October 11, 2016

NYCC 2016

If you’d like to see me and my beady, dead eyes at the panel we had on worldbuilding at NYCC, you may do so here.

October 3, 2016

The dangers of a confident message

People compare stories to all kinds of things, but the one I repeatedly come home to is this: writing a story is an experiment. Specifically, it is an experiment to discover what you, the author, really believe.

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. As Neil Gaiman put it, “I write to figure out what I think about things.” And while it might seem odd that people might not know what they think or feel or believe, there are countless bias tests you can do to discover that all of your decisions and estimations and convictions are affected by influences around you, and some are more visible than others.

So, sure. I write to write a fun story, to entertain myself, to put myself in difficult situations and then try to think my way out of them. But I also write as an experiment to test my beliefs and try to figure out where they’re weak or where they’re strong.

In a way, the method I use to write my stories is the same way I was taught to write essays.

You take an assertion about the world. You explain that assertion. Then you rigorously challenge it, and discuss more or less with yourself how those challenges hold up. Then, at the end, you revisit your assertion, and you see how your assertion has changed in the face of these challenges.

The problem comes in when your assertion hasn’t changed at all: if your assertion is completely and totally triumphant, in other words. If that’s the case, then… Well. It makes for some very boring reading.

Because an essay – or a story – is a discussion that takes the audience on a journey to some kind of revelation. That revelation doesn’t have to be all that revelatory – “A mother’s love profoundly shapes a child’s life,” is not especially new or unique, but if this was one of the revelations a story arrived at, I wouldn’t begrudge it much. But it has to go somewhere. The narrative must progress and change, moving forward toward some kind of epiphany, great or small.

But this progress is nullified if you’re basically returning to your original assertion unchanged and unharmed.

In essence – no one wants to read a book in which the writer thoroughly confirms that their worldview is completely right, thank you very much.

Doubt and ambiguity and complications are in many ways the cores of the human experience. To write a story in which your beliefs and your assertions defeat all doubts and are unambiguously correct is a surefire ticket to a lethally boring story. Reading that would be like sitting in a long car ride with a particularly self-righteous relative who’s revisiting all of their personal grudges at length and reiterating how they were in the right every time.

The problem comes when you feel your assertion is unimpeachably right and cannot be challenged. And some assertions are absolutely like this.

For example, racism is bad. But the statement that racism is bad is not interesting. And a story that interrogates racism and finds it to be bad is not going to be an interesting story.

So if you’re finding yourself writing one of these stories, in which your worldview is being totally confirmed and your assertion is unimpeachably right, and you know it’d be a moral wrong to suggest otherwise – then I find it often helps to broaden or narrow your assertion: to make the question either bigger or smaller in some regard, or at the very least complicate it somehow.

For example, rather than write a story whose thesis examines that racism is bad, you could complicate it into a scenario like:

The discriminatory zoning practices in [NAME CITY HERE] have inarguably harmed the Asian-American community and helped perpetuate racism – but after a new cultural movement emerges among the younger generations, it suddenly becomes popular to reside in historically Asian-American neighborhoods on the West Coast.

Is this new cultural movement a victory over racism? Is it just racism in another form? How do the Asian-American residents respond to this movement and its effect on their neighborhoods and way of life? What elements are admirable, and what elements regrettable or outright despicable? What is gained and what is lost? And how is this conflict emblematic of our national struggles to come to terms with our own troubled history, and integrate with a historically marginalized group of Americans?

That’s something I basically just pulled out of my ass. But you can see the ambiguities there – these aren’t easy questions. And they shouldn’t be. Your experiment should be difficult.

If I wrote this story – and I, being who I am, wouldn’t at all feel experienced or accomplished enough to do so – I’d probably look at it from the point of view of two Asian-American characters, one of which embraces this cultural movement, while the other fights it. Both would have their beliefs about this movement challenged in some fashion during the story. Their decisions on how to proceed after this challenge would decide the rest of their stories.

And if, at the end of the story, I felt completely convinced about my conclusions, then, to be honest, I probably did it wrong. Like, if I, Robert Bennett, write my story and find I feel I’ve got some completely concrete and unassailable convictions about how to approach and think about the developing race issues in America… Like, I’d have to be an idiot. I’d be mad to be so completely confident about such a complex and difficult thing. To tie things up so simply and so completely would be a disservice to the subject matter.

But that’s the point, frequently. You write to find out what you think about things. But it’s a very human thing to meditate and realize that your feelings are far more complicated than you initially thought. Yet that’s what makes the story – or experiment, or discussion – worthwhile.

May 9, 2016

Thoughts on Prop 1, and the future of transportation

Long, super wonky blog post coming. Be forewarned.

I. The Proposition

Uber and Lyft – ridesharing companies – and the city of Austin have been having fights for a long time.

Ridesharing companies, if you’re unaware, are app companies in which private users download the app, become “contractor” drivers for the app company, and the app then connects the contractor driver with people who need a ride.

The problem the city of Austin has is that ridesharing companies do their own background checks, using a social security number and other information. The city of Austin’s issue is that they have little insight into who, exactly, is driving its citizens around. Ridesharing is about getting into a stranger’s car – the city of Austin wanted more control over that.

In December of 2015, the Austin City Council passed a law requiring the city to do fingerprinting background checks. Uber and Lyft were incensed, because this incurs more fees on them and threatens their driver “pipeline,” in which drivers become contractors. Uber and Lyft then put together enough political support to hold a general election on Proposition 1. If passed, Prop 1 would have repealed the fingerprint requirement, along with other, much more reasonable regulations such as marking your car as an Uber or Lyft car, or not being allowed to block lanes, etc.

Those little details add up. Though this initially seems to be about fingerprint background checks and so on, a lot of this was about Uber and Lyft rejecting any interference from local government whatsoever.

