Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Gender is Silly

There was just a fad going around on Facebook for a gender swapping photo utility. I tried it twice. The first time I got a male version who looks like an uptight churchy type that just got busted for something unwholesome.

I didn’t like that guy at all, so I tried it again and got an old hippie surf bum who lives in a restored Airstream and makes handcrafted pottery while listening to Neil Young, and he seems a little friendlier.

I have a very relaxed concept of gender. I’m straight, but a lesbian friend used to call me a “straight butch,” meaning that I’m more about the video games and cheeseburgers than the housekeeping and matching towels, and I tend to fall for long-haired boys who like music and literature and cooking.

I grew up in the crazy Bay Area, though. I’ve always tended to have more gay and lesbian friends than straight ones, due to my refusal to conform to gender norms. I’ve had a few trans friends, and although I tend to get along with them on a one-to-one level, I find their orientation utterly incomprehensible, because if I was a guy I’d be the same science fiction reading, Converse sneaker wearing, pizza eating, video game afficionado that I am as a girl. Sure, I might be better at opening pickle jars. I might even have some rudimentary sports knowledge to replace my rudimentary makeup knowledge. To me, going around emphasizing your gender all the time is like dancing the Charleston – something people used to be into, and take very seriously, which can be entertaining if skillfully executed and stupid if not.

Gender is not really a big deal in my life, and I don’t really understand the perspective of someone deeply affected by it. Anyway, this has to do with why I don’t tend to write about trans people and their experiences; I’d probably do an awkward job. Gender nonconformists, a-gender characters, asexual people, people whose private lives are none of our beeswax – that I do get, and I always try to include characters in those categories.

If I were a guy I’d have a whole different set of social experiences, but there’s no way to tell whether they’d be better or worse. Maybe I’d have a wife, or a husband, who would look after my Oscar Madison tendencies or maybe I would have a string of divorces and child support payments – that’s another area that depends entirely on the people I meet. Gender is a social thing and I’m an introvert.

I’m not uncomfortable with the concept of femininity, mind you. I own several dresses and skirts, plus I indulge in romance novels and girly pop music and pictures of adorable kitties. I never met a small fluffy animal I didn’t like. I’d probably be that way even if I were a guy.

This whole exaggerated hard-style (as they call it in anime, that super machismo display where you never smile or eat cake or register emotion) masculinity performance that kids are doing these days is sort of goofy to those of us who didn’t grow up with it. In an atmosphere of rigid gender pressure, no wonder some people are in rebellion. And I realize that sounds all smug and superior and I’m sorry; I do realize people undergo a lot of suffering over gender. Which is why it’s a situation I try not to approach in a head-on collision sort of way.

These gender swap photos fascinate me because my story involves a bunch of rather narcissistic clones … and one girl version, one of a few, resulting from a test of whether they could. The difference between a pretty girl face and a rugged man face is pretty close, and at the same time, worlds apart. Female faces can be like brightly painted masks that shine everyone on, while male faces invite us to speculate about their status and personality and experiences. My character, accustomed to her male counterparts, learns how to do the gender performance thing from another woman – with amazing success.

As far as teenage romance, the kind the rock stars sing about, the kind where you fall passionately in love and then have a big dramatic breakup after a little while so you can do it again with someone else – I grasp that very well. And I’m having a blast writing about it. Mostly about opposite-gender kids so far, but there might be same-gender kids in my future, all depending on where my characters lead me.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Bye, Barnes and Noble

Because I’m a vicious Californian organic soccer mom when it comes to my cat (not necessarily when it comes to myself; see Exhibit A, my stock of Jolly Rancher Apple flavored Pop Tarts), I buy foofy ancestral-diet high-protein grain-free catfood. When people try to argue with me over my feline dietary choices (and they do, there are lots of us pet food nerds and we’re all opinionated), I just whip out pictures and explain he’s a little unusual, and they always agree.

