The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

5 December 2017
by skzb

Getting Signed Books From Me

The easiest way to get a signed book from me is to get hold of Uncle Hugo’s bookstore, an excellent SF bookstore located about a mile from my house.  They’ll take care of ordering it if they don’t have it in stock (though they probably will), and letting me know to go in there and sign it, and then they’ll deal with shipping.  You’ll have to ask them about the exact details, but it’s probably the best way.

Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore

2864 Chicago Ave, Minneapolis, 55407


30 November 2017
by skzb

Some thoughts on my father

Various things over the last couple of days have brought my father to mind.  There are things that are hard for me that I believe he would have found easy (and, no doubt, vice versa).  I’ve mentioned before that his most extreme term of disapprobation was “unscientific.”  Going along with that, he had an almost pathological hatred for subjectivity.  Maybe to a degree that wasn’t entirely healthy—there are times, after all, when being subjective is appropriate.

I remember when we learned he was dying.  He took it as he had lived: calmly, objectively, with his mind focused on what work he could complete in the time he had left, and making sure he said good-bye to everyone he needed to, and seeing to it that we were all in agreement about the funeral arrangements. During the entire six months, I didn’t hear a single word escape his lips that could possibly be construed as self-pitying, except once.  One day he said, “I won’t be able to read the rest of Steve’s books.”

It broke my heart.


24 November 2017
by skzb

On Political Principles

A few months ago, a friend told me that she was tired “principles,” that people mattered more, or some such. I didn’t engage on the subject. For one thing I was a little too shocked at how you could manage to counterpose principles to people—I mean, what are political principles except generalizations of what we’ve learned about how to make things better for people? But I’ve been worrying at that remark in my head. What I kept coming back to is, “why now?” Why at this moment is the idea emerging that we ought to reject principles? It reminds me of a time years ago, when certain right-wing ideologues discovered that nothing worthwhile in history had ever been accomplished by people trying to do good except on an individual, “help your friends and family” level—that the desire to improve things based on ideas always made things worse. Crazy on the face of it, but I asked myself, “why now?” This was, by the way, during the Reagan administration, which ought to indicate the answer.

Turns out, my friend wasn’t the only one; I’ve come across it several times. “Shut up about your stupid ‘principles,’ this is something that effects real people,” is the battle cry.

Those who reject principles are, in general, distinguished by a willy nilly, shifting, fluctuating attention span that latches onto whatever the upper middle class is most concerned with at the moment.  Going along with this, each one of those issues is seen in isolation, unconnected to the others except by the most vague talk of “the conservative agenda” or some such.  The task, I believe, is to base one’s program, instead, on what is actually happening, both on and under the surface, on telling the truth, even when it is unpopular. The middle class does not want to hear, right now, that the media flood of allegations of sexual harassment and the way the results are playing out are more than just distractions, but are bringing back the methods of McCarthyism as part of the continuous attacks on democratic rights. It would be easy to just go along with the flow, or even stay silent, and avoid a lot of conflict.

But the working class has a better memory than a lot of people realize. The secret of Lenin’s policy was just that: to tell the truth, even when it was unpopular, even when it resulted in being reviled or mocked, because the working class remembers who told the truth, who gave the warning, who pointed out the danger. Kerensky, you know, was a “socialist.” What sort of fools would say he will betray, that he will not withdraw from the imperialist war, that he will not give land to the peasants, that he will not take not address the threat of famine, and that he is preparing for dictatorship? Only an “isolated sect” could say such things. Except they were true, and the Russian masses remembered who had told them the truth when it was unpopular.  The most sympathetic of those elements pleaded with the Bolsheviks to “give Kerensky a chance” before condemning him.  Had they “given him a chance,” he’d have taken it to crush the Petrograd working class in a Kornilovist bloodbath.

Those who adapt themselves to the masses’ beliefs of the moment without constantly studying the international political and economic situation as a whole, and thinking things through, and connecting the dots, are preparing themselves to be isolated. Those who want to be part of moving history forward, of true progressive change, need  to constantly struggle to reject the easy, simplistic answers, to understand the truth, and to tell it.  Willingness to do so provides the opportunity to give a conscious political expression to the needs of the working class, which in turn can result in a great step forward in human equality. The failure to do so results in defeat.

