Occupy DS9

I was watching DS9 last night and the episode Past Tense came up.

It’s set in 2024, 13 years from now, which is normally an opportunity for lulz, as predictions of 20 years in the future are often hilariously inept.

But imagine my surprise. It’s actually extremely plausible. The economy is in permanent collapse and all the jobless and hopeless live in enforced Sancturary Districts (which is most people) while the ultra-rich live decadent lives manipulating multinational economies and ignoring the situation. They even did a decent job with fashion–Dax is all steampunked out.

The Sanctuary Districts look eerily like the Occupy Wall Street camps around the country. It’s as if someone decided to Deal with the Problem and just put up walls around them. Which could happen, for serious, if it goes on long enough. If enough of the 1% get fed up with their commutes being disrupted. The tents and young people and the character planning for a demonstration telling everyone to bring their kids and look their best because no one listens to derelicts really struck me hard. Supposedly a series of riots will bring the awfulness to the fore and ignite enough rage to finally solve the social problems in future!America and lay the path for Federation style post-scarcity.

I was impressed. In my cynical current attitude, the only thing I don’t buy is that we’re only 13 years from things turning around.

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With all the discussion of student loan debt lately, I had a curious. I went to look up the current tuition for UCSD, my undergraduate alma mater–part of the UC system, keep in mind, so at least in some part state-subsidized. When I went there it was because I couldn’t afford out of state tuition for UW, which at the time was $11,000 per year.

Holy shit.

It’s not only doubled since I graduated in ’02, but nearly tripled, to a bit over $13,000 per year, up from $5000. $2k more than the out of state tuition I couldn’t afford. (Which is now up to a Lol-arious $27,000 per year at UW.)

I moved out of California in ’01 (yes, that math is weird, I did my senior year at Edinburgh University and took the degree exams there) and have only been back for about 9 months since, during which time (2003) I attended Cal Poly for graduate school (then $2000 per year tuition, now $6606 per year). I have student loans from this, boy howdy, and a lot of it is from those 9 months as–well, let’s just subtract the life story part and say that I was very late in applying and missed the window for grants, I was not yet married nor employed, so I had to take out loans for the whole of my living expenses and tuition. Fun.I am well aware that the California budget looks a lot like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon: the Terminator paints a tunnel on a wall and disappears through it while the rest of the state faceplants. I knew tuition had gone up, but fuck. Even my community college (American River in Sacramento) is up from $13 per unit to $20, which doesn’t sound like that much and isn’t as bad as the rest, but that’s still a 50% increase. Let’s not even talk about what my private school east coast friends paid.

My loans aren’t really that bad, comparatively. I went to community college, then state schools, and my UCSD tuition was taken care of by grants every year. Not covered, naturally–the expense of living in San Diego (which hasn’t had on campus room for the majority of its students and none of its transfer students for years) and San Luis Obispo, liberal arts textbooks, and commuting. I also worked pretty much the whole way through. I did all those things the 53% kids say they did, and I still had to have loans. Still have loans. Will for awhile. Because real life keeps coming along whenever I think I can pay them off.

And I can’t imagine trying to do it now, with even state tuition looking like that, and cost of living astronomically high. I don’t necessarily agree with student debt forgiveness–I took out those loans and I’m responsible for them. But then, I didn’t have to take out high interest loans co-signed by my parents, and I got several grants and scholarships that aren’t widely available anymore. The answer, I’d say, is that college shouldn’t cost so damn much (the tuition is too damn high), especially having experienced the UK system where my peers were paying about 1000 pounds a year for heavily subsidized education that didn’t bankrupt anyone before they could even get a job.

I remember too well how unaffordable and impossible everything seemed when I was 19 and trying to get an apartment in San Diego with a roommate who was not a literal crackhead (ended up with the next best thing, a closeted lesbian fundamentalist Christian with a drinking problem, and still living an hour and a half from campus). I actually cried the first time I went into the housing office and saw the rents posted–having moved from Sacramento where you could still (in 2000) get an ok studio apartment on your own for $400 a month, La Jolla and anything actually on the bus route to campus might as well have been in Shangri-La.

