Last night, over a pot of coq au vin and a bottle of vodka, I sat at my table and sang songs with my husband, Laurie Penny, Peter Beagle, Peter’s agent Connor, and Connor’s partner Terri. Peter and I sang Mariah together, from Paint Your Wagon.

That is a thing that happened in real life and not in a dream.

My life is often strange and impossible. I am so grateful for it.

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The Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist came out. Christopher Priest, who you may remember from The Prestige, does not approve of it no way no how.

Now, I actually like his post. I’m not going to call it a rant because I don’t enjoy that word–it seems to downplay the possibility of Getting Mad on Your Blog having any style, craft, or critical merit and it’s not really a rant when it’s reasoned, clever, and passionate. Whether you agree with Priest or not, it is all of those things. In fact, “Have we lived and fought in vain?” his comment on Greg Bear’s latest, is one of the great oh-this-fallen-world zingers I’ve heard in lo these many years.

Way back in grad school, one of my professors said he felt quite fondly toward Harold Bloom, though he found many of the man’s ideas toxic and wrong-headed. “We need,” he said “somebody to go on TV in a leather jacket and cry about the death of literature. Somebody has to do that for us, as a culture.”

Well, it looks like Priest has taken up the leather for us this year. And I’m fine with that because someone has to do it. Someone has to move the Overton Window ever so slightly toward high art. High art gets crapped on all the time, and even the phrase is basically a self-reflexive accusation/admission of elitism. But things get shitty, Sturgeon’s Law applies, the center cannot hold, and very occasionally, as high-maintenance lunch-to-literature conversion machines, we need Mommy and Daddy to not be proud of us to spur us on to write better books, to synthesize the high and the popular a little better every time. You will find a thousand authors arguing that what is popular is ipso facto good and anyone who says otherwise is a pseudo-intellectual heel. One guy should be able to say the opposite.

Now. Do I agree with Priest? Not especially, on this score–I have only read two of the books on the list, and I like Internet puppies. (I do agree about the thing we’ve lived and fought in vain about, though. GOD I need an icon of that line.) Were those two my most specialist favorite Trapper Keeper books of all time? Nope. But honestly, the Clarke shortlist has never stood in for my to-read pile. I am not, as they say, the target demographic. The Clarke list has always, to my mind, been for the type of person who goes on the Internet to weep about the death of hard science fiction, and those people rarely hang out with me. Would I be less fine with it if I were one of the authors Priest shakes his finger at? Yep. I would be crushed. I am grateful he either doesn’t care about, has no problem with, or hasn’t seen the Nebula ballot. I’ve never met Priest, but I suffer under the common longing for the greats in my field to find me worthy, to look on my work and call it not a waste of paper, for Mommy and Daddy to be proud of me.

While Damien Walter is probably wrong about Priest’s motivations here (I think “he’s just jealous” as a way of discounting everything a person says does not become a critic) he’s right about the powerful desire of writers to be “…part of the scene, in the loop of the creative life, up amongst the top names in the field. In tempting to believe that all the top writers of the day are all bosom buddies, that they are live in a big house together and go on rambunctious group holidays.”

Yeah, he’s got us on that one. It’s a big part of the reason award ballots cause us ulcers. Not because we want to be showered in rockets while bathing in perfumed Lovecraft heads while signing our new contracts on the crystalline surface of a nebula, but because we want to be in the room, we want to get called up to the big game, we want to be inside and not outside, acknowledged as someone who can be allowed to sit at the big kids table. And it can’t be a whole lot of fun to have someone whose seat is assured tell you at length why you don’t deserve to be there.

