The Vacuous Horror of Word Forms That Are Not Forms

I recently received a Word form to fill out. You know the kind—a bunch of questions, and then, after each one, a line made out of a series of underline characters. Presumably this is meant to be printed out and filled in by hand, but usually the spacing between the lines is too narrow for actual handwriting. And no one wants a handwritten form back in the mail.

And here I thought everyone loved forms   

And here I thought everyone loved forms


So you're clearly expected to fill it out in Word, or whatever program you favor. As soon as you start to type the information, the collection of underlines moves to the right, eventually wrapping and messing up the alignment of everything else on the page.

Often these spaces don't have enough room for the requested information, so even if you spend time to delete the extra underlines (yes, some people do do that), you still have to mess up the rest of the page, making the document hard to read, and stupid-looking to boot.

I can't tell you how many of these things I've gotten over the years. HR departments are particular offenders, in my experience, but all sorts of seemingly competent people create them.

Forms are an important interface with customers

Now there's a nerdy pronouncement for you. Nevertheless, it's true. My day job is marketing, and on the rare occasions when I've had the authority, I've tried to make sure any forms we send out are clear, easy to fill out, and don't ask any unnecessary questions.

Before we get to how to easily solve the "underline cascade" problem, it's worth thinking about the unnecessary question thing.

It's also startling how many questions people add to forms just...because. They aren't interested in the answer, in fact often don't even look at it or record it. They just know you should ask if the person is married, or owns a dog that weighs more than five pounds, or enjoys Scrabble.

Once I helped a Behavioral Health department remove almost a dozen questions from a complex form just by asking who tracked that piece of information. They'd been using the form for years. In fact, they just copied it over—they'd lost the original.

Your customers interact with you in a variety of ways, and forms, both paper and online, are a key one. Don't torture them. Subliminally, that makes you look like a jerk. Do you really want your customer to think you're a jerk? Except in certain types of business, mostly aimed at males in late adolescence, I'd say no.

Use fields, for heaven's sake

In the copy brief questionnaire I use for new clients, each free text answer is a field. You tab between them, and you can't actually write anywhere else on the form. They expand to contain the text you put into them. The form does get longer, but nothing reflows.

(And if you're someone who'd like some good marketing content, you should head on over to Sturdy Words, my freelance marketing website, and check it out)

Word fields are stupid easy to use. Word is an incredibly capable program, and almost no one uses it anywhere near its full capability. You can put in fields that will expect a zip code, or a date, or whatever exact thing you want, as well as free text.

I resisted the urge to fix this company's form, as I have, in the past, resisted fixing forms HR has sent me. That's just a sickness, and I struggle against it. Of course, if someone wants to pay me to fix their forms, I'm delighted to do it.

What are your company interface pet peeves?

And what solutions do you stop yourself from providing?

The Crises of the Stuart Century: Wrap Up

If you need to catch up, my posts about the Crises of the Stuart Century were:

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

Yep, that pretty much covers it.

So why am I going on about the various political conflicts during the seventeenth century? Well a number of reasons, and it might be useful to go through them, so you understand what I'm about, as well as how what I'm about influences my work.

  1. It's interesting. Now, this is largely subjective. Usually, when people talk about why they don't like history, they mention "memorizing dates". People learn sports stats, the details of who wrote a favorite song and under what circumstances, or how to roast a goose. To think productively about something, you have to know something about it. Yes, I know this is probably an unpopular and even problematic attitude nowadays. Nevertheless, it remains true.I happen to enjoy learning about the actions and misbehaviors of influential or interesting people of the past, and the characters of 17th century England were certainly interesting. To celebrate, I just put on Edward German's "Nell Gwyn Overture", a cute piece of incidental music from 1900. Let not poor Nelly starve--if she could have gotten royalties from her future fame, Charles would not have had to make this plea to his brother James on his deathbed.

  2. It tells us a lot about the origins of our political system. Yeah, I know. That sounds a bit too wholesome and improving. Still, it really is fascinating to try to inhabit the mental world of people who don't know that someday there will be filibusters and primaries. Now, yes, a narrative of steady progress toward freedom is not tenable. But still, it is startling how every attempt to reassert Royal prerogative was successfully opposed, sometimes with violence, sometimes with Parliamentary maneuverings. People recognized rights, and defended them. Reading their arguments, seeing their positions, and understanding their ambitions, shows us what is functional in a political system, and what isn't.

  3. It reflects our own time, sometimes in disturbing ways. This is what struck me the most as I read the book. The Stuart century starts with a fairly ordinary royal administration under James I. Then it falls apart into brutal civil war and ends in a military dictatorship. The large-scale collapse of civil government, leading the widespread violence and death, in a country not threatened from outside, is quite disturbing, though it did come in the middle of a century that seemed devoted to senseless ideologically and theologically driven violence. In England ideology and interest overwhelmed a sense of common nationhood. And, after all that, no one had a working government model to replace the one that had been destroyed. A military dictatorship ensued, but only because they had a supernaturally skilled military and political leader, Oliver Cromwell, to be military dictator. And he never came up with a system that would go of itself. Once he died, they had no choice but to return to the royal system they had so violently destroyed.

But once you've killed a King, and run things pretty successfully without one for awhile, can a King ever feel completely secure? The body politic under Charles II was disordered, violent, moody, and more than a little deranged. And their King and his brother, the heir, were both in the pay of the King of France. Patriotism doesn't pay the bills after all. So vast conspiracy theories convulsed the nation, leading to riots and executions. Our petty Vince Fosters and Seth Riches have nothing on Edmund Berry Godfrey lying in a ditch on Primrose hill, impaled on his own sword, or the attempted assassination of both the King and his successor.

When the next crisis came, a major part of the ruling clique invited a foreigner to come in and replace their legal monarch, and then just brazened it out: "I really don't get what you're going on about". We call this coup the Glorious Revolution, and, in fact, its somewhat low origins do not prevent this new period from being the fount of much of our thinking on the legitimacy of democratic government.

Then, safe at last, everyone, or at least everyone with the leisure to indulge themselves, sank into childish and vicious party rivalries over issues of little ultimate significance. That's the happy ending!

The Hobbes metric

Thomas Hobbes lived from 1588 (when his mother was supposedly frightened into labor by news of the approach of the Armada) to 1679. Someone similarly long lived born in 1625, the year Charles I became King, would have lived to 1716, two years into the reign of George I, the first Hanoverian monarch. King Charles would have been executed when they were 24, Cromwell become Lord Protector when they were 28, Charles II King when they were 36, and the Glorious Revolution when they were 63. Someone who lived in interesting times.

Do you think you'll see anything like that amount of political change over your life?

For all its flaws, our system has been remarkably stable. What are the chances that that will continue?

Dealing with Classical Music Hosts

I've previously been a jerk about "The Moldau". Now it's time be a jerk about on-air classical musical hosts.

