Arduino

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Junk Box Arduino appeared earlier this summer from Jim Strickland, and I’ve been dipping into it gradually as time allows. In case you’re TL’DRing on me, I’ll give you the money quote: This is in fact the Assembly Language Step-By-Step of Arduino-based electronic tinkering. I’m a good test case: I’m passionate about electronics (some of you have seen my junkbox, which now fills one smallish garage and our repurposed tack house) and I have an Arduino board on my Heathkit ET-3200 logic breadboard box. Decades ago I did some modest embedded work with the RCA COSMAC CPU line, the most important of which was my robot, Cosmo Klein. Before that I did a lot of things with CMOS and TTL, using Don Lancaster’s books as guides.

Jim’s book is how you begin with Arduino if you have some grasp of computing (as most people do these days) but not electronics. And the book is the polar opposite of academic electronics texts with lots of equations but few photos and nothing at all in terms of bench smarts. The grit and grime of practical electronics is everywhere here: This is the first electonics book I’ve ever seen with warnings like jumper cables wear out. They do, and trying to troubleshoot a visually intact but electrically open jumper is a circle of Hell that I’ve visited more than once, in both digital and RF electronics.

Junk Box Arduino goes all the way down to the (literal) metal, and explains how to build an Arduino-compatible circuit right on a broadboard block. You don’t buy a Cestino board; Cestino (which is Italian for “recycle bin”) isn’t a board, but rather an original design from Jim that you wire up yourself out of loose parts, including an ATmega 1284P CPU chip and a 20 MHz can oscillator. Building the Cestino is in fact the first electronics lesson in the book, with Ohm’s Law looming large. The second lesson is building your own in-system programmer (ISP) so you can program the ATmega chip’s bootloader yourself. No, this isn’t a waste of time. Once you build your own ISP you will know how an ISP works, and teaching you how things work is Jim’s mission throughout the book.

The projects run from the simple and obvious (but still necessary) things like flashing an LED all the way up to highly sophisticated circuits like an ATA disk device reader, a Flash programmer, and even a Z80 CPU lashup that teaches how CPUs and memory work by letting the Cestino control the Z80 and allowing us to look at registers and memory while the Z80 executes slowly or pauses in its tracks. Along the way Jim explains assembly and machine language, object-oriented programming, transistor operation, serial communication, and much else.

Which leads to my only real complaint about the book, which has nothing to do with the writing and may be an old-guy thing: The type is fairly small and there is a great deal of material on the pages. This is really a 600-page book laid out in 400 pages, and I understand why with the sanguine clarity that comes of bloodying your own fingers (which I have) trying to get unit costs on books down.

Don’t let that stop you. The book is a helluva deal for $35 ($22 on Amazon.) It’s one of a bare handful of technical books that I wish I had published back when I was still a publisher. If you have any hopes of making an Arduino control anything electronic, this is a must-have. Highly recommended.

It’s Here: Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi

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I had just tossed a salmon filet on the barbie yesterday evening when the UPS man rang the doorbell. There it was: an author case of a book I signed in 2013, finished in early 2014, and have been waiting for ever since. I confess there were times I approached despair and thought the publisher might cancel it, but the concept had legs, and (more important than legs) Eben Upton was behind it.

It’s not all my own work. My co-authors include Ralph Roberts, Tim Mamtora, Ben Everard, and Eben himself. I wrote Chapters 2-7, which entailed about 100,000 words and 90 hand-drawn technical figures. (My chapters come to about 300 pages out of the book’s 507.) Eben wrote a few thousand additional words in my chapters on things that I don’t know well, like compiler internals. (I’m sure he contributed to other chapters too.)

The publisher hasn’t done an especially good job positioning the book, and it’s already being reviewed badly by people who thought it was something other than what it is. So let me position it for you.

Learning Computer Architecture with Raspberry Pi is an introduction to computer architecture for senior high students, and bright junior high students. It’s not a university-level treatment, though it might have application in community colleges. Like the Raspberry Pi itself, it was designed to be affordable to young people, and so it’s not 1,000 pages long. The cover price is $30 (exactly, no .95s or .99s!) and you can get it on Amazon for the inexpensive if peculiar sum of $18.07. It’s not a standalone manual for the board, nor programming the board, nor learning any given language or operating system. It’s about what all the pieces are, and how they work together.

