My time portal novella, “Where There Is Nothing, There Is God” is eligible in the novella category of the 2017 Asimov’s Readers Awards. If you dug it and wanna cast a ballot, rad! If not, no skin off my back. Thx!
My latest Time Portal novella— “Where There Is Nothing, There Is God” —is in the current issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, on news stands now! (Most Barnes & Noble locations stock it, as do many indie bookshops).
Our blockbuster December 2016 novella, “Where There Is Nothing, There Is God” by David Erik Nelson, is a rollicking Time Portal tale. It’s filled with a cast of unsavory characters who operate as though Cotton Mather’s favorite TV show was Breaking Bad. In this vastly entertaining story, it’s hard to know whom to root for so just make sure your inertia dampening system is on and enjoy the ride!
The other two stories in the series— “The New Guys Always Work Overtime” and “There Was No Sound of Thunder” —can be purchased for Kindle (click those links), or you can get that first story in many DRM-free formats for free(!!!) when you sign up for my newsletter using this link:
Pseudopod has an excellent track record—both in terms of delivering the goods and doing right by their contributors—and impressive longevity (10 years of weekly operation publishing fiction for free is hard going; I know from experience). Their goal is to raise funds to increase what they pay artists and ensure their longevity. These are Good Things™
Kick in a few bucks; the 21st Century is nuts, and perhaps the nutsiest thing is the jaw-dropping array of free arts & letters we each enjoy every day—but it can only be free on the daily if we all kick in now and again. This is one of those moments.
Add bonus: there are some really nifty backer premiums, including this rad-as-hell mug and their first ever anthology, For Mortal Things Unsung—which features both reprints of pieces they
bought for the podcast (including mine), as well as new work A.C. Wise, Jim Bihyeh, and others.
This arrived in my mailbox on Friday, August 12:
Lemme zoom in on the first graff:
And just one more time:
A postal truck “experienced a fire.”
My God, I love that! We have sentient postal trucks, out there having new and interesting experiences, and yet they don’t have the damned sense not to play with fire. It’s a self-aware 80,000 pound truck with the executive function of a toddler; O brave new world that has such people in’t!
At any rate, this does tend to explain the errant check for several thousand dollars I’ve been waiting for. *sighs* Guess I’ve gotta call a client later today.
Anyway, for the curious, here’s my mail burning up last month:
This is a little video about dropping the pretensions and just returning to using “They/Them” as the singular non-gendered pronoun. It’s a fun video, but the Big Picture is this:
English is a fantastically error-tolerant language. You can construct fantastically agrammatical sentences and still be sufficiently understood to get things done. Optimizing around tiny matters of correctness (e.g., “unique can never take a modifier,” “never end a sentence with a preposition,” and so on) usually fails to bring any substantive increase in the clarity of your speech or writing. Insisting that others do so as well–especially when there is no legitimate confusion created by their chosen construction–usually means you are acting like a classist dickweed (plausibly because you are one).
THE TAKEAWAY: At best, perfect “grammatical correctness”—like taking a good long shit—is (and should be) an entirely private pleasure. It’s not for polite conversation among civilized people like you and me.
If nothing else of substance, the last couple days of RNC Trump Speech brouhaha have offered a pair of very important business lessons.
My initial impression was that we were looking at this kind of fantastically gobsmacking paradox:
A candidate renowned for his wealth and business acumen is either unable to afford or incapable of selecting competent help.
But according to this article, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Skilled workers are perfectly happy to hold their noses and accept Trump dollars, but their employer is totally unable to actually use the tools he purchases.
This puts me in the mind of a business aphorism (which I believe I first heard from Ramit Sethi):
A students hire A students; B students hire C students.
To mansplain: An A student knows what good work looks like, that good work is hard, and is confident that they can reliably produce good work through the judicious application of hard work. A students want to see good work, and do not want to look like putzes, so they choose subordinates who are as capable as themselves (if not more so). B students may occasionally do good work, but since they don’t know this other stuff (about how to judiciously apply hard work to reliably produce that good work), they can be pretty insecure. They hire down the ladder to shore up their ego.
