Huddled in my Nid

26 April 2001

Last night I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Below the Root for the first time. I like it better now that I know there are sequels -- there were a few loose ends that bothered me. But it was good. It reminded me a lot of Aldous Huxley's Island. E-mail me for your bonus points if you've actually read Island. I think the thing I liked most about Island was that it made me respect Brave New World more.

The thing is, Island was pretty much Brave New World with the signs slightly reversed. The technology level was different, but the social constructs and constraints were much the same. But this time, it was good! That drug wasn't soma (bad), it was moksha-medicine (good!). The open sex wasn't pressured (bad), it was social (good!). And so on. And what it said to me was that Brave New World was a more honest dystopia than most. It seems that most dystopias are finger-pointing. They're saying, "This is a trend other people are pursuing, and I don't like it." But Huxley took some elements that were very much like his own ideal in creating his dystopia. He criticized himself. That seems like it has more potential for being really, deeply good, and it may explain why I like Brave New World approximately three bazillion times better than 1984.

(I originally read 1984 in one marathon wait in the doctor's office. I had a high fever. Just a piece of advice for you: don't do this, or anything like it.)

Last night, Timprov and I were talking about fantasy and what we like and don't like in fantasy. There's a lot of really crappy fantasy out there. Some of it is just accidentally bad: the author was not up to the task of that particular book. But some of it is deliberate. There seems to be a whole audience out there -- and I find this strange -- for fantasy novels that are only weird on the shallow level. So now I have a theory about why they like it. (Woo! I shouldn't have called this "Morphisms." I should have called it "I Have a Theory." But that doesn't fit with the Tims' Isms, and "Theoryism" is just obnoxious.)

I think that there are some people in any society, but especially in ours, who are inherently "weird." There is nothing these people can do that will get them truly accepted into society at large. They will always have interests and reactions that will be just this side of odd. (It really gets me going when people try to talk about holding smart kids in the same grade as other kids their age so that they "learn social skills." Too often, "learn social skills" translates as "learn to accept being ostracized and/or pounded as the normal course of things.") The best they can do is learn a social repertoire for short time periods with normal people, and then focus on meeting and hanging out with other freaks.

But there are also people who want to be weird. They have decided that weird would be cool, or that if they can't be popular, they should have something else to show for it, or something. These are the ones who will tell you over and over again how really weird they are. And I think they're the audience for fantasy novels that have nothing deeply weird about them. Because they can point to their own weirdness without having to interact with anything shattering about the book.

In a sense, I think this type of fantasy novels serves the same purpose as romance novel heroes do. Some of the people who read romance novels (not all, I know!) want to flirt with the idea of a relationship with the hero. They don't actually want to go out and date Fabio, or whoever the heck is big now. They just want to have a taste of it. Ditto for shallow fantasy: they don't want to get truly fantastical. They don't want to contemplate the workings of the world or their own psyches in any strange or new ways. They just want to flirt with the weirdness.

And you know what? I have no problem with that. I think it's just fine. I think some people fall in love with weird that way and progress to deeper stuff, and some do not. I don't have a problem with either group. I don't think they're taking anything away from fantasy novels that interact with The Weird in a deep way. It's not the same audience at all. And some people who do like "deeply weird" fantasy also want a snack sometimes, with the lighter stuff. Nothing wrong with that, either.

Of course, everyone should buy and read and love my books. But some people are allowed not to like those other writers, you know, the ones whose books are actually available. That's totally fine.

Ahem. I said, everyone should buy and read and love my books. The phone did not ring when I typed that the first time, so I tried it again. Maybe if I post it on the web....

I've heard that it's bad form to write too much about what you're doing with an online journal. Okay, whatever. Skip down to the paragraph that begins "This morning" if you don't want to hear anything about this journal, physics, writing, and the inner workings of my psyche.

See, I'm trying to figure out how scared and/or whiny I'm going to let myself be in this journal. It's public, and anything public is, to some extent, about my writing career. Only I don't think this journal can be slick and smooth all the time. And I don't think it has to be. Young writers are scared a lot. Editors know that. Publishers know that. Other writers mostly know that, except when they're convincing themselves that they're the only ones who feel that way.

When I was in physics, I felt like I had to be tough about my uncertainties. There were rituals to be observed. Sometimes, the correct social thing to do was to feign nervousness and uncertainty. "That test kicked my ass!" was probably the most commonly heard phrase around the student offices. But you were clearly supposed to not mean it. There was an aura of competence and confidence to be cultivated, even when it was a backwards one.

