State of publishing, 2021

It was January 2018. I'd been sitting on the idea for Tendrils to the Moon for a year. The divided reactions to The Last Jedi sent up a mushroom cloud of a signal that a large and growing market wasn't being served by mainstream entertainment. And I was in the middle of reading David V Stewart's Needle Ash series, which proved to this neophyte there was quality writing coming out of self-publishing. The dam penning up my creativity burst, and I blasted out my debut novel in 5 months.

Back then, it felt like self-publishing vs. tradpub was an open question on which reasonable minds could differ. My lack of success in getting an agent in the aughts and my eagerness to get my writing in people's hands all but guaranteed I would self-publish. For a while part of me kept an open mind about going the tradpub route in the future. My mind is closed now. All the evidence I've seen since I started writing again has pushed me closer to regarding self-publishing as the default.

Including this account I saw on Twitter:

After tradpub lost its monopoly on the printing press at the turn of the century, its raison d'être has been quality control. Self-publishing is full of snake oil salesmen and greasy-haired televangelists, so it goes. Best to leave it to professionals to filter out the trash so readers won't be swindled out of their money. This would be fine if it was true.

If you know where and how to look, self-published books are on par with traditionally published books in terms of production value. As for giving readers what they want, self-published books have a clear edge. There are few impediments in the flow of information between a self-published writer and his audience. His success depends on satisfying one person: the customer. He doesn't have to please a dozen Manhattanites with niche sensibilities first.

The tradpub environment was stifling enough before last year. I would characterize what the industry is going through now, evidenced above, as a moral panic. There are two ways to react to panic: mobilize resources to meet the threat, or do nothing. Tradpub mobilized. Agents and editors poured resources into a dubious cause when they should have been focusing on putting good books in readers' hands.

I don't see it getting better anytime soon. Changes in acquisitions processes tend to reflect in new books hitting the shelves at least 12 to 18 months later, so the damage won't be fully felt until 2022.

Two fantasy books that I'm currently neck-deep in on Kindle Vella are Stewart's The Bright Children and TJ Marquis's Children of Asha. Both feature young female protagonists. Not to put too fine a point on it, the authors are neither young nor female. Nor do the settings resemble anything anyone has experienced in the real world. And I couldn't care less because that's the point of fantasy. Imagination is your only qualification. I recommend these books for your entertainment and the enrichment of your life.

If sci-fi is your preferred flavor, check out Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here. As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll get back to you as soon as I'm able.

The dreaded lunar "wobble"

This one's for the nerds.

Corporate media's fear porn about a "wobble" in the Moon's orbit exacerbating sea level rise leaves the reader in the dark as to what the "wobble" even is and why it would result in higher tides. Not even the NASA article on which the report is based provides a clear description of the mechanics involved. I did the research these hacks neglected to do so you, the news consumer, are informed and knowledgeable about the near-invisible reality of the nature of God's created order.

The technical term for the "wobble" is nodal precession. Before I can explain what that is, I have to first explain that Earth revolves around the Sun on what's called the plane of the ecliptic. All major bodies of the solar system more or less revolve around the Sun on the plane of the ecliptic. Earth tilts 23.4 degrees relative to this plane, which results in seasonal variance in the length of days and the weather. The variance is more intense the farther from the equator you live.

Earth's equator is perpendicular to this tilt and follows the direction of Earth's daily spin. The Moon does not revolve around Earth over Earth's equator. It revolves more or less around Earth on the plane of the ecliptic. That "more or less" is plus or minus 5 degrees. Over an 18-year period, the Moon's orbit over Earth rotates like an off-center spinning top so that the highest latitude on Earth that it directly passes over falls within a 10-degree range, or about 700 miles.

At the lower extreme, called minor lunar standstill, the farthest north the Moon goes is Mexico City. At the upper extreme 9 years later, called major lunar standstill, the farthest north the Moon goes is Orlando, Florida. This is the phase of the Moon's "wobbling" orbit that the fearmongering is about.