It's not an easy job. How much information should you provide about each piece? How many unfamiliar pieces should you mix in with the old warhorses? And how many old warhorses should you include that are performed by unfamiliar orchestras, or with innovative interpretations? I get that there is more work involved than us listeners appreciate.

Chris Voss is annoyingly good looking too.

Chris Voss is annoyingly good looking too.

Still, you could have an interesting and pleasing personality. My home station is WCRB, though, weirdly, its player just will not load in Firefox, my default browser, so I have to have a separate Chrome window to listen to it. My favorite host by far is Chris Voss, on in the afternoons. I'm not quite sure what makes him so appealing. He is funny but not ingratiating, and seems to both love the music and be a regular guy you'd like to hang out with. I also don't get a sense of staleness from his programming choices.

I used to also really like another WCRB host, Lynnsay Maynard, who had that same afternoon slot. Then she disappeared. Earlier this week, I was listening to my other favorite station, All Classical Portland, and I recognized a familiar voice. It was Lynnsay! She seems to have moved out to the west coast. That's a pity, but at least I get to hear her again.

I can hear Lynnsay through the miracle of the internet

I can hear Lynnsay through the miracle of the internet

At All Classical Portland I do miss Robert McBride, who recently left. He was incredibly knowledgeable, and seemed to have met and interviewed almost everyone in the field. He seemed a bit austere, but always hopeful that we could appreciate what he was finding for us to listen to. And I've had a crush on Brandi Parisi since she was the overnight host, many years ago. She also teaches philosophy and seems to have cool-looking tattoos. She has distinct likes and dislikes, though she won't force them on you. I remember her very gently indicating to another host her dislike of Simone Dinnerstein's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, which I appreciated even though I rather like Dinnerstein's Bach.

Classical hosts who fail tend to try to ingratiate themselves by being jokey when they clearly aren't at all funny, or by being a bit cutesy, as if we are all children in music appreciation class. Or by being dead boring. Though I said I was going to be a jerk, I really don't want to name people I don't like. There's a senior person at All Classical who is just dull.

And here in Boston we have a morning host I find simply appalling. I won't even listen until this person has safely left the air. My dentist is a WCRB listener, and he says he has another patient who loathes this host. If I didn't know he was a professional, I'd ask to meet this woman. Bitching about our shared dislike of the morning host would be a great first date. WCRB has a tradition of divisive morning hosts. For years it was Robert J. Lurtsema (chirping birds!) who drove some people crazy.

So, yeah, I've baited you with the internet's main currency, rage and denunciation, and instead given you a bunch of stuff I like, and been bizarrely discreet about my dislikes.

Do you have any hosts you particularly like...or don't?

You can remember ones from your childhood too. A good host can really open things up to a beginner...and a bad one can make the whole thing seem intolerable.

Are Writers Better Liars Than Other People?

From The Volokh Conspiracy, an interesting case of a criminal defendant on the stand being questioned about whether the fact that he is writing a work of fiction makes his story of events even less credible than it already is.

Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

Haven't you always wanted to do this? (Shutterstock, from ABA Journal)

In Don't Trust the Defendant — He's a Novelist!, Eugene Volokh details how the prosecutor questioned the defendant on the stand about the novel he was working on. "But this book of yours is a work of fiction. But everything you're testifying here—now, you're telling us the truth today, aren't you?" the prosecutor says.

The defendant attempted to appeal, calling this line of questioning "nothing short of a character assassination".

We lie, but only in ways we know you will not actually believe

As a novelist, I am a bit distressed the idea that just mentioning someone is writing a novel is considered, by both sides, as bringing in something shameful and an indication of a deep character flaw.

Now, it seemed like the defendant, William Dangelo McKinney, had a lot of other evidence against him that he violently assaulted his girlfriend and then stabbed another man to death the next day, when that man came to pick the girlfriend up to take her to work.

There is a lot more to lying than coming up with a consistent narrative. There is a lot about demeanor, an understanding of what other people might or might not know, a sense of how the audience is taking the story, and a kind of low-level persistence that can masquerade as moral certainty. I'm not sure writers tend to have any of those in better supply than anyone else.

And we are certainly able to distinguish fiction from reality. That, in fact, is why we write fiction in the first place.

Should you be fined for being a novelist?

Volokh does not mention another distressing element of what happened to McKinney as a result of his foray into fiction. As the record of the appeal at McKinney v. State says in a footnote:

Although it is not apparent from the quoted portion of the record, McKinney asserts in his brief that the book was a "fictional romance novel." (McKinney's brief, p. 18.) The trial court imposed the $50,000 fine on McKinney, in part, "to make sure there's no opportunity for Mr. McKinney to profit" from publishing a novel.

A $50,000 fine for trying to write a novel? Would they similarly try to keep him from profiting from selling gardening services or even a nonfiction book on the history of hair styles? There is no indication that the novel relied for its plot or its proposed marketing on his crime. He had written the book a while before, during a previous stint in prison. It doesn't even indicate that it would take the first $50,000 of royalties, or something like that. It seems that the fine was imposed just for daring to write a book in the first place. And the $50K shows an overoptimistic view of what first published novels typically earn.

I'm not sure this case is the best one on which authors should take a stand, but I certainly it appalling that I could be charged with a crime, and then have an additional penalty imposed because I wrote a novel.

As any writer knows, writing a novel is its own punishment.

Do you think that a jury should take a fiction writer's profession into account while judging truthfulness?

And what other professions should we regard as suspiciously good at managing truth? Lawyers? Politicians? Marketing people? If the latter, I could be in for some kind of double punishment.

S-Town: the Self-important Blowhard as Culture Hero

In 2012 a depressed restorer of antique clocks wrote This American Life to tell the staff about an uninvestigated and unpunished murder in his home town of Woodstock, Alabama. Produce Brian Reed was intrigued enough to eventually go down to Woodstock, meet John B. and investigate the murder.

The podcast does have a great logo

The podcast does have a great logo

It turned out to have been no murder. John B. was totally wrong. But, for some reason, Reed found John B. fascinating and decided to investigate other things about his life. and turn the results into a podcast, S-Town ("Shit Town" being John B.'s nickname for his hometown). John B. committed suicide during production, and Reed then investigated that, uncovering John B.'s private sex life, among other things.

Reed affected to find John B. fascinating, and I, as podcast listener, was expected to do the same. Instead, I found John B. to be a tiresome blowhard. People claimed he was a fantastic restorer of antique clocks, a genuine expert. I don't even believe that, though my belief he was a faker even in that is unsupported by evidence, and is just prejudice on my part.

Talking a lot doesn't make you fascinating

We've all met people like John B., always talking about how much they read about all sorts of different topics and how deeply they've thought about everything. John B. provided no indication of understanding anything, and, in fact, seems to have poisoned himself with mercury while doing fire gilding...though that, like so many facts in this podcast, is never to be confirmed, since the autopsy did not check for mercury.

