Nexus, Crux, Apex: Some Damn Fine Books Y'All Should Read.

Most new technological achievements in fiction are presented in one of two ways:

  • This new thing will save mankind! And some evil people are trying to stop it!
  • This new thing will doom mankind! And some evil people are trying to make it popular!

Truth is, every technological achievement comes with benefits and negatives. The Internet made it easier for isolated people to find friends, but it also allows pedophiles to band together. The same algorithms that helpfully suggest your next Netflix show can be hijacked by the government to predict your behavior.  There’s never been a technological revolution that didn’t come with a few bodies in the basement, but fiction tends to not have time to deal with complexity.
Ramez Naam’s Nexus/Crux/Apex trilogy sure as fuck has time to look at both sides of the coin, though.
Nexus is a nano-drug that acts as an operating system in your brain, letting you network with others in real time and hack portions of your consciousness.  It’s been open-sourced, and it is also completely illegal, because the US government is – rightfully – concerned that an interconnected operating system that allows people to rearrange their memories at will and to load Bruce Lee fighting programs into their brain is a security issue that will cause massive breaches.
The book sets up a “massive government vs. spunky hackers” plot, but the issue is that the government’s concerns are very real.  The ramifications of Nexus are as huge to this world as the Internet was to us about forty years back, and whereas the hackers are right that the ability to connect with other people and share experiences is empowering, they are also overlooking the many negative ways that bad people can – and, in fact, will – use this experience to fuck other people over.
In this, the Nexus series is wonderfully complex, because everybody has a point.  The government is clinging to the status quo, yes, but that’s because it’s totally unclear whether the government’s citizens would survive the transition to a transhuman future.  The hackers are occasionally a little cocksure.  This is a Pandora, and Ramez Naam treats it  appropriately as a global issue, starting in the US but soon branching to India and China and, well, everywhere.
And more importantly, the technology feels real.  The black-ops tech the government has will absolutely smash the spunky hackers’ limited resources every time unless they can hook up with other, greater, forces. As such, alliances become a huge issue, and the alliances only work as long as everyone’s on the same page – which doesn’t happen for long as the ramifications of what people can use Nexus to do spreads.
Not to mention the fact that “transhuman” is a real concern – what a bunch of Nexus-enabled people can do outstrips normal people’s abilities, even as it leaves them open to hacking attempts and trojan viruses.  And when the governments clash, and the civil wars break out, and the terrorists start playing their hands…
Well, things get delightfully messy.
The book has a couple of minor flaws – to me, the “renegade hacker” syndrome where one man can rewrite major portions of an OS in days was a break from reality, but an acceptable one – but what I loved about the Nexus series was the sense of enlightenment.  The book has intraconnected Buddhist monks providing serenity, and what’s delightful about the series is that sense of transcendence’s ephemerality.
Because the characters each achieve these moments of perfect grace, a time when everything is made clear to them – and then they have to deal with the grimy details of the real world and forget portions of what they’ve learned, but they are on an upwards climb.
Yet what I love about the Nexus series is that the governments have these moments of perfect grace. There are times when everyone in the chain of command is illuminated, seeing everything as it is – and then some of them retain that knowledge and work to forward the future, while others fall back on old patterns and reject it.  There are several moments where we see clearly what should be done, and we also see the counterweighting forces to understand why it’s not done.
This is a marvelous achievement.  And when the trilogy ends, the characters’ storylines are wrapped up, but the politics do not end.  Nobody finishes on the same page.  They can’t.  That is the very point of the Nexus trilogy: that good people can disagree on how to push forward, and this conflict we see in the real world isn’t good vs. evil, just different priorities weighted.
All that happens with a good crunchy action sequence every fifty pages or so.  Pick it up. Discover the future.

