The Nerdy Bars of Cleveland: A Review

Lakewood’s been having a weird trend lately: nerd bars.  Or at least two nerd bars, one dedicated to board games and the other to classic arcade gaming, have opened up in the past two weeks.  And since my good friend and TOTES NERDCORE RAP SUPERFAN Angie was visiting, we decided to head out and see how this whole nerdy thing worked.

Our first stop was the Barcade, which was a brilliant concept: why not put a bunch of arcade machines in a place where people serve drinks?  Oh, wait, Dave and Buster’s did that, busted.  Except Barcade has what one newspaper called the “reverse casino” model: all the games are free, but you pay for the drinks.

Okay, that’s not technically true.  The selection of pinball machines (which include the Best Pinball Game of All Time, Attack from Mars) cost fifty cents, presumably because repairing pinball machines costs lots of money for spare parts.  But you walk in, buy a drink, and get to play classic videogames all night.

This sounds great, and largely it is, but Barcade was so packed this early on that we literally had to elbow people aside to move.  You know that rocking convention party where people are jammed in a room hip-to-hip and if you take a step back without warning you’ll knock someone over?  Yeah, that crowded.  So actually getting to the games was a problem.  But the interior was pleasantly designed and clean, with lots of fun drinks – I had the Kevin Bacon, a bourbon-and-candied-bacon drink that was quite tasty, and Angie had the Punky Brewster, which was like cotton candy in a glass.

We would have more and larger drinks, but a) the bar had sadly sold out of their oversized novelty glasses already, and b) it was such a struggle getting to the bar that ordering one drink was enough.  (Though the bartenders were a selection of hipster eye candy of both sexes.)

The bar had a really superb selection of classic videogames from the 80s and 90s, and they held Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat tournaments during the week.  We watched a guy pile up a million-point score on Robotron 2084.  We played Frogger, where Angie schooled me.  We played Gyruss, where I schooled Angie.

But the issue was the crowds, which made it hard to play – you had to push through narrow corridors packed with people to get to your machine, and then wait a while for your turn, though thankfully most people were good about the “you lose, you walk” and not abusing the infinite credits.  The main exception was a group of superbly annoying Woo Girls who’d camped out by the fucking Ms. Pac-Man machine, which inexplicably allowed continues, so they squealed and stayed for literally an hour as they were all like, “We’re up to 500,000 points now!  Look how many screens we’ve gotten!” And everyone else went, “Yes, you fucking morons, you can get to 500,000 if you put infinite quarters in a badly-configured machine.”  Why the hell would any free arcade allow continues on a Ms. Pac-Man?

Yet there was something happily convivial about getting snookered and playing the games of our youth.  People were happily giving advice, if you needed it, and it would be pretty easy to strike up a conversation if you both found yourself waiting in line for the Street Fighter machine.  So the crowds were both a plus and a minus, and I think when the blush is off the rose and there’s enough space to at least walk down the aisles without having to hip-check people out of the way, this will be truly awesome.

I do worry about the hammering, though, as three games were out of commission by the time we got there at 9:30 on a Saturday, and the Centipede machine’s fire button was well on its way to breaking.  A bunch of drunks playing arcade machines are an unforgiving bunch, and I hope they have a repairman on call full-time, or soon this place will be a bunch of snapped joysticks.

(One other fascinating bit: there were several really attractive women in total club garb, standing about and looking confused.  I think they were just hitting all the clubs in Lakewood and this was an obligatory stop – and while there were no shortage of women piling onto the NBA Jam and Simpsons machines, the club girls kept craning their necks about as if trying to see the appeal of this place.)

Then Angie and I walked down to the Side Quest Bar, which was about twenty minutes away on foot.  The Side Quest Bar is devoted to board games – they have a selection that you can pay $1 to rent, and you’re encouraged to bring your own.  They were in a soft open, with no food and limited beer selection (though honestly, their limited selection was pretty comprehensive).