Finally we can talk about tides. The Moon is 70% responsible for tides (the Sun being the other 30%). The Moon traversing higher latitudes on Earth means those higher latitudes will experience higher high tides.

How much higher? Wait for it… … … … 1.9 inches. Unless you live at sea level, there's nothing to worry about.

If this talk about orbital mechanics tickles your fancy, I recommend my debut novel Tendrils to the Moon. You can find an extended preview here.

By the way, if you haven't tried Kindle Vella yet, score 200 free tokens here and show these indie authors some love:

  • The Perils of Sasha Reed by Rawle Nyanzi
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As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply back as soon as I can.

Richard Branson the astronaut?

Richard Branson has always been a daredevil. His sailing and ballooning adventures have been ingrained in the public consciousness for so long that you can find parodies of him from way back in 2004. He isn't just a rich thrill-seeker. He wants to do great things. There's no greater why than "because it's there" (credit to George Mallory).

Modeled after the X-series rocket plane famous for Chuck Yeager's sound barrier-breaking flight in 1947, Branson's Unity drop-launched from its mothership and shot to an altitude of 53.5 miles before gliding back down to Earth on Sunday. According to the FAA, which marks the boundary of space at 50 miles up, Branson's an astronaut now. Next year he'll start charging people $250,000 for the same experience.

While the flight was a technical success, investors sold the hype. The stock sale that immediately followed did not go as planned. As of this writing, Virgin Galactic's market cap has fallen 20% since trading opened on Monday.

Next week it'll be Jeff Bezos's turn. The founder and former CEO of Amazon will fly in the New Shepard crew capsule in the nose of a reusable rocket launched from West Texas. After reaching a marginally higher altitude than Branson's Unity, the crew capsule will separate from the rocket and descend back to the desert via parachutes. Bezos's company, Blue Origin, has yet to take reservations for commercial flights.

With all due respect, these personal breakthroughs into suborbital space are sideshows to the main event. Artemis 1 is still on for November, and NASA just awarded the Lunar Gateway contract to Northrup Grumman for a cool billion dollars. Skeptical as I am of the long-term prospects of the Moon, it's obvious the powers that be are looking at Artemis to gauge our readiness for Mars. In that respect, I'm keen on Artemis succeeding.

It's unclear at this point what purpose Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin serve in the interests of space exploration. Sailing the Atlantic, which Branson has done, or climbing Everest requires skill, stamina, and willpower that few people have. Branson and Bezos exhibit those traits in building their aerospace companies from the ground up. But that's not what they're selling. They're selling rides. Frankly a day pass to Six Flags is a better deal.

Early in my book Tendrils to the Moon, billionaire Wayne Sheridan is confronted by his colleagues who want to stay in Earth orbit rather than press on to the Moon. Bit by the comfort bug, they became complacent and lazy. His contempt for the proposed change of plans is palpable, and you the reader are supposed to side with him. People don't risk life and limb to settle for half-measures. They want to do something fantastic, something that'll stretch them physically and mentally. Sheridan's decision to take his crew and forge ahead on his own is both his finest moment and the seed of his downfall.

If that interests you, you can find an extended preview of Tendrils to the Moon here. As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll reply back as soon as I can.

Primordial fun

"Today it's shocking to see [planetary romance] delivered with not even a hint of snark or irony." –Jeffro Johnson, Appendix N

I'll be honest. When I read the preview for Alexander Hellene's The Last Ancestor over a year ago, I passed on it. At the time it didn't seem like my kind of book. Now, looking back, I wonder what I could have been thinking. This is exactly my kind of book.

The story is set in the near future, not many years after a large group of Christians have settled on a new planet, fleeing persecution on Earth. They settle near a huge city inhabited by what they call Growlers, who are aggressive and war-like. An uneasy ceasefire exists between the two races, a tense, long-term standoff that has real-world parallels. Garret, whose dad died in battle against the Growlers, befriends one of them, called Ghryxa, by saving him from one of the planet's many dangerous unintelligent animals. This unlikely pair finds themselves thrust in the middle of a plot to resume open war between the races, with one side intending to obliterate the other once and for all.