On Bernie Sanders And The Black Vote

So Bernie Sanders – my personal fave for the Democratic Presidential candidate – has been taking some heat for not addressing black issues well.
My response: good.  Even if I disagree with his critics.
Every candidate has this moment where they charge onto the stage with their priorities, and discover the voters have different priorities.  And they either a) ignore those voters, and don’t get elected, or b) change up to address those voters’ issues, and potentially get elected.
Now me? For me, Bernie is like a walking Overton Window of progressive politics; we’ve spent the last forty years watching Reagan and his successors nudge the frame of our viewpoint further and further right until Obama – a moderate candidate at best – looks like a frothing socialist to many.  Having Bernie Sanders in the race, even if he doesn’t win, will serve the same function that the Occupy movement did: to raise questions as to what’s reasonable, and start a dialogue about issues that conservatives have long buried under that 1950s McCarthy imminent-apocalypse vibe of “You don’t want a socialist in office, do you?”
(I’d be happy with either Hillary or Bernie if elected, but since I think neither’s likely to get a lot of laws passed in the face of Republican Congressional resistance, I’d rather go with the guy who’s going to be more ambitious than Hillary’s warmed-over, half-hearted gestures towards worker fairness.  Hillary’s always been more Wall Street when it comes to equality politics.)
And what Bernie says to me makes a lot of sense to me as a white guy.  I think if he got his way, black people everywhere would be better off, because I think focusing on economic reform and cheap education would lift all boats for everyone poor – and since black people are disproportionately poor, they would benefit disproportionately.
Note that this is White Dude expressing his opinion.
Black Dude, and Black Dame, need to be convinced.  And they may feel what I said is a tide of horseshit they’ve heard a thousand times before, and they want actual focus on restitution and specific reforms aimed at helping the black community.
Which is fine! One of the things I fucking loathe about the “be a good ally” mentality is that sense that “If you have a different approach to fixing this problem, you are evil and don’t want the problem fixed!”  No; the world is fucking complicated, and there’s room for reasonable disagreement on the “best” way to do things.  I have my own opinions on what might help, shaped by my experiences, and others have theirs, and the best we can do is to fully acknowledge that hey, either of us might turn out to be wrong over the course of time, and to encourage a healthy exchange of opinions.  I acknowledge I might be wrong, and I hope anyone disagreeing with me on “the best way to address the economic inequalities that black people suffer” also acknowledges that they do not have perfect knowledge on how to fix all those ills.
(In other words, I believe fully that as a white dude, I cannot fully understand the black experience no matter how I try, but I also believe that “experiencing the pain of a bad system” is a very different thing from “knowing how to fix that bad system” – and as such, there’s room for debate from all sides on what the best approaches are.)
And what Bernie Sanders is getting right now is a bunch of angry people going, “I think what you’re proposing is horseshit.”
When you get accused of fomenting equine excrement, what good people do is to stop, take in that feedback, analyze it, and see whether that new information changes things.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes it does.
And we’ve seen Bernie Sanders maneuvering to change his message to address “Black Lives Matter” more explicitly – clumsily, yes, but everyone’s clumsy when they first change their message.  And that’s good.  It shows he’s taking the issue seriously, and he’ll either put more effort into explaining how he thinks his economic equality policies will affect those issues, or he’ll start addressing black issues more directly.  Either of which is awesome.
Sort of! Because what we’re seeing now is the inevitable leftward bend of the primaries, where we get candidates who appeal to the leftiest of lefties – and like the conservative primaries, we may see an effect where we select candidates who are RAH RAH LIBERAL and then it turns out that our candidates can only thrive in the rarified air of the liberal oxygenator, and wilt and die when exposed to actual moderate Americans.
But that’s the best process we have now, alas.  And Bernie Sanders?  I think he’s got good ideas.  But I’m not the person he needs to convince to win the damn election.  And I think it’s a good thing that he’s getting battered a little by Black Twitter – because I think it’s good for people to get battered, to be forced to justify their beliefs before a group of skeptical people.
My belief is that decisions without debate are like trying to build an impregnable fortress in the absence of warfare.  You can go, “Oh, yeah, this thing we built? Nobody could get in.” But you don’t know where the weak points are until you have a bunch of very motivated people looking to break into your building – and when that happens, you’ll find all sorts of flaws you hadn’t considered.
Which is why I’m against anything that squashes polite debate.  I think we only come up with the best solutions when we take on as many comers as we humanly can, comers who are all asking “What’s wrong with this?”  Some of them are asking in bad faith, and after answering their questions to the best of our ability, we move on.  But the folks who point out flaws in good faith should be considered, and discussed, and eventually addressed when possible.
Bernie Sanders – my hope for the 2016 flagbearer – either will do that well, or he’ll become an also-ran.  He’s more likely to be an also-ran at this point thanks to Hillary’s momentum, so my hope is that he becomes so adroit at addressing these issues that it becomes such a strength of his that it winds up being a factor Hillary doesn’t have.
Or he won’t.  And if he doesn’t, well, I hope whoever gets the nod does find a way to make the black communities feel like their issues are being addressed, because God damn this past year has shown the need for someone in power to do something to stop all the killings and abuse and economic injustice.

Physicists! Help An Author to Wreck An Entire Continent Accurately!