Everyone assumed Prop 1 would sail through. Uber has been phenomenally successful at negotiating with local governments, even the Mayor of New York. If a politician stands in its way, then the next time an Uber user opens their app, the first thing they’ll see is a reminder to vote, and how to vote. To stand in the way of Uber is to stand in the way of the future.

But Austin disagreed. Austin voted down Prop 1 by a 10 digit margin. To make matters even more bonkers, Uber and Lyft spent an inconceivable about of money on the campaign – it was the most expensive campaign in Austin history. To quote the Austin-American Statesman:

It was spending on a scale that had never been seen in Austin politics, as Uber and Lyft singlehandedly funded the pro-Prop 1 campaign group, Ridesharing Works for Austin, to the tune of $8.6 million, campaign finance reports showed. That’s more than seven times the previous record of $1.2 million, which was set by Adler in his 2014 mayoral campaign.

“You can elect governors in other states for that much money,” Butts said. “We set an example for the rest of the nation: Stand up to these guys.”

Butt’s anti-Prop 1 campaign, which raised less than $200,000, was outspent nearly 50 to 1.

On average, Uber and Lyft spent $223.15 for each of the 38,539 votes they received.

The cost of a fingerprint-based background check is $40.

It’s that last bit that’s the kicker.

Uber and Lyft could have paid for the background checks several times over, if they wanted to. If they had the funds to mount this campaign, then they had the funds to work with local government regulations.

This was never about fingerprint background checks. It wasn’t about blocking lanes or drunk driving deaths or any of the noise that’s come out of this campaign. What this was about was which path has more legitimacy: public government or private companies.

II. Transportation: The Lifeblood of a City

I have unusually strong feelings about transportation and urban design. Part of this is because I think doing it right means making a city accessible and vibrant.

Transportation dictates the fabric and structure of a city in ways that few other things do. How people get from one place to another dictates what sort of home you live in, what sort of job you work, what sort of childcare you can get, and so on and so on.

Think of it like a living organism, wherein resources have to be transported from one facet to another. Some creatures have open circulatory systems, in which the organs are bathed in blood; others have closed circulatory systems, wherein the blood is contained at all times within vessels. Both systems do the same thing – they get nutrients from point A to point B  – but the way that they do it dictates a lot about how the creature itself works, and what it can do.

Our cities are built around cars. Cars are our default mode of travel – not trains, not bikes, not subways, not by foot – so every aspect of the city must be built to accommodate cars. This is for a lot of reasons. One is that our cities are newer, built in an age where it was easy to put water and energy wherever you wanted it, whereas older cities were built around water and other concise points, so a dense, centralized transportation system made sense.

We didn’t have those in the south and in the west. So we went with cars.

But cars have had a lot of side effects.

Freeways and highways are not dense. They require a lot of lanes and a lot of room. This means you have to get rid of a big chunk of your city to accommodate them. Check out these overhead photos of downtown cities from the 1950s to now to see how highways have excised huge pieces of urban fabric.

Cars also inevitably lead to traffic. And traffic leads to more roads, which leads to more traffic. In essence, roads do not cure traffic: they cause it. Umpteen studies have come to this conclusion.

Cars also make us fat and lazy. We don’t want to walk to the store or to school anymore, but walking is what we’ve evolved to do as a species. That’s bad.

Another problem is that cars allow you to self-sort. Don’t like your neighbors? You can live in one part of the city and drive in to work. As this excellent Collectors Weekly, piece explores, in the 1950s workplaces began to resemble utopic campuses, removed from urban realities, with severe consequences:

Mozingo’s concept of a separatist landscape builds off the ideas of geographer Allan Pred, who describes how our daily path through the built environment is a major influence on our culture and values. “If you live in a typical suburban place,” Mozingo explains, “you get in your car and drive to work by yourself, then stay in your office for the entire day seeing only other colleagues, and then drive back home alone. You’re basically only interested in improving highways and your office building.” Even as big tech touts its green credentials, the offices for Apple, Facebook, Google, and their ilk are inundated with parking, discreetly hidden below ground like their savvy mid-century forebears, encouraging employees to continue their solo commutes.

Today, this segregation isn’t only aided by architecture—it’s also a function of the tech-enabled lifestyle, with its endless array of on-demand services and delivery apps that limit interactions with people of differing views and backgrounds (exposure that would likely serve to increase tolerance). A protective bubble of affluence also reduces the need for civic engagement: If you always rely on ride-hailing apps, why would you care if the sidewalk gets cleaned or repaired?

This last piece that really speaks to how the car divorces the citizen from interest in their city. This disinterest often disproportionately punishes the poor and minorities, who inevitably take a large brunt of the pain from throwing up these huge highways. The US Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is very candid about the damage highways did to his community as a child. And here in Austin, it’s well-known that I-35 was built to cordon off the part of the city populated by black and Latino populations.

That’s one element that feels the most disturbing about highways. Once a highway is up, it becomes repellent to foot traffic – the natural mode of transportation for the human body. The idea of crossing that street is repellent, if not impossible. Growing up in Houston, it felt like we were marooned on a tiny postage stamp of property, with churning seas of cars around us. Leaving the island was hazardous to your health.

Cars are the privatization of transportation, delivering massive control of the city to the whims of the consumer. And this has hurt us in a lot of ways.

So this is one piece of the puzzle: the car culture, fueled by resource abundance as well as private companies arguing for infrastructure that rewarded their products, favored private forces over public ones, leading to a total divorce from the idea of an urban community. You stopped caring about your city – you only cared about the parts you drove through.

The suburbs have not been altogether good for us. Some economists even advocate that if we want economic growth, we should empty the suburbs altogether.

That’s one aspect. The other aspect is that cities are our future – both in how people want to live, and how we, as a species, will fight against climate change.