This is important. Today’s young people are digital natives, in that there were cheap desktop computers, lots of them, since before they were born. Kids who are interested in computers have studied and experimented with those parts of the computer that interest them. This is the sort of learning that trips up autodidacts, since it runs very deep in places, but is shot full of holes, some of them huge. The way to fill those holes is to take a survey course, and that’s precisely what this book is for. The course syllabus itself may not exist yet, but I have a hunch that a lot of educators in a lot of places are already hard at work on curricula using the book as the primary text.

People who have read my other books will recognize the approach I took in these chapters: Start at Square One, at the absolute beginning, and tell readers up front that they can skip a chapter if they discover early on that they’re already familiar with the material. Chapter 2 is titled “Recapping Computing,” which goes back to the idea of “a box that follows a plan,” and continues from there. Some people will skip that chapter. Many won’t. A few may be annoyed that it exists at all. (There’s no pleasing some people.) Once you get past Chapter 2, each chapter is much more focused, and covers a specific continent on the larger world of computing:

2: Recapping Computing

3: Electronic Memory

4: ARM Processors and Systems-on-a-Chip

5: Programming

6: Non-Volatile Storage

7: Networking

Chapters 8-12 were written by others, and provide a Raspberry-Pi specific slant on things, especially graphics and I/O. I had not seen those chapters until yesterday, so I can’t say a whole lot more about them just yet. A cursory glance suggests that you won’t be disappointed.

That’s pretty much the story. I had something additional in mind that I didn’t talk about while I was writing my chunk of the book back in 2013: homeschooling. I wanted the treatment to be so clear and comprehensible that parents could use the book in a homeschool environment. I think I succeeded, but I won’t know until I hear from a few homeschoolers. Sooner or later, that’ll happen.

I needed a book like this back in 1970, but of course, it didn’t exist. Computers themselves were mysterious, and the computer gatekeepers seemed to like it that way. Not me. Nothing should stand between people who want to learn and what they want to learn. Nothing. If my lifetime mission as a nonfiction writer could be stated in just a few words, that would be it. I loathe elitism, credentialism, and exclusive-club-ism. I learned stuff, I wrote books about it, and now you can learn it too. If you haven’t started learning about computers yet, well, this is a pretty good time to start. And forgive me for saying so, but this is a pretty good book to start with.

Go for it!

Rant: The Dragon Awards and the Convergence of Exiles

Forty years ago exactly, Carol and I were there in the throngs of MidAmericon I. The con was a celebration of Robert A. Heinlein and (by implication) all of hard SF. It was a tremendously popular con. The newly adult Baby Boomers were pouring into SF and conventions by the thousands. Many people began to fret that these enthusiastic new fans would swamp the longstanding traditions of fandom and turn fandom into something that fandom itself wouldn’t recognize.

Never one to let a supposed crisis go to waste, con chair Ken Keller had the concom raise prices to levels never seen before, finally $50 at the door without an advance registration. (This would be $211 in 2016 dollars.) Keller did something else: He tried to pitch the con as strictly for fans of capital-S capital-F Science Fiction, and stated pretty clearly that “fringefans” (that is, Trekkies and gamers and media fans generally) would find the con boring and should stay away. I don’t know Keller and I’m not sure how serious he was; it sounded like a publicity stunt even then. Lots of people made fun of him in the runup to the convention, myself included. I wrote several filk songs mocking MidAmericon, and one specifically mocking Keller.

At the time I thought it was just some guy throwing his weight around, and I doubt anybody gave much thought to the question: What if they really do go away? Heh. Guess what? In 1987, the first DragonCon was held. During the years since then, Worldcon attendance wobbled around a few thousand truefen, while DragonCon (and other media cons like ComiCon) absolutely exploded. At this writing, media cons routinely out-pull Worldcons by a factor of ten or more. (Sometimes a lot more.) By 2015, ComiCon San Diego had 167,000 people in attendance. Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, had…3,418. 2% of ComiCon.

Alas, across these past forty years, Worldcon has become a rounding error.

I’ve never been to a media con and I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but seeing reports from other authors, it’s become clear that media cons are not entirely superhero cosplay anymore, if they ever were to begin with. There are programming tracks on purely textual SF and fantasy, with author guests and signings, and all the stuff we used to enjoy doing at Worldcons.

Ok. It took forty years, but media cons have now matured enough and broadened their focus enough to give birth to a new award that touches on most aspects of the creative fantastic, including textual SF and fantasy. The Dragon Awards were presented yesterday. The list of awards has been posted on the DragonCon site. The award is a popular-vote award rather than a juried award like the Nebulas. It’s a fan award, nominated by fans and voted on by fans. How many fans exactly has not yet been released, though I hope numbers will come out eventually.