I still listened to the whole thing, because it kept promising to become more interesting than it actually ever did. And Reed is pretty good at digging around, and getting people to talk pretty freely. That's a real skill, and you do get some self-revelation from people, some of whom probably regretted being quite so open when the podcast finally was available.

We may be facing a shortage of genuinely compelling true crime

But the success of the podcast Serial has stimulated a lot of people to create multi-chapter investigations of past crimes and misbehavior. Serial itself never convinced me that its central character, Adnan Syed, was anything other than guilty. The BBC's Death in Ice Valley...well, I don't want to give spoilers, but I found it unsatisfying. These people do seem to play fair: if they are stymied, or can't figure something out, they don't pretend they have, and don't fake any kind of resolution if there is none.

But the problem is a lack of interesting unsolved crimes, fascinating locals, and evocative situations. That unfortunate shortage is pretty much why mystery fiction was invented. John B. is a typical serial liar, always rambling around the subject and trying to avoid giving away that he doesn't know a damn thing. I didn't get the appeal. I don't think the podcast did John B. any favors by exposing him to a wider audience, and most of the controversy the podcast aroused was about the invasion of privacy, not so much that John B. wasn't much worth listening to.

An actually interesting podcast: Reply All

By contrast, a podcast that is consistently interesting and showcases interesting people is Reply All. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman always seem to find interesting puzzles, and then find interesting people to provide pieces of the explanation. Plus, Vogt and Goldman are incredibly funny, and give each other shit in a realistic and delightful way. I always learn something interesting from them.

So that's one thing. An interesting host (or two), who is skeptical, willing to dig deeper, and doesn't take anything at face value, can go a long way to making the story more interesting, even if sometimes they don't get all the way to the conclusion. In fact, at least once, they've reopened an investigation when they realized they'd actually reached a wrong, or at least incomplete, conclusion.

So that's my prejudice: I'd rather listen to smart people tell me about interesting true things than half-smart people bullshit me about pointlessly untrue or half-true things.

What serial podcasts do you like to listen to?

It's a genuinely interesting art form. Though I think Serial benefited quite a bit from great theme music, and its charming Mail Chimp ad, all of which turned it into something iconic. But don't forget The Nisha Call...actually, by the time it became an issue, I had totally forgotten the Nisha Call, and never bothered to go back and find out what it was. No, I don't want you to write and explain it to me.

Getting Things Done When You're a Dumbass

If I ever write a self-help book, that will probably be the title. Of course, I don't get much done, so I am unlikely to ever write that book. Consider some of my entries here to be notes to such an unwritten life-transforming masterpiece. As I've written before, part of the problem with inspirational stories of self-transformation is that the people transforming themselves seem way more on the ball, even as alleged disasters, than any of us actually are.

"I was a nationally known newscaster, but I worried that maybe I did not entirely deserve my success, money, and beautiful wife, and sometimes fretted that I would suffer some kind of setback in my steady climb to even greater success...though fortunately I was wrong about that" was pretty much the starting point of Dan Harris's 10% Happier, a book about meditation.

I listened to it on audio while running, lifting, and considering starting a meditation practice. The chipper and self-important Harris (who ably read his own book) did not persuade me, and I am still pretty unmeditated. By the way, audio sucks for anything you want to fast forward through, and Harris's book, like many similar books, is an OK magazine article packed with so much filler it's like one of those OTC nostrums you get that somewhat glumly fesses up that, when you really give it a good look, it is made up of "98% inactive ingredients". It's made for skimming over at hydrofoil speeds.

But enough about him. I'm not well known or successful, so when I try something and think maybe it works, and then tell you about it, it might work for you, though probably not. But mostly I can tell you what doesn't work, isn't working, or probably won't work, and so probably will not work for you either. News you can use! That is, assuming you are not the lighter-than-air Dan Harris, but a regular shlub kind of like me.

This is generally known as "bitching", "whining", or "this explains why you're sitting alone writing blog posts", but I prefer to think of it as a deep look into procrastination and despair for the benefit of my readers.

And that's just the introduction!

I just redid my website, with a new design, and a new generation of Squarespace (I procrastinated so long I jumped right from Version 5 to Version 7). On my original website I had several stories for download. They had been there forever, and for the new version I wanted to upgrade and add a few newer stories. Like a lot of things, I had been putting that off, and recently decided to get down to it.

Cover with one of the stories

Cover with one of the stories

First off was finding the original of each story.

So then I search around my folders, and see my original submitted version of the story, and also the marked up galleys, which is what actually got published. Those changes are not reflected in the original electronic draft, they are scribbled on a PDF that was then scanned.

Versioning is always a problem in marketing as well. You have original text, changes in editing, changes in review, changes in design, and even changes later on when you discover some awful mistake. If you have not rigorously kept track of those changes and saved them back into some master as-produced version, someday you will be asked to reprint an updated design, or with someone else's branding added, on a really short timeline, and you are left desperately trying to figure out what the "real" version actually is, which you should know because you wrote and produced the damn thing.

And here I'd finally gotten to this task after putting it off for weeks, only to find it is even more work than I thought it was. But I've written about this before. And here I'm writing about it again! Is it any mystery why I may not be as productive as I should be?

Then, once those changes are incorporated into the document...choices, choices. Fonts, formats, links. Grumbling and whining. And you know what? I did it! It still doesn't look quite like what I want it to, but you can get some new stories at my Free Stories page. So it was all worth it. Pretty much. Now, to get to those five or six other important things I had written down on my list this morning....

What always takes longer than you think it should?

"Everything", while a reasonable answer, is not acceptable. What has the biggest disproportion between estimate and achievement, even if you know perfectly well that's true, and has been true every single time you've done it?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 4, Whigs vs Tories

This is the fourth in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Is this choice really so hard?

Is this choice really so hard?

OK, so this one is not so much of a crisis as the previous ones. It didn't lead to a bloody civil war, it didn't result in show trials, it didn't cause the existing power structure to switch out their chief executive for the ruler of a sometimes-hostile foreign power. The savagery of the conflict between the nascent political parties, starting under Charles II and reaching maturity as a recognizable party system under Anne, indicates a more functional political system, where the savagery become more rhetorical. While there would be riots and civil broils aplenty over the coming centuries, including invasions by the "OMG, would you jerks go away already?" Stuarts, there would not again be a serious internal threat to the system. Still, it was savage, and in a way that looks uncomfortably familiar.

So let's go back to the reign of Charles II.

Exclusion, and the birth of the Whigs

In the late 1670s, the paranoia of the Popish Plot united with the Exclusion Crisis, that is, the desire to keep Charles's Catholic younger brother James from taking the throne on Charles's death. Charles had no legitimate children, and while his Protestant oldest bastard, the Duke of Monmouth, was popular, there was never any serious possibility of the succession going to him—he did try to invade on James's accession, and was quickly defeated.