I try to imagine being in college now. I think about what I majored in, which was Classics. Dead languages, yo. EXTREMELY PRACTICAL. And every single person who asked my major followed that up with “How do you expect to make money from that?” so I could not have been totally blind to how not useful that degree was. I had a plan and that plan was to be a professor–my mother was one, it was a world I knew. Of course, these days those very colleges whose tuition makes one choke have cut many of their tenured positions so that they can pay adjunct faculty embarrassingly little. And I did manage, somehow, by the grace of whatever gods there are, to back into a job where I use my degree just about every single day. It DID turn out to be extremely practical, a really excellent education for a genre writer–but that might have gone the other way just as easily, leaving me to work–or as likely in this economy, not work–as a greeter at Wal-Mart. Or, in a better case scenario, an office manager, or the other clerical professions that don’t really care what your degree is in. Maybe a nanny, or a PA. And I may still end up doing that–writing is never safe or sure.

As we start to make tentative plans to have our first child, I find all this terrifying. (Like how I just slip that in there? If you don’t blog it, it isn’t real, but nothing’s happened yet so it feels weird to make a thing of it. The plan is sometime after The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland comes out next year. Fingers crossed.) What would I tell a kid of mine who wanted to major in something impractical like I did? I can say: don’t major in creative writing if you want to be a writer, you have to know something to write about, but what else? Double major in something “useful”? Because what is useful now? Computer Science, I guess, though that’s no guard against unemployment. But servicing and programming the robots is about the only thing I can think of that’s even in the orbit of a safe bet. It’s all luck or connections. Be born connected or have a leprechaun’s luck. MBAs have glutted the market, same with law school grads. You have to have the spare time to work unpaid internships to leverage those degrees. Since you have to go to college to get even low-end jobs now, graduate school is becoming the next “everyone has to” bar, and that costs even more. And you know, there is huge value to finding yourself in school, exploring, not deciding right away, meeting people who are not exactly like you and your parents. I wish there was a less apocalyptically expensive way to do that.

And all the while people bitch about generations, and how they’re entitled, and their delayed adolescence. Which is just so gross. How can adolescence not be delayed when the basic requirements for working and living keep going up? So yeah, I understand the collegiate strain in the Occupy Wall Street crowd–I’m not at all sure how I feel about OWS as a whole, but I get the trapped feeling. It’s less and less possible to escape the trap, and it feels like that’s by design, so that we start out buried in the system, and spend most of our time just trying to get our heads above water.

It’s hard not to feel hopeless. I have to stop reading blogs I used to, just to not want to hide all day long from a whole bunch of things I can’t effect and have no solution to. The whole system that the Boomers have told us would be eternal because it worked for them actually functioned for maybe 20 years, but not only do we keep getting told to behave as though it’s still in place, we still kind of believe it should be and that somehow we’ll go back to it. We never will. I have no idea what kind of SF working world is coming, but something else is, the only question is whether it will be a new set of assumptions that will burn out by the next generation or straight up dystopia, and then how dystopic it aims to be. I read an article saying it’s the end of the industrial age in the West, and maybe it is. Maybe the robber barons bookend that world, and we’re headed out of it. I suppose I did just give a talk about how medieval our lives really are right now.

Maybe it’s not as bad as all that. But I look at that tuition, and I see plans to raise it another 30%, and I wonder how anyone is going to manage 20 years from now. I need a drink.

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Here’s the thing. I’m sick to death of talking about ebooks.

In the current economic and publishing climate, that is a shocking thing to say. Posts about epublishing regularly get the most comments and pingbacks, I’m constantly asked to give talks about my own experiments in that arena, and I usually agree to do them. It is the topic of conversation among authors, agents and publishers alike. How we’re going to adapt, how it will change the publishing environment, how, most importantly, to make money with ebooks.

But I’ve had it. Because something seems to get lost all the time in these endless conversational loops that make me want to embed something in Data’s wrist so that I know how to break the cycle.

And that something is, you know, books.

My interest in ebooks is a tiny percentage of my interest in books. I didn’t dream of being a writer so I could spend my time discussing file formats and what Author X (even if X= me) did to sell a whole bunch of copies. Maybe it’s stupid and romantic, but I got into this because I loved books. Because stories were the most important things in the world to me, and I had so many of them to tell. Don’t get me wrong, there are vital and important things to talk about with regards to ebooks, and it is changing the industry. But when we discuss writing these days, we almost always end up talking about self-publishing and ebooks. And then any other conversation is over.