But, of course, Trump is proving to not even be a B student; the B student is insecure and frustrated because he or she knows what good, consistent work looks like—they just can’t produce it.
Trump is a C student wallowing in the depths of Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.
So, to revise:
A students hire A students; B students hire C students. C students hire an A student, a B student, two C students, a guy on Craigslist, their cousin, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mike Tyson, six doctors, and a personal trainer, follow none of their advice, and then scream at them when they get the C they earned.
Hard to believe it’s just 185 days until a middle-school “Plagiarism” essay entirely copied from Wikipedia is inaugurated President.🇺🇸🔥
— David Erik Nelson (@SquiDaveo) July 19, 2016
“Shots were fired”
Ah yes, the mysterious shots that materialized out of thin air. https://t.co/qwxKNvqrdC
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 7, 2016
What with the news being what it’s been this last year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about grammatical constructions (like the one Bouie highlights here)—which abruptly reminded me of this article I read a couple years ago by Arika Okrent: “Four Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”
It’s pretty noticeable that words like “shall” and “ought” are on the way out, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are doing just fine. There are other members of this helping verb club though, and they have been on a steep climb this century. “Going to,” “have to,” “need to,” and “want to” cover some of the same meaning territory as the other modal verbs. They first took hold in casual speech and have enjoyed a big increase in print in recent decades.
(FYI: Okrent also wrote a really neat book on created languages that includes a healthy section in Klingon. The whole thing is fascinating.)
I’m pretty interested in the rhetorical (and psycho-social) significance of “will/should/can” vs. “going to/have to/need to/want to.” E.g., If I say “I will drive,” I’m both stating what will happen in the future, and implying my ownership of the act. I’m gonna drive, and I wanna drive. “Should” both softens the likelihood (evidenced in the fact that you can tag “—but probably won’t” onto the statement without sounding totally nuts) and softens the commitment (implying that I can do it, but likely would rather not). “Can” is neutral with intent (I can do it, but I’m cool with letting someone else do it), and likelihood (since I’m obviously leaving it open for someone who’d rather drive to speak up).
Meanwhile, the “going/have/need/want to” forms seem to shift the question away from the likelihood of who shall do what, and more to the emotional timbre of the doing of the thing. “I want to drive” clearly speaks to my intent to drive, and “I have to drive” clearly communicates I’d probably rather not (or, in the least, attribute the fact that I’ll do it to external factors). “Need to drive” says that I want to do it—and shall do it—but likely for reasons I attribute to being outside myself (including, for example, a deep craving to drive, which I’ve now framed as being outside my control). Finally, “I’m going to drive” is sorta the most fantastic of all, since it has two opposite meanings that can only be clarified through context, tone, or body language: If I say “I’m going to drive,” either I’m super gung ho to drive, or I feel totally forced into it.
Yeah, this is all subtle. In the end, we all get that someone is gonna fucking drive, so who cares about the damned shades of meaning, Dave? Does it really matter much, or is it just word nerd trivia?
Yes, it matters. The little things have a fantastic power to totally deflect the big ones, just like a lone shirt button can deflect a bullet. We all agree that the difference between getting bullseyed right in the heart to meaningfully different from taking a bullet painfully—but far from fatally—into the meaty shoulder.
Likewise, the ways that small changes in language shift our inquiry are big.
For example, consider:
RAPE AND THE PASSIVE VOICE
Language activists point out that the way we as a society refer to sexual assault uses passive voice to blame the victim, with devastating effect. We say, “She was raped” instead of “He raped her” or “Someone raped her.” By doing this, we make the recipient of the action the subject of the sentence, and thus the focus of our questions: What was she wearing? How much did she drink? Where was she going and why was she going there?
If you make the perpetrator the subject of the sentence, then he is also the focus of our inquiry—which is sort of entirely proper, right? Seeing as how he’s the one on trial. This is one of the few instances where I think we can all strongly advocate for a man totally being the focus of a situation that’s 50/50 male/female.