A series of Test Acts banned Catholics from serving in various offices. And in 1679, at the height of the Plot, elections returned a highly anti-James Parliament, which promptly proposed an Exclusion Bill. Charles dissoved this Parliament, and there was a frenzied second election. It is now that something like an organized political party, soon to be called the Whigs, emerged. The Whigs met in London coffee houses and at the Green Ribbon Club. They orchestrated what Kishlansky calls "a lurid press keep up interest in the Popish Plot long enough to influence the October elections", and won a strong majority in favor of Exclusion.

Charles had the power to prorogue Parliament, and used it—seven times over the next year. It worked. The derangement of the Popish Plot receded somewhat. And the King's supporters imitated the Whig political organization, and thus the Tories were born.

When Parliament finally met in late 1680, the Tories had some power too. According the Kishlansky, "the governing class was now irredeemably divided". Tory propagandists associated Whigs with the revolutionaries who had killed Charles's father. Over the next five years, Charles regained a lot of his power. He purged the judiciary of anyone not loyal to him, and these judges then made possible "capital convictions for sedition and ruinous judgments for slander" against the King's opponents. Then the Rye House Plot (1683) gave Charles cover for arresting and purging his opponents.

The maturing of party politics under Anne

By the early eighteenth century, under Queen Anne, the party system had reached maturity:

...Whigs and Tories were no longer opprobrious labels (after Scottish and Irish brigands, respectively): they were organizations whose opposition dominated the political life of the nation...local officials were purged and repurged...electoral contests for borough offices gradually replaced rotational systems, and party affiliation infected every aspect of social life from patronage to friendship and distorted every market from commodities to conflict politicized England....the parties were divided over matters of outlook, principle and instinct. There was remarkably little overlap.

This blend of policy debate, red-faced rage, and team sport is incredibly familiar. For late Stuart England, party politics was like a new disease, against which the people had no antibodies. And like such a disease, it ran through the population, and then became endemic, flaring up periodically, like the Plague.

Flare ups are still inevitable. The idea the people will settle down to push forward consistent policy agendas without conspiracy theories, claims that their opponents are secretly aliens or perverts, or attempts to politicize mundane daily activities like eating dinner and going to musicals, has always been a pipe dream of people who (like me) seem to lack the gene for team spirit.

This party system survived the end of the Stuarts and the advent of the Hanoverians. Given the civil conflict and outbreaks of violence it replaced, it's hard to wish it had not appeared. When the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they believed they had created a system immune to such shenanigans. They were so wrong so fast, you have to wonder why we think they were so smart.

Are you a team player?

It doesn't really matter which team you support, as long as you support it fervently.

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 3, The Glorious Revolution

This is a continuation of my series on the Stuart century, responding to A Monarchy Transformed by Mark Kishlansky

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover  ever

Best rebranding of a high-level takeover ever

After Charles II died, in 1685, his Catholic brother took the throne as James II. Charles had had numerous children by various mistresses, but his own wife, Catherine of Braganza, had proved incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term. Charles had himself promised his paymaster, Louis XIV, that he would convert to Catholicism at some point, but there is no sign he ever did so. James, on the other hand, was an ardent Catholic. This irritated Charles, who knew better than to take religion too seriously, and he insisted that James raise his two daughters, Mary and Anne, as Protestants, and it is as Protestants that each would become Queen.

But it isn't just that James II was a Catholic, though that aroused the most passionate popular opposition. He was also an absolutist, who wanted to recentralize power and push back against Parliament.

A slight detour to New England

Here in New England, where I live, this led to the creation of the Dominion of New England, on the model of the Viceroyalty of New Spain (when an English King copies the administrative structures of Spain, you know you've got trouble), unifying the Mid-Atlantic and New England colonies under the notorious Governor Edmund Andros.

For years there was a diner on Trapelo Rd. in Belmont, MA, called the Andros Diner. I presume it was named after the Cycladic island by its Greek proprietors, not the Governor, but it always seemed a bit tone deaf. I'm pretty sure children are no longer taught to execrate the tyrannical Andros (my children certainly seem pretty indifferent), but this attempt to revoke the colonial charters and centralize the administration of the colonies was part of the long history that led to the Revolution.

But Kishlansky, despite teaching at Harvard, spent no time at all on New England in his book. But what Andros, at James's orders, attempted in New England, James tried himself in old England. Stuarts could never stand alternative centers of power, but were never effectual in manipulating and co-opting them. Instead, they just tried to squash them, which led to one execution and one deposition among the six Stuart monarchs, along with a lot of political chaos for the rest, not a sterling record.

None dare call it treason

Angry at James, and worried that he would have a male heir with his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, a substantial group of wealthy and powerful men, already being called Whigs (we'll see a lot more of them when I get to the reign of Anne), conspired to replace him with a foreign but Protestant monarch, William of Orange, the ruler of the Netherlands, with which England had fought three wars between 1654 and 1672. It definitely helped that he was married to James's Protestant daughter Mary, and that she would become Queen.

One reason the politics of ancient Greek city states were so volatile was that the wealthy of a city felt more connected to the wealthy of another than they did with the politically violent rabble in their own home town. And while the Greek poleis all shared a common culture, language, and contempt for all those losers in the world who who would never have the right to compete in the Olympic games, going to other cities to get help in internal political conflicts didn't seem like that big a deal, and it happened fairly frequently. For example, before Athens was a democracy, Sparta intervened to help depose the tyrant Hippias and (unsuccessfully) try to install someone they liked better. Later Persian intervention in the Peloponnesian War and in other conflicts always made those conflicts both worse and longer-lived. But internal conflict among the Greeks suited the Persians just fine. They couldn't defeat the Greeks militarily, but fortunately volatile and fratricidal Greek politics gave them a cheap way to keep the Greeks busy, at least until Alexander showed up.

Getting back to England, prior to the nobles who conspired to bring William over, a similar group of English nobles had conspired with the Scots against James's father, Charles I in the 1630s. In The Count of Monte Christo Alexandre Dumas wrote “The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates," quoted, I see, in Die Harder. The apposite quote is from the Elizabethan writer John Harington:

Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

In both cases, the wealthy and powerful conspired against their own government with a foreign power, because they felt that this was made necessary by powerful forces within their own country that were taking it to its doom. And both times, they succeeded. Arguably, the result of their actions is the democratic form of government we now enjoy and whose fragility we fret over.

"The culmination of decades of manipulation of English public opinion"

In late 1688 William issued a declaration that his invasion was necessary to "preserve and maintain the established laws, liberties, and customs" of England. According to Kishlansky "the declaration was a masterpiece of propaganda, the culmination of decades of Dutch manipulation of English public opinion".

Still, landing with Dutch troops in Torbay was a daring move for William, and if James had used his larger army effectively, he could well have crushed the invasion force. But several of his key commanders went over to the invader, and James eventually fled, to create an alternate court that political romantics could daydream about for nearly a century to come.