Alas, the Side Quest bar was pretty much a solid dive bar with themed drinks, Dr. Who on the overhead screens, and a lot of games.  The games were good, but part of the bar is the social aspect, and there weren’t really enough tables to play games on – only two or three big tables that I saw, whereas most of the space was taken up by the bar itself.  So when we got there at around 11:00, I wouldn’t have found a place to join in.  And I think this bar will succeed on whether it can get strangers to mix, i.e., finding multiple gamers willing to go to a bar to find a pickup game of Dominion or Cards Against Humanity, and I didn’t necessarily see that mixing – mostly groups keeping to themselves.  (Though who knows, maybe those groups got there early as mixed people and had formed solid friendships by the time I’d arrived.)

But the atmosphere doesn’t really say “nerd,” unlike Barcade’s cool black themed bar and uniformed servers – it says “bar” with stuff thrown in.  But the drinks were nice – I had a butterbeer that was surprisingly cinnamony (which is a nice change of pace from all the butterscotch-o-rama butterbeers I’ve had, if not necessarily superior), and Angie had a Sonic Screwdriver that I would have had more of were it not brimming with Red Bull.

I’ll probably go back to Barcade, as I’ll always play videogames.  The Side Quest I may check out later on, to see how it’s evolved after the initial rush of curiosity is over – I suspect that will stand or fall on how creative the owners are at making events that get people in there to play games together.  I’d play a Magic tournament there, if there were enough tables, and that spot would be perfect for a good round of pub trivia.  So let’s hope.

I’ll Be At ConText In Columbus On September 26th! And 27th!

Just in case you’d like to meet a weasel/hear him speak on panels/throw tomatoes at him, my physical form will be schlepping around the Context convention in Columbus, Ohio in a few scant weeks.  You’re welcome to drop by and say hello.

If you’re curious as to what I’ll be talking about there, well, it’s:

9:00 p.m. Friday:
Putting the “Horror” in Cosmic Horror

2:00 p.m. Saturday
Ferrett Steinmetz reads a story for you, maybe even an excerpt from Flex, I dunno, something good

3:00 p.m. Saturday
Social Media for Authors and Readers

5:00 p.m. Saturday
The Art of the Short Story

A nice enough mix, really.  Or you can just buy me a drink. I like drinks.

Why The Economist Endorsed Slavery

So the Economist fucked up yesterday, posting a review of a book called “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” which had this whopper of an excerpt:

Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

And I think I know why that happened, really.

Well, first off this review was an “online extra,” which in terms of most big magazines these days means “extra content that we don’t really look at.”  They’re basically blogs, and sometimes people get paid for this and sometimes people don’t, but certainly nobody’s looking too closely at it.  So you had a throwaway article that slipped under the radar.  That has to be taken into context.

Still.  Someone had to glance at it.  So why did this pass muster?

See, the thing about slavery in the South – and perhaps one of its greatest horrors – is that it was, above all else, a business.  Why were people enslaving other humans and forcing them into slave labor?  Well, it was profitable.   You had a lot of people making large amounts of money off of it.

So like any business, they found ways to keep refining it.  A slave escaped?  Let’s close up that security hole.  Slaves don’t have a lot of motivation to work?  Let’s find ways to terrorize them into being more efficient.  Say, how much cotton are those guys picking, anyway? We can’t improve what we can’t measure!  So let’s start weighing in, setting quotients, looking for ways to get better yield!

And the blind spot of the Economist is that it thinks all businessmen are good people.  It thinks all business is good.  And so when someone said, “Hey, these guys who were doing everything that businessmen do right are being maligned!” they shrugged and said Yeah, sure, and let it pass.  Because a guy in a suit who’s squeezing profits out of people with reliable, established business practices?

How can he be evil?

Look at the whole of the review, and it’s pretty much a gut reflex of “Why, these men aren’t so different than me, in what they were doing!  And yet they’re being treated like they’re villains!”  Except, you know, you can be a businessman with great practices and still be a scumbag.  It’s called war profiteering.  It’s called slavery.  It’s called all sorts of things, and yes, it’s still business, because capitalism is not an unfettered good.

In fact, if you look at slavery, it was a very fettered evil.

City of Stairs: Just Go Buy The Fucking Thing

city_of_stairsCity of Stairs is the tarnish on R2D2′s dome.

Which is to say that I watched Star Wars again the other day, and what struck me about it this time around is how grungy the technology is.  The droids and spaceships are battered, they need polishing, they have the feel of a world that’s been lived in long before you came along.  They have the feel of a place that’s been used to serve a purpose other than set dressing.