One of the weirder aspects of writing novels is that eventually, you assemble a dream team of experts to consult. When I wrote Flex, which dealt with a severely burned girl, I consulted my friends MedKat and Cassie Alexander, both medical experts who helped me get the ICU details right.  When I wrote The Flux, which features a child with PTSD and a funeral, I consulted my friends Dr. Natasha Lewis Harrington (a child therapist) and Heather Ratcliff (a mortician) to get the details right.
Now, uh, I’ve kind of broken all of Europe and I need to talk to a physicist.
In case you’re unfamiliar with Flex, in it there are creatures called “Buzzsects” that devour our laws of physics – they eat the speed of light, change the rules of time, et cetera.  And now, I want to do some XKCD “What-if?” thought experiments to go, “What happens if the speed of light permanently drops to, say, 50 MPH in a ten-foot area?  What happens if we change the structure of an atom?”  And to explore that ensuing mayhem.
If you’re a) experienced with physics, and b) think this sort of “Remove one major law of physics, see how the rest of it collapses” thought experiment might be fun (with the caveat that story needs may trump precise accuracy), do me a favor and email me at with the header “I AM WILLING TO WRECK EUROPE.”  For you, dear sir or madam, will be the one who helps me determine the fine details of how to savage an entire continent.
And really, how often do you get that opportunity?

Things Nobody Told Me About Selling A Novel (Part 4): Your Writing Habits Need To Change

Before I sold my novel Flex, I was beholden to no one.  So my process was simple:
1) Clear out a year to write a novel.
2) Write the novel in the evenings.
Which was easy. I had a day job and a social life, which meant like everyone else I was squeezing my writing time in – but nobody was telling me what to write, or when. Sure, maybe I got the occasional invite to an anthology – which is pretty top-end among short story writers, lemme tell you – but in general, my writing was this blank void where I took as much time as I wanted polishing my tales to a glossy shine, then walked around peddling these same tales to strangers.
Which was good. I needed focus to write a novel. Considering that my stupid brain won’t let me plot a novel in advance, I need several months to dig deep and figure out what this novel’s really about, then spend several months redrafting.
Truth is, I often turned those anthology invites down because my short stories take years to write.  Not “years of constant writing” – I’m not thatbad – but more like “First draft, get critique, let the story sit in a drawer for four months until I can look at it with fresh eyes. Second draft, realize the story is broken in some way I’m not yet smart enough to fix, put the story back in the drawer. Third draft  a year later when I learn something new about writing and go, ‘Oh, hey, that’s something I can use to fix that not-quite-right story!'”
So Flex was about fifteen months of unbroken devotion, give or take a minor heart attack in the middle of writing. (No, seriously. An actual heart attack.)  And when I said, “Hey, I’m working on this story about magical drug dealers,” there was a deep shrug because, frankly, I wasn’t popular enough to be fielding requests.
Fortunately, after I sold Flex and asked Seanan McGuire for a blurb, she called me up to talk about my book.  (She’s a phone person; I’m a text person. I feel continually bad about our mutual dislike of each other’s primary communication pattern, because any day I talk to Seanan is a good day.)  And during that conversation, Seanan gave me literally the best advice I’ve gotten as a professional author:
“You,” she said, “Are now the parent of a bouncing newborn. And like any parent, you’re going to fret about every aspect of this new novel-baby you have.  That’s normal.
“But what’s also normal is that like a newborn’s parent, you will no longer have unlimited time.
“If you are at all successful at this,” Seanan warned, “You will start to get other contracts. You will have edits that drop on your desk without warning. You will have opportunities you must seize now.  So from this moment forward, you must be like a newborn’s parent and learn to work in small chunks.”
And lo, on Monday I was finalizing the edits to Book Two, while also writing 750 words on the first draft of Book Three, and now I have about a week of uninterrupted time before the copyedits for Book Two drop back on my desk.  Come September, I’ll be starting another blog tour to promote Book Two’s release in October, which will involve me writing about thirty essays in my spare time while also working on Book Three.  And that all assumes that the other book I’m shopping around right now doesn’t sell – in which case I might spend the fall writing essays, re-editing the newly-sold book, and writing Book Three.
Did I mention that I’ve committed to write Book Three in nine months? I’ve never written a book in nine months before.
(Though I’ve done some advance work that makes writing Book Three easier, thanks to a lunch with Seanan four months back, where she told me “Start plotting the next book now, so if they want it you can hit the ground running.”  If you can get a Seanan McGuire as your Career Fairy Godmother, I heartily recommend acquiring a Seanan McGuire as your Career Fairy Godmother – though I will warn you, she hits very hard when you foolishly admit to reading reviews of your book on Goodreads.)
But the point is, this is just two books I’m writing – super-nice for a debut novelist, but by no means a blockbuster career – and I’m still oscillating back and forth between projects. And I’m not even trying to earn a living at this yet!  (As I tell people, “Writing is my career, but I have a day job.”)  If I was trying to survive entirely on words, I’d be hustling like my friend Monica Byrne, writing plays and novels and starting Patreons and constantly, constantly switching gears.
I know it’s impossible to believe that this lull before you sell your first novel is a luxury – I wouldn’t have, in the twenty-plus years I struggled to sell one – but if things go right, in some ways you’re going to miss that ability to set your own schedule. If you get the career you’re struggling for, you’re going to have to get used to writing a book a few chapters at a time, in between the other book edits and the pitches for future books and the opportunities you can’t turn down.
It’ll be awesome.  But you’d better be braced for it.   And I’m really glad Seanan told me, which is why I am telling you.