When I raise this, folks usually fire back in one of two ways:
- “It’s appropriate to use the passive voice here; we do know who the victim is, and we don’t know who the perpetrator is!”
- “The writer chooses to do this in order to focus on the victim, who is the one most in need of our compassion!”
I call double bullshit here. First, on any given day, if I search Google News for “rape” I’ll tend to find an article on the first page of returns that is both 1) about a crime that has already been completely litigated and guilt found (sometimes decades ago) and 2) continues to use the passive voice. As for how the writer chooses to focus our compassion: If that’s your intent, then it is not working; try something new.
The passive voice does it again. https://t.co/sAgbldiBm0
— David Erik Nelson (@SquiDaveo) July 7, 2016
I’m not saying that journos are conspiring with the patriarchy to subjected whoever; I think these tendencies—like almost every linguistic choice we make from moment to moment—are entirely unconscious. In the case of the rapist-less rape and those magic materializing bullets from the head of this post, I imagine these tortuous grammatically constructions arise from a combination of overabundant caution (we don’t want to speak beyond what we know), and a desperate, unstated need to distance ourselves from the awfulness of this world—to, in effect, deny that any humans were involved in creating these miseries, because to do so is to begin to suspect that we, too, might play some part in this.
And, in an entirely predictable irony, in trying to avoid giving offense and making ourselves uncomfortable, we create new and potent miseries out of thin air.
I wanna start with an apology: Based on a very brief hot-take published in Slate, I posted this quip:
Um…this is totally run-of-the-mill sales material. Not saying it’s not sleazy, just saying it’s not that special. https://t.co/43OC4yCqds
— David Erik Nelson (@SquiDaveo) June 3, 2016
After seeing the these two Jon Oliver episodes (vol 1 and vol 2), I finally dug into the 2010 Trump University Playbook in earnest (as opposed to just re-reading the same nibblets everyone was passing around). And you know what? This playbook is special.
Since the Slate excerpts were chosen for the lulz, not the insight, all I saw was what was there: Standard-issue sales training materials, with the genre-mandated jankety English and flop-sweat sheen of Glengarry Glen Ross bravado. If you have experience with consumer-oriented sales (i.e., “B2C”—that’s “business to consumer”, generally contrasted to “B2B,” which is “business to business”), none of this is that unusual. And so that’s what I tweeted.
But, of course, I was looking at it as someone who’s worked in sales, studied the psychology of selling, written sales copy, and slogged through a lot of terrible sales material and ethically questionable sales advice. After digging into the playbook with my “Normal Human” eyes on, I’m seeing the ickiness much more clearly. That fantastic, revelatory ickiness.
Give these materials a gander, esp. the “Sales Playbook” section starting around pg. 96. Read it, and get a sense of what a steep disadvantage you are at, as a normal human thrust into a professional sales situation (e.g., buying a car, sitting down with a “financial advisor,” being dragged to court, being interrogated).
This is, in fact, a pretty tight textbook on the dark arts of high-pressure sales/persuasion situations where there is a built-in power differential that favors the seller.
Frankly, if Trump U really wanted to give students value, then screw real estate investing; they should have handed out copies of this. “Here’s how we suckered you; go forth and sucker others!”
Maybe not worth $995, but certainly worth more than nothing.
RECOMMENDED READING: 2010 Trump University Playbook
Artists: Even if you are lukewarm on Weezer, this interview with Rivers Cuomo (the band’s frontman) is so worth your time. I’ve got more than a little experience with collaboration, creativity under duress, constrained writing techniques, and Oulipo-like methods, and yet I’ve never come across a process like this, which is at once ornately technical (spreadsheets, demo files, something akin to A/B testing) and is so meticulous in the interest of harnessing randomness and stripping context and formal planning out of the creative process.
Weezerians: To those who dig Weezer already, know this: The stories in their songs are not stories they wrote, but stories you wrote in response to the fragments they gathered and the formulae they use to collect and organize those fragments.