And City of Stairs, Robert J. Bennett’s latest book, does that with a whole goddamned city.

Characterizing a city is one of the trickiest things a writer can do, and I can think of only one other person who does it consistently; that would be China Mieville.  Most writers sort of hand-wave a city the way they do background characters, giving it a single, easily-memorable trait – this is the city of commerce!  This is the war city!  This is the poor city! – and, if you’re lucky, a couple of districts.  And the cities serve well enough as places for the characters to exchange witty dialogue before running out into the wilderness to hack at Sauron’s bones, but there’s always that feeling like they’re not real.

You could live in Bulikov. I don’t know that you’d want to.

It’s a city that has paperwork.  And history.  And a lot of cultures sloshing around in it. It feels as grungy as C3PO’s battered brass ass, and that is an accomplishment.

The short version of Bulikov is that once, it was a magical city ruled by several marginally-sane and powerful Gods, the seat of an empire that conquered much of the known world – and then a rebellion killed the Gods, and the city fell apart.  Literally.  A lot of the architecture in the town only worked because the Gods willed it, and so Bulikov – the City of Stairs – is now this dysfunctional and conquered province, and even mentioning that the Gods existed will get you hauled into court.  The people are proud and secretive and maybe just a touch resentful that their power’s gone, maybe just a touch relieved because the Gods could rip you to tatters and were not, shall we say, stable creatures.

And of course, there is a murder that triggers an investigation.  Because plot.

I don’t mean to make it seem like the city is all the book is about, because that would be boring.  Yet Robert J. Bennett is one of the greatest fantasy stylists I know of – if you haven’t read American Elsewhere, which was the first book I read after my heart attack and the perfect book to bring me back to reading after major surgery, then go purchase that – and he writes one of those rare books where I don’t really care what happens, I just lie back and bathe in his words, let them carry me along to strange and distant lands.

But there are characters, vibrant ones – Shara Thivani, the diplomat/spy, who is determined to find out who killed her old professor, and her stoic companion Sigrud.

Sigrud, I will tell you, is the breakout star of this fucking show.  Sigrud is… well, at one point he strips naked on an icy river and greases himself up in whale fat, gripping a harpoon, and what happened next was one of the highlights of my literary year.  You need a Sigrud in your life, you really do.

In any case, for me, I’ll be honest and say that though I loved it very much, this book didn’t hit the heights of American Elsewhere for me – but American Elsewhere was one of those sacred texts where I read it and it just seemed to sync up with some hidden broadcast signal embedded in my medulla oblongata.  City of Stairs, however, seems to be on a different and perhaps more popular frequency, where my Twitter-feed has been ignited with various cries of ZOMG SIGRUD and THE GODS OF BULIKOV and people frantically intellectually masturbating to his pantheon of broken deities.

And Bennett is one of those people where I can say, quite honestly, that you can pick up any book of his and have it be good, and City of Stairs seems poised to be his breakout hit.  So get it on it today.  It’s coming out next Tuesday.  I’d get it now, if I were you.

Joan Rivers Is Dead

Here’s the deal: I’m going to remember the Joan Rivers who was a trailblazing comedienne, someone so strong that she transformed comedy for women almost single-handedly, a genuinely funny and heartfelt person.  And I’ll be sad she’s dead.

The other Joan Rivers, the one unleashed by the Internet?  An almost-forgotten relic of the old days suddenly reinvigorated by Twitter?  The one who seemed to thrive on the nastiest of insults, a professional troll, who fobbed off actually hurtful statements with, “Well, it’s just comedy!” and then bristled whenever anyone called her on her shit?  The reverse George Takei, the person who seemed to really thrive on getting under people’s skin and drawing blood?

I won’t be sad to see that Joan Rivers gone.

So I’ll just delight in her early success, and I’m glad she had a good life, and I’m proud of what she did to forward comedy.  Thanks for that, Joan.

The rest, I’ll leave unsaid.

The Answer That Destroys All Our Futures

You don’t really think about how monstrously useful banks are until you don’t have them.