This crisis and its resonance

No one ever seemed to find the behavior of the oppositions of Charles I and James II treasonous or even outrageous. A large number of people were willing to put up with even the military intervention of a foreign power if it supported the right side. Of course, nationalism wasn't anything like the powerful organizing force it became in the nineteenth century.

I won't spend a lot of time belaboring the modern parallels, but it's worth thinking about.

Whose intervention would you accept if it enabled you to defeat the people you know are going to destroy your country?

And after you succeeded, would you be proud of this, or would you let it gently evaporate from the pages of the official history textbooks?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 2, Plots and Conspiracies

This is the second in a series of posts on crises in the Stuart period that have contemporary resonance, based on the book A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Charles II's reign is usually remembered for licentiousness, disease, and corruption, as well as for the Great Fire. But it was torn by two major conspiracy scares, the Popish Plot (1678-1681) and the Rye House Plot (1683), where many people were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, exiled, or executed.

The Popish Plot

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

They called him "Titus the Liar"...long after it didn't really matter

Exactly what actually planned by anyone and who was actually guilty of anything is completely unclear. The Popish Plot was started by a genuinely odious mountebank and opportunist named Titus Oates, 29 and newly returned from abroad, where he had been rejected by several Jesuit schools. Oates seems to have been a brilliant confabulator. He had an almost supernatural talent for discerning what someone wanted to hear, a seemingly total recall of the details of every lie he told, and an ability to rapidly incorporate new events into his growing story. He was helped out by the fact that, if you accuse enough people, one of them will have done something suspicious that can be worked into the story.

Everyone was terrified of Catholics, the enemy within, and the knowledge that the childless King's heir was his younger brother James, who had become Catholic, put everyone on edge. Charles was not theologically reliable himself—and both brothers were in the pay of Louis XIV (though seldom providing value for money, pretty much the story of the Stuart dynasty as a whole). When the man to whom Oates had gone twice to swear evidence, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was found face down in a ditch on Primrose Hill, seemingly murdered, a crime that has excited a lot of speculation from that day to this, it seemed to be evidence that Oates was telling the truth.

At least 15 people were executed, accompanied by mass demonstrations. Other informers, seeing a good opportunity, jumped aboard the conspiracy, informing on their neighbors, who were arrested in their turn. It became a crime to even deny the existence of the plot. Informers, mobs rampaging through the streets, the terror of arbitrary arrest: various people used the panic for their own purposes, but this was not any kind of top-down state terror. In fact, King Charles was really in part the target, and his attempt to have Oates arrested was unsuccessful. This was a genuine mass movement started by one failed seminary student, who struck a match amid a huge stack of dried kindling.

The frenzy went on for nearly three years. Oates was eventually disgraced, rejected by many of his former allies, who now found him inconvenient.

The Rye House Plot

In 1683 Charles found a pretext to strike back at his enemies. There was a plot to murder both him and James simultaneously, as they were returning from a horse race in Newmarket. Though there were definitely several groups who were plotting rebellion against the Stuart monarchy, no one has ever known how well-organized this particular operation was. It served as an excellent opportunity for Charles to get his own back, harking back to the grandaddy of all anti-Stuart plots, The Gunpowder Plot, and use the fear of conspiracies to move against his enemies, which included much of the population of London. This frenzy was directed at Dissenters, those Protestants who were not part of the state Anglican church, including many Quakers. Again, many arrests and executions. This time the operations really were top down, directed by Charles himself.

It doesn't take social media to get rumors, fake news, mobs, violence, and intergroup strife. But it's definitely worth taking a look at the reign of Charles II to get a good sense of how various forces can try to take advantage of inchoate rage and panic to achieve their own ends. I'd like to think we were beyond mass arrests, perjured evidence, and panicky magistrates trying to calm down the mob before it turns on them, but sometimes I am not so sure.

What kind of Plot do you think would be most suitable for our own touchy era?

And will the first one be against our monarch, or be run by him?

The Many Crises of the Stuart Century: Crisis 1, The Civil War

I recently read A Monarchy Transformed, Britain 1603-1714, by Mark Kishlansky. It's part of The Penguin History of Britain series. The book is from 1996, and it looks like the series is getting a refresh. I don't know if there will be a new edition of this book, however, since Prof. Kishlansky died a few years ago.

I quite enjoyed it. It's almost entirely a political history of the Stuart century, from the accession of James I (and VI of Scotland) to the death of Anne. Don't read it for insights into the literature, architecture, or science of the time, interesting though all of those were. Kishlansky barely mentions any of them. Religion does get covered, mostly because of its strong influence on politics.

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

That's William III. Don't worry, we'll get to him

But I was actually reading it for the politics. I'm interested in the nature of political legitimacy, when people accept it, and when they reject it--and the Stuart period has multiple collapses of legitimacy. I'm apprehensive of our own time, and want to see how other eras handled it and what the consequences were.

I see four periods during the Stuart century that can provide us with some ways to view our own time: The English Civil War, the two great conspiracy panics of Charles II's reign (the Popish Plot and the Rye House Plot), the Glorious Revolution where some rich people used the panic of the population to dethrone their legitimate monarch and invite the ruler of a frequently hostile foreign power to take over the position instead, and the savage beginnings of recognizably modern party conflict during the reign of Anne. The Stuarts were frequently annoying and usually infuriating, but they were never dull.

The biggest one comes first: the English Civil War.

Pulling out the guns

I've always been interested in the English Civil War, the most violent of these collapses of legitimacy, but I've never really understood it. I read A Monarchy Transformed to read about it in the context of its entire era. I do understand it a bit better, but I now know it's going to be a long road.

James I took over a kingdom where the incumbent, Elizabeth I, had been kicking the can down the road for decades.It was like inheriting a vehicle whose frugal previous owner had not done any maintenance, never changed the oil, and bribes the inspector at emissions testing time as cheaper than doing the necessary work. So James had trouble with financing, as did his son Charles I after him.

Not that their notoriously expensive art-collecting lifestyles didn't contribute. It isn't hard to imagine a monarch who did a better job managing Parliament, wars, the Scots, the Irish, and religious strife better than Charles I. But it is hard to imagine one who comes through the crisis unscathed.

Eventually, everyone pulled out their guns, got into their gangs, and fought it out. Not satisfied with one bout of civil war, they took a break and had another. It's important to remember how brutal and bloody this all was. According to Geoffrey Parker in Global Crisis, his global history of the 17th century,

[The English Civil War]...killed about 250,000 men and women in England, Scotland and Wales, or 7 percent of the total population...Between 1640 and 1660, several hundred thousand men and women were maimed or rendered homeless; and tens of thousands more were taken prisoner and enslaved by the conquerors....

Civil wars are the most brutal of wars.