I never ran into that in my liberal arts classes. Maybe because The Right Answer was less common. Maybe because the rewards to physics are somewhat ambiguous. Why is doing physics rewarding? The most common answer you'll get from physicists is that discovering even small bits of the way the universe works is intriguing. And that's true. But the universe isn't going to congratulate you for figuring it out. The universe, in fact, does not care. I think the desire to make the universe itself care is the source of more bad quantum physics interpretations than any other factor. And not only does the universe not care, but most of the people in it also do not care. You are not going to be getting fame and fortune from doing fundamental physics. How many really famous physicists can the average person on the street name? Einstein. Maybe Stephen Hawking. Overachievers will come up with Feynman or Heisenberg or maybe Bohr or the Curies. But not Dennis Henry, my undergrad advisor. Not even Yukawa or Geller or Bose or...anyway.

You get the picture. The universe does not care. The public does not care. Chances are very good that your friends and family don't care either. Leaving your colleagues, who care, but who also want the same funding you're trying to get. Pure discovery gets old after awhile, and recognition pretty much isn't going to happen, not on an enthusiastic level. But if you can convince yourself that not only is the discovery worthwhile, but that it's the most intellectually challenging thing that anyone could be doing -- that, in fact, your field represents the pinnacle of human intelligence -- then you have a reason to get up and go to work and try to teach the lousy premeds Newton's Laws, instead of kicking their faces in. And you can convince yourself that you deal with a higher level of Truth in your work than most people can handle, so much the better. Physicists cultivate arrogance? Heck, yeah. Gets 'em through the day.

(I do think physics is worth doing. But it's not always obvious why, when you're inside it.)

Well, I deal with a pretty high level of daily Truth in my job, too. I kind of have to. If I don't, the stories will suck. But if I try to claim that it's a level other people can't handle, I just talked myself out of a job. If other people can't handle Truth in my stories, I haven't written very good stories. And if I try to act like I am The Best and will obviously publish every story I ever write, the realities of limited publishing space will get me shot down pretty fast, if nothing else.

For some people, arrogance is a deeply held belief. For me, it's been a deliberately cultivated habit for, eh, four or five years now. But it's just not useful any more.

I like Fortress of Thorns. I believe in it. I think it's a good book. But chances are good that it'll get rejected again this week. And again after that. And again. The writer subculture dictates that I smile and talk about patience and how the business works and how maybe it just didn't fit their line.

Well, no. I'm not going to do that, either. It may be true, but it's not the point. I hate getting rejected. Everybody hates getting rejected. Everybody fears getting rejected. I hate having short stories rejected, but books are the worst. I would rather invite someone to my house to kick me in the head until I lose consciousness than have that person be an editor who rejects my book.

And I don't want to hear that I have to learn to take rejection better. No, I don't. Because the only way to determine whether you're taking rejection well or poorly, from a career standpoint, is whether you get the damned thing out again. (I suppose writing nasty letters to editors would also qualify as "poorly," but that's not even on my radar screen.) You don't have to learn to like it. And the professional authors who talk about how "even they" get rejections do not make it better. "Why, just last week, Gardner Dozois rejected one of my stories, and I had to sell it to Gordon Van Gelder instead!" Yeah, cry me a river, folks. When I am a big famous pro -- and you can quote me on this -- I will give all young writers permission to take rejection poorly, to lock themselves in their closets and cry or to take out their anger in making homemade walnut paste the hard way, or whatever it is that they do with a big bundle of negative emotion.

So if/when I get a rejection in the mail on this book, it will hurt like hell, and I will not pretty it up for you. If that's not what you wanted out if this journal, go write your own journal and make it Nice. I don't do Nice. I don't really see the point of it.

Okay. I think I'm done now.

This morning I sold another article, to Skirt! magazine. Evidently this is the month for long positive response times. We can only hope it'll extend to stories, I suppose. This one is called "Mom Vs. Camp Sparta." It's supposed to come out in June. I'll link to it then, of course. They pay decent money. First I get money to talk about swearing. Now I get more money to talk about my mom. This is such a great racket.

Yesterday I organized all of our nonfiction. It used to be that we had my textbooks separate, organized by class, and the rest of the nonfiction mixed in with the fiction. I like it better this way. For one thing, I have a terrible habit of totally neglecting the names of reference books. I don't know how many times last year I asked, "Will you throw me my Arfken?" (Boas, Wangsness, Barger-and-Olsen), only to be greeted with, "What's an Arfken? Can you give me a title?" "I don't know. It was my Math Methods book." "Numerical Methods for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering?" "No, that was my 75 book." (To further complicate matters, all math and computer science courses at Gustavus were known by number, not by name.) "Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences?" "No! That's Boas!" Etc.

So this will be much better. And it makes me feel better, too. More nested. There's still some book organization to do, but the living room looks civilized. It looks like we're going to live here for awhile and call it home. I need that. Even though I don't want to stay out here forever (space! I need space!), I don't want to live somewhere that looks temporary. I need it to be permanent. All snug and warm in my nid....

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