I say this because people in ghettos – and specifically drug dealers – often don’t have access to banks.  That changes the whole way they have to live.  In Sudir Ventakesh’s excellent book “Gang Leader For A Day,” his drug dealer friend JT explains how hard it is to live when all your money is on the premises.  If you get a hundred (a lot of cash on those streets) and keep it on you, someone might mug you or pickpocket you.  Keep it in your house, and one of your roommates or relatives might take it.

Now everyone’s got some good, common-sense advice to get around – “Don’t tell anyone when you get some money!” “Hide your cash under the refrigerator!”  – but those aren’t proof against getting your filthy lucre stolen.  Sometimes it’s someone else who snitches that you’re carrying $250, often the person who gave it to you and hopes to get a cut back, and if your roommate knows the refrigerator trick, well, you’re gonna wake up to find your ass broke.

Carrying cash becomes a constant worry.  You have to be always on your guard.

And if you get real money, like a couple thousand, and you can’t put that in the bank, then what the hell do you do?  You become a full-on target when people know.  People start making organized attempts to take your cash, rival gangs or desperate bands of addicts or even just friends of yours who think maybe you’re a pushover and it’s worth pissing you off to get that $10k.  You can spread it out, give smaller amounts to people you trust for safekeeping, but what if those people betray you?

When you don’t have access to a bank, basically you have a problem that peasants have had since the dawn of time: where can you put money that people can’t beat you up and take it? 

And that’s been a problem since, well, forever.  You’ll see peasants who buried their scant piece of gold under the tree trunk in the yard, just in case the barbarians came.  Which worked well until Grandpa Joe died and forgot to tell people where the gold was, or until the barbarians tortured you until you spilled the beans, or the barbarians had raided enough villages to know all the usual hiding places.

For much of history, the “We were smart enough to accumulate a little cash to help us with future problems, now what?” has been a constant issue that people wrestled with.  And, again, there was practical, helpful advice that wouldn’t save you, but it was better than nothing: Bury it under the earthDon’t tell anybodyRun when the raiders come.

But really, the advice that truly would have helped these people is, “How can I stop the barbarians from breaking into my house and stealing all my shit?

And the answer given back then was probably what it’s given right now, which is, “That’s just the way the world is.  Only an idiot keeps a big treasure and doesn’t hire five crossbowmen to defend his life!  Everyone knows it’s foolish to amass treasure, spend it all now!”

The trick is, we actually solved this fucking problem.  Banks?  Are amazing!  I can keep, you know, a 401k worth enough to buy a house, and don’t have to worry about some douche with a gun stepping into my house and taking it all in one fell swoop!  That change has allowed for fantastic changes to society, where ordinary people can save up for retirement in a place where practically no amount of force on Earth can physically steal their cash, and we don’t even think about how safe we are these days.

That took a lot of complex societal changes.  We had to say, “We need to work together to ensure no random barbarians come and kill us.”  We had to say, “Fuck, people just breaking into homes is horrible, let’s create a police force to stop that.”  We had to say, “How do we pay for the police force to stop burglaries?” and fund them with tax dollars.  We had to say, “You know, it’s really not cool to steal, let’s create a culture that stops thinking it’s kind of clever,” and did that.  We had to say, “People who put their money in banks need to be protected from bad business practices,” and enacted all sorts of regulations and protections.

There were a thousand complex changes that had to happen for this miracle of safe savings to happen.  Some of them are more successful than others.  (And yes, maybe bank regulations are really uncomfortably lax right now, but I think we all agree it’s a damn sight better than stuffing your $100,000 retirement fund in your closet.)

There were two pieces of advice you could give:

The practical “shrug” advice to deal with the current situation.  “Bury your gold.”  “Don’t tell anyone about your wealth.”  “Just give everything to the barbarians, it’s safer than fighting them.”

The advice that actually starts to transform society to a place that fixes the problem for future generations.  “What can we build that’ll ward off the barbarians?”  “How do we make a place that’s safe for our money?”

And there were doubtlessly people who said, “Well, it’s useless to think about building something to ward off the barbarians!  There’s no guaranteed solution!”  And what they never considered was that the shrug advice was pretty shitty, too – you could bury your gold and have someone else dig it up, you could not tell anyone and still have it leak out, or you could just, you know, stop trying to acquire money and settle in for a long life in peasantry.