III. Cities Are the Future – If We Get to Have One, That Is

The more space you need to do something, the more energy it takes. That’s easy to understand. Cleaning a giant house is harder than cleaning a small one. Sending products through a giant factory is far more resource exhausting than sending them through a small one.

What’s very odd about our current cities, though, is that a lot of that space is empty. Suburbia has a hell of a lot of parking lots, highways, and lawns – space that goes unused for large parts of the day, but must be both traversed and maintained.

So urban density matters. It’s fairly good, then, that more and more people in the United States want to move to dense urban areas. This trend isn’t restricted to America. The World Health Organization says that urban growth is skyrocketing around the world.

How much can urban density help the climate? Here’s an idea: San Francisco just voted to require solar panels on every new roof – but the carbon those panels would offset is just a fraction compared to what would be saved if they changed their zoning to allow denser housing.

And mayors in the United States are the ones who are really leading the fight for climate change. The state and federal level is bogged down in denialism, but urban, educated areas know that climate change is real, and are preparing for it.

Cities are the real front where progress can be made. Cities don’t need federal or state approval to decarbonize. Hell, Miami’s mayor knows the city is doomed, even if the Florida governor and legislature refuses to admit it.

The thing to remember here, then, is that this requires civic engagement. It requires both citizens getting involved, and giving cities power.

You want more density, more walkability, more public transportation? That means more city authority and regulation.

You want to fight climate change, decarbonize, or prepare for the effects of global warming? That means more city authority and regulation.

What’s odd is that there is one part of the solution that both cities and the Silicon Valley ridesharing companies agree is coming. But to make it work, and to make it work right, means a lot of planning, and a lot of regulation. I’m referring, here, to fully automatic vehicles, or FAVs.

IV. No One in the Driver’s Seat

A lot of people disagree on when self-driving cars will hit the street. Some say five years, or ten years. Others, like Costa Samaras with RAND, say it will likely be 30 years for 1% of the vehicles on the road to be FAVs. Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car program, recently changed up Google’s PR gospel and said some cities will see FAVs in 5 years, and others in 30.

But everyone agrees that they are indeed coming. Lyft just partnered with GM to test a line of self-driving taxis with real passengers. It’s a huge opportunity.

Why is it a huge opportunity? Because cars are a shitty thing to own. Consider this data from Zack Kanter:

Industry experts think that consumers will be slow to purchase autonomous cars – while this may be true, it is a mistake to assume that this will impede the transition. Morgan Stanley’s research shows that cars are driven just 4% of the time,5 which is an astonishing waste considering that the average cost of car ownership is nearly $9,000 per year.6 Next to a house, an automobile is the second most expensive asset that most people will ever buy – it is no surprise that ride sharing services like Uber and car sharing services like Zipcar are quickly gaining popularity as an alternative to car ownership. It is now more economical to use a ride sharing service if you live in a city and drive less than 10,000 miles per year.7

Imagine doing anything else during your car ride rather than driving: playing with your kid, watching a movie, answering email, reading a book. People will want this.

It can also help us densify cities. Imagine all the parking spaces, all the lots, all the garages, all the extra lanes we have to allow each individual person to essentially pilot their own room around town. We could take those and devote them to any other purpose than car storage, and it would be better. Not to mention that, if we use electric FAVs rather than Internal Combustion Engines, it will hugely, hugely cut greenhouse gas emissions.

But this will have considerable fallout, and some of it could be quite bad. Alex Rubalcava lays out some key issues with self-driving cars here:

More importantly, the cost in attention associated with transportation will drop to nearly zero. The average American could shift some of the 5.5 hours of television watched per day into the car, and end up with vastly more personal time once freed from the need to pay attention to the road. This possibility has led many people to predict that AVs could enable further suburban sprawl as the costs of transportation fall. A person who moves to a more distant exurb but commutes via a PSAV will pay less money for transportation, have more time for entertainment, and will also pay lower, exurban prices for their housing. It will be an irresistible combination, and it will be just one of many ways that VMT (vehicle miles traveled) will ratchet upwards once each marginal mile loses its cost in dollars and attention.

In other words, electric FAVs will make driving so inexpensive and easy to tolerate that people will drive more. That means more sprawl, more congestion – especially if people start using FAVs not to carry people, but items. Imagine ordering anything in the world, and a little robot drives it to your door. Now imagine the roads filled with such robots.

How can we avoid this future? How can we make sure that the innovation of FAVs leads to the best results for everyone?

The answer is through rigorous urban policy making. And while people might be torn about how much input the government should have about fingerprint background checks, very few would say that the government should have no say in robots tooling around on our streets with us.

V. Proposition 1 is the Start of the Fight for the Future

So that brings us full circle. And Prop 1 is all about this inherent conflict between how private interests want to make profits in cities, and how local government wants to make cities safe and livable.

Uber and Lyft never really cared about a fingerprint check. They could have paid for it several times over, considering the money they spent on the campaign. And other ridesharing organizations have made headway while complying with local regulations. It’s not impossible.

What Uber and Lyft wanted to do, and have always done, is send a message to cities: “Do it our way, or get nothing.”

There are a lot of reasons for why they’d want to do this. On the one hand, they’re startups, and require massive growth every year to succeed. This means doing everything you can to remove obstacles.

On the other hand, Uber and Lyft succeed mostly because they tiptoe around some very expensive regulations. Uber isn’t a transportation company, it’s a technology company. Its drivers aren’t employees, they’re independent contractors. It’s no surprise that, after all this, employment law is now one of the hottest legal areas to get into.

So Uber and Lyft succeed because they dodge some rules. Policy has yet to catch up to them. So to make sure policy never does catch up to them, or change any of those rules, they have to become so popular that the city finds them indispensable. “Keep the laws the way they are, because your population can’t live without us,” in other words.