What struck me as significant about the Dragon Awards is that there are seven different categories for textual novels: Best SF, Best Fantasy, Best YA, Best Military SFF, Best Alternate History, Best Apocalyptic, and Best Horror. (There are, as you might expect, Best Graphic Novel and Best Comic Book categories as well.) There are no awards for short fiction, no art awards, and no fan awards. I think one or two art awards would make sense, and with some luck we’ll have those someday. I’ll give them some time to get it right. This was the award’s first year, after all.

Even though I’m way behind in my reading because of the Big Move, several authors on the winners list are people I have read in the past and much like, including the late, great Terry Pratchett, Larry Correia, John C. Wright, and my friend Brian Niemeier. What these four authors have in common (perhaps with others like Nick Cole whom I’ve not yet read) is a knack for telling a damned fine yarn without getting mired in identity politics or self-conscious message pie. Furthermore, Brian Niemeier won the award as an indie, with his self-published second novel, Souldancer.

If the Dragons are any reflection of the shape of media fandom, one of my longstanding suspicions has been confirmed: Media fandom is absorbing traditional SFF fandom. Traditional fandom has become fussy, elitist, and ideologically uniform to the extent that there is active hostility toward anyone who doesn’t either salute the progressive left or stay fastidiously quiet. This was not always the case, and I used to count among my friends many on the left, some of them very frank Marxists. (Some are still my friends. Others have called me a fascist or some other damfool thing for my Puppy sympathies and are long off my roster.) We used to have lively discussions of various political issues at cons, and nobody went home mad. But that was the 70s. I had hair, and fandom was young, tolerant and diverse. It was a short time comin’, and it’s been a long time gone.

At MidAmericon II last week, the concom ejected Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online for making several panelists…uncomfortable. (Really. I am not making this up. It’s in the Code of Conduct.) I heard the audio of his schtick and read many descriptions of the panel itself. The schtick was funny. Yes, Dave was mocking political correctness, just as I was mocking Ken Keller back in 1976. Keller didn’t throw me out of the con; I’m pretty sure he was too mature for that sort of nonsense. MidAmericon II has a code of conduct so broad that it basically allowed the concom to throw out anybody they didn’t like. Suppose I had gone to a panel moderated by John Scalzi and he made me uncomfortable. Would they throw him out on my complaint?

Hang on. I’ll stop giggling in a minute or two…

Ok. There. Whew. [Blows nose. Is glad he wasn’t drinking Diet Mountain Dew.] The point I’ll close with is something we should have learned forty years ago: If you abuse and insult people, they will leave, and avoid you from then on. Back in 1976, MidAmericon I insulted media fans, and little by little, they left. More recently, SF’s Insider Alphas have been insulting people who dare question progressive orthodoxy in fantastic literature, and those people are leaving. I didn’t expect that the two groups of exiles would converge, but that’s what appears to be happening. A young, diverse (see Sarah Hoyt’s description linked to above) and ginormous fandom is coalescing outside the fandom I grew up with. It isn’t conservative in any identifiable way. People aren’t leaving fandom because it’s almost exclusively left-leaning. (I recall it leaning strongly left forty years ago.) They’re leaving because fandom is now intolerant of dissent, and because far too many in fandom demonize all opposition. That’s not the left wing I encountered during the Vietnam era in the ’70s and once identified with. That’s just tribalism in a fandom costume.

If media cons remain at 100,000 plus attendance levels, I’ll have some issues, because crowds that big make me twitchy. However, some interesting things are happening. The people who created Phoenix ComiCon have created a new, smaller, and more focused event called Phoenix Fan Fest. Its emphasis is on comic books, and on interaction between comics creators and their fans, with a mere 15,000 or so attendees. If the ComiCon creators can break out comic books into their own event, why not textual SFF? They could do it if they wanted to. Given the emergence of the Dragon Awards, my guess is that sooner or later, they will.

At that point, the schism becomes complete: 5% of fandom will remain grumpy and exclusionary. The other 95% will just get together–in events both large and, well, less large–and have fun in one another’s company.

That’s not a wish. That’s a prophecy.

Another Worldcon, Another Bonfire

So another Worldcon is now history, and people immediately began asking me what I thought. When Kansas City won the 2016 bid as MidAmericon II a few years ago, I’d had some hopes of attending. Then we decided to move to Phoenix, and our near-term lifestyle choices narrowed radically. Next year the con is in Finland, which would be a cool trip, but…well…no.