Hellene accomplishes a lot within TLA's pages. I led with the quote from Jeffro Johnson because this book is in the grand old tradition of sword and planet epitomized by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom and Amtor series. While there's more gunplay in TLA, the long stretches of running, hiding, sneaking, and fighting maintain a chivalrous tone, for Garret rarely goes on offense with the overwhelming violence he's capable of. Throughout, his youthful pep and optimism lighten what is otherwise a fraught and perilous story. Ghryxa, who's ostracized from his kind for being "soft," also has a chip on his shoulder. They know they're in over their heads getting involved with high-ranking figures such as a princess and a bishop, but they hang in there because of their infectious can-do patriotism and the moral support that boys being forged into men lend each other.

The setting and characters are uniquely suited to frame the conflict between the humans and the Growlers as a religious war as much as a war of incompatible nations forced to live near each other. The book is frank about its religious dimension, but it never resorts to prosylitization. Rather the old-fashioned heroic and nationalistic sentiments that motivate the characters are folded seamlessly into the faith they believe it's their duty to uphold. Hellene reinforces this every chapter by starting with a written excerpt of Garret's dad's video diaries, intended to impart fatherly life lessons and wisdom.

The ways Hellene uses the Christian principles of selfless love and living witness to initiate the central conflict and resolve it are brilliant. He deftly transposes the threat of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Growlers' Ancestor worship up until the very end. I won't give the ending away, but it's refreshing to see characters be rewarded for doing the right thing, even when doom seems about to befall them.

In short, The Last Ancestor is fresh, fun science fiction brewed from a cocktail of primordial elements, among which muscular Christianity prominently stands out. I recommend it.

Give the people what they want

Not a day goes by without a corporate-sponsored artist publicly spitting on his forebears, maligning swaths of his audience for imagined slights, or forfeiting the stewardship of a classic IP by producing some current-year parody. Surely there's a divine hand in so many people remaining plugged in to the Pop Cult after these repeated insults to fans' taste and character. Men will grumble and joke about Lucasfilm renaming Boba Fett's ship because of political correctness, then plop down $8 a month to catch new episodes of The Mandalorian so they can talk about it at the water cooler. Never in the history of the world has there been such diversity of entertainment, and this is what people choose.

The state of affairs in the arts is the clearest sign of the degeneracy of the culture, which seems to be rushing headlong to a date with judgment. "God gave them over," etc., etc. How did we get here? Robert Bork, in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, attempted to give an answer:

It may be in the nature of intellectuals to oppose, but prior to the closing decades of the eighteenth century, open opposition was often not safe and certainly not prudent. Schumpeter makes the point that prior to the Enlightenment intellectuals were few in number and dependent upon the support of the Church or some great patron: "the typical intellectual did not relish the idea of the stake which still awaited the heretic." They preferred honors and comfort which could be had only from "princes, temporal or spiritual." What freed them was the invention of the printing press and the rise of the bourgeoisie, which enabled intellectuals to find support from a new patron, the mass audience. Schumpeter places the decline of the importance of the individual patron in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. James Gardner, art editor for the National Review, says that artists began to direct their anger at the bourgeois state three generations after the French Revolution. The modern universities, foundations, museums, etc. have provided patrons for tens of thousands of disaffected intellectuals. Perhaps, then, intellectuals were always potentially hostile to the social order in which they lived but were held in check by self-interest until the public relieved them of their dependence on private patrons and the bourgeois state lost the will to suppress.

Bork doesn't spell it out—he doesn't need to—that art made for mass consumption is wholly different from the weird sadomasochistic art funded by government grants and endowments. The former gains nothing from ridiculing the bourgeois morality the proletariat recognizes as the social glue that prevents a descent into anarchy. While early pop novelists like Charles Dickens routinely took the bourgeoisie to task, it was usually for not living up to their moral standards, which were recognized as good for everyone.