Fortunately, we live in San Francisco, where everybody’s unusual. That’s why we tend to like small mom ‘n pop neighborhood stores as opposed to big corporate chains. For the last couple decades I was buying my cat food at one. Occasionally I’d go in and find a petition to sign, about some rich corporate type looking to move into the neighborhood with a bigger, warehouse-type shopping experience and put both adjacent mom ‘n pops out of business.

There were lots of petitions and meetings at city hall, but eventually Mr. Monopoly Board got his warehouse, and combined with the internet, the mom ‘n pop places went out of business. I was going to an alternative mom ‘n pop twenty blocks away for a while, but the internet put them out of business too. Finally, Mr. Monopoly Board and his corporate store folded, which happened just recently, leaving no place at all to buy unusual brands of cat food. I now buy cat food over the internet. I live in a cat food desert.

Something similar is happening to book stores right now. Barnes and Noble, which put several smaller bookstores out of business using the same strongarm tactics, is about to fold. This will leave millions of Americans in a book desert.

It’s hard to predict exctly what corporate publishers will do. The big box model has influenced them to drop quirky midlisters (like I would have been had I been writing in the 70s or so), favoring cookie-cutter wannabe-blockbusters with mass appeal.

My futuristic solution would be to have a shop where prospective readers head into digital kiosks and select reading material based on “what are you in the mood to read” type menus, and then their selection is either printed (in whatever size they want) or loaded onto their device, or loaded onto a new/disposable device. You could keep infinite amount of backlist, so these bookstores would develop areas of expertise based on their workers and owners – you could have different versions specializing in Marvel comics or golden age sci fi or detective stories or what have you. They could all sell everything, but certain places would have that human element steering you towards fun authors. Possibly this is what Amazon’s brick and mortar places intend to do.

There are still bookstores in my town which are not Barnes and Noble and which still have signings and hand-written recommendation cards and fun stuff like that. I’m feel guilty when I walk past them, since 99% of my book purchases are electronic.

I’m sad. And yet at the same time, I’m optimistic that quirky midlisters like me have a role to play in bringing civilization to the book deserts.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

No Hawai'i This Year

So I’m doing my taxes, and things are going okay … and then I got to the part about only being able to deduct two conventions a year. Since this year I’m already signed up for BayCon in May and WorldCon in August, it looks like I’ll probably skip Hawaiicon. Next year! I’ll put some energy into PR and finding an editor and finishing volume three instead.

50 Shades of Haole

I just signed up with Gedmatch, the hands-on DNA service for people who are a little nerdier than the typical 23andMe customer. When I looked at the "admixture" section I couldn't stop laughing -- the report was very different than what 23andMe has been telling me.

There was an article being shared around on Facebook, meanwhile, about how white people were being falsely assigned African ancestry in some kind of attempt to defuse racism -- since the article included a non-ironic use of the term "SJWs" I dismissed it, while noting Gedmatch gives me faint ties to NE Africa while both are (currently) denying any S African.

I'm posting this mainly to point out that the "science" of determining ethnicity from DNA is still very much in its infancy, and results may vary. Also, I'm feeling very cosmopolitan and international as a Gedmatch person, whereas when I focus on being a 23andMe person I have a strong desire to debate theology with myself.

The important part: do these charts explain my fondness for chicken tikka masala??

[Trick question, chicken tikka masala comes from Edinburgh.]

Well, Yeah, As a Matter of Fact I Did Write That Novel With an Exploding School on the Cover

Lots of text has been creeping across my Facebook feed blaming all kinds of heinous crimes, such as that recent school shooting, on kids these days and the media they consume. As a creative who hopes to someday have more kids consume the media I produce, and in particular, as a creative whose last book has an exploding high school right there on the cover, I thought I’d say something on the subject.

First, I’m going to give you a synopsis of the school scene and let you decide whether I’m glorifying violence:

The Synopsis

Sonny is attending high school in the rough part of town. He lives in a beach resort where the main industries are filmmaking and tourism, and the rough part of town is populated by rude people with bad attitudes that have difficulty remaining employed in hospitality industries.