So all I know is what I’ve heard. And most of what I’ve heard about is, once again, focused on the Hugo Awards. Here’s the official summary. I wasn’t particularly surprised by any of it. Each of the three major factions won a little and lost a little. It’s a complicated business, and I’ve written several popular entries on the subject. If you’re coming to the Puppies Saga for the first time, you should probably read what I’ve written in the past:

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 1

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 2

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 3

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 4

The Human Wave, Sad Puppies, and SFF Monoculture, Part 5

Rant: Sad Puppies vs. Anti-Puppies, as the Kilostreisands Pile Up

Rant: You Can’t Shame a Puppy

Sad Puppies Summary and Wrapup

Rant: The Lasting Legacy of the Sad Puppies

Most of what I’ve linked to above applies to 2016, even though I wrote it all last year, and what I wrote focused on Sad Puppies 3. There was a Sad Puppies 4 campaign this year, coordinated by Kate Paulk, Sarah A. Hoyt, and Amanda S. Green. I wrote about that earlier this year, when the 2016 nominations appeared:

Sad Puppies 4 and the Doomsday Slate

As you can see from the marvelous SP4 logo from Lee “Artraccoon” Madison, the SP4 motto was “The Embiggening.” The goal was to bring still more people to Worldcon and the Hugo Awards process, as a means of fighting the worsening numeric irrelevance of the con and the awards. The other, more subtle goal of SP4 was to combat the ideological monoculture of Hugo-nominated fiction, art, and media, by nominating works and people outside the narrow boundaries of what’s acceptable to the ideological progressives in SFF.

Mike Glyer did a very good comparison of the final ballot against the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies lists back in April. Vox Day got 64 of his 81 recommendations on the final ballot, which I found nothing short of astonishing, especially considering some “poison pill” items like Chuck Tingle’s “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” and an episode of My Little Pony. Sad Puppies didn’t do quite as well, placing only 36 out of 80 recommendations on the final ballot.

A sidenote: I do not use the term “SJW” (social justice warrior) for a couple of reasons, which I’ll explain here on Contra at some point. Basically, it’s about accuracy and the objective meanings of words.

So what happened at MidAmericon II? These are the major items:

  • Sad Puppies 4 brought a significant number of new memberships to Worldcon. Attendance figures have not been released at this writing, but 4,032 valid nomination ballots were cast, and 3,130 valid voting ballots. That’s about twice last year’s numbers. Obviously, not all of those additional people were Sad Puppies supporters, but many of them were certainly APs (Anti-Puppies) who might not have joined except to counter the Puppies threat.
  • Virtually all of the winners were people and works favored by the Worldcon Elite and their loyal followers.
  • Vox Day continued his efforts to get the Worldcon community to destroy its own Hugo Awards by voting the doomsday slate of No Award over anybody recommended by either the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies, or anything published by Vox Day’s publishing company, Castalia House. In the process, they gave him a fortune in absolutely free publicity, which he promptly used to build Castalia’s readership. I don’t know Vox and certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I marvel at the hammerlock he has on his opponents’ attention. They. Just. Can’t. Get. Enough. Vox. Day.
  • MidAmericon II utterly soiled itself by expelling Tangent Online‘s Dave Truesdale from the con because he made several members of the Worldcon Elite…uncomfortable. Rob Kroese wrote up an excellent summary of that little disaster earlier today, and I won’t attempt to summarize here. Read The Whole Thing, as Glenn Reynolds says. Even Moshe Feder, definitely of SFF’s left wing, thinks that Truesdale did nothing even close to warrant expulsion from the con. As with Vox Day, Dave Truesdale got a fortune in free publicity. MidAmericon II basically lit a bonfire and threw itself into the flames.
  • The con venue made hotel room parties almost impossible, and so the much-anticipated Sad Puppies party had to be held sub rosa. I hope this isn’t a trend in con venues. Much of what we used to go for in the 70s and 80s were the room parties.

I’m not sure what more could be said, since I wasn’t there. Worldcon continued to make more enemies. John Scalzi smugly insists that the Puppies should all go home, a sentiment tweeted emphatically by the enigmatic Brianna Wu, who says that SF is her home, and not your (the Puppies) home. Howzat again? I was published and a member of SWFA before she was even born. Sheesh.

Scalzi has said more than once (and he isn’t alone) that Worldcon management should have the power to toss out any Hugo ballots that show evidence of slatework. Oh my, what could possibly go wrong? In essence, he and many others want the Hugos to become a juried award, with their people and only their people on the jury. He wants Sad Puppies supporters to leave the SFF fan community, perhaps not realizing that a great many of them already have, taking their money, their energy, and their insights with them. The great irony of the Worldcon progressive wing calling for more diversity is that diversity of worldview is quickly vanishing from Worldcon. It’s all progressive, all the time, all the way down.