And that’s the advice we give about rape.

See, the thing is, on some practical level, “Don’t wear skimpy clothes!” “Don’t drink in strange places!” and that old happiness, “Don’t be alone ever with a man!” are all fine advice to reduce your personal risk of rape.  That’s reduce, mind you, because you can follow all the rules and get yourself violated – something the shruggers forget – but yes, in the day-to-day scheme of things, you’ll lower your risks of rape by restricting your behavior.

But the problem with that “shrug” advice to deal with the current situation is that, like the peasants trying to deal with barbarians, the advice to get by for today condemns women everywhere to a horrible future forevermore.  You are, in a very real sense, saying, “The world is a place where women get raped, and you’ll deal with this, and your daughters will, and your granddaughters will – an endless future of women living in terror.”

Is it any wonder women react poorly to this message?

I know y’all are trying to be helpful.  And sure, in one sense, “Bury your gold/don’t get drunk” is fine, practical advice to deal with today’s real challenges.  But in another, it’s completely abandoning the fight, assuming there’s nothing we can do as a society to stop the complex series of factors that make women unsafe.  It’s telling them that their bodies are the gold, and they can’t just choose to be poor, they’re always going to be carrying this treasure that people want to steal.

But the idea that they could one day pretty much eradicate the barbarians was unimaginable to a bunch of peasants living near Venice.  But they managed it.  It took generations, and a lot of blood, and a lot of change, and shit, as judged by a lot of the ways some people live in ghettos today (or some non-ghetto folks had their retirement funds chewed up by predatory bankers) we still clearly haven’t spread this glory to everyone, but damn if we as a society didn’t work up some solutions a fuck of a lot better than “Hide your gold.”

So when you give advice to, say, Jennifer Lawrence of “Don’t take nude pictures ever,” you can.   Just realize what you’re doing is shrugging and saying, “I don’t feel like we can change the world ever to make it safer for people.”

Then look back at all of history.  Look at the millions of people who died to getting burned by their cooking fires, and realize how easily you’ve tamed flame in your own kitchen.  Look at the millions who died due to unsafe water, and look at how easily you can pull yourself a glass of cholera-free drinking water in your kitchen.  Think of the millions who died due to plague and disease and broken bodies, and go to your local hospital and take a look around.

Think about all the miracles we’ve worked, things like the bank that you fucking don’t even consider because, well, it just works.

Then contemplate what kind of future you can build.

My Debut Novel “Flex” Is Now Releasing On 4/6/2015!

This is big news: my debut novel Flex will not be coming out at the end of this month.

It will, instead, be arriving on April 6th, 2015.  (Or, if you’re in England, you get it on 4/2/15, you lucky dogs.)

I’m sorry for everyone who was looking forward to cracking open my words in a few weeks.  But if you’re in the publishing industry, you know that six months from acquisition to publishing is an incredibly tight turnaround time for a book – a compressed timeline that depended on everything going perfectly right, which it did not.  The good news is that this means that Angry Robot will have time to get out ARCs to more reviewers, and tweak what’s shaping up to be a breathtaking cover.

(I should also note that if you go to Amazon and B&N and Powells, it appears they do not know of this changed date yet.  They have been informed, but it’ll take a few days for the information to percolate through their system.)

There is a hidden upside to this unexpected shift, though – when I sold the book in April, I’d already committed all of my vacation time for the year to my Italy trip, meaning that I could only get in a handful of release parties.  A 2015 release date means that I can plan an honest-to-God book tour, which will involve probably doing multiple cities over the course of a few weeks if I can manage it.  So if you want me to come to your fair town, let me know and I’ll see what I can do.  (The preexisting events at Borderlands in San Francisco and the Word bookstore in Brooklyn are still on – we’re just renegotiating dates.)

In the meantime, if you’d like to wet your whistle on Flex, you can go to my official book page and read the praises from the authors who’ve liked it well enough to give it a blurb - which currently includes the all-star roster of Seanan McGuire, Cherie Priest, Dan Wells, James Patrick Kelly, Ken Liu, Mur Lafferty, John Scott Tynes, and Robert Jackson Bennett.  Also, if you’re a book reviewer who wants an advance copy when it’s ready, contact me and I’ll make sure to put you on the list.