The principal, Mizz Pantler, is a stone cold bitch and as the story begins, she’s berating Sonny for writing an essay that makes frequent use of the word “[redacted]” – when he tries explaining to her that his essay was censored by international peacekeeping agency Ambit due to politically sensitive content, she retreats into the blockheaded misunderstanding beloved by many confrontational authoritarians and tells him to write another essay, noting that many of the students in her school have been in trouble with the law so there's nothing special about Sonny. 

So Sonny writes another damn essay, plus he spends the weekend trying to relax at an amusement park, but unfortunately, his enemies from the clone nation of Dysz are there too, and a roller coaster gets blown up. On Sunday, a security robot at his uncle’s condo compex goes berserk and tries to kill him. He still manages to write his essay, however, which is now nothing more than a list of colorful and emotional metaphors.

On Monday, Sonny reports back to school, accompanied by a police drone which causes many of his classmates to assume he is a snitch that needs stitches, but his day is soon interrupted by a bomb drill. All the students are marched outside, where they stand in neat rows as the bomb squad responds, including Ambit agent Blocker, in an anti-terrorist mech suit with gun arms. An explosion indeed detonates (as shown on the cover) but nobody is injured.

End of the Synopsis

Why isn’t anybody injured? Thanks for asking – it’s not explicitly stated in the story! The bomb’s presence was detected by chemical-sniffing nanobots – I’m going to assume the bad guys knew enough about these to selectively disable some, giving themselves maybe a couple hours of lag time, but failsafes are in place, and they worked. The kids were evacuated – they are very familiar with evacuation drills, and where to go, and where to stand. Meanwhile, law enforcement is screaming to the scene with enough armament to take down a kaiju, and although Sonny’s not really aware of it, the school building itself was ready to dispense powerful tranquilizers through ceiling vents. That’s why all the kids are sent outside. There are also more security drones present, ready to spit out colored smoke and tiny robot aircraft bearing payloads of major anesthesia and the like. And there are robotic cops that get sent into troublesome situations, covered in armor and cameras and crowd-control tools.

In the next chapter, Sonny does in fact meet up with various robotic cops, one of which arrests him by grabbing him in big soft padded arms and depositing him in a container which is shipped directly to prison, without the need for any human law enforcement to engage in physical contact. Once he gets to prison he is packed into an individual jail cell and only allowed to interact with others as an avatar in virtual reality. But I’m spoiling now, plus I’m far beyond the cover scene where Pantler, Blocker and Sonny are engaged in a discussion as the school explodes and the police drone beeps.

I’m partly being pessimistic. Yeah, there will still be school attacks in 3748, but we’ll have better tools for dealing with them, so that they are more like fire drills – inconvenent and boring, but necessary. Medicine is my primary change factor, since the Sonny Knight series is about playing fast and loose with bioengineering. In the here-and-now it wouldn’t be feasible to rig your ceiling with fentanyl jets or suchlike; people would die. However, if you had future superdrugs, with supermeds to deal with any overdoses, and (most importantly) super ways of paying for medical care so that peoples’ lives aren’t ruined by the financial hardships associated with being in an occasionally violent action-adventure story, you can get away with a little more reversible violence.

I’m partly being inflammatory. This is an action-adventure story, and I tried to cram as many stressors into it as possible, and being attacked in school is, sadly, a prominent stressor of our times. I really wish it wasn’t, but because it’s a button, I’m going to push it.

I’m partly extending a great big middle finger to all the people claiming we will evolve out of school attacks if we only censor everyone’s media and get rid of all teenage fashions and music, and ban all the speculative fiction, and uninvent video games. Not in my future, pal.

I’m mostly being a science fiction writer, trying to brainstorm ideas of how the future might involve less dead teenagers. Teenagers are precious and we need to keep as many of them alive as we can. Maybe we can protect them with padded robot arms, and tiny smart drones, and mech suits. Perhaps we can create a world where school attackers are swiftly and harshly neutralized before the body count gets a chance to rise. What if we identify at-risk teenagers and get protective drones to follow them around, ready to summon help, or slip them a heaping serving of happy drugs?

