Archive for June, 2016


It’s con season, as noted over on the Generations Geek blog. I will be at CONvergence over the Fourth of July weekend and at Shore Leave the weekend of July 15. Cons are a weird experience for me. Although I’ve been a sci-fi geek essentially my entire life, cons were not a big deal for me for decades. I think part of that is because I grew up in northern Minnesota, far from any conventions. Combine that with my neuroses around crowds and strangers and places I haven’t been before—imagine that, a neurotic writer!—and you can see why I wasn’t rushing out to cons even after I moved to the Twin Cities, where there are many wonderful cons. But then I started being a writer guest at Shore Leave, thanks to Star Trek fiction. For years, Shore Leave was the only con I regularly attended, halfway across the country, even though there were lots of cons in my own backyard. Finally, a few years ago, I started going to CONvergence as a writer guest, and I’ve grown quite fond of it. But cons are still roller coasters for me, full of ego boosts, awkward social interactions, reunions with old friends, and crowd-induced claustrophobia. So if you ever meet me at a con and I look a bit skittish, like a dog during a thunderstorm, give me a moment, my mood will soon swing back the other way!

Still not really talking about what I’m not talking about: Star Trek fan films. Trek fandom has been biting its own tail for months about this, and with the fan film guidelines CBS and Paramount have recently released, it’s gotten worse. I’m not going to rehash the whole story here. If you’re a fan you already know it; if you’re not, well, neither of us has the time or energy to go over the history. But I’m in the middle on this. I’ve watched and enjoyed fan films. I’ve considered writing for them, but never did. But, as a writer, I’m also big on intellectual property. And I’ve written official Star Trek fiction, published by Simon & Schuster—which, according to the guidelines, disqualifies me from working on a fan film. I don’t take that personally, but I was never really invested in the idea in the first place. Which brings me back to why I haven’t been talking about this. I know people on both sides of the issue, people who totally support the studio’s point of view and people who are deeply invested in fan films either as viewers or creators. Online debates have been intense, and there have been people on both sides who have—I like to give the benefit of the doubt and assume in the heat of the moment—veered off into regrettable personal attacks. The whole situation saddens me. It’s the fiftieth anniversary year of the franchise we all love, and instead of wholehearted celebration, there is instead an atmosphere of taking sides. No matter how many justifiable fingers can be pointed in either direction, the end result is disheartening.

It’s a good thing I’ve got that degree in how to be a freelancer in the new world of publishing. Oh, wait, that never happened. I really don’t think anyone in the industry really knows what they’re doing. Not in a bad way, like, “That guy is driving the wrong way on a one-way street,” but more like, “Uh . . . is this the detour? Is this even a road? Why have all the street signs been painted over?” So you’ve got a lot of people—writers and editors from beginners to pros alike—just trying to keep moving forward, but the rules keep changing, and the game board, instead of being a proper map, is just a white board anyone can erase and redraw with the full conviction that people on the internet seem to have about anything. All I want to do is write my little stories, get them out there for people to read, and somehow make a fair amount of money to pay the bills. That was hard enough in olden days when publishing was a relatively straightforward business that followed the same traditions it always had. Nowadays, on the frontier of e-books and print on demand, when big publishers are buying up self-publishing businesses like farm teams, it’s hard to know what to think. So I just keep on writing my little stories, and I try to get some printed traditionally and self-publish others, and I’ll see where it takes me. Check out my author page on Amazon, where you can see them all. (In theory. It’s kind of buggy. Because it’s not like a little site like Amazon has the resources to . . . oh, wait.)

Animals in Cheap Suits

That’s what humans are. Only a thinly woven layer of civilization covers millions of years of selfish animal urges. We wear that civilization like an ill-fitting rental tux, our primitive reptile brains always lurking and ready to burst out. Werewolves, Jekyll and Hyde, Bruce Banner and the Hulk—through such stories we recognize this on some level, but we are still loathe to admit it openly.