In other words, they wish to grow so fast that they can leverage their popularity to depower urban planning in favor of private interests. Which has very bad effects.

I actually like ridesharing. I think it’s a good way to reduce cars and traffic and GHGs. I also think ridesharing is a compromised answer to a problem America has refused to acknowledge for the past 60 years: the refusal to build any public transportation infrastructure. The desire for easy transportation is there in America, and ridesharing is meeting those needs, albeit in a very compromised way that causes legal and jurisdictional problems that public transportation would likely avoid.

Ridesharing is convenient. It is cost effective. But we should be slow to become dependent on things that are convenient and handwave all the side-effects that come with it. That sort of attitude is essentially what’s caused climate change: fossil fuels were so cheap and so easy we just shrugged at the issues and kept going along with it. Then the companies and producers of such fossil fuels became so powerful the issue became that much harder to confront.

We have to think about the ramifications. Especially with climate change and FAVs on the horizon. Some convenient choices have gotten us to this place, where our cities sprawl out, punish the poor, are designed to make us obese, and belch carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The only way to make sure those choices don’t harm us anymore is with more civic engagement, and with the city and private interests finding some kind of middle ground. Market economics produce excellent, innovative results, results cities need. But they should not dictate how a city works, or what a city is. Its citizens should do that.

But I’m not encouraged. For all their talk about local government and federal tyranny, the State of Texas is more than willing to overrule its cities when they make their own decisions. Senator Charles Schwertner of Georgetown has already called for legislation on the issue. I fully expect to see what happened to Denton also happen to Austin, and soon.

March 2, 2016

On revolutions

There are a hell of a lot of thinkpieces going up right now on Trump, and Sanders, and Cruz, and Hillary.

This isn’t one of those. I’m going to do my best to avoid mentioning those names.

There’s a lot of talk going on right now about ruling elites, about inequality, about corporate interests and super PACs. What’s pervasive right now is this concept of a giant, moneyed conspiracy oppressing the common American, stamping out opportunity and trying to throttle progress while it’s still in its crib.

That’s an exciting image. It makes you mad as hell. It upsets you, it makes you want to go out and do something.

But I actually don’t think that it’s the case. I don’t think that’s how it works. On the one hand, money doesn’t seem to actually buy elections. Super PACs actually seem to be mostly great at wasting money. Just look at Jeb Bush, who spent an inconceivable fortune for a handful of delegates in the GOP Primary. If money buys elections, the cost is more than even Jeb’s warchest could afford – or the current heir to the establishment throne, Marco Rubio.

But on the other hand, that’s not how American politics works. American politics is not structured as a top down organization, with a few elites making choices about us plebs down here on the ground – it is, sometimes very, very frustratingly, a bottom-up organization, with lots of tiers and stops and breaks in the chain.

So the questions I find myself wanting to ask people all the time these days is: who’s your state senator? Who’s your state representative? And did you vote for either of them? Did you vote in the primary for either of them? And did you vote in the midterms?

The reason I ask this stuff is that everyone knows that everyone’s sick of deadlock in Washington DC. But this deadlock is fueled by a handful of House Representatives (and Senators, but it’s the House that’s key) who have their districts drawn so their seats are completely safe, so they don’t need to act reasonable to ensure that they get re-elected.

Their actions and their policies are functionally irrelevant. Their election is automatic. Their districts have been drawn so that their core voters make up the majority. An impregnable fortress has been built around them.

But they didn’t build that fortress. Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures. And if you aren’t aware, most state legislatures these days are controlled by the GOP – a historic number of them, in fact.

This took decades to establish. And it doesn’t look like it’s changing anytime soon.

Until that changes, congressional districts won’t change.

Until congressional districts change, DC deadlock will remain as contentious as ever.

As long as DC deadlock remains in place, things will not get better for America as a whole. They’ll likely get worse.

So yeah. Here we are.

***

I get kind of frustrated when I see all of this revolutionary rhetoric getting tossed about. Because in our heads, revolutions take place overnight. One day, the Girondists are still in charge of Paris – the next, the Tuileries Palace has been taken, and there’s a whole new gang in charge.

But if you really want a peaceful revolution in America, one election isn’t going to do it. This isn’t going to take place overnight. This is going to take years. Maybe decades. If you want to change the system, you’re going to have to do something that hasn’t happened a lot before: you’re gonna have to show up to vote. A lot. In a lot of little elections.

And yeah, there are absolutely obstacles in your way. And some of it is indeed money. Lots of state legislatures only pay their representatives a pittance, meaning only millionaires can afford to step into elected office.

And yes, those in power – usually moneyed people – have made voting hard on everyone else, ensuring a low turnout so that only those with vested interests (usually their interests) show up.

And yes, lots of corporate interests are financing campaigns at the state level. But it’s still a really, really small voting pool, since there’s such low voter turnout in these things.

So it can be done! You can indeed defy the odds. Just look at Eric Cantor.

Eric Cantor is the only house majority leader in American history to lose his seat in a primary. And the reason he lost is that the voting base got pissed at him, decided they wanted someone else, and then showed up to vote.

And it’s that last part that’s really important. They showed up to vote. In a midterm primary. Which is where candidates and incumbents are frequently weakest.

God, if there’s one word that puts voting Americans into a dull stupor, it’s the word “midterm.” So very, very few people vote in the midterms – especially the midterm primaries. That’s a hell of a lot of critical seats decided by wonks, zealots, or people who just didn’t have anything better to do at lunch. We get all razzed up about the presidential election, but it’s the primaries and all the other little elections that make a big difference.

But it can happen. If people get passionate enough, if they get devoted, if they get organized, they actually can make a difference. These local elections are frequently so small that it takes just a small, passionate group to get the job done.