I and you and everyone has heard a lot about Amanda Hocking in the last year. But no one has ever said to me: Amanda Hocking’s books moved me and spoke to my life, I love them and I read them over and over because they mean so much to me. They say: Amanda Hocking sold a million ebooks. Frankly, I couldn’t tell you one of her titles without Googling if you paid me. And this gets repeated over and over. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s in the ebook as much as that it’s an ebook. I hear about so-and-so and how they charge 99 cents for their ebooks and make money hand over fist. And that’s the topic for an hour in some con bar, and it might not even get mentioned what the book in question is about.

I understand that we’re all just trying to get by in an industry that was always brutally tough. But remember how when we were all kids and wanted to be writers and a big part of that was sitting around with other bookish people and talking about literature? Yeah, me too. Nowhere in there was a deep longing to talk about epub vs MOBI until I can’t remember which one makes techno music.

Even this post (forgive me, Paul, it’s a good and important post, but it feeds my thesis) about why Amazon has become a gatekeeper just as much and in fact more than those evil NY publishers, which is a topic you guys know I feel strongly about, falls into the trap. It lists four reasons people want to be writers, and none of them has anything to do with “I want to tell stories.” They are, instead, status and financially-related reasons. And the sad thing is I believe he is probably right about those reasons for a lot of people who cheer Amazon and sneer at us “dinosaurs.” (Though now that Amazon is breaking into the traditional publishing business, I suspect things will get dicey in Whoville.) Being a Writer has tremendous cultural cache, and it’s part of why everyone and their cat wants to be one.

But it seems to me that ebooks are now a subject almost wholly unrelated to books. It’s about money and it’s about “the industry” and it’s about form, but not content. And not infrequently, it’s about scoring status points by being more plugged in to the new system than thou. And the great conversation has started to accrue a kind of inertia–someone says the Kindle is the future and “trad” publishing is dead, someone else defends traditional publishing and points out Amazon’s robber baron tactics, someone else brings up Smashwords and other indie options, someone else sides with Apple. So-and-so sold a million ebooks. So-and-so turned down a print contract to self-publish. So on and so forth.

Now, obviously, I have been experimenting with publishing on the internet for a long time. This may be coloring my experience, because I am asked to talk about the brave new world of ebooks far more often than if I had never written serial novels online or started mailing wax-sealed stories to people around the world out of my dining room. But the fact is, I would, a thousand times over, rather talk about what I wrote than how I published it. And I feel like stories–you know, those things we’re all fighting for?–are getting lost in the rush to be the one who knows the score, who says the definitive thing about the new tech, or the one who needs the knowledge to be able to launch their own million ebooks empire. Honestly, you’d think there was a prize for the first one to call time of death on traditional publishing, given how popular that headline has become.

It’s a land rush right now. I get it. Boy, do I get it. I’m sure that back in the day every music conference was obsessively buzzing about mp3s. But if you put a penny in a jar for every article you read about ebooks, and took one out for every book review or book discussion you read, I’m willing to bet, for most of us, the jar would never go dry. And I’m guilty of that, too.

So I guess this is a call to arms. I do that from time to time. It’s a habit left over from college. We don’t have to stop talking about ebooks–that’s putting one’s finger in a dyke that has already blown. But let’s talk about books. Let’s allow the fact that our obsession over ebooks stems from a deep and abiding love of books shine through. Let’s take just a cup or two of that excitement about our Star Trek Future!Tablets and use it to get geekyhappythrilled about the actual stories it lets us read with ease. No more namechecking “hot” things we haven’t even looked at because they came in a new business package. When we talk about an electronic publishing success, let’s try reading the books, and then talking about them. We might even learn something about writing and publishing and commercial appeal, something about telling stories, that we couldn’t learn from a hundred tech blogs. That may sound naive, but after being an editor for 18 months I can tell you that even the worst derivative vampire love triangle tale can be what the kids call a “teaching moment” if you let it. And I think we have forgotten to let stories teach us as much as trends do.

Maybe this isn’t a problem for you. Maybe you post every day on GoodReads and tweet about books and giddily talk to your friends about them all the time. Maybe for every post about ebook tech you post two book reviews. Maybe you read every ebook you post about. If so, you are my hero. No joke, my hero. Like Superman, but with books. But it’s been a problem for me. I’m as guilty as anyone else. And I want to be better.

