The Dream Café

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

20 July 2017
by skzb

Do You Believe In Science?

And then this happened:

And here are the lyrics:
Do you believe in science in a young girl’s mind
Testing results to verify what she finds
And it’s science it makes you happy and cheery
From hypothesis to demonstrable theory.
I’ll tell you about the science it’ll take some proof
The neverending search for objective truth

If you believe in science, don’t bother to guess
If it’s observed in a lab, if it passes the test
Then do it again so the results are reliable
As long as what your looking at is falsifiable
You won’t be convincing if your data’s too scant
So outline your plan, apply for a grant.

If you believe in science come along with me
We test what we know and we know what we see
Farewell now, to every phantom and wraith
And every idea based only on faith
We’ll look great in our white lab coats
And I’ll follow you around and keep careful notes.

Yeah, do you believe in science
Yeah believe in the science that’s what we should do
And we’ll send it out there for peer review
Believe in the science that can find the truth
Ohhh, talkin’ ’bout science
Do you believe in science

13 July 2017
by skzb

A Statement on Russia and the US Elections

Let’s assume that the allegations about Russia’s involvement in the US election are true. What then?

Well, we can dismiss the moral argument instantly. The US, of all the countries in the world, has absolutely no moral right to complain about another country meddling in its elections. Indeed, a country that only meddled by revealing private information about a candidate ought to be thanked for such restraint, when we look at how the CIA has gone about installing dictatorships, overturning democracies and inciting civil wars for more than half a century.

What next? A threat to democracy? Please. Before Trump even announced his candidacy there was still the reactionary, anti-working class, racist “war on drugs” that was busily disenfranchising huge sections of the population. There was NSA spying on civilians, increasing police terrorism, “constitution free zones,” a press that was overwhelmingly afraid to publish anything not approved by the intelligence community, brutal persecution of whistle blowers, “free speech zones”—you name it. All sorts of things that threaten democracy one hell of a lot more than revelations that a candidate engaged in backroom deals to win the nomination and had close ties to Wall Street that everyone knew about anyway.

So, what are we left with regarding Russia? An opportunity to use patriotism and nationalism against Trump. We all hate Trump. We hate him so much that Bush and Obama appear decent by comparison. So, the thinking goes, many of those who supported him consider themselves patriotic.  All we have to do is show them that the patriotic thing to do is oppose Trump and we’re home free, right?  So, why not invoke patriotic illusions and nationalist phrase-mongering to get him out of office?

That is the more difficult and important question, because it leads us to the question of how we move forward. Here is my position as succinctly as I can put it:

Patriotism is a tool that is used to tie the working class to their enemies; it is the excuse used, especially in time of war (and these days, “time of war” means always) to justify violent repression against anyone speaking out against their conditions. In a 21st century capitalist country it is, in a word, thoroughly, irredeemably reactionary. Moreover, many of you are aware of this. Until this recent rather pathetic call to “reclaim” patriotism most of those who considered themselves leftists recognized that nationalism of any sort must be utterly rejected, and even those who were close to liberalism without rejecting capitalism got sort of nervous and twitchy around flag-waving and jingoism.

Trump did not materialize out of thin air. He’s the product of a system unable to solve its own contradictions, voted for (or, at least, not voted against) by millions of hopeless and desperate people who saw no way out. He exploited the backwardness, ignorance, fully justified anger, and, above all, the lack of an alternative among broad sections of the oppressed. Since his election, we have seen an even greater unleashing of backwardness and ignorance.

Patriotism—the notion that the oppressed within certain geographical boundaries ought to feel more loyalty to the oppressors within those boundaries than to the oppressed outside of them—is exactly an expression of ignorance and backwardness.

We do not fight ignorance and backwardness by appealing to and reinforcing it, we fight it with knowledge and reason and showing that there is an alternative, a way forward; by showing that the problems that produced Trump can be addressed by a revolutionary socialist program uniting all of the oppressed internationally. This has the additional benefit of being true.

The criminality of Putin is not in question, and we ought to give our support to the Russian working class in their struggles against him.  But by evoking Russia—that is to say, patriotism—against Trump, you are contributing to Trumpism.  You think there aren’t others, maybe more civilized in appearance, maybe even less so, waiting in the wings?  To get rid of Trump without tackling the conditions that produced him would be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.  We can’t afford any more of those.

30 June 2017
by skzb

Some Reflections on a Bad Book I Wrote

I’ve been rereading the Vlad novels in preparation for writing the next one, and, eventually, finishing the series if I live that long.  I’ve been going through them looking for guns I left on mantelpieces, so I can pick them up and have them go off together in ways that will make people go, “Wow!  He had all of that planned from the start?”  Well, and to remind myself of stuff I actually did know from the start.  Anyway, in the course of this, I just finished a reread of Yendi and had some thoughts about it that might be useful to other writers.

