And so the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

Last month the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.

I suppose that as much as there was any of anywhere in it, there was some America. Maybe that’s something.

Let me make a point up front because if I let it go till later someone is bound to get confused. Yes, I am a Californian who deeply resents Temple Square’s interference in the affairs of my native state. Yes, I am a postmodern materialist who hasn’t been to church in twenty years, could probably count the number of times he has been on his fingers, has never believed in salvation through Christ Jesus except for a period of about twelve hours once back when the Berlin wall was still standing.

But I read Gene Wolfe, and find The Urth of the New Sun deeply moving. I read Connie Willis and rejoice with her characters at the hope of eternity offered in Passage and the hope of a compassionate divine plan offered in To Say Nothing of the Dog, even though in the bright light of day neither is a hope I share. I am in the middle of revising a novel in which an aquatic hive mind and a million-year-old alien warship are willing converts to Islam. Agnostic though I may be, I have no stones to throw here. I would welcome a thoughtful and inventive and well-crafted story of a devout Mormon standing up for his faith and in solidarity with his alien fellow believers against ancient and perhaps implacable powers far from home.

But this is not that story.

I actually find myself hoping that the reason “Leviathan” won the Nebula is that there is a constituency out there of Mormon writer-readers who are desperate for any science fiction that speaks to their experience, even when it has nothing to say beyond validating that their experience exists. That would give me some hope in turn that we might eventually see a good Mormon science fiction, a science fiction worthy of the Mormons I’ve known, who whatever our political and religious differences have been, most of them anyway, good-hearted, level-headed people whose unassuming natures often concealed a wry humor and a wealth of well-observed stories. The young men and not a few young women who carry the Mormon faith out into the world, learn difficult languages, go nearly alone into often-hostile places and make connections with people about as unlike the people they grew up with as it is possible to be — or who just go to small hostile Midwestern towns where the Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Catholics and Presbyterians can all agree to have a monthly prayer breakfast open to “any Christian denomination,” so long as that definition doesn’t include Mormons, where they happily do yard work for little old ladies about as likely to convert as the Pope — are brave souls doing what they think is right, and my hat is off to them. They deserve a science fiction that reflects the complexity of their lives and the world they’ve seen, and I hope some day they get it.

But this is not that science fiction.

And I don’t think the desire for that science fiction is enough to explain it.

Here is an interesting fact about the Nebula awards: contra what you might find implied on Wikipedia, and regardless of what you might read on the SFWA web site about the history of the award, there is nothing in the Nebula rules that says or even implies that any Nebula award is for the “best” anything. Unlike the Hugo award categories, which are established in section 3.3 of the constitution of the World Science Fiction Society as Best Novel, Best Short Story, and so on, the Nebula categories are merely Novel. Novella. Novelette. Short Story. The nominees in each category are only the otherwise eligible works that receive the most nominations from the membership, the winners the works that receive the most votes. No guidance is given to the members on what to nominate or vote for, or why.

I would like to say this explains a lot. That it explains how a story with no characters, no setting, no invention, no real speculation, very little plot and a bare sliver of theme — a story that nonetheless managed to drag itself out over 8000 words — was given one of the top awards in the field.

But I can’t. This is not the first very bad story to win a major science fiction award* in recent years (though it is, perhaps thanks to recent procedural changes, the worst to win the Nebula for novelette in many a year). It is not even a new type of bad story. It is representative of a type of story that seems to be gaining in popularity as the traditional science fiction community ages at something like a year per year.   Setting barely sketched-in, parasitic on reader memories of better-written worlds. Characters that are really just placeholders, the few who speak either author mouthpieces or caricatures of implausible opposing positions, all of them lacking substance, interiority, consistency, basic humanity.  Gestures toward “daring” that are no more than comfortable recapitulations of contrarian reader prejudices. ‘Ideas’ that were old and tired when John W. Campbell was young. Stories stripped of any complexity that would make them interesting or worthwhile, tables tilted always in the author’s favor.

If this is what we want, then we deserve every drop of the contempt we imagine the world beyond science fiction holds for us. If this is what we want, then there is something wrong with science fiction, as a community. I don’t know just what it is, if there’s more to it than fear of the future and fear of the unknown and fear of old age and fear of death; I don’t know what to do about it, or even if anything should be done about it.