But on that point I don’t think you can argue that the Clarke list isn’t, in fact, representative of the field as it stands, of the giants in it, veterans, rock stars, and up and comers, of those who in fact are in the scene and in the know. The fact that so few books were submitted says more about peripheral issues than about the sins of the jury or the authors at hand: the tough-to-crack UK publishing scene and how much trouble science fiction as a genre is having right now, dominated by a few huge names (and therefore the style and ideas of those names), underselling as compared to fantasy, losing new blood to the enormous YA market which is all hopped up on SF dystopia right now (I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it is a thing), and torn between the desire to return to pulp roots and break new ground which might alienate the very vocal fans of those roots. It is hard out there for a space pimp, I tell you what.

Is it possible that a fourth Mieville win, no matter how awesome China is as a person or the relative quality of the book, might harm the award and the field by implying that it’s not so much the Arthur C. Clarke Award as the Annual China Mieville Award? Yep. That is a salient argument. The same guy always winning isn’t exciting or interesting nor does it encourage a lively field. This is why several major editors, writers, and venues pledged to take themselves out of the running for the Hugos this year–they always win. It’s not fair. And China looks to have a book coming out every year for the duration, so possibly it’s time to call someone else up to bat–if they wrote a better book than Embassytown. It’s up to China to decline if he feels it’s right to do that. The shortlist is a done deal and it’s not going to disappear in a puff of logic as Priest suggests/hopes. And while E-town was not to my taste, I’m hard pressed to think of another SF book that came out last year to more perfectly encapsulate what people say they want: cerebral novels of ideas that have interstellar scope, gravitas, and scientific weight. That bad boy is all gravitas.

But all of this is beside my main interest in Priest’s philippic against the Clarke ballot. Which is this: I am endlessly impressed when someone is august enough to be able to post something like that and have people not react with screaming and personalized rage, but with good-natured defenses, t-shirts, macros, and amused opposition.

Because let’s be honest, I couldn’t get away with it. If I posted that shit? I’d never hear the end of what a bitch I am. And Priest is friends with some of those writers, or at least friendly! I still get grief over saying that I didn’t like a popular subgenre of SF, (and at the time I got it from every conceivable corner) and suffer guilt over having torn into Yellow Blue Tibia as harshly as I did. I decided not to do any more negative reviews of anything because the satisfaction of stating my opinion was not worth the personal abuse I got every damn time–even for a stupid movie like Splice. I have a reputation and it starts with B. And I’ve never told a whole slate of award nominees to take a flying leap. Being part of a community as small and close-knit as the SFF world is a delicate thing. Hell, I didn’t even post about how hair-pulling insane the non-ending of The Prestige made me because Priest is a golden god and you don’t go poking them. More fool me, I guess.

Is it because he’s a dude and I’m a lady? For sure, blogs written by men can get away with a confrontational tone and stridency of opinions women can’t. Because he’s old and I’m young? I get that–I haven’t shown that I’m any better than anyone else. Priest is a genius (though again I’m with Walter in that: “His writing is extremely clever, but even in the ‘literature of ideas’ that is SF, ‘extremely clever’ is really a way of saying rather unemotional, dry, and hard to love.”) and you gotta listen when he talks. I envy the free license of the great and glorious elders to simply not give a shit and say whatever because fuck you, that’s why. It’s an amazing superpower. I hope someday to inherit it.

So, Christopher Priest: thank you for going on TV and crying about the death of literature. Literature needs that, to keep it going. The genre needs someone to exhort it to try harder, to keep it reaching for the heights. You had me (specifics of the novels aside–Daddy, you ain’t never gonna convince SF writers to quit it with the neologisms, that is what we call a lost damn cause) right up until you suggested throwing out an already-released ballot, which seems unnecessarily cruel to the real living and breathing authors who would be affected by it–I mean, seriously, that is some cold shit right there, to say oh hey, really, now that we’ve thought about it, you all suck to much to even let this go to a vote. Do over! Wow. Hardcore. That is not even tough love, it’s just tough. But hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, might as well suggest a drastic and unworkable solution. I appreciate any blogger who does over a solution rather than just snerking at the world, even the high-quality snerk going on over there.