Just look at one presidential candidate out there now – Ted Cruz. (Sorry, I had to mention one.) His senate seat was a total upset. He won it in the Republican midterm primary against Texas Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst – a man with a lot of establishment cred and whole lot of money behind him. But Cruz’s supporters were passionate and organized, and they made it happen.

So can you.

This probably isn’t the answer you want. Revolutionary rhetoric is way more satisfying than hearing that you need to show up to vote in a marathon of myriad elections, many for candidates you likely have never heard of. But one solid rule I’ve found is that the more exciting the rhetoric is, the higher the odds that the problem being discussed isn’t nearly as simple or easy as it sounds.

The issue here is that the people who show up to vote at these elections are usually the people directly impacted by the offices being elected. IE, they get taxed or regulated. And the only thing that really gets taxed or regulated is money. So the people who are showing up to vote are the people making money. And they, like any voter, are voting their interests.

The people who aren’t showing up, on the whole, are the young, the poor, and the marginalized.

Some of this is by design. Some of it isn’t.

All of it can be overcome, though. If you just keep showing up.

The future doesn’t actually belong to the rich or the powerful, or to corporations. It belongs to the people who show up.

February 5, 2016

Soundscapes – CITY OF BLADES

So a while back I did a post on the sort of music I listened to while writing CITY OF STAIRS. I called it a “soundscape” because I guess I’m a 19 year old art student or something, I don’t know. But anyways, I thought I’d go ahead and do one of these for CITY OF BLADES, because that’s another book where I used very specific songs and moods to help me get inside scenes and write my way out of them.

Probably the biggest change here is that instead of a lot of Russian classical composers, BLADES has a lot more bluesy singer-songwriter music, lots of it country, especially Townes van Zandt. I guess this makes sense because BLADES takes place on an actual frontier, and Townes speaks to a lot of the fatalistic dread and regret that’s coursing through BLADES. And also there is just not that much classical about Mulaghesh.

But like STAIRS, I also take a lot of music from movies. Is that cheap? I guess, I don’t know. But I did it.

Anyways. Spoilers if you haven’t read the book.

Overall Inspiration

To get into the general mood for BLADES and try and access the overall atmosphere I wanted to make, I found myself listening to a few songs quite a bit.

The first is “Rake” by Townes Van Zandt. “Rake” is gendered male (obviously) but that sense of bitter regret as an elder figure looks back on their sinful youth has a lot of application to Mulaghesh. In addition, the barren, bleak atmosphere in this song is basically Voortyashtan in a bottle.

The next is “Lion’s Roar” by First Aid Kit, which is another bluesy song full of regret. First Aid Kit is an odd little duo – Swedish girls putting this woodsy, ethereal spin on blues and country. This is one of their most aggressive songs, contorted with violent acrimony. Suitable for Mulaghesh.

CITY OF BLADESfor all its darkness and musings on war, is still intended to be a pretty action-packed, fun book – or, rather, Mulaghesh is a pretty fun protagonist. A bluesy sort of song really works for her, and I found myself drawn to “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae, a song my wife kept playing in the car on trips. If someone was to make a trailer for CITY OF BLADES, this would be the song for it: not only is the river imagery associated with death (appropriately enough), but it’s also a deeply foreboding song, with groans, moans, and sighs in the background. You feel like there’s an actual army out there in the countryside – though, for Mulaghesh herself, she needs to look seaward.

To continue that river imagery, I also found myself listening to “Lungs” by Townes quite a bit. “Seal the river at its mouth, take the water prisoner / Fill the sky with screams and cries, bathed in fiery answer” is just a hell of a line. Again, the dark, primitive, grim style of this song really suits Mulaghesh and Voortyashtan, and what she finds there.

Specific Scenes and Ideas

The Yellow March

When I was first writing CITY OF BLADES, I knew that Mulaghesh would meet up with Biswal, and what they had done during the Summer of Black Rivers would divide them – but I didn’t know what that was. Then one day I was cleaning the house, listening to music, and Ashokan Farewell came on, from Ken Burns’s The Civil War. (That series is, in my opinion, required watching for American citizens. But that’s just me.) And one thing that’s always fascinated me about the American Civil War is Sherman’s March to the Sea, when he burned half of George and South Carolina in a concerted attempt to break the spirits of the South. And was when I thought up the Yellow March.

Sherman himself is a figure I find compelling – he was fired from his job at the start of the war and almost considered insane solely because he said the Civil War would not be a quick, trifling of a war, but rather long, brutal, and bloody. His sentiments are all over CITY OF BLADES. A few of his quotes are:

“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

“Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

“It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

You can find more here.

The City of Blades

I wanted Mulaghesh’s vision of the actual City of Blades to feel like a bad acid trip. I know if I’m ever tripping balls, I don’t want Ligeti anywhere near me.

The girl on the table

This was maybe the single most emotionally brutal scene to write. My wife was very mad at me that I did not tell her this was coming.

Queen of Grief

Nyman is an amazing composer, and this was my first entry into his work. The movie it’s from – Gattaca – is excellent (I don’t give a shit if the science is bad), and the song itself is loaded with a sense of fatalistic resignation, with the chords both repeating and seeming to methodically cascade. This piece applies greatly to the ending, where Mulaghesh and the others are trying to find their way out of what’s happened to them, to find a way forward into transformation. (This softer piano version is excellent, too.)

Defiant Love

“Sea ports are the staging places of better things”

There’s a bruised optimism to “Skeleton” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s a sense of just beginning to overcome some recent trauma – grief, perhaps, or a bad breakup, that first morning afterwards where you’re just beginning to feel like a real person again. I think this captures  Mulaghesh’s position at the end of CITY OF BLADES, this resolution to be someone different. Sigrud, of course, is emotionally ruined, and Shara is reconciling herself to the eventual death of her administration.