Books are not going away. That much is abundantly clear. There is an incredible hunger for stories out there. And eventually the tech will reach a plateau, until the next revolution. I want to focus on the food that sates that hunger, not the plate it comes on. Read the books, and then talk about them. Read the books, and then talk about them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go look at the first chapter of one of Amanda Hocking’s books. I think I owe her that.

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One hates to gank things from Tumblr, but this is a pretty amazing quote:

Let us accept the idea that women should stick to their own jobs – the jobs they did so well in the good old days before they started talking about votes and women’s rights. Let us return to the Middle Ages and ask what we should get then in return for certain political and educational privileges which we should have to abandon.

It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and… the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling, and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the women’s jobs – and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is all very well to say that woman’s place is the home – but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. …

The fact remains that the home contains much less of interesting activity than it used to contain. … It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being – one cannot repeat that too often – and a human being must have occupation.

–Dorothy Sayers, 19freaking47

I mean, this is a very true thing. Being a “homemaker” these days involves raising children (or not) and keeping the house reasonably, but not even particularly immaculately, clean. If you want immaculate, you hire someone. My mother in law, a Russian woman who practically has WORK ETHIC tattooed on her back in prison font, told me to hire a maid, because no one could expect one person to clean a house this big (it’s not obscenely big). It’s considered cool enough for men to cook (easily the most fun and creative of household chores–and probably not coincidentally the one which actually produces a tangible thing, rather than the vague “cleanliness” or “non-psychotic child development”) that homemaking might not even include cooking every day of the week.

I wonder if this is part of the reason there has been such a revival of cottage industry home crafts in recent years. I mean, without even thinking, I can name someone I know who knits, spins and/or dyes fiber, makes beer at home, pickles things, preserves things, grows their own food, makes wine, cures their own meat, raises chickens or ducks or goats or horses, makes their own butter, jam and/or bread, quilts, makes jewelry (practically everyone I know makes jewelry) or clothes, and bakes from scratch. Hell, I do most of those things and I am not by any stretch a homemaker. But we’ve lost the home tasks which provided the most creative output and enjoyment (no one liked washing laundry with lye, no matter how idyllic scrubbing linens in the river looks in movies, but knitting is damned pleasant, and food activities have their peculiar joys, even when they are tedious and strenuous, like pickling and preserving) and yet we still have to spend a lot of time at home, and still have this cultural meme of “home = woman” which leads to not teaching sons to do even the child and cleanliness things, and teaching them also that someone, eventually, will do those things for them. I wonder if we’re just trying to get those parts that provided connection and community and occupation back somehow. Even parenting has become a kind of competitive performance art not wholly related to how we ourselves were raised. The thing is, almost (I said almost, do not get offended if you are a homemaking superman) everyone I can think of who does those things, with the exception of beermaking, because duh, is a woman. I think I know one man who knits the way I and my female friends do, which is to say obsessively. Most of this revival is feminine, and I don’t quite know why, except that we’re all unemployed or non-traditionally employed, and these things do provide a high level of tangible occupational satisfaction.

Because let’s be honest here. I don’t know very many people of my generation who can afford to “just stay at home.” They do it when they can’t find work or cinch their belts for the first years when child development is so important, but I can’t really think of anyone starting to have their babies now who can just blithely kick it housewife style.

Of course, men also used to be expected to know a whole lot of home-things, too. Like how to fix anything that goes wrong with household machines, care for livestock, and literally build more house–and the build more house bit was often a hobby. Even one generation back, I see men on this island whose idea of a rocking awesome weekend is to build something out of wood and glass that adds to the beauty and utility of their home. We don’t teach that anymore either. There’s always someone to hire to do it. What I am capable of doing in that field is purely due to my own streak of I WILL DO BOY THINGS FUCK YOU and not anything I’ve been taught–but more interestingly, my husband is fairly competent at fixing (better at computers than ovens) and can assist at building, but his father can do more or less everything. That’s how I think it happens–each generation needs these skills less, so learns maybe half of what their parents knew, and pretty soon no one knows how to do shit our great-grandparents considered basic.