I only know that if this is what science fiction is, then I won’t mourn when it passes.

* I am reminded that “Article of Faith” did not in fact win the Hugo for which it was nominated. On the other hand, “Travels With My Cats” did win in 2005. Though as depressingly derivative, inward-looking and cloyingly sentimental as “Cats” is, it is at least better-written than “Leviathan.”

I’m not saying we can’t have nice things

One of my neighbors apperently had a professional photograph their living-room mantlepiece, and has propped up a 3’x2′ print of the result on a stand in the lobby.

That could be my living room, but isn’t. Suddenly all my DVDs and IKEA shelves feel — I won’t say vulgar; careless? Unexamined? (Okay, the 40-inch television, in my tiny Edwardian apartment, feels a little vulgar.) It would be nice to grow into a space over years the way that one seems to have been grown into. It would be nice to reconcile that with the way that after three or four years in any one place I seem to need to put several time zones between that place and myself.


This is the first draft of a novel. Parts of it are pretty good. A lot of it is a godawful mess, and there’s something essentially arbitrary about calling it done. But it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end, in 90,000-odd words, even if reading them straight through is a bit like a long drive in the dark over washed-out roads.

This is a box with the first draft of a novel in it. It’s a European box meant for A4 paper, but you can cram 8½″×11″ into it if you’re brisk.

This is the drawer the box goes in. I used to keep printer paper in there, but I’ve got a whole lot less of that than I did a couple of hours ago.

It’s going to stay the drawer for a bit, while I work on some other things. We’ll see what it looks like when I take it out again.

Seven Cities of Gold and other news

Not all new, but all new enough. Seven Cities of Gold

  • will be reprinted in Gardner Dozois’ The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Edition, due out in July.
  • will also be “reprinted” in Allan Kaster’s The Year’s Top Short SF Novels, due out again most likely in July, in e-book and audio editions from AudioText. The audio version will be read by Nicola Barber.
  • got a very nice write-up from Hannah Strom-Martin over at Strange Horizons, in which she says, among other things: “That Moles manages to present this alternate world so convincingly in a mere seventy pages is bound to result in accusations of genius.” As yet I’m not aware of any such accusations, but I’ll start preparing a defense just in case.

I’ll also be reading from Seven Cities at FogCon here in San Francisco, at 3:00 p.m. Saturday March 11th in the Washington Room at the Holiday Inn Golden Gateway Hotel on Van Ness. Might throw in a bit of “A Soldier of the City” as well.

I’m also scheduled for two panels:

How to Build Your Own City (Without an Urban Planning Degree): Part II,
the Present

Families farming in the urban center of Detroit. Poorly funded
infrastructure causing the collapse of a bridge in Minneapolis. What’s
happening today in our modern cities? How can we handle these issues in

Saturday, 10:30-11:45 A.M.

David Moles, Courtney Eckhardt, Rachel Swirsky, Daniel Starr

Let’s Build a City

Right before your very eyes (and with your vigorous suggestions from the
audience!) our panelists will create a city out of nothing but the room’s
imagination. Will it sit in the crater of an active volcano? Will it have
different districts for people to live in based on their culinary
preferences? Come and find out…

Saturday 8:00-9:15 P.M.

David Moles, Nabil Hijazi, Steven Schwartz, Ann Wilkes

I signed up for a poster session, too, but I don’t know if those are happening or, if they are, what I’m going to do with mine. Possibly something involving Lego.

Hopefully I will be able to attend all of these; the day job promises to be heating up that weekend, so we’ll have to see.

In the interests of good Internet citizenship…

…I’ve finally got round to fixing the blog archives that got broken when we moved servers back in May. Now you can…


You can also get to the 2006-2010 and 2003-2006 archives via index pages of varying quality. (The 2006-2010 index is particularly state of the art. For 1996.)

Your old links should mostly work again; if any doesn’t, let me know.

Constructed in accordance with the best possible theories of political virtue

We interrupt our regular schedule of not blogging to plug Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World. I’ve started Thunderer two or three times without getting caught up in it, but Mr. Gilman’s hit his stride now. Half-Made World reads like an Iain Banks novel set in China Miéville’s version of Stephen King’s gunslinger world, only better — better paced than Banks and in more control of voice and language, more coherent and less baroque than Miéville, more imaginative than King. And surprisingly self-contained for something that so plainly sets up its own sequel.