Addicted To Special.

“All those partners who discarded you? They just didn’t see how beautiful you are. Don’t ever change; some day, the Perfect Man will come across you lying on the floor like an old sock, but the Perfect Man will know who you are! He’ll pick you up out of the garbage and set you on the Special Sock Shelf, and he’ll get a rag filled with special What-An-Amazing-Person-You-Are Polish and shine you until you glow!
“That’s what you should do. Just sit there, on the floor, with a bunch of other discarded socks. Wait patiently for someone to come along and pick you up and make you beautiful.”
Over on FetLife, where relationship advice abounds, you’ll see an essay like that hitting the top of the K&P charts about once a week, racking up over 3,000 “loves” from women who swoon in the comments.  It’s a lovely fairy tale.
Unfortunately, what generally happens is that someone comes along looking for a sock, and realizes he can get a free sock to stick his foot in as long as he tells it it’s special.
The truth is that a lot of the women looking for The Perfect Man have really shitty boundaries. They shrug off a lot of insults, not even registering them as the insults they are, because they don’t speak the hidden language of respect.
They don’t know that “I didn’t tell you I was running late because I was out with the boys” actually translates to “I don’t give a shit about your time.” They don’t know that “I’ll introduce you to my friends some day” means “I don’t want to be seen with you.” They don’t know that this version of “We’ll see” means “No.”
And because they don’t speak the language that needs to be spoken, they think that other bullshit, easily-given gestures mean something.
They don’t know that it can be an actor’s trick to look meaningfully into someone’s eyes and go “You’re the only one for me.” They don’t know that “someone who cares about my pleasure in bed” is not in fact the sign of True Love but, in fact, the bare minimum you should require of anyone you’re sleeping with. They don’t know that the monetary expenditure of buying a dinner is nothing compared to the emotional expenditure of taking you to a picnic where their family is.
And what happens is that these women are so thirsting to be told that they’re special that they batten upon these tiny trinkets of affection as proof that they are The One, and ZOMG THIS IS WONDERFUL and they talk in flowery terms about how they’ve found the Perfect Man…
Whereas what’s really happening is that a guy’s figured out that he can use them for a while if he says some sweet things.
And he can use them because they need someone else to tell them they’re special. In many cases, they’ve been purposely crippled emotionally by dysfunctional families, families who quietly erased their ability to ask for things they needed so these folks could better serve their awful desires. They have been turned into mummies, bound by a need Not To Make A Fuss, waiting quietly until someone comes along and digs them out of their tomb.
As such, I think these Perfect Man fantasies are amplifying a toxic need that can’t be fulfilled.
You wanna be special? Learn how to act like you’re special. A truly special person would get furious when some asshole wasted her time. A truly special person would get suspicious when her boyfriend didn’t want to be seen with her in public. And a truly special person would go, “Wait, this is fucking important to me, you’re not blowing me off with a ‘We’ll see.'”
A truly special person would dump an asshole when he wasn’t providing the real meat and potatoes of respect, and giving her little Pixie Sticks of affection here and there.
(Mind you, I like Pixie Sticks. You don’t wanna live on a steady diet of ’em, though.)
And above all, a Truly Special person would rather be alone than to settle for someone else’s half-assed affection.
Truth is, you’re not special until you make yourself special. Most of the really amazing goddamned women I know have such a good sense of self-esteem that they have an anti-asshole shield in place – the assholes stay away because they’ll reject people who aren’t up to par.
(And they also do some self-analysis to figure out the parts of them that genuinely aren’t that special – like a reliance on psychodrama over discussion – and do their best to wear those edges down. The Perfect Man also has an asshole shield in place, and while a Perfect Man can handle a few bumps in a relationship, he’s not going to date someone who’s so unrestrained that she thinks it’s his job to be her emotional backstop.)
So if you wanna be special? Stop fucking waiting. Value yourself like the treasure you are. Learn to speak the language of true respect. Learn to see what things can be given easily, so you can know when someone’s given you something of value.
When you demand a man who’s better, you’ll find – well, not a Perfect Man, but you’ll find someone who shows you his adoration in ways that actually strengthen your life.
Seriously. Change a little. Because you’re better than being someone’s dirty laundry.