No one is going to go: hey, you know, he’s right, I am terrible and Imma fix it! The whole nature of books is that they speak to some humans and not others. The point of shedding tears about literature is not to stage some kind of intervention that moves everyone over to your way of thinking. That trick never works. It’s to piss people off so that somewhere somebody–probably not the people he lit into–thinks to herself: I’m gonna write something so good even that Priest jerk will bow low before my might. And the world is made better by that unspoken challenge.

Whatever the ballot looks like next year, whatever trends and sales and celebrity and chance do to the state of the field, whatever cringing and wincing I have done this morning on behalf of the authors you have deemed unworthy, Mr. Priest, I can tell you one thing:

You have neither lived nor fought in vain. I promise.

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You never know what a school visit will be like. If the kids will have read your book or not, if they will be engaged and interested or bored and distant. If they will open up to you or shy away, since you are a stranger and an adult and that oh-so-mysterious thing, a writer.

And then sometimes they spin you right around and show you the slice of the universe they carry around in their backpacks.

After my talk in South Portland a couple of weeks ago, the kids were milling around the library and two kids started playing an odd game with a long row of identical powder blue books. Each book was about an individual animal, with that animal’s name and a photograph emblazoned on the front in bright colors and large print. The boys stood on chairs behind the shelf so they could pull out books without looking at them.

One, who wore glasses, looked up and yelled “Miss Cat! come over here! We’re playing a game!”

I did, and the boy in glasses told me to stand still and they would pick for me. With a little theatrical flourish, he closed his eyes and pulled one of the books at random.

“This is what he is,” he said, gesturing at the other boy, who had blond spiky hair. He turned the book around and held it straight out with both arms. On the cover was a crocodile.

The blond boy yanked out another one. “Oh yeah?” he said to the boy in glasses. “Well, this is what you are.” He flipped the book to reveal a toucan.

“And this is what you are!” the boy in glasses turned back to me triumphantly, and selected another book.

On the cover was a moose. I laughed. “I can be a moose,” I said. “They’re big and strong and stubborn and they make funny noises, just like me.”

This went on for awhile, grabbing books with closed eyes and trumpeting: this is what he is, this is what you are, oh yeah, well you’re both of these put together, I’m gonna pick three and all of them are Miss Cat. Well, if I were a MAD SCIENTIST I would make one animal out of THESE ONES and it would be a MONSTER and that would be YOU.

I was, variously, a moose, a wolf, a muskox, a flamingo, a grizzly bear, and a walrus. The blond boy was a butterfly, a shark, a mountain lion, a mosquito, a swan, and a kangaroo. The boy in glasses was a dolphin, a hummingbird, a lion, a zebra, a whale, and a rabbit. I was also a whaleantelopebee, and they were an elephantfrogmanatee and a peacocktigerkoala.

And I couldn’t help but marvel at them, the very primal and human moment when theyse children learned how to make metaphors. Not I am like a swan, you are like a wolf, but I am a swan. You are a wolf. He is a shark. I am a rabbit.

And it’s more than metaphors–it’s divination. It’s folklore. If I close my eyes and reach out into this collection of randomly-ordered images, whatever my fingers find will say something essential about me, or my friend who wears glasses, or the lady with black hair and the red book who came to talk to our class today. It will not say what they’re like, it will say what they are, deep down inside. So If I choose a worm for myself, I will be sad, because it means I am a worm and I have this whole set of ideas about what worms are. If I choose a tiger, I will be happy, because I also have ideas about what tigers are and in the world I live in it’s better to be a tiger than a worm. What animal I am tells a story about what kind of person I am, and what my life will be like when I grow up.

It’s this incredibly basic thing, somewhere between magic and storytelling, and you can see exactly where fairy tales come from in these boys grabbing blue books like Tarot cards, like runes. Where totems come from, and fetishes, and half the shamanic toolbox–oh, no Miss Cat, we’ll draw for you. If you draw your own it doesn’t count. Those are the rules.

