Archive for April, 2013

Chaos and Control

Monday, April 29th, 2013

When I wake up in the morning I usually spend 30 minutes or so getting my kids off to school, and then I climb back in bed for a bit to surf the web and check my email and twitter–yes, yes, the glamorous life of a self-employed author. Because I live in Germany, I’m several hours ahead of America, which makes twitter and facebook kind of interesting: I’m six hours ahead of the East Coast, nine hours ahead of the West Coast, and eight hours ahead of the bulk of my friends, who live in Utah. In general, this means that they’re already asleep (or at least logged off) when I get on the morning; I’ll usually catch the the last few posts of my West Coast friends in real time, but everything else is weirdly time-delayed. I read through a static back-log of media while America sleeps, and then we get a good laugh when my phone starts beeping and chirping during dinner–about the time my Utah friends get to work in the morning and start replying to what I’ve written.

That’s what normally happens. Last week, during the Boston manhunt, things went a little differently.

Thanks to the time difference, I rolled out of bed and started checking twitter just about half an hour after the shooting started; I saw the West Coast crowd post their “holy crap what’s happening in Boston?” tweets, and jumped on google to see what was going on. I quickly found and subscribed to some good Boston twitter feeds, including the MIT grad student who live-tweeted the police shootout. Despite being a few thousand miles away on the other side of an ocean, I was there for each new attack, each new bomb, each new speculation. I had all three of my computers going at once, collecting every bit of data I could and redistributing the parts that seemed important/dramatic/accurate. More than once I thought of Oracle, the DC superhero who perches in her secret eyrie, watching everything and sharing it with her team. It was scary and exciting and I couldn’t look away; I stayed in that office for the entire manhunt, my eyes glued to each new post by ABC news or the Boston police or random citizens who put up a picture of armed soldiers prowling through their backyards.

And then Boston finally woke up, and the bombers still weren’t caught, and the police/government took the major step of locking down the city. The details trickled out in what seemed like a very wise progression: stay away from public spaces. Don’t use public transit. We’ve closed public transit. There could be bombs anywhere, so stay at home. We need everything clear so it’s easier to find him, so stay at home. Business are closed. He’s armed and dangerous and desperate, so everybody stay at home. At one point in the day I linked to a photo of downtown Boston, eerily empty, and said that it was spooky and surreal, but hard to call it an overreaction.

And here’s the point of my post today: I don’t know if I believe that anymore.

What was the final count on the lockdown? A million-something people confined to their homes? 33 million dollars lost from closed businesses? I can see both sides of the argument here. On the one hand, the lockdown was arguably a ‘success’: no further civilians were hurt, despite the very real danger. The last time the police saw the final bomber, he shot them with automatic weapons, threw bombs at them, and actually drove a car over his own brother in a mad dash to escape. That’s a dangerous fracking guy, and you don’t want to mess around with that. In hindsight, yes, it turned out he was too wounded to move and spent the day bleeding almost to death in a stowed boat, but we didn’t know that. If he’d been healthy he could have done almost anything, and if the city had been full of people then ‘anything’ could have resulted in a lot more innocent deaths.

On the other hand, you could argue (and many people have) that excluding the general population actively inhibited the search. It was a civilian who first described the bombers to police; it was civilians who helped comb through reams of marathon photos to identify them; it was civilians who very famously spread the word on twitter, staying more current–and often more accurate–than the actual news. Most tellingly, at the end of a long, frustrating, fruitless day, when the police were ready to give up and finally lifted the lockdown, it was civilians who stepped outside, looked around, and found the hiding bomber within the first five minutes. I’m not saying this to deride the police in any way–they did an amazing job in a terrifying situation. But there simply weren’t enough of them to look in every nook and cranny in an entire city.

I can’t help but compare this situation to the much-derided TSA, which has practically become our cultural shorthand for ‘over-the-top security that curtails freedom without actually doing any good.’ In the years since the TSA was instated to catch terrorists, they haven’t caught a single one–every terrorist caught on or around an airplane during the TSA’s watch has been identified by civilians. Every one. The Boston bomber hiding in the boat was the same basic thing: civilians found him, and then the authorities stepped in and took it from there.