To rigorously seek out the truth, and to tell the truth, however unpopular—those are political principles. Rejecting principles leads to saying what people want to hear, with going along with the flow. It is opportunism, betrayal, giving aid and comfort to the enemies of equality.

That is the importance of principles in politics.

6 November 2017
by skzb

The World We Write About

My colleague Fonda Lee (author of Zero Boxer and Jade City, which I recommend) brought up the question on twitter of feeling conflicted about dealing with book release issues (readings, signings, &c) when, well, the world is going to Hell.  I mean, you hear about another mass shooting, and then you’re expected to go to a bookstore and talk about your fantasy novel? How can that not be weird and uncomfortable?  The thread is worth reading, if you’re interested

She got some excellent answers from various people that I can’t improve on, but it set me off in a different direction.

I’m going to repeat something I said a few years ago, in a comment on the World Socialist Web Site:  “No matter how much one tells stories of magical beasts or impossible worlds, in the end, it is always the world of here and now one is writing about. The better one understands that world, the more powerful the stories will be.”

I still agree with this, and, in fact, as the pressure-cooker of our society intensifies, I think it becomes more true. One might, of course, “inject” political and world views into one’s fiction, but that almost invariably comes across as clumsy, artificial, and gratingly didactic. The point I want to stress is that these stories we tell, whether we want them to or not, are powerfully influenced by our experience and our interpretations of that experience, and that means by the society in which we live our day-to-day lives. To be sure, the influence is often disguised and can appear in contradictory ways: sometimes an outraged rebellion against the status quo can turn out deeply normative; sometimes the cry for a return to an imaginary simpler time, reactionary in feel, can be subversive or even revolutionary in essence.

We, as writers, are observers who turn those observations from vague feelings into precise words, which, in turn, form images and make connections to the experience of the reader.  I know some writers who can capture taste, smell, touch, and express them in words that make me cry. I know some writers who observe and describe individual human interactions in a way that permits me to see many of my past experiences in a new light. Others are skilled at noticing, deducing, and illuminating the motives behind seemingly inexplicable actions.  Other are able to reveal and explain hidden social contradictions.  And so on.  And all the while they delight us with the thrills and fights and narrow escapes and wit and striking phrases for which we read adventure fiction.

What I’m getting at is this: The things that infuriate, sadden, or terrify us in our world are already there in our work. The degree to which we wish to bring them to the surface is up to us, but they are there whether we are consciously aware of them or not. When, as we write, we remind ourselves not to cheat, what we are really reminding ourselves of is that our job is to tell the truth, and the more we manage to do that the more successful (and moving) is the story.  And when we go into a bookstore to do a reading of our tale of elves and dragons and unicorns three hours after a mass shooting or Trump’s latest threat of nuclear war, it will feel strange and uncomfortable, and to some degree it should—being aware of that contradiction simply means one is a decent human being.  But it is worth remembering that our stories do not come out of nowhere, that the same world that has produced these horrors, has also produced our story, and that, dialectically, our story can have an effect on that world.

2 November 2017
by skzb

Rant: The Bubble of the Upper Middle Class

This is probably one of the dumbest rants I’ve made.  I mean, I know why it bugged me, but my reaction was entirely out of proportion.  On the other hand, that’s why I created the “rant” category.  So here goes:

This came across my twitter feed a couple of days ago:

The person who has the most power over your life is the person you have not forgiven. That person holds a part of you in bondage.

Seriously?  That is who has the most power over your life?  It’s not the boss who decides if you make rent next month?  It’s not the cop who might or might not decide to shoot you because he doesn’t like how you look?  It’s not the government clerk who decides if your child support should continue?  It’s not the insurance company functionary who decides if you’re going to get that medical treatment you need?  It’s not the executive making millions by failing to supply your city with clean drinking water?  It’s not the abusive spouse you can’t leave because you have no way of feeding the children without him?  It’s not the guy giving the order to send a drone missile strike that will make your home collateral damage? It’s the person you haven’t forgiven?  That’s who has the most power over you?

Yeah, yeah, I know.  The sentiment is that we ought to forgive those who have wronged us.  Sure, fine.  But the way it’s put, I mean, just what sort of comfort,  security, and isolation do you have to have in order to be so completely unaware of what life is like for the mass of humanity?  When I lose patience with the thinking of the upper middle class, this is why.

Okay, rant over; thanks for listening.  And to the person who made the tweet: I forgive you.