No one taught them to do it. No one taught them those rules–though certainly there are cultural narratives at play in their reactions to drawing The Rhinoceros versus The Kitten. Though I found it wonderful that with the exception of the flamingo, all of my animals were the sort usually masculinized–big and strong and somewhat dangerous–and they didn’t question it at all. The draw has spoken. Nor did they express particular dismay at being butterflies or swans. It wasn’t about what kind of animals they liked. It was a deeper magic, as a certain lion would say.

What they were doing was very real. Paleolithic human wizardry. We still do it as adults, of course, as a million usernames and pagan names and Halloween costumes and D&D characters and cosplayers attest. The marriage of image and soul fuels story and our conceptions of self, all the more so in the world of the internet where we can use images that are not our actual selves to represent that self–macros and userpics and icons. We are always making ourselves into metaphors. We are deciding with endless online quizzes what animals or fairies or vampires we “are”–in hopes, I have always thought, of borrowing some of the power of those characters and images for ourselves and our actual non-fairy lives. We want those images to mean something more, to say something fundamental, and once we decide they do, they do–that’s how some kinds of magic work.

In play, we show our best selves, the people we dream to be, long to be. And we pantomime acts and narratives that once upon a time were seen as holy, as the very keystones of faith–because they are instinct, they are beautiful, and they are true often enough.

I spent an afternoon with two small shamans and they told me I was a moose. I was a wolf. A muskox, a flamingo, a bear and a walrus. We did a good trade. I brought my magic to them in the form of a red book, and they brought theirs to me in blue books. We wizards know a bargain when we see it.

We shook hands when it was over. That’s how colleagues say good-bye.

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There comes a time when you look up from your constant work and open the windows to let the spring breezes of current events in and take a deep fucking lungful only to say:

What the fresh hell is going on in this country?

Trayvon Martin gets shot to death by a neighborhood watch who stalked him, decided his bag of Skittles was threatening, shot him through the kid’s tears and screams for help, claims self-defense, and the police don’t so much as arrest him? They don’t intend an investigation even though the shooter has fled the city, most likely the state, and disappeared?

NYPD just straight up beat OWS folks into the ground while hissing obscenities at them because they dared show up at Zucotti Park after a rally? Obviously no charges filed, because fuck those hippies.

Rick Santorum–RICK SANTORUM–the senator with the most notorious surname in politics, the one so crazy and mean the whole internet got together to make him no longer viable as a political entity, is winning primaries and might actually be the Republican candidate.

And apparently, APPARENTLY, all of that lovely talk about how American feminists should shut up because the battle is won and everything’s SUPER COOL and happyfunequalitytiemz now is just so much wishful thinking, because we are returning to fucking VAUDEVILLE levels of woman-hating right now. Want an abortion? Well, we’re going to need to violate you with this penis-shaped, condom-covered instrument then, just to remind you of the devil’s work you did to get into this situation in the first place. Nobody knows how birth control or a goddamn uterus works, we seem to be having an actual discussion about whether it’s appropriate to be on birth control as an adult woman, and though conservatives want to frame it as a health insurance issue, it’s really about taking contraception away entirely, as evidenced by the Arizona bill that wants to make it legal for an employer to terminate a woman because she’s on birth control. (No word on Viagra, of course. That’s for a serious medical condition! It must be covered!) Since women already get fired for being pregnant, the logical solution is don’t hire women anymore, and PRESTO CHANGO WE’RE BACK IN 1957 WHEN EVERYTHING WAS PERFECT AM I RITE.

And now, NOW, this asshole in Georgia wants to make it illegal to remove an ALREADY DEAD fetus from a woman’s body until she “naturally passes it” because “that’s what cows and pigs do.”

WHAT. WHAT?