My goal was to write about a mostly-possible future, with a few glaring loopholes for bio tech magic. Not to make political points about guns or violence. I think of violence as a puzzle to be solved with skill and tools and technology – both hard tech in the sense of protective drones and preemptive weapon scans and soft tech in the sense of gaining a better understanding of human aggression. I don’t think we’ll ever rule out anger or aggression, but I think we can definitely minimize the number of human beings who die unnecessary deaths because somebody couldn’t cope with their own aggression. If you want to assign a political label to that, please be my guest.

I was tempted to write guns out of my fictional future entirely, but I don’t think they’ll go away. In fact, I threw in even more guns – guns that shoot chemicals, guns that refocus light, guns that specifically counter other guns. I’ve got a couple of in-progress short stories set in the same universe which include things like magnetic bullet deflectors and personal nanodrone launchers that can invisibly smite your enemies – and personal implants that provide lethal counters to all of the above. Shooting someone with a metal bullet might make them fall down, or it might make them launch countermeasures that’ll turn you into a puddle of goo, and fighting therefore is something requiring strategy and intelligence and finesse. That’s this fictional world – future ones may vary. I was operating on a principal that things don’t get uninvented but they do become increasingly more complex.

There’s a wide spectrum when it comes to “glorification” – a concept I don’t really like. To some people representation is glorification, meaning that even if you only show bad guys handling guns, or guns in neutral situations, some kids will still want to run out and get guns of their own. Then there’s the oevre of admitted gun fetishists like Larry Correa, which are full of giddy reaction to liberals like me who’d just as soon live around fewer firearms.

Then again, liberals like me are likely to go, “here, I wrote a book featuring a school attack, because that’s a really scary thing that we should explore – maybe we can find ways to make it less dangerous.” That’s not necessarily a liberal position.

Other people might lean more towards dispensing blame, and doing performance art pieces thematically focused on outrage. Both liberals and conservatives do that from time to time, so I don’t really view that as a political position either.

My political position is pretty simple: we need to keep as many kids alive as possible. You can hang whatever adjectives you want on that position, but we do really need to focus on it, because we are losing far too many teenagers.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mass Shooting Memories

On July 1, 1993, a nutcase named Gian Ferri shot up a lawfirm at 101 California Street in San Francisco, killing eight people and wounding six more. On that day I was working at a law firm at One Market, which happens to be across the street from 101 California. I smoked like a chimney in those days, and I came back from a cigarette break to find my co-workers partially hysterical because someone had called them to let them know there was a shooter.

A few years later, I was working at another law firm, this one four blocks away from 101 California, which was handling a case where a number of family members of people murdered by Ferri were suing manufacturers of guns and component parts. That case involved evidence from the various cases directly involved in the Ferri murders, and although I do a pretty job flushing nasty evidence from my brain once cases conclude, some of the Ferri stuff is still floating through my brain cells. I knew some of the victims in passing, indirectly, as part of the community, as friends of friends. I passed by the building where they died every day for years, and I still find myself glancing at its unusal architecture whenever I’m downtown, thinking to myself, “Remember that massacre?”

That’s how those things work. If you’re not directly involved – or even passively involved, indirectly involved or proximally involved – massacres slip right out of your mind. Oh yeah, lots of strangers died, how sad. When you’re tangentially involved it leaves a tiny little scar, enough to give you occasional twinges. Gee, they died without ever seeing smart phones. Wow, they died before rideshares and before the Salesforce tower and before Muni stops with those red wavy things on top. Gosh, I wonder if some clone of Ferri will ever come stomping through my own office, or maybe just the one next door. It happened at UPS not too long ago, and I’m not sure if I knew the driver, but there are UPS drivers I know by sight, so there’s not a lot of separation.

Maybe there will come a day when we all know someone who has been in a massacre, and has seen them go through the aftermath – not just the week of obligatory media coverage but the twinges that go on for years.