Then the victors killed the King, because he really was just so damn annoying there really wasn't much else they could do. I'm sure most of them knew it was a bad idea, but Jesus, what a pompous jerk. Even the fact that both he and his sidekick Archbishop Laud were both really short, around my height, doesn't make me sympathize with either of them.

OK, he's dead. Now what?

But then what? Between various Parliamentary factions, religious groups, and the Army, there was constant mistrust, hostility, and conflict. Eventually a charismatic leader, Oliver Cromwell, became dictator and turned England into a successful bully that punched way above its weight in European affairs.

But neither he nor Parliament ever created a functioning political system to replace the previous one, so when he died, there was nothing to do but ask Charles's son, Charles II, to come back and pretend nothing much had happened. Successful Truth and Reconciliation efforts require a small bit of Truth and a whole lot of Reconciliation, ignoring a lot of past bad behavior until everyone involved is dead, and this one was surprisingly successful.

But why did everyone start killing each other in the first place?

But it's hard to really see the hostility that led to the death of seven percent of the population in a few short years (something like 22.5 million dead in a proportional conflict in the United States in 2018, if you want a cheery number). Oh, you read about squabbles about altar rails and ship money and Catholicism, but that seems like the usual incomprehensible issues people in the past seemed to get so exercised about. But under all that was clearly a lot of rage.

Of course, it might be that the islanders were just getting competitive with the Continent, where the Thirty Years War had become the bloodiest European conflict before the Twentieth Century. Keeping up with the Hapsburgs, and all that.

After an earlier squabble with Parliament, Charles I dismissed it and ruled on his own for the next eleven years, the period of Personal Rule (or the Eleven Years' Tyranny, if you want to be a sorehead about it). Things actually looked OK. Harvests were good and there were no big disasters, so it seemed to be working. But underneath the surface the finances were just not adding up. And there was no way to raise taxes without Parliament. Afterward, people probably looked back at this period with longing, thinking about how good life had been, even as the foundations had slowly collapsed.

So a halcyon period can conceal the rot that causes its structure to collapse. And this particular collapse was horrendous. I think it was worse than our own Civil War...but maybe more like any future civil war we might have. No one in the future will really understand what we were fighting about either. I'm not sure I do, and I live right here.

Will we feel lucky if we get our own Cromwell?

Why does everyone think that if we get rid of our clunky, old-school political system, we can agree on a shiny, efficient new one?

Next time: Conspiracy theories and more conspiracy theories. OK, Plots.

The weirdest scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at the Somerville Theater.

It was fantastic. I'd forgotten it started with an actual overture, Atmospheres, by Ligeti. At the Somerville the speakers are huge, and you felt it in your chest. Plus the theater still has a curtain, which remained closed until the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What's wonderful about it is how unconciliating it is. Unlike pretty much ever other science fiction movie, it doesn't seek to meet your expectations, charm you, or to make you feel good about yourself. In fact, it thinks you're kind of dull. After all, you're just sitting in a darkened room, eating popcorn and staring at it.

It has no real characters, a plot whose main motive force comes late in the movie from a piece of malfunctioning industrial equipment crossed with a bad employee ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...this is going on your performance review"), and ends in a strange sequence that telescopes a man's life into a few minutes of accelerated senescence.

The abominable Dr. Floyd

"I've got my eye on you."

"I've got my eye on you."

But before we get there, we have to follow the sinister bureaucrat Heywood Floyd as he travels incrementally from the Earth to the Moon and refuses to inform anyone of anything in every place he moves through. I took him for granted when I saw the movie as a kid, or even in college when I saw it again, but now he seems a complete fraud. He has a strained, dishonest-feeling conversation with his young daughter over a videophone. He can't come to her birthday party. One has trouble imaging this fine-tolerance piece of bureaucratic machinery wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker at a kid's birthday party. In fact he can barely pretend to care about his offspring--that is, assuming she is not a crisis actor of some sort, hired to create a simulacrum of a real life.

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Floyd then has a strained conversation with a bunch of Russians, who include the only non-stewardess/receptionist women in the movie. These women are also not forced to wear unflattering bulbous headgear like their servile American sisters (as far as I am aware, these Kubrikean bonnets have not yet been used in The Handmaid's Tale). They are friendly with Floyd, but don't believe a word he says. They've all played this game before. They let the somewhat-less-sophisticated Smyslov ("guys always think they're so smart") ask the obvious question about the transparently fake story of a disease outbreak at Clavius. Floyd stonewalls shamelessly. Lying doesn't even give him pleasure, but it's the only thing he knows how to do.

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

We then see a sequence of the technological sublime, as Floyd flies from the space station to the surface of the Moon—where he goes to a conference room to give a briefing. In general, the movie alternates vividly realized scenes of space travel with mundane, even boring sequences of people being people in a technological civilization, Unlike the terrified ape men of the opening sequence, they doze off, eat at Howard Johnson's, get tans, and lie blandly to their fellow evolved apes: the ultimate goal of our striving.

Then we see Floyd give a briefing. He has killed men with his bare hands, we just know it. But here he just stands behind a podium and tells everyone they need to sign security oaths, penalty for not doing so unstated but obviously pretty bad. After all, the airlocks all have breathable air on only one side, if you catch my drift....

Then Floyd takes another spaceship to the terrible discovery, along with a subordinate named Halvorsen and a guy who hands out sandwiches. Here we have as blandly corporate a piece of toadying as I have ever had the bad luck to live through:

HALVORSEN: You know that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
SANDWICH GUY: It certainly was.
HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of lot.

Floyd told a crew if high-level professionals they couldn't tell anyone the truth about what was going on, and then ordered them to sign loyalty oaths. Maybe what boosted morale was the fact that no one was actually detained for interrogation. But these guys know their business. In an organization, a lot of your time is spend assuring your superiors they deserve their positions, and the rest is spent clarifying to your subordinates that they certainly deserve theirs.

Floyd then goes to the site of the excavated monolith, where he touches it, an oddly humanizing gesture, showing the man beneath the functionary. Then the monolith screams, and we cut to Discover One, en route to Jupiter.

We will see Heywood one more time, right when Dave finally eliminates HAL and we hear HAL sing "A Bicycle Built for Two". Floyd tells the viewer what the purpose of the mission is, revealing that no one on board had any idea of why they were traveling out to Jupiter. Poole and Bowman were really professional, because they never once say to each other "Do you ever wonder why the world created a crash program to send us out to Jupiter?"

Of course, Floyd thought he would be addressing the full crew of Discovery, not just the one survivor, Dave Bowman. I can't judge how much any of this can be counted his fault, but somehow I'm inclined to think that Floyd carries a lot of responsibility for how things worked out. However, I'm sure he's already chosen someone less politically adept to take the fall. Maybe Sandwich Guy.

The weirdest scene

What, you thought I forgot about this?