Yes, I still think it is a bad book (although with some moments that, in retrospect, I’m quite proud of), and this post is not intended as a platform to argue that.  Let me have it as a given and make my point.

My second novel was To Reign In Hell, and it was quite an experience.  For one thing, I decided my biggest weakness was characterization, so I wanted to write a book that simply wouldn’t work unless I nailed the characters.    It was hard, for that reason and others.  It was an ambitious project for me.  At one point, about a third of the way through, I spoke to Will Shetterly, and told him, “I should wait ten years before writing this one.  I don’t have the chops to pull it off yet.”  He said, “You’re right, you don’t.  You should write it anyway.  In ten years you’ll write something else, and what you learn doing this one will stay with you.”  It turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten.

After finishing it, I was exhausted, beat, done, wiped out.  It felt like I’d been doing hard labor.  I was emotionally drained and, for a while, wondered if I’d ever write again (it turns out, this is fairly normal for me after finishing something; I need a few months to recover.  But I didn’t know that at the time).  Once I did start getting the itch to write again, I was still sort of bruised from how hard it had been.  Now, my first novel, Jhereg, I had thought of as a standalone.   I put in hints of backstory and foreshadowing and stuff, but not with the intention of returning to the world, only because, well, I love it when books do that.  But after finishing TRiH, it hit me that what I needed was something fun, something I could just kick back and enjoy writing without a lot of sweat or effort, to remind myself how much fun writing can be, and I realized that I already had the world and characters set up, I could just go back there and tell another story.  To make it easier, I could use the backstory I’d already hinted at, plus throw in a bit of “foreshadowing” for Jhereg (like, Vlad remarking that no one would ever steal from the Jhereg Council, stuff like that).    Because I felt a need to challenge myself at least a little, I decided to work on a different aspect of characterization than I had in TRiH, to wit, on finding the telling detail for each character that would make that one memorable.

Between these two goals—making characters identifiable, and kicking back and having fun—emerge the two problems with Yendi.  First, it’s got too many characters; some of those folk are just in there so I could practice with them, and I would probably have removed them if there’d been a well handy.  Second, it’s sloppy.  It’s just kind of slapdash, thrown out there, with a few accidental contradictions, and not much substance.  There is, in my opinion, nothing wrong with “a good tale well told,” but if that’s all there is to a story, well, it should be really well told, and that one was only fairly decent.  That is why I’ve always regretted that book, and badly wished I could do it over (which, in a way, I did: Orca is in some sense the book Yendi should have been).

I should say, I’ve always regretted that book until now.  Here we get to the point of this post, to what might be useful for new writers to think about.

Yes, because I was sloppy with that book, it has haunted me.  I cringe when I think about it, and what it ought to have been, and still remind myself not to get lazy.  BUT.   I was right.  It comes back to me that the book did exactly what I wanted it to: it reminded me how much fun writing can be, how to take joy in the process, and evil, cackling delight in imagining what I was going to do to the poor reader.  And this has stayed with me.  Of course, there are the horrible, wracking moments of where do I go? and  how do I make this work? and  how do I turn these concept into story? and what happens next?  Of course those still happen.  But underneath, since writing Yendi, I haven’t forgotten that at the bottom, I do this because I love it.

If you can keep that feeling at the price of one book that is weaker than you wish it were, well, I call that a fair trade.


21 June 2017
by skzb

Followup On Fourth Street

Had a long talk with a good and smart friend, who conveyed to me some of the confusion over my opening at Fourth Street. She says that it could be interpreted as regretting the “good old days” when women could be freely preyed on by pros at conventions.

It is difficult to explain why I chose to use “safe spaces” and “threatened” in that talk without a long explanation which is inappropriate to this post, though I’ll happily get into it in comments if anyone wishes. I had thought that when I referred to physically safe and “no unwanted harassment” (a stupid phrase, sorry; I mean, as opposed to the more usual wanted harassment? Sheesh, Steve) that would be sufficient to make clear that I proposed no such thing.

Evidently I was wrong. And, while one can always blame the reader for failing to understand, when enough readers get it wrong, one begins to side-eye the writer.

So let me state clearly and for the record I do not support that kind of atmosphere, I do not want that kind of convention, and I deeply apologize for any pain or fear that was caused by anyone thinking I did mean that.  My fault, not yours.

ETA: It’s worth pointing out that it isn’t just a matter of reading, but that this was a speech, not presented as text, and a speech that, moreover, I deliberately opened with a shocker.  This makes more reasonable the number of people who went past the “physically safe” and “no harassment” parts.  Again, my bad.