It’s not even an abortion, it’s hazmat removal. To say a woman should risk death and incur obvious psychological trauma from carrying around a corpse as long as possible because cows and pigs do it? Ok, you’ve done it, you’ve actually blown my mind. It seems pointless to say a woman is not a cow or a pig, that anatomy is not identical across the animal kingdom, that it is cruel and beyond the pale to deny necessary medical treatment to a woman because it kind of sort of reminds you of abortion, that the default state of the universe is not Men = Human, Women = animals. That oh my god now not only are women’s lives not as important as fetuses, they are much less important than dead fetuses. And some people will vote for this! They will look at this thing and say: sounds good to me. A pig can make bacon, maybe we should start rounding women up for meat, too.

Is it seriously just that we have a black man in office, so conservatives cannot cast their reality-blocking bubble spell as completely as they did during Bush’s years? Because at least when Bush was around they weren’t telling me not to take birth control on the very flimsy excuse of supporting the Catholic Church, which most American far-right Christians think is a wretched hive of scum and villainy and also witches and idolatry. Is it that the very notion of reality including a black man in power so totally destroys the decency centers of conservative America that all their oldest, ugliest, most ridiculously old-timey sexism and racism comes flying out like psychic vomit? Men who can’t even bring themselves to say the word vagina are deciding what I can and can’t do with mine, and it’s not because the government should stay out of health care, it’s probably not even because babies are so sacred, it’s all about putting those whores in their place, which is not in the office, it’s not in college (else why keep calling women in college co-eds like it’s 1920 and they just let a woman into Oxford for the first time, whatever will the menfolk do? They’re students, you unbelievable jerks), it’s in stirrups, it’s in the kitchen, it’s out of sight and out of mind, with their icky, icky parts hidden away.

I get in trouble when I talk about politics on this blog. Back when McCain was running I posted a paragraph about how grotesque I thought he was and got a rash of comments and pingbacks about how authors should shut up about politics and stick to writing about elves. So most of the time I just don’t say anything, because I don’t want the grief. But things are getting unreal. The level of cognitive dissonance it takes to insist the Republicans are the party of small government while supporting their desire to legislate every aspect of the sexual lives of everybody (think straight men’s sex lives won’t be affected by women not being able to get birth control? Think again) actually hurts my brain to contemplate. Yet half this country blithely spouts it–and quite a lot of geeks, who would never call themselves conservative and certainly would like to get laid a whole lot, gleefully support Ron Paul, who’s so libertarian that he supports practically no government regulation EXCEPT ON THE LADIES AND THE GAYS YOU GOTTA REIGN THAT SHIT IN.

And all the while the only people who even want to talk about the mass financial crimes of Wall Street or the crises facing young people as the economy circles the drain are being beaten like dogs for opening their mouths in the same place that some tents were pitched last fall.

Oh, and it’s 75 degrees in March in Maine and we’re running out of oil and just about everything else. But the Bible doesn’t say that can happen so we should be fine. Don’t even think about researching alternative fuel! That’s not how we powered our Cadillacs in 1957! Therefore it’s suspect!

I don’t get it. I fundamentally don’t understand how in 2012 this is the country I live in. I want to believe it’s the last death throes of the old world, of the terrible, toxic ideas of the 20th century finally spasming out, but these people control a significant part of our governement, and Santorum isn’t even old. We can’t just sit back and say they’ll die off eventually. The earth will never run out of assholes. And this obsession with the essential goodness of the past, the need to not just live life by conservative principles but force everyone else to do the same so you don’t even have to think about anyone ever being any different than you…I can hardly think of an uglier instinct in humans. Rather, I can, but they all come from this same one. And we’re hip-deep in it–but anytime someone gets angry enough to speak out, they get a can of pepper spray to the face. (Seriously, who is training the police these days?)

It’s so much more fundamental than a single election. Hell, it contaminates other countries–the UK is considering, for some kind of insane reason, to scrap their NHS and adopt our system, a system that doesn’t work for us at all and harms our populace. A system so bad it’s the punchline of jokes. But it’s more than that, even. A huge part of the country I live in wants to silence and crush people like me–and that “like me” has multiple vectors. Female, queer, young, liberal, artist, techie. It goes on. I once thought you simply couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle when it came to a lot of these issues. You can’t force a nation to re-shackle itself. But maybe, if your hate is strong enough, you can do it piecemeal, bit by soul-killing bit.