To them that sounds like victory. To me and many others, it sounds like a bonfire.

Sad Puppies 4 and the Doomsday Slate

SP4 Logo 500 Wid.jpg

Earlier today I sensed a great disturbance in the Internet, as though millions of heads had suddenly exploded in anguish. Oh, wait–today was Hugo Nominations day! So I took a quick look around, and…

…the Puppies had done it again.

I would try to analyze the numbers here, but the folks over at Chaos Horizon have already done it for us. Check back there over the next few days; I suspect a lot more analysis is coming.

My first insight: Only novels get any respect in the SFF universe these days. 3,695 people nominated in the Best Novel category. The next category down only got 2,904 nominations (Dramatic Presentation, Long Form) with ever-slimmer pickins’ after that. Barely a thousand people nominated for the Best Fan Artist category.

The really good news is that there were 4,032 nominating ballots cast, roughly twice what Sasquan got last year. It’s impossible to tell where those new people came from, but whatever their provenance, I’ll bet MidAmericon II isn’t complaining about all that delicious money. That was the idea, after all: The subtitle of Sad Puppies 4 is “The Embiggening.” I was not alone last year in suggesting that the only thing really wrong with the Hugo Awards is that almost nobody participates. 4,000 ballots sound like a lot, but when you consider that 100,000+ people routinely attend events like DragonCon and ComiCon, the Hugos start to look like a rounding error. If 25,000 people registered for Worldcon, and 20,000 nominated, there wouldn’t be enough logs in the Western Hemisphere to roll any single faction to victory.

By my counts (starting with a nice tally on Breitbart) only ten nominees out of a total of eighty were not on one of the Puppy ballots. 70 of 80 is 87%. Obviously, a lot of those 87% were just really good people and works that probably would have been on the ballot anyway. However, one must consider finalists like the TV cartoon show My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and (egad) “Space Raptor Butt Invasion” by Chuck Tingle. The works are real, and not hoaxes (though I had to check on Chuck Tingle to be sure) but the nominations sound to me like shows of force.

Which brings us to the Big Ugly: Which Puppy list was the most influential? Another count from the Breitbart results tells me that 61 out of the 80 nominees were on the Rabid Puppies list. 76%. 36 out of the 80 (45%) were on the Sad Puppies list. I grinned to see that, as much as the Puppies claim to loathe Mike Glyer and his fanzine File 770, both are on the final ballot–and both were on the Puppies lists. Anybody with an IQ greater than 17 knows what’s up with that: Last year’s tactic of voting against anything on the Puppy lists will be…complicated…in 2016.

What the anti-Puppies seem to be saying is that they’ll kiss off 2016 and bide their time, confident that E Pluribus Hugo will be added to Worldcon rules next year, and the Puppies will henceforth be out of luck. I’m not going to explain EPH here, though I’m willing to give the new rules a fair chance, knowing that they will be analyzed to death by people way better at number crunching than I. (I doubt I’m alone in thinking that changing the rules after you get your butt whipped sounds, well, weak-king-ish.)

The problem is this: The Puppies may not dominate the ballot in years to come, but one particular slate just might. Nothing in EPH makes the No Award slate difficult to use. (As I suggested earlier, having several anti-Puppy favorites on the Puppy lists will indeed make it a little tricky.) Last year the anti-Puppies encouraged their followers to vote a slate of one–No Award–against any category dominated by the Puppies. It worked: Five categories were reduced to irrelevance via the No Award slate. I suspect it’s going to happen again this year.

What happens in the wake of EPH? Well, c’mon. Do you honestly think Vox Day won’t use No Award too? He’s said straight out that he intends to burn down the Hugo Awards. Last year the APs pretty much did it for him, but if he can get his recs into three quarters of the slots, he can burn down as many categories as he wants via No Award. This isn’t the place to get into all the usual fistfights about Vox and where he gets his power and why we all need to condemn him. (That’s been done to death.) This is the place to realize that what one side can do, the other side can too.

It’s a mess, eh? Well, I have an audacious suggestion: Change the Hugo rules again so that No Award is outlawed. If EPH works as designed, the APs won’t need No Award. And if No Award is outlawed, somebody like Vox can’t use it.

No Award is The Doomsday Slate. Unless it’s outlawed, people on one side or another will use it until there’s nothing left of the Hugo Awards. Think hard now: Is that really what you want?

Odd Lots