The flap copy will tell you what it’s about. If it sounds the sort of thing you might like, by all means pick it up.

About 370 on the Brinell scale

This has been unofficial news for a while now, but now it’s official: “A Soldier of the City,” by yours truly, will be in Engineering Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan and available early next year wherever quality mass-market paperbacks are sold.

Engineering Infinity bills itself as an anthology of hard science fiction. I don’t know that “Soldier” would meet the strictest possible definition, but after all the time I spent this winter doing math on the backs of envelopes, if it’s not the hardest story in the book I’m confident it won’t be the softest.

For those keeping score at home, “Soldier” is set in the same universe as my 2004 Asimov’s story, “The Third Party,” albeit quite some distance away in space and time. It will also be my first published story to use Australian spelling.

Many writers have all the virtues of civilized persons

(Title shamelessly stolen from Matt Withers.)

Science fiction has always liked to think of itself as either a vanguard or a bubble — preferably both at once. The truth is — as would be too dead obvious to need saying, if not for the stories we’ve kept telling ourselves about ourselves over the years — that science fiction is a product of society and its hopes and fears are a product of society’s hopes and fears.*

So it’s sad, but not particularly surprising, to see a prominent science fiction writer break down and give voice to her pent-up resentment at having to be nice to Muslims all this time.

But Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they’ve had. Schools in my area held consciousness-raising sessions for kids about not teasing children in Muslim-defined clothing…but not about not teasing Jewish children or racial minorities. More law enforcement was dedicated to protecting mosques than synagogues–and synagogues are still targeted for vandalism. What I heard, in my area, after 9/11, was not condemnation by local mosques of the attack — but an immediate cry for protection even before anything happened. Our church, and many others (not, obviously all) already had in place a “peace and reconciliation” program that urged us to understand, forgive, pray for, not just innocent Muslims but the attackers themselves. It sponsored a talk by a Muslim from a local mosque — but the talk was all about how wonderful Islam was — totally ignoring the historical roots of Islamic violence.

… I feel that I personally (and many others) lean over backwards to put up with these things, to let Muslims believe stuff that unfits them for citizenship, on the grounds of their personal freedom. … It would be helpful for them to show more understanding of the responsibilities of citizenship in a non-Muslim country.

A couple of days ago James Fallows wrote a post called “A Harsh Thing I Should Have Said.”

Earlier this week I wrote an item about an incredible instance of public bigotry in the American intelligentsia. I decided not to push the “publish” button, because — well, I didn’t need to say it. Other people were pointing out the bigotry. … But Nicholas Kristof’s column today makes me realize I was wrong. The upsurge in expressed hostility toward Muslims — not toward extremists or terrorists but toward adherents of a religion as a group — creates an American moment that isn’t going to look good in historical retrospect. The people indulging in this… deserve to be called out.

He wasn’t talking about Elizabeth Moon’s incredible instance of public bigotry, of course, he was talking about Martin Peretz’s — which only goes to show how right he is that the problem here is not one or two bigoted essays by one or two willfully ignorant individuals but a climate of bigotry and willful ignorance. It’s public (technically-)intellectuals like Mr. Peretz that give voice to and cover for the fears and hatreds of the public; it’s authors like Ms. Moon that give voice to and cover for the fears and hatreds of fandom. It’s because we’ve allowed such a climate to be created that Ms. Moon feels comfortable taking the occasion of 9/11 to vent her petty nativist bullshit.

Because that’s all this is: venting.

It certainly has nothing to do with its ostensible subject, the Cordoba House / Park51 project, because it’s clear from Ms. Moon’s post that she doesn’t know thing one about it — she calls it “a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attacks,” which by my count is three errors and a lie in twelve words. But I don’t blame Ms. Moon for the lie; she’s only repeating what the media’s been telling her — what our climate of bigotry and willful ignorance has been telling her.

It certainly has nothing to do with the compatibility with the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence of what “Muslims” believe, or Ms. Moon would demonstrate some awareness that Christians like herself — “Christians like herself” insofar, that is, as Sayyid Qutb is a Muslim like Feisal Abdul Rauf — believe, when it comes to the proper government of the United States, some crazy-ass shit.