If it can be said art as entertainment still retains a sense of morality, albeit disconnected from its Christian and Greco-Roman roots—which I do—what precipitated the creative class's heel turn when they began to subsist on government grants and endowments? The mode of funding their art may be different, but the same social class foots the bill. You could blame it on the change from a hereditary aristocracy to a merchant/manager aristocracy if the social attitudes of those people were different. From where I sit there isn't much difference except in how they got their money.

The simplest answer is the social attitudes of the patrons changed. They became more aligned with the aggrieved intellectuals and artists instead of the other way around. Instead of being proud of their ancestors who they inherited from, or of the cultural climate that afforded them the opportunity to succeed, they feel shame. The bourgeoisie with their money fund the counterculture; however, by their morality they personify that which the counterculture sneers at. Charles Murray observed this strange duality in Coming Apart:

The hollow elite is as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way. Personally and as families, its members are successful. But they have abdicated their responsibility to set and promulgate standards.

The dirty little secret Murray avoided saying is this: The reason the elite don't promulgate moral standards is they don't think the proletariat are smart enough or capable enough to live like they do. They think life lived rightly is the result of self-mastery (a la Ben Franklin), not of devotion to God. The art they fund reflects what little hope they have for that secular model to save humanity. In other words, the art fulfills its purpose; it delivers the intended message to the intended audience. How odd that the art the privileged bourgeoisie identify with would be dark and cynical while the art the oppressed proletariat identify with would be aspirational and uplifting!

That is, aspirational and uplifting on its good days, which the most massive of mass entertainments are having a lot fewer of lately. Bourgeois disaffection has infiltrated pop art and is in the process of transforming it for a new audience. The reason you don't like it is you're not supposed to like it. And that's okay. But you're going to have to get your entertainment elsewhere.

Brian Niemeier calls the future funding model of art neo-patronage. It's the sensible alternative to rolling the dice with corporate-sponsored fare. A patronized artist is a grateful artist and will respond to his audience. This is the way.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like science fiction, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

Civic dissonance

Today I was hoping to bring you a review of Alexander Hellene's The Last Ancestor, but that'll have to wait because I'm not finished reading it. So I'll talk about another book that's been gnawing at me over the years: The City & the City by China Miéville.

The City & the City is a police procedural/murder mystery with one of the most imaginative settings I've ever encountered. The story takes place in a city that exists simultaneously in two different countries. There's nothing supernatural going on here. People living in different countries under different laws and speaking different languages walk on the same sidewalks and drive on the same roads, but they act and think like the other side isn't there.

Any interaction with the other side is termed a "breach." It's so taboo that there's a shadowy police force endowed with fearsome power that prosecutes it. You have to pass through a "border" in a special part of the city to cross to the other side. The separateness is so well-kept that characters don't even blink at the irony of going across town to pass through the border only to return to the same neighborhood, just to deliver a package or question someone in relation to a crime investigation.

If you've spent any time in a city, you know how confining it can be. Space is at a premium and much of life is lived on the street. Over time you develop a sort of tunnel vision, an emotional distance from the teeming masses of humanity you encounter when walking to work or to the store. It's hard not to rub shoulders with other cultures day to day, but if you keep your head down and move along most of the time no one will bother you. Being ignored and ignoring others isn't rude; it's actually considered polite.

If social trust is the inverse of diversity (as Robert Putnam and other sociologists have found), and there is literally nowhere for anyone to relocate to, what is to be done to avoid conflict over who owns the public sphere? In Miéville's setting, the solution is more realistic than you think. People are good at pretending what's in front of their eyes doesn't exist, especially when the consequences of not pretending could hurt them. Fear is an effective palliative for cognitive dissonance.

The origins of the arrangement are a mystery in the book, but I thought it probable the two countries had very specific, meaningful claims to the land the city stands on, and were on the brink of war. A deal was brokered for the countries to divorce from each other psychologically. It would have made sense to install an overwhelming external power to check the natural desire among the denizens to fight.

Had that power not been installed, various organizations unequipped to enforce the psychological conditioning would have been thrust into that role. The disorganized, shambolic effort would have resulted in people on both sides continuing to publicly accept what their senses told them was true. They'd inevitably act on it with violence, which above all else the power brokers wanted to avoid.