People who have never been close to trauma are easy to spot. They laugh, boasting about how they would simply pull a few casual heroics out of their back pocket, parkouring over office cubicles to kung fu the shooter right in the face, between clip changes. I’ve been through a few traumas, little ones. From my career, I’ve known people who have undergone very bad traumas, including shootings, so I am unfortunately familiar with people who have logged many experience points when it comes to trauma. They laugh too, but their laughter is different.

Trauma virgins can be annoying, but at the same time, I wish there were more of them. I wish there were far less trauma victims, and each new shooting makes me wince at the thought of the total increasing. Trauma virgins still think they’re invincible and mighty, and haven’t yet been in a situation they couldn’t control. To them the solution is simple – climb down the side of building like Spiderman, distract the shooter and punch them in the jaw, entrust a bunch of civilians to whip out their lawfully concealed pistols and execute the villain without even establishing a com channel to coordinate – the sort of solutions bad television writers crank out.

I’ve been bad this week, on the internet. I’ve been blocked by a couple of conservatives, for ranting at them after they attributed this latest shooting to the usual suspects – heavy metal, video games, kids-these-days. I believe they are correct in that there have always been fights in school. What there haven’t always been are the kind of weapons that allow a schoolyard bully to turn the quad into a corpse-strewn battlefield. We have those now, which is why you hear more about schoolyard-fights-on-steroids, and domestic-quarrels-with-collateral-damage and nutty-suicidal-loner-takes-everyone-with-him. You can go ahead and blame it on comic books and rock and roll, but the clear difference is the tech. We haven’t mutated into some other kind of human in a few decades.

Another one that makes me roll my eyes like a cartoon slot machine is the parenting argument, often thrown out by women, about how if only we hugged our precious babies more, they wouldn’t be murderers. This latest murder happened to be an adoptee and an orphan – how do these “mama love can cure all world evil” types propose to deal with the inevitable handful of kids whose parents are abusive or absent or dead? And what are all your adequately nurtured, screen-free, organic-fed veal calves going to do when that one-percenter’s emotionally distraught child comes to class with an arsenal?

I’m not a “gun grabber,” which is what certain conservatives call liberals that dislike gun massacres. I don’t want to take all the guns away from everybody. I choose not to live in a gun-centric place. I understand there are other places with different opinions, and I generally don’t go there. I’m probably more of a states’ rights type when it comes to interpreting the Second Amendment.

In fact, there’s a perverse side of me that would long to see a social experiment, involving two towns full of volunteers – opinionated folks, passionate about walking their talk. In Shootyville, everyone is carrying concealed, willingly and voluntarily. In Grabberburg, only the police have firearms. Give them a couple of years. See what happens. And then, most importantly, learn from it.

Some of the other conservatives I’ve been talking to agree that some guns need to be grabbed. They give me hope.

As a futuristic liberal, I’m reading things about secret gun detectors they’ve been installing in Las Vegas and nodding in approval. I’m looking at the vicious partisan insults on the interwebs and thinking, yep, conservatives and liberals sure hate each other, and men and women fight like cats and dogs, and maybe forcing everyone’s kid to socialize in close quarters during business hours is a practice guaranteed to generate trouble.

As a writer of science fiction for kids … my books have guns. There is, in fact, a shootout at a restaurant (Prince of Prawns), and even though I did a few cute tricks to diminish the horribleness of a massacre by making it more like a family grudge that spilled over in public, it’s there. Along with all kinds of other violence and mayhem. I don’t encourage guns, and sometimes characters pay huge penalties for using them. I include lots of new high-tech guns as well as new high-tech ways to foil guns, and counters for those guns. I think guns will always be around, but I also think we’ll develop new ways of defending against them, as a matter of necessity. Plus I'm optimistic enough to hope that someday we'll spend as much time studying aggression as we have studying sex, and figure out what makes people erupt in violence, even if it is Tetris or comic books or jazz music or whatever. 