Why? people ask at every new atrocity, like this morning’s shooting in Florida. The answer is simple: because that’s what humans do. That’s bleak and pessimistic, some would say. Pragmatic and realistic, I would reply. But to acknowledge our darker selves is not to deny our better angels. Volunteers lined up to donate blood in the wake of the shooting, so many that some had to be turned away.

“You are at your very best when things are worst,” the visiting extraterrestrial of Starman says of humans. It’s a moving line in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jeff Bridges, but the sad truth underlying it is that those worst things have often come from our hands to begin with, as happened at closing time in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. The Starman could have said, “Some of you are at your best when others are at their worst.”

As eager as we are, through our tribal nature, to delineate those not of our tribe, those who are somehow other and therefore not deserving of our mercy or compassion, the surreal juxtaposition is that throughout the whole of human history and back into our hazy prehistoric past, there has been one human characteristic that crosses all boundaries of race and culture: our capacity for committing violence upon one another for all reasons great and small, from the significant to the nonexistent.

Will we ever rise above this? If a Starman visited us, but did not take human form, would we look out across the sea of human faces around the globe and finally see them all as if simply looking in a mirror? Would we then rise above the tribalism among ourselves—only to unleash it on those extraterrestrials so much more other than our fellow humans have ever been?

How many more millennia of civilization do we need to accumulate until our beasts within are as dead and buried as fossils, to be studied as inanimate relics instead of bloody reality? Or will we continue to stoke those inner flames of hate for all time, always finding some other rationalization, some new justification, to do to others what we would not want done to ourselves?

On days like today, it’s hard to find good answers.

I’m No. 1[,289,791]!

51JTLaVVaTL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Back at my old day job as an editor for Zenith Press, I would sometimes have authors call with concern about their Amazon ranking. “I was at X just last week, now I’m at X-1,245,619. What happened? What can we do?” My stock answer was to explain that no one really knows the algorithms Amazon uses to kick out those rank numbers. I had a joke to go with it, if the author seemed in the mood for it: “I think there’s just a big room with numbers on the floor, and a chicken walks through the room and wherever it poops, that’s your Amazon ranking.”

My opinion hasn’t changed much over the years. Exult in good numbers, it’s fun, but try not to get to hung up on the bad ones, because what the hell do they really mean? Let’s take a look at one of my little efforts, “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” a humorous Lovecraft pastiche. It was originally published in Space and Time Magazine in 2014, and I recently made it available as a Kindle Single. I’ve done almost no promotion for it, just a Tweet here and there, some Facebook posts, some earlier blog posts. I don’t exactly have millions of followers, so these things don’t reach a large audience.

For the week of 5/22, my average rank in e-books was #1,289,791. That was up 30% from a month ago, when it was at 1,841,556, but down 25% from last week at 1,034,844. But if we drill down into some niches, like, say, horror comedy, then my ranking skyrockets to #515. Huge leap, right? But there’s only about 1,600 titles in that category, putting me low in the top third. Could be worse, but, hey, I’m in the top third! But wait . . . how many sales gets me in the top third of horror comedy e-books? Let me check my sales for the week of 5/22 and . . . oh. Nada. Zip. Goose egg. I didn’t sell a single copy of “Squid” the week I was 515th of 1,626. So, what, did those below me sell negative numbers? How do a bunch of books that sold nothing get assigned a specific ranking? Maybe only 514 titles actually had sales and all the rest of us were ranked at 515. I do know that one week I bought a copy myself for my iPad so I could see how the final product looked, and that week my average overall rank jumped up to somewhere around 500,000. One sale propelled me from around a 1,000,000th to 500,000th. How does that work? That’s just it. No one knows.

Or maybe there is a way to figure it out if you put in the time. But that time, like trying to understand the current presidential campaign, is better spent writing. Or reading. For example, you could all buy  and read “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement,” and then I could see what my Amazon sales ranking does. Just as an experiment, you understand. For a friend.