The weirdest scene is the one where the languidly sun-bathing Dr. Poole watches a video from clearly fake parents wishing him happy birthday. It's pre-recorded, and the movie has been at pains previously to let us know that the round-trip message time delay is now over seven minutes.

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

Again a birthday party, again a weirdly stiff, fake-seeming encounter, except that this time only one side is able to speak. Poole watches the video placidly, lounging in shorts and white sneakers and socks. His "parents" sit behind a large cake covered with lit candles (absurd overkill indicating a support crew just out of view) and tell him about other people who failed to show up for this event. Presumably the two of them are going to eat the cake in Poole's honor. They discuss a few other family members, a problem with some bureaucratic form, and then say goodbye. Poole watches without showing any reaction, and without recording a reply to send back.

In a movie full of stiff, by-the-book characters, Mr. and Mrs. Poole are the stiffest and most clearly reading from a script written for them by bureaucrats. Then, after the transmission ends:

HAL: Happy birthday, Frank.
POOLE: Thank you, HAL. A bit flatter please.

HAL lowers his headrest. That is as much reaction as Poole can manage. Is it any wonder we fear being replaced by AIs? Who will really notice the difference?

By the way, the only way I could have gotten all this straight, despite having seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, was by the meticulous shot by shot analysis of the entire movie at Idyllopus Press, well worth reading.

What struck you most on rewatching the movie?

And if you haven't rewatched it on this latest release, you really should.

One man, one proxy

Often when people, at least some leftish people of my acquaintance, get a political result they don't like, they start talking about flaws in how votes are counted. Proportional representation! Elimination of the Electoral College! Epistocracy! There has to be something to straighten things out.

But, of course, both sides were aiming at a target in a known location. To try to redraw the target around where you arrow hit and saying that location makes more sense ignores the fact that, if you do, your opponents will also be aiming at that target next time, and there is no guarantee at all that you will still get closer to it than they will.

Still, there have been interesting oddball ways of counting votes and assigning representation in history, and while they will not change our politics, our fiction can certainly still use them. Colonial Maryland had, at least for awhile, a particularly interesting system.

You can exercise your vote, or assign it to someone else

The Founding of Maryland

The Founding of Maryland

According to Edmund Morgan, in his book on the rise of the necessary myth that representative government actually represents us all, Inventing the People, The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, colonial Maryland in the 1630s experimented with an interesting proxy system for voting.

If you were an adult male, you could go to the assembly yourself. Or you could assign your vote to someone else, who would go to the assembly, and vote his vote and yours and those of anyone else who had given him their proxy.

As Morgan describes someone going to the assembly with these proxy votes:

He did not represent anyone who had not specifically and individually empowered him; and a man could even change his mind, revoke the assignment of his vote, and attend in person...One could also transfer one's proxy, as it was called, from one man to another after the session began.

So the assembly did not have a specified number of attendees, but was attended in spirit by everyone who had entrusted his proxy to someone else.

The result was a politically bizarre situation: within the assembly some men had only their own vote, while others had the votes of all their proxies in addition to their own. On one occasion an aspiring politician named Giles Brent had enough proxies (seventy-three) to constitute a majority of the assembly all by himself.

The personal connection

Inventing the People really digs into how weird the idea of representative government really is--and how conceptually fragile. It is a mutually agreed-upon fiction. If we cease to agree, the fiction disappears. The book, while written in 1988, has a lot to say to our current era, where a lot of people are questioning the fictions essential to the survival of our system of government.

Remember how that snotty kid pointing out that the Emperor wore no clothes caused the government's collapse, and his country's conquest by brutal and oppressive neighbors? I bet he's sorry now.

What makes you feel genuinely represented?

Do you expect your elected representative to do exactly what you want, or are you hiring a skilled expert to make decisions that you recognize you are too lazy or ignorant to make yourself?

Sometimes there's a good reason for procrastination

Actually, I regard it as more of an art

Actually, I regard it as more of an art

Often the hardest thing is getting started. You're faced with a vast, complex, tedious, and frustration-filled project. It needs to be done, but the thought if it is so unpleasant that you'd rather do almost anything else. So you put it off and you put it off until the consequences of further delay are so threatening that you establish what the first doable task is, sit down, and dive in.

And you find out that in is just as awful and miserable as you thought, except that it takes much longer, because you spend hours making mistakes and then trying to recover from them, trying to figure out why numbers don't match, or changes mysteriously appear in places you could have sworn were immune from accidental change.

Because sometimes you've put something off for good reason. In its little stories of humble success, the procrastination kind of slides over these fairly frequent circumstances.

Today I did not one, but two things I was putting off. One involved money, and involved finding a bunch of long-lost documentation, calculating a very large spreadsheet, and chasing someone else down to contribute something. It was miserable, and lost me hours, but I had to do it, and the only way was to essentially put off necessary work.

Then, all evening, I did some of that necessary work, with an unintuitive web interface I don't use very often. Nothing displayed properly, files vanished into mysterious URLs, what displayed wouldn't change when I changed the text, because what displayed was a duplicate in another location.

Now I'm done with both projects, and don't really feel at all satisfied. Maybe later I will but...really, did it need to be that hard?

I was totally right to evade these projects. The only sad thing is that I couldn't evade them forever.

What projects have you recently gotten to that you kind of wish you hadn't?

Or is there one you want me to tell you not to start?

My Readercon Schedule


I have three panels at Readercon next weekend, which is kind of my sweet spot. I like doing them, and I like doing enough work that I contribute to the convention, but I don't like doing too many. I'm not particularly extroverted, and so don't like being on stage too much. Plus, it's pretty easy to get tired and be boring, rambling, and dumb on a panel.

As a writer, I figure I am on a panel to entertain, not sell, at least not directly. The more interesting I seem, the better it is. So getting tired and "holding forth" as so many of us have done, is really a bad idea.

I did not get a moderator role, despite the fact that I put myself down for it a number of times, including on at least one of these panels. I sometimes evade knowing a lot about a topic by being the narrator. Then I can be curious and ask questions I actually want the answers to.

I'm done with my work by Friday night, giving me time to hang out with friends. If you're at the con, please do find me, even if I've never met you before.

What Comes After Late Capitalism?
Salon C
Thursday, July 12, 2018 9:00 PM

The current American economic climate is often referred to as "late capitalism," suggesting that capitalism as we know it is on its way out and will soon be transformed beyond recognition or replaced altogether. What can futurists and fabulists imagine for how that might happen, and what might take its place? How would postcapitalism look not only in fiction but in our lives, transforming publishing, reading, and conventions?

  • T.X. Watson moderator
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • Romie Stott
  • Christopher Brown
  • Robyn Bennis

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy
Salon 5
Friday, July 13, 2018 4:00 PM

Authors such as Daniel Abraham, Max Gladstone, and Ken Liu have received attention for incorporating bureaucratic concepts into their fantasy works, but fantasy frequently has bureaucratic underpinnings that escape notice because they're so familiar: the nuances of who inherits a title or a throne, the specific wording of a prophecy, detailed contracts with demons. Why do some bureaucracies feel more incongruous in fantastical contexts than others? What are some tricks for making dry, nitpicky topics exciting and comprehensible?