Everyone is looking at the future: Shara, to think about her life as a parent, and a life beyond the work that’s consumed everything she’s ever known since she was a child; Mulaghesh, resolved to becoming engaged again, and become something more than she is; and Sigrud, wondering if there’s a way forward at all.

***

SO WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN LISTENING TO RECENTLY

Well, since I just finished CITY OF MIRACLES – the third and final entry in THE DIVINE CITIES – I’ve been listening to a lot of things. One song in particular.

MIRACLES has a lot of editing to go, so I can’t talk about its plot with any specific detail, since those details might change. And it’s still very soon to talk about.

All I can say is that the song I have been listening to, to capture the feeling of this book, is this:

It comes out in 2017.

I’ll keep you posted when I can say more.

January 26, 2016

The cast of THE DIVINE CITIES!

I’m doing an extremely fun project with artist Chanh Quach – she’ll be creating images of the cast of THE DIVINE CITIES series! And for our first installment, here’s General Turyin Mulaghesh, protagonist of CITY OF BLADES!

Mulaghesh03-web

Next is Ashara (or just “Shara” to her friends) Komayd, protagonist of CITY OF STAIRS!

Ashara01-web

More will be coming out in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned! I’ll keep updating this post with recent arrivals.

UPDATE: Pretty pleased to show you the next two – Sigrud and Signe!

Sigurd02-web

Signe01-webBiswal01-web

Pandey01-web

Vinya02-web

Nokov01-wip04

 

January 25, 2016

so hey maybe you should buy my book

So man. It’s been, like, a while since I finished this sucker – literally almost a year since I was pretty much done with it – but hey, the time is here, the time is now, it’s party time, and let’s get ready for this.

That’s right, folks. CITY OF BLADES is coming out tomorrow.

City_of_Blades_cover

(It looks like this.)

OR, if you’re in the UK, it looks like this:

Capture

You should buy it because I’m me, the guy who is writing this, and also wrote these, both of them, right up above here. I look like this:

Capture

(Please note that in this photo the author is exhausted from ConFusion in Detroit and also the scratch on his head is from when he was walking across a parking lot at night with John Hornor Jacobs looking to buy beer and walked into a tree.)

Why would you do a buyifying procedure for my embookens, which I wrotified? Well here are some reasons.

Publishers Weekly called it “astonishingly good.”

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Kirkus called it “a grand entertainment.”

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Fantasy literature called it “heartbreaking and inspiring.”

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The Barnes & Noble SFF Blog called it “masterful”.

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Books, Bones, and Buffy called THE DIVINE CITIES “one of the best fantasy series out there.”

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It was an Amazon Book of the Month Pick

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And it is doing pretty dang well over at Goodreads.

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And there are bunches of other reviews out there. Check em out.

I’ll be at Hastings in San Marcos tomorrow night at 7 PM, if you’d like to swing by and get a book signed.

And I’ll be at Book People on Wednesday night with good ol’ Kevin Hearne, whose STAKED is coming out the same day, and which you should also absolutely buy.

Kevin Hearne looks like this.

this is not actually what he looks like

Respected and well-liked author Kevin Hearne.

If you are unsure of how or where to buy CITY OF BLADES, I recommend using this website.

If you are unsure of how or where to buy STAKED, I recommend using this totally different website.

And on that note, I am back to editing the final installment in THE DIVINE CITIES – the third book CITY OF MIRACLES, which will star everyone’s favorite murderous Dreyling, Sigrud.

That or maybe I will take a nap.

Maybe nap. Yes.

January 6, 2016

ConFusion 2016 schedule

I’ll be at the upcoming ConFusion convention in Detroit later this month, January 21-24. If you’d like to come by and see me, my schedule is as follows:

Friday 6:00:00 PM SFF Debates 2016!
Six of your favorite SFF personalities debate the issues of our time in this live debate, moderated by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Diana Rowland, John Scalzi, Wesley Chu, Delilah S. Dawson, Robert Jackson Bennett (M), Mark Oshiro, Brent Weeks

Friday 7:00:00 PM Pitch Me Your Elevator
The panel, using their wit and guile, will craft elevator pitches on the spot for classic novels and films. Bonus points will be awarded for style points. Who will take home the title of Elevator Pitch Champion?
Laura Resnick, Mari Brighe, Robert Jackson Bennett (M), Mur Lafferty, Pablo Vazquez

Saturday 9:00:00 AM Author RPG: Planet Mercenary!
Authors from across the genre spectrum come together to put Howard Tayler’s new game, Planet Mercenary, to the test. Come watch these exceptional creatives put on a show and enjoy some laughs. Please remember to give the players their space.
Howard Tayler (M), Brian McClellan (M), Delilah S. Dawson, Cherie Priest, Mur Lafferty, Robert Jackson Bennett, Saladin Ahmed, Brent Weeks

Saturday 1:00:00 PM Women Made of Chrome
Women older than thirty and short of being a grandmother, are rarely seen in gene fiction. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but these types of characters often fade into the background scenery, and very few are protagonists. Why is this? What has been lost as a result? What books have handled vigorous, gray haired, women well?
Kristine Smith, Catherine Shaffer (M), Cherie Priest, Jen Talley, Robert Jackson Bennett

Saturday 4:00:00 PM Autograph Session 1

Saturday 9:00:00 PM Explaining Social Media: Robert Jackson Bennett
Writing wunderkind, Robert Jackson Bennett, presents his social media strategy and how it impacts his authorial career. He’ll take us through the history of the Internet, the emergence of social media, and demonstrate the process he goes through to execute his well thought out strategy.
Warning: Adult content.
Warning: Does not constitute actual advice.
Robert Jackson Bennett (M)

The best words I can put together for my last session – Explaining Social Media – would be “a nihilistic, belligerent orgy of stock art and fonts.” You have been duly warned.