We need an It Gets Better campaign for America–except I’m not sure it actually will.

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Last night I went to speak at a local elementary school about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. It was a good event with a nice turnout, with a bunch of really eager and interested kids who don’t often get to meet authors. Since the book came out I’ve spoken at a lot of schools, of every socio-economic level from incredibly posh private school to low-income public schools.

Now, I was educated at public schools–all the way from K to graduate school. I moved around a lot and some of my schools were better than others. I went to community college. But it’s always been public school for me and if it’s not too bold I think I got a pretty awesome education there, due in large part to phenomenal teachers. Mr. Danielson, Mr. Crossman, Mrs. Lamp, Mrs. Bonneau, Mrs. Bruch, Mr. Kanna, Mr. Wrightson, Dr. Schwartz, Drs. Edwards, Dr. Clark, Dr. Ringrose, Dr. Dubois–these people made me who I am.

I believe in public school. And I also know how difficult funding, teaching, and running a school has become.

Most of the schools that I go to are pretty well off, in good districts, private schools–because those schools ask. Those schools have had authors in the past. They can afford honorariums. One principal even gave me a silver bracelet as a gift for visiting the school. And those kids get a lot out of an author visit. They learn about publishing and about how a story gets written, they get a chance to see books as living things that grown ups are passionate about, they get exposure to the wider world and to art as a wage-making life choice. Peter Beagle came to my high school when I was in 10th grade. It had a profound and lasting effect on me.

And so I came to a decision last night while talking to the 5th graders in South Portland, and to their teacher, who shook her head and talked about how expensive it was to bring authors in, even to get them to do a Skype visit. That it’s just not possible for them very often. Because Maine, a state I love and have made my home, has a severely underfunded educational system. We have a lot of struggling schools, a lot of districts who could never afford to bring in speakers and writers for their kids. We have great teachers and librarians, but the state has been hit hard by every economic downturn and rarely buoyed by upturns that bring tech money to Boston and maybe even Portland, but certainly not to the vast interior of Maine or the outlying islands.

I live here. It is a place I want to see thrive. So from here until forever, I will waive speaking fees for any K-12 school in Maine that asks me to come and talk to their students.

I will pay for my own transportation, yes, even to Eastport or Presque Isle or Matinicus Island. I will provide any incidentals or technical equipment so that the cost to the school remains zero. Scheduling concerns notwithstanding, I am simply making myself available to Maine schools for free. This does include private schools, for all I’m a public school advocate. Even schools that can afford to pay me should get a break sometimes. Use the fee to buy new books for the library or to bring in a second author.

Why just Maine? Why not extend this offer to anywhere in the US, or the world? Kids everywhere need help, don’t they? Well, the simple answer is: I live here. I plan to for a long time. I feel it is vitally necessary to invest in my community, and for kids to see someone who lives in the same world that they do making something beautiful and putting it into the world. To see someone living and working in Maine becoming a New York Times bestseller with a book she wrote in Maine. More practically, I can’t afford to fly anywhere, anytime. This is what I can do, what I can give back to the place that has accepted me and given me so much joy and inspiration.

Maybe no one will take me up on this. Maybe they will. But I feel it is the right thing to do. Any teacher or principal can contact me through my website or my publicist at Feiwel and Friends.

I get asked a lot when I knew I was going to be a writer when I grew up. And the answer is not until I was already writing professionally. When I was a kid, up through college, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to get people excited about the things I was excited about , and do what all those amazing teachers and professors I mentioned (and many more unnamed) had done for me.

I went another way, and I’m not a teacher. But I hope I can give a little help to those wonderful, dedicated women and men who do the good work every day.

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