Right now my liberal heart is bleeding for the parents of the latest crop of victims. This is happening too much. We need to get together and figure out how to fix it.

Thursday, February 15, 2018


I got irrationally upset tonight because a delivery nearly got postponed. I was expecting it at seven, and the company apologetically told me I couldn’t have it until ten or maybe eleven, and I had to just say, “sorry, can’t do it, please cancel” and hang up, and it’s all because of prime brainflow time.

Brainflow is the condition I need to be in when I write. I can do other things in brainflow state, like play videogames, or hang out with the cat, or read endless webpages and forum posts and Facebook blatherings. I can eat or drink, but often I won’t even notice what it is. Lots of people experience brainflow from time to time – when they’re all wrapped up in a movie or book or musical piece, or solving math problems, or writing, or working out, or playing video games. It can be a social thing, especially if you’re in a group activity, like playing music or games, and things are just ... flowing.

Emerging from brainflow is not that simple. It’s incredibly annoying when someone drags me out of it with petty interruptions. The prospect of sitting around on the edge of my chair waiting for somebody to summon me downstairs for the next five hours was just too horrible to contemplate. If I’m doing the brainflow thing I’m not taking calls, I’m not answering texts, I’m not chatting on Facebook. Radio silence.

One of the best descriptions of brainflow I can think of involved a time when I was working on a piece of writing – can’t recall exactly what – and I started at two in the afternoon on a bright sunny day. Next thing I realized, it was dark. And I was written out for the day, and I was hungry. I routinely get there – into the flow, into the groove, into deep focus – for shorter periods of time, but that whole “blink and it’s night” thing sums it up best.

Since it’s tied up with my art, achieving brainflow state is part of my life goal, and so is hopefully someday using it to write something great. I’ve structured my career and lifestyle around it – no working odd hours, no weekend corporate retreats, no business travel at all, in fact. I need to go home every night and spend a couple of hours in the zone. Occasionally writing gets done at this time, which makes me happy. I prefer to spend my entire weekends in the zone, and fiercely resent being dragged away unless it’s something at least as fun as Disneyland. In fact, when I go to Disneyland, I’ll usually take a couple of breaks a day to go hide in the hotel room being engrossed in a book or something. Taking a brainflow break.

I’ve regrettably decided to remain single over this, having never found a partner that quite understood it. Lots of people, in fact, resent being ignored by someone who seems to be hypnotized -- think of a girlfriend complaining about her man’s video gaming, or a mom upset about their child sitting around looking at screens. I’ve had a couple of brainflow-disruptors confide in me they have never been able to get into the brainflow state, and they find it threatening and frightening, so much that they feel compelled to pull people out of it. Doesn’t really make me want to hang out with them at all, but it’s nice to know. I don’t really like brainflow-disruptors, given my propensity for brainflow, so I try to give them a wide berth. I don’t like to explain to them why I can’t just sit around for five hours waiting for a delivery when I’m dying to settle into my writing yet afraid I’ll get so deeply focused on it that I don’t hear the doorbell. All the while resenting the person who is about to ring the doorbell.

This might even be one of those autistic spectrum behaviors of the “lite” sort, that many people exhibit, too many for it to be truly pathological. I’ve noticed that as long as I get my brainflow fix, I don’t dream, and my sleep is nice and deep. If something such as external stress is keeping me away from my focus zone I tend to get into these anxiety loops, where I start getting anxious about how worried I am, which stresses me out. At which point it takes a lot of books and movies and deep breathing and kitty brushing to bring my Californian mellowness back.

Ideally, when I’m in the flow, I’m writing something that’ll put you in the flow too. Hopefully it’ll help you emerge with your brainwaves neatly folded. An enjoyable media experience can take you away from your own anxiety and worries and stressors, and maybe even deliver you to a new perspective where you can find some solutions. Once we’re in the flow we can look beyond the superficiality of our bodies and imagine what it’s like to be someone else, somewhere else, doing something we’ve never done.