I’m not singing the modern world sucks rag. I really like my technology. Of course, I still get it from all corners that I should be buckling down and having a baby, as though my career is just faffing about and killing time. If the house is awry that’s on me, not my husband–who is a good post-feminist boy and does all kinds of cleaning and cooking! But external judgment will always be on me, no matter how many books are on the shelf with my name on them. I became so much more socially acceptable when I wrote a book for children. And though I bake like a mofo and cook and preserve and pickle, I’ve never touched a grill in my life, for lo, that is sacred Man Territory. I am the very model of a modern pomo feminist, yet oh, how my life is still strewn with this crap. Let’s set aside for a moment the issues of sexism in my industry, and how I so rarely read a book or watch a TV show where a woman has an internal life, a job outside the home, a friend, desires or ambitions. (I just saw someone list off the best shows evar, and none of them had any interest in women’s stories or passed the Bechdel test, rather, they were all the sorts of shows that get described to me as being “interesting in masculinity” which apparently means no chicks plz.)

I find the very simple question at the beginning of the quote fascinating, because I’ve never heard it asked. If we, as conservatives would have us do, give up all those pesky votes and rights and bodily autonomy and needs to be recognized as human, what do we get in return? Because “the home” is kind of a shitty answer. It’s always been a brutal gig to be asked to be intelligent and creative and engaged enough to raise a highly successful child, yet to be satisfied with only that, forever, along with some cleaning and cooking. But the home as they seem to conceive it no longer exists. The home is a place now, not an industry.

I saw a comedian the other day talking about how little girls never get to be kids. (For values of our current “to be a child is to be carefree, work-free, trauma-free and innocent” meme) A baby boy’s toys are trucks, spaceships, guns, robots. A baby girl’s is another baby girl to take care of. The comedian looked up plaintively to the spotlight and said: “But I just got here.”

Quite so. And this got a little long. But the gender stuff is still spicing the soup and it’s gross and weird and ugly and even moreso on the internet where no one has to look a woman in the eye when they tell her to shut up. I wish we were doing a little better. A little better than the commentary of 1947. Than the gender politics of early-90s Star Trek, which looks so quaint now, not actually worshiping full-tilt at the font of overweening masculinity. (As the new movie does, as Mad Men does even while caring a great deal about women–if you think that show would have succeeded without Don Draper set up for a long while as a good old days ubermensch for men to adore and emulate, think again, while you’re trying on that Banana Republic Sterling Cooper suit. Which doesn’t even get into a whole new genre of film and TV set in historical tiemz, so that we can ogle ladies being treated badly without feeling bad about it, because accuracy! Please do not pay attention to anyone named Eleanor in either the 12th or 20th centuries.) I wish the quote that made me ramble on forever didn’t strike me the way it did, because my culture considers those issues asked and answered, even while it tells me to have a kid, stay at home as much as I can, be thin and pretty all the time, don’t have an abortion ever, stop complaining, take less money, it’s only logical as you’re weaker and will probably just have a baby anyway, but don’t call yourself a feminist, and that it’s scientifically proven that my voice doesn’t command as much attention as a man (harmonics! not cultural, just FACT.) and that my orgasms are evolutionarily useless.

You can keep your flying cars and jetpacks–I was promised a future where my gender would not define me. And yet.

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Clarkesworld Magazine celebrated their 5th anniversary over the weekend, and I am honored to be in the anniversary issue–as their first serial and first novella! Both at the same time. CW has published amazing stuff over the years, and in many ways set the bar for online short fiction. I’m proud to have been a part of every one of those years. No other publication has “printed” my stories as regularly–an interesting bit of trivia.

The first part of Silently and Very Fast is available on CW, and with parts two and three to follow in subsequent months. If you just can’t wait, snap up a print copy while you can. It’s limited to 500 copies, and we broke the site with the first day’s orders, so gather ye roses while ye may and all that. (Eee! I broke a website!)

I’m excited to be doing a serial again, excited to have a science fiction novella out, (though I’ve set the countdown for someone telling me it’s not science fiction), excited to have this story, which has been brewing in my head for some years, bouncing around in the world. Please go read! And if you want to discuss it, comment here or on the site.

I am kind of deathly nervous! This is new material for me, the AI landscape, and I hope I have done ok.


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