  • Kenneth Schneyer moderator
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • John Wiswell
  • Victoria Sandbrook
  • Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Dorothy Dunnett, Literary Legend
Salon C
Friday, July 13, 2018 8:00 PM

Alaya Dawn Johnson called Dorothy Dunnett "the literary equivalent of the Velvet Underground": not many people read her, but everyone who did wrote a book. A painter, researcher, and opera lover, she wrote what she wanted to read: epic historical drama. Come learn what our panelists and many other writers learned from Dunnett.

  • Kate Nepveu moderator
  • Victoria Janssen
  • Nisi Shawl
  • Alexander Jablokov
  • Lila Garrott

Can causality violation save this marriage? Dexter Palmer's Version Control

Version Control

Dexter Palmer

Science fiction is best when it is about the near future, and thus, about now. Too often, we're writing about situations distant in space and time, so characters and dialog have some warrant to be unrealistic. I'm certainly guilty of a lot of that.

Palmer writes better than most people in our genre, and Version Control held my attention from start to finish. Palmer pushes both detailed observation of specific personality types, social and professional milieus, and stages of life, and wider-scale cultural criticism, accomplishing both with real panache.

Is Version Control science fiction?

Aside from the causality violation device (please don't call it a time machine--this bit of fiddly correction is a funny recurrent theme in the book), Version Control has a variety of science-fictional trappings, from self-driving cars to a President who can speak intimately, if a bit salesmanishly, to every one of his fellow citizens.

But these are merely external features, not integrated with the basic story at all. It could have happened here and now, and really, it does happen here and now. A car crash plays a role in the plot, and Palmer has to do all sorts of explaining how it happened despite the safety precautions, but it is just a car crash, something that happens here and now all the time. This is an occasional flaw of various forms of SF, particularly alternate world SF. I remember an alternate world novel where there was a kind of magic, and there was a terrible, concealed disaster at some facility. When you dug into it, it was an industrial accident. Those used to happen all the time. Terrible, dramatic, interesting...but nothing deeply existential. A bad marriage is painful, whether you're wearing a gray flannel suit or a suit of armor.

But adding these kind of nifty (though usually not as original as they think) features is what more literary types do when the decide to "do" SF: what they are really doing is not extrapolation, but satire. There's always a covert jokey element to it, a lack of seriousness. Palmer takes his basic device and the team working on it seriously indeed, but he does not take his world seriously.

Now, a lot of SF is, at its root, satirical. Both satire and SF have reductio ad absurdum as a basic technique. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a satirist. But he inhabited the worlds that he created, and took them seriously as emotional spaces separate from our own. I guess that's the basic difference between mainstream and genre writers. Genre writers like a separate world, while mainstream writers find the very notion of such a world pointless and even ridiculous, and so merely distort the one in which we actually find ourselves, while ensuring that the reader remains grounded in the fact that it is, in fact, fundamentally our world.

The SF elements outside the basic conceit are not a big deal either way. Don't let them bother you, but don't expect them to startle you either.

What I learned from this book

Palmer knows how to pace things. Mostly that means not going too fast. Now that I think about my own work I realize that I worry that slowing down will bore the reader. That is a sign of not trusting the reader. Palmer does trust the reader. The main POV character, Rebecca, gets a post-college slow period where she hangs out with her girlfriends, and then an extended description of how she tries online dating. Each of these sequences is a delight to read, because Palmer observes closely, and builds suspense into the choice of whether to take another drink--even if you pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Every little emotional transaction has a bit of suspense, and a bit of a payoff. The pace actually feels fairly quick, because there are interesting little things going on on every page.

Now, I'm not sure how much understanding that is really going to help me. "Put interesting things on every page" is an aspiration, but a hard one to achieve.

What do you think is a diagnostic difference between mainstream and genre fiction?

There are probably as many answers to this as there are readers, so I'm interested in being argued with.

My Boskone panels

I’m at Boskone In a couple of weeks. I’m moderating the Noir and Marketing panels, something I like to do—I like to think I’m a solid, mildly authoritarian moderator who keeps things moving. And the Marketing one will reveal to me all the things I still don’t know about how to promote myself as a writer.

If you go, be sure to look me up.

Angels in Speculative Fiction

16 Feb 2018, Friday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Angels in fantasy, science fiction, and horror aren't always what you might expect. There are the ones that behave, well, angelically, and the fallen angels — but also bad-tempered angels, angels from advanced civilizations, and more. What attracts writers (and readers) to this motif? What common themes, like redemption or the Fall, recur? Are there novel ways to write an angel?

Bob Kuhn, Alexander Jablokov, Victoria Sandbrook , Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Walt Williams

Future of Noir

16 Feb 2018, Friday 19:00 - 20:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Noir (the French word for “black”) began as a Hollywood subgenre depicting hard-boiled, cynical characters in sleazy settings. It’s certainly found a new home in urban fantasy. But is the murky world of noir inherently incompatible with the sleek, shiny surfaces of science fiction? Or as our visions of the fruits of science and technology grow darker, does noir have a future as a main strain of SF?

Alexander Jablokov (M) , Nik Korpon , Christopher Irvin, Vikki Ciaffone, Laurence Raphael Brothers

Group Reading: Cambridge SF Workshop

Format: Reading

16 Feb 2018, Friday 20:00 - 21:30, Griffin (Westin)

A rapid-fire reading by the members of the long-running Cambridge SF Workshop, featuring writers Heather Albano, James L. Cambias, F. Brett Cox, Gillian Daniels, Alex Jablokov, Steve Popkes, Ken Schneyer (M), Sarah Smith, and Cadwell Turnbull.

Heather Albano, James Cambias , F. Brett Cox , Gillian Daniels , Alexander Jablokov , Steven Popkes , Kenneth Schneyer , Sarah Smith

Non-Genre Fiction That Inspires Us

17 Feb 2018, Saturday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 3 (Westin)

We’re always talking about icons such as Mary Shelley, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others who breathed air into our literary lungs — but what about non-genre fiction? Our panelists discuss some of their favorite authors from outside the SF/F/H field, who have inspired them as writers and readers.

Kenneth Schneyer (M), Tamora Pierce, Alexander Jablokov , Theodora Goss, F. Brett Cox

Marketing Uphill

18 Feb 2018, Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, Harbor II (Westin)

Sometimes marketing for writers feels like walking uphill to school barefoot in the snow. Does it ever get easier? At what point is enough enough for you and your social network? What about live events? How much should you invest, and how do you measure the return? Our panelists share their experiences and tips for managing your marketing.

Alexander Jablokov (M), Melanie Meadors, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Joshua Bilmes , Craig Miller