Also, make sure to swing by Hastings in San Marcos on 1/26 to see me on the release day for CITY OF BLADES! And the next day, I’ll be at Book People with Kevin Hearne.

This month is gonna be nuts.

January 4, 2016

Some advice to aspiring writers who wish to make a living off of writing

I finished CITY OF MIRACLES last night, the third and last installment in the DIVINE CITIES series – preceded, as I’m sure (or at least hope) you’re aware, by CITY OF STAIRS and CITY OF BLADES (which I am legally obligated to say will be out January 26).

It’s a weird feeling. Finishing a book is one thing, but finishing a series is another. It’s a little like moving out of a house you’ve lived in for a long time. One book is a house you build. A series is one you have to stay inside for a long time, continually working on it.

And you’re not alone in there, either. There are people in the house with you. As THE DIVINE CITIES takes place over the course of about twenty years, that’s a lot of living for them to do – you get to see their triumphs and their tragedies, their children and their losses. You get to see their dreams and hopes get adjusted, sometimes brutally, to the necessities of reality. It’s an odd thing to wrap up with a ribbon and walk away from.

Anyways, while I’m at this odd reflective period (my son also starts Pre-K tomorrow, that probably has something to do with it), I thought I’d write a short bit of advice for aspiring writers who want to be full-time writers.

I usually do not have much advice for How to Be a Writer. I think most of the learning is done on the job. It is a bit like running an obstacle course in the dark – I can try and describe to you what it’s going to be like, but all my advice and words won’t educate you nearly as much as the first time you catch a metal pole in the face.

However, there is some general career advice I can give to you. Specifically to those wishing to make a sufficient living off of writing.

As I get older – and I know I’m not old, but I am approaching middle age – I’m growing increasingly aware that so much of your future career rests upon the decisions you make in your twenties, when you are likely at your stupidest and horniest. When I was in my twenties, I thought I would just work crappy jobs and keep writing until I was successful.

I made that decision a decade ago. I moved from job to job based on whether or not it paid a dollar an hour more. There were a lot of call centers. I wasn’t on the fast track to big career success by a long shot.

Then I got lucky. I met the right person, who helped me get a decent job that made me actually think and work. If I had not known that person, I would not have gotten that job.

To my surprise, I found it stimulating. I found it meaningful. And I did well at it. A good job, I found, made me feel better and write better. It’s like exercise – the more your blood’s moving, the better everything works.

But as I did this and settled down into the career path before me, I started wondering what else I could have been. What else I could have done.

Publishing tends to be, I think, a weirdly unsatisfying career. I’ve written about why. The entire structure of publishing, even for successful writers, starts and ends with the writer alone in a room. It’s not like music or performance, where you can have an audience or bandmates or other stage players. You’re alone.

This is one reason why I think it’s unwise to begin your young life with writing as the sole goal for your career. It is smart to diversify, for a number of reasons.

As I said above, it’s nice to have a job or a focus or some kind of life goal that you can invest yourself in besides writing. It’s energizing, educational, gives you value, and helps you keep perspective. Staying around other people and working with them is probably good for you, and good for your writing. It can be volunteer work or family or gardening, perhaps, but it helps if it’s a job – because writing, on its own, will almost certainly not be able to comfortably sustain you. Certainly not if you also have a spouse and a child or two.

And this is one reason why it really is very helpful to have marketable skills. Because someone who has always been Just a Writer will likely have very few of these.

Proficiency with Word and Excel and basic online marketing (social media et al) are things nearly any college graduate can do. And the ability to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, surprisingly, is not a terribly marketable skill on its own.

Combined with other things, this ability might go a long way – if you can articulate complicated, abstract ideas as well as write software, design buildings or machines, create market forecasts, file a lawsuit, or negotiate loans, that can be quite valuable. But simply being able to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, and only being able to do that, means that your resume will be rather sparse.

And some will say – I don’t need to worry about that! My ideas are good and great! My ideas are phenomenal! My writing will be successful enough that I’ll be more than able to provide for myself and those I love!

This was me about ten years ago. I was wrong.

I got lucky, and dodged those consequences – but not everyone will.

Here is the truth of Writing as a Career:

Writing is a longterm investment. It is not one big idea, and then payday for life. It’s countless, countless big and little ideas, all carefully crafted and positioned, like investments made in a 401k. (Or at least, that’s what I hope 401ks are like. Probably not today.)

This is not going to be you leaping on a stage with the audience in wonder. This is going to be you carefully building the audience and the stage over years, if not decades, and then, if you’re lucky, climbing on top.

If you are looking for a career in writing, you are not looking for that one big payday, because even if you do find it, it’s deeply unlikely that this will last you for the rest of your life. A bestseller, by itself, won’t be there when you’re fifty, or when your kids are off to college, unless it’s a mega huge super blockbuster bestseller – and if this is what you’re waiting on, then you are essentially playing the lottery for a career.

If you are looking for a career in writing, what you want is a nice backlist of books that have earned out their advances and are making royalties. This gives you moderately steady, dependable income. A goodish amount every two or three months or so. That is, for most writers, a very good situation.

Is it enough to retire on comfortably for the rest of your life? Probably not. Almost certainly not. Will it be something you can achieve in 2-3 years? No. It will probably take a decade or more.

So you will almost certainly need something else. Some other way to get affordable healthcare, some other way to make your mortgage or car payments, some other way to pay for preschool or a college fund. Some other way, in other words, to finance the grand adventure that is Being a Fucking Adult.