There are a lot of conclusions we can draw from this, and a lot of questions we can ask. The first conclusion: security is more effective when civilians are drawn in and made a part of it than when they are excluded. History has proven this, current events have proven this, it seems pretty well proven by now. Which leads us to our first questions: why does the government/police/whoever keep trying to exclude the most effective part of security? Why do they insist on doing everything themselves? Most importantly, why are we, as a society, so content to surrender our involvement, our control, and our freedoms?

But let’s look at this from the other side. It’s very easy for us to look back at the Boston lockdown and say that it was an overreaction, because nothing happened. After the initial shootouts nobody else was hurt, no more bombs went off, and we spent the entire day hiding from a guy who was hiding from us. We can say it was an ineffective policy and an unnecessary precaution because it doesn’t hurt us to say so: the entire city of Boston could have gone to work that day and been fine. But what if there had been another bomb? When the bomber heard police outside his boat he greeted them with a long burst of automatic weapon fire–what if that had been the guy who found him? What if it had been kids? What if he’d actually been wearing the suicide vest they thought he was? If the police hadn’t locked down the city, and the bomber injured even one more person, this entire conversation might be reversed, and instead of calling the lockdown an overreaction we might be calling for the heads of whatever government official failed to protect us.

Which leads us to the Big Question, not just of this event but of security in general–of our entire modern world: How much death and damage and we willing to accept in our pursuit of freedom?

Let’s look at marathons: we now know that a pair of kids, properly radicalized, can set off some bombs and kill three people at a marathon. Does this mean we stop holding marathons? Of course not. But what if it was ten people? What if it was twenty? What if it starts happening more often? We can only attach so many precautions to an event as big and public as a marathon before a ban or another lockdown become literally our only remaining options. Are we okay with that? How far are willing to go, and which side of the issue will we come down on: no more freedom to run in a marathon, or no more freedom to walk through the city and watch one?

Let’s look at lockdowns: we now know that we can confine a million or more people to their homes in order to catch one bad guy. Should we do this again? How dangerous does a situation have to be to justify placing one million people under house arrest? How many times can we do it before people get sick of it and rebel? Which world do you want to live in: a world where nobody gets hurt, or a world where you can make your own choices?

I don’t have answers to these questions. People have been asking them for thousands of years–finding the line between chaos and control is the fundamental question of society as a concept. Asking these questions and hypothesizing different answers is the reason I write science fiction; it’s easy to look at the PARTIALS sequence, for example, and see that a huge part of it is my own attempt to play with these ideas and probe the different scenarios and explore different methods of chaos and control. Nobody in PARTIALS or FRAGMENTS is really a villain, just characters trying to do their best in a situation that has no easy answers, using methods that other characters find abominable. How far is too far? How much is too much? Which is more important: our survival, or our lives?

The only thing I know for sure is that we have to ask these questions, and we have to think about our answers. We have to talk about it. We have to challenge what we do and say and think to see if it actually stands up to scrutiny. We have to question our methods and our leaders to make sure they’re really the ones we want. We have to examine and evaluate our goals to make sure the things we’re pursuing are really the things we want to achieve.

The Massive Fiction kickstarter

Monday, April 15th, 2013

We launched this last week, but that was also our big time to push for Dave Wolverton’s son Ben, with the book bomb and the donations and whatnot, and I didn’t want to overshadow that or dilute your attention. A friend in need will trump my own stuff every time, and since the book bomb was a crazy success that turned out to be time very well-spent–you bought so many of Dave’s books that we spiked the Amazon ranking on books we weren’t even bombing, and drew enough attention that I saw a few news stories floating around. Good for you.

But! I don’t want to forget about Massive Fiction, because it’s pretty awesome. This kickstarter has my name on it, but it’s the brainchild of my friend Marion Jensen, a writer and teacher who’s always looking for cool ways to use new media and reach new audiences; he was using twitter to teach history lessons before most of us even knew what it was. Massive Fiction is an exciting writing tool/program/opportunity based on the idea of scaffolding: teaching someone how do to something by doing all the big stuff for them, allowing the learner to focus on the smaller stuff until they get their feet under them. It’s like those special instructional airplanes, where the teacher can fly the whole thing from one seat, taking off and gaining altitude and all of that kind of thing, and then passing the controls to the student so they can practice the basics like “flying in a straight line.” Inside of the scaffold, the learner has both freedom and safety, and the ability t master one skill at a time while still working on a full-size project.