It has nothing to do with actually existing “Muslims,” because (as Fallows says in a follow-up post) the term, which covers something like a quarter of the human population, is so broad as to be meaningless.

And it certainly has nothing to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, or Ms. Moon would understand that responsible citizenship requires us to stand up for what’s right — including the “personal freedom” of people we don’t know and may not like — always, not just when it’s easy, or not just until, like Ms. Moon, we get tired of it.

We all do get tired sometimes and we all do behave irresponsibly — as citizens, as human beings. But it’s telling that what Ms. Moon is tired of is not a decade of culture war, a decade of actual war, a decade of greed, a decade of cruelty and hatred and cynical opportunism, a decade of the worst people in the Islamic world and the worst people in Christendom clamoring for Armageddon.

She’s tired of feeling like she has to watch her tongue around those damned Muslims.

I can easily imagine how Muslims would react to my excusing the Crusades on the basis of Islamic aggression from 600 to 1000 C.E. … (for instance, excusing the building of a church on the site of a mosque in Cordoba after the Reconquista by reminding them of the mosque built on the site of an important early Christian church in Antioch.) So I don’t give that lecture to the innocent Muslims I come in contact with. … It would be helpful to have them understand what they’re demanding of me and others — how much more they’re asking than giving.

It’s sad. But, as I said, not surprising. America is full of privileged people who are tired of being nice to the less privileged. And until we have justice, it always will be. It’s sucky but there it is.

All I can say in response is what Ms. Moon herself says — something with which I agree wholeheartedly.

“Acceptance” is a multi-directional communications grid. Groups that self-isolate, that determinedly distinguish themselves by location, by language, by dress, will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream. This is not just an American problem — this is human nature, the tribalism that underlies all societies and must be constantly curtailed if larger groups are to co-exist. It is natural to want to be around those who talk like you, eat the familiar foods, wear the familiar clothes, have the familiar cultural references. But in a multicultural society like ours — and it has been multi-cultural from its inception — citizens need to go beyond nature. That includes those who by their history find it least comfortable.

Brave words and true.

Especially from a self-proclaimed “small-town Texas gal” engaged in telling New Yorkers how to live.

* Anybody who’s surprised that a book like The Windup Girl won the Hugo and the Nebula in the third year of the Great Recession, the year of Deepwater Horizon, and the year of the first commercial voyage through the North-East Passage without icebreaker escort has failed to grasp this.

Which she doesn’t, actually. See David Mitchell, “If Britain decides to ban the burqa, I might just start wearing one.” Quoth Mr. Mitchell: “In a free society, people should be allowed to do what they want wherever possible. The loss of liberty incurred by any alternative principle is too high a price to pay to stop people making dicks of themselves. But, if people are using their freedoms to make dicks of themselves, other people should be able to say so.”

Personally, I don’t give that lecture to “innocent Muslims” because I don’t want them to think I’m fucking insane. Excuse the Crusades or the Ummayads, I mean, Bizarro am paperclip the stoplight, puny Earthling!¤ Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine: “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians!” (Actually, the speech that follows is worth quoting, too, in this context: “Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers.”)

¤ Apologies to Patrick.

What the SF magazines need to do, Underpants Gnomes dept.

What does it say about me as an SF writer and reader, that whenever I come across a post that starts like this:

There is an large untapped audience for more popular SF magazines. … Whatever it is SF gives people … people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material … SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are an ideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. …

what goes through my head is:

is that true? I don’t think that’s true. assert, assert, assert, why is there never proof? do you believe this, and if so, why? and why not tell us? or do you just wish it was true? do you think that if you wish really really hard it will become true? do you think that’s an appropriate model of causality for someone interested in science fiction? discuss, with examples from the reading…?

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with Mr. Ellwood’s prescriptions. I mean, what the hell, it’s not like anything else has worked, and there’s at least some recognition that there were changes in the magazine industry between, say, 1955 and 1995. But his premise is about 200% wishful thinking, and worse than that, it’s the same wishful thinking that’s been stalely circulating through the print science fiction world since Star Wars — which is to say, since before half the best writers of short science fiction working today were born. I would like for once to see some evidence.

(Via Jeff Vandermeer, who makes a more valuable contribution than mine.)