Most young people might not want to do this. There is a vast preponderance of art and literature and pop culture that casts the twenty-something wandering artist as figure to aspire to, perhaps not so much a career as a lifestyle choice. It seems like a lot of these figures, when I see them in movies or in commercials (mostly clothes commercials, it seems), are pretty well-off, in good health, and with good teeth. I suspect they have someone bankrolling them. (Perhaps Patreon and the like is a solution to this – but what are the odds that Patreon will be around in 2025, or 2030?)

And then there is the response that doing this, Being an Adult and finding a Real Job, would compromise your dream of being a writer.

To which I say – if having a real job is going to keep you from writing, odds are you were never going to be a real writer – by which I mean someone who finishes work, edits it, and submits it for publication, and does so ad infinitum.

If you want to write, you’re going to write. Writing is actually an incredibly easy thing to do. You just sit down at a computer and hit keys for a while. People do it all day long without even thinking about it. (Fun fact: I’m doing it right now.)

If your ideas are compelling enough, if the work is compelling enough for you, then you can do it an hour or two a day or even every other day, even with a real job, or a spouse and kids. And even if you fail, if you really want to do this, you will keep trying to do it. Over and over and over again.

If you want to do this, you will make time to do it. You can make time while you work and sustain yourself comfortably, along with those you love. It is mostly a matter of you wanting to do it.

So, while you are young and fresh and have money and time to spend, while you are dreaming of your future as a writer or artist or whatever you’d like to be – also spare a thought for, say, taking those software or design classes, or getting that accounting or business degree, or maybe even that law degree.

Your twenties are the best opportunity to do this. And though it pains me to say this, since it makes me sound like a god damned college pamphlet, it’s a good investment in your future.

The fact of the matter is, you are almost definitely going to have to have a dayjob. The word “dayjob” implies drudgery and boredom, an obligation one has to go through while secretly pursuing the life of a writer. But if you’re going to have to have one of these, why not try and make it one you actually like doing, keeps you fed, and is good for your brain?

Writing, as a career, as a business, is an investment. To steal unrepentantly from business lingo – diversify your portfolio. Who knows what the future will hold?

November 24, 2015

Some thoughts about Worldbuilding

I recently read an interesting essay by M. John Harrison about the damaging value of worldbuilding in fiction – specifically SFF fiction. You can read the whole essay here, but the important quotes are:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

This is interesting to me because what he described here is, to me, not worldbuilding: it is bad worldbuilding. It is the sort of worldbuilding you see from time to time where a writer obviously thought that if they put enough complicated gilding on a story, it would distract from all the shit underneath. Such types of worldbuilding often surface as:

  • Descriptions of fashion
  • Descriptions of food, drink, or tobacco (ESPECIALLY feasts)
  • Descriptions of international relations and history
  • Descriptions of songs and customs
  • Descriptions of domestic or municipal laws
  • Descriptions of weaponry, usually the implausible kind

These are usually bad, in that they do not often contribute to or shape the handful of conflicts and tension that form the story – which is what worldbuilding (and, in my opinion, everything in the story, really) should do. Stating that worldbuilding is what saves a bad story sounds to my ears like, “What do you mean, I’ve got a serious heart condition? I’M WEARING A REAL FANCY ROBE. I’M FINE.”

But not all worldbuilding is bad. And not all worldbuilding occurs in fantasy or science fiction. Nor does all worldbuilding occur in fiction, really.

There are tons of longform nonfiction pieces that utilize worldbuilding to great effect. Take this excerpt, from David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:

West Baltimore. You sit on your stoop, you drink Colt 45 from a brown paper bag and you watch the radio car roll slowly around the corner. You see the gunman, you hear the shots, you gather on the far corner to watch the paramedics load what remains of a police officer into the rear of an ambulance. Then you go back to your rowhouse, open another can, and settle in front of the television to watch the replay on the eleven o’clock news. Then you go back to the stoop.

Or this passage:

The Midnight Dance of the Universal Desk Sergeant, a performance that is somehow the same whether the precinct house is in Boston or Biloxi. Was there ever a desk sergeant who didn’t peer out over reading glasses? Was there ever a desk man who wanted to be bothered with police work at three in the morning? Was any station house desk ever manned by anything but aging civil servants, six months from their pensions, whose every movement seemed slower than death itself?

Or take this exchange, from the classic Frank Sinatra Has a Cold profile by Gay Talese, in which Sinatra attempts to intimidate, improbably enough, a very young Harlan Ellison, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time:

The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight, fanny-fitting Jax pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars and narrow tight pants, and Italian loafers.

It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.

Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.

Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.

“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”

A lot of this doesn’t seem necessary. In the Simon excerpts, he speaks in broad terms about theoretical characters: the person on the stoop, the desk sergeant. From the Talese excerpt, he describes clothing – fashion, in other words, one of the problematic instances of worldbuilding I mentioned above.

Now, just because these things are real, describing real places and real events, that doesn’t mean they’re not worldbuilding: the authors could have theoretically included every piece of fact about the surroundings and the events of that day, from the type of carpet to the architecture on the building facades. Or they could have included none of these facts, and wrote a stripped down version of the events, with the descriptions of the surroundings intruding only when it directly affected the action, like a military intelligence report.

But stories, nonfiction or fiction, take place within a mental space for the reader, a space that readers dream up using the words on the page. And worldbuilding is not the process of telling everyone what the local laws are, or what sort of shoes everyone wears, or the history of that nation’s or wars. It is the process of shaping and curating the reader’s mental space.

Real worldbuilding is when you pick the two or three tiny little tidbits that can do the most to help readers create that mental space. You’re not weaving them a tapestry, you’re giving them perspective. Think of it as an aquarium, and the writer is adjusting the ph balance in the water, or the temperature, or other chemicals: by adding a teeny little bit in the background and letting it permeate, it can substantially change how the contents grow or thrive.

So, like most writing devices, if you do it bad, yes, it breaks the reader’s contract. Do it right, though, and the story can sing.

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