The classic scaffolding opportunity in fiction is fan fiction: when you write a story about Star Wars or Harry Potter, for example, a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for you: the world is big and rich and fully realized, yet still open enough for you to add your own twists; the characters are well-developed and familiar, ready to be dropped in to your own cool new situations and adventures. Fan fiction is a great way to get your feet wet as an author, and a lot of the professional authors I know have gotten their start there, but the problem is that you can’t then go on to sell or publish any of your work, because you don’t own the legal rights to any of it. That’s where Massive Fiction comes in.

The idea behind Massive Fiction is simple: Marion, my brother, and I will create a shared world designed for aspiring writers to use as a playground, donated to the world to be used by whoever wants to. You’ll be able to read our novellas, study the backstory, and then write your own stuff and use it in any way you want. Backing us up, and helping to expand the shared world, are a bunch of other writers, including awesome bestsellers like Kiersten White and Larry Correia; because it’s a kickstarter, there are stretch goals with even more cool authors.

I could keep talking, but Marion made a video that explains it all better than I can:

As for the details of the world we’ll create, I don’t know yet; something fantasy or science fiction; maybe something familiar like urban fantasy or near future, maybe something wild and huge like epic fantasy or space opera. We have a lot of ideas, but we haven’t pinned anything down yet. The stories we write and the world we create will be free and available to anybody, whether or not you contribute to the kickstarter–but the project won’t happen at all unless the kickstarter funds. There are a lot of authors involved with this project, and we want to be able to pay them adequately for their time. (For example, I have three full novels to write this year even without Massive Fiction, and I’m not even the busiest writer on the project.) We love to give back to the community as much as we can, but we can’t always do it for free. Help us make this awesome idea a reality.

If this sounds cool to you, contribute. Whether you’re an aspiring author who wants to write, an interested reader who wants the stories, or a wealthy patron who loves investing in the arts, renaissance royalty-style, this is a wonderful project that can use your help. Check out the donation levels and the cool rewards and jump in, and then spread the word to everyone you know; the more people who donate, the better the project will be.

I’m really excited about this, and I hope you are too.

BOOK BOMB! Time to help a great author in big trouble.

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

Many of you know Dave Wolverton, though some of you may know him by the name David Farland; he publishes SF under the former name, and fantasy under the latter. He goes to conventions all the time, he teaches classes and headlines seminars, he sends out daily emails full of writing advice and encouragement. He does more for the SF/F writing community than any two other writers, but now it’s our turn to help him. Last week his 16-year-old son, Ben, was in a longboarding accident that broke most of the bones in his body, including his skull; he’s been in a medically induced coma ever since, and while the prognosis for his survival is good, the medical costs will be astronomical. Like many authors, Dave has little to no insurance.

It’s time for us to step up and help.

Today, Wednesday April 10, we are book bombing Dave’s book NIGHTINGALE. The idea behind a book bomb is that everyone buys the book from Amazon on the same day; beyond the obvious benefit of giving Dave some money, buying the books all in one big blitz spikes the book’s Amazon ranking, raising its visibility and generating even more sales, giving Dave and Ben even more money. Nightingale is a wonderful YA fantasy which Dave self-published as an ebook, and this link goes to the Kindle edition. The link also includes Dave’s Amazon Affiliate ID, which sends Dave 7% extra beyond the initial purchase–in fact, EVERYTHING you buy on Amazon after clicking that link (until such time as you click somebody else’s Affiliate link) will send Dave 7%. Buy a few other books, and he gets 7%. Buy a chair or a computer or a kitchen set, and Dave gets 7%. Keep this link handy, and click it often, because Dave and Ben can use all the help you can give them.

I don’t do a lot of book bombs, because I want to save them for a really good cause. This is a really good cause. This is our chance to stand up and help a man who has dedicated his life to helping others; this is our chance to give a horribly wounded young man a life of his own, unburdened by millions of dollars of debt. Buy NIGHTINGALE, and encourage all your friends to do the same. If you don’t have an ereader, buy it as a gift for someone who does; if you want to help more, buy Dave’s other books in hard copy. Keep them for yourself, or give them to friends, or donate them to your library–just buy them, and buy them today, and help with this book bomb. Spread the word, share the link, and make this happen.

Let’s see how high we can get that ranking.