It's a brilliant premise, and Miéville executes it with aplomb.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like science fiction, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

The anti-Western

I've written in this space before how Die Hard works as a meta-level defense of the masculine American hero, with its tacit ridicule of McClane's doubters and naysayers in corporate sleazeball Harry Ellis and Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T Robinson. Total Recall does something similar… both formally in its male fantasy plot, and informally during the pivotal pill scene with Dr. Edgemar. The evidence supporting Dr. Edgemar's argument that Quaid dreamed everything after going under at Rekall is rock-solid, but you the viewer reject it because the adventure you're on is too fun to not believe in, real world be damned.

Westerns on TV and the big screen featured the kinds of heros Die Hard extolled, but the genre suffered a mortal blow in the late '60s and '70s when a darkening of public thought retinged American history with cynicism and shame. The revisionist Western, featuring morally gray heros, became de rigueur.

If anyone was going to revive the Western, it would have been Clint Eastwood, star of Sergio Leonne's Dollars trilogy and other Western classics like Two Mules for Sister Sarah, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and my personal favorite, Pale Rider. Spoiler alert: He did not.

"We would have been far better off not to have accepted trash like this piece of inferior work… I can't think of one good thing to say about it. Except maybe, get rid of it FAST." –Sonia Chernus, screenwriter of The Outlaw Josey Wales

Unforgiven won the Academy Award for Best Picture and is hailed by many as the best Western of all time. It's supposedly so good that it's the reason no one has tried to make a Western in 30 years (except for the vastly more entertaining Tombstone). That's wrong. No one has tried to make a Western since Unforgiven because Unforgiven systematically deconstructed and destroyed the genre. As film critic Jason Hellerman says, "what we saw made us not want to look back for a long time."

If Die Hard and Total Recall tried to revive or at least venerate heroism and escapism, Unforgiven shoots them in the back and stomps them into the mud. It's brutal, nihilistic, and joyless. The "hero," an assassin who abandons his young children, would be the villain in any other movie. (He even has a Villains wiki page.) The "villain," a sheriff protecting a Wyoming town from assassins, would be the hero in any other movie. The inversion is masterfully executed, but I hesitate to call it "good."

Daggett: "I'll see you in hell, William Munny."

Munny: "Yeah." [shoots Daggett in the head]

An example of how this movie deconstructs the Western is its portrayal of "saloon girls." What some women did to keep food on the table in the Old West was rarely hinted at in Hays Code–era Hollywood, to the extent the hero could flirt with a prostitute and a child who happened to be watching would be none the wiser. Unforgiven is not so politic and duly earns its Restricted rating in the very first scene by showing a man butcher a prostitute's face because she laughed when she saw his penis.

If that doesn't sound like typical Western fare, that's because it's not. The point of that scene (in addition to initiate the plot) is to hit the viewer between the eyes with the vulgarity of the Old West. It's a comment less about the Old West and more about the genre that artfully obscured the vulgar and profane to tell you a story, maybe even a wholesome story about men with moral fiber. Put another way, those stories were lies. This, here, is unvarnished truth. Get it?

As if Eastwood's intent wasn't clear enough, there's a character called Beauchamp, a writer of pulp Western novels, who is portrayed as a coward who lives vicariously through his heros, who sugar-coats and glorifies violence. The sheriff takes him under his wing to teach him how the West really is: lawless, amoral, unheroic. Even the way gunfights play out comes down to dumb luck. You see? Everything is meaningless!

It's ironic when a fan of this movie talks about this movie with any kind of reverence when the movie all but screams that it doesn't want to be revered. This person might even say his favorite scene is when Eastwood's Bill Munny shoots up a saloon to avenge his friend. It's a great gunfight, and it stands out as the only time the ostensible hero lets morality direct his actions. The same gunfight with same set-up would have a bigger impact in a true Western.

It took chutzpah for Eastwood to make Unforgiven, an indictment of the genre that made him famous. I'd hold it against him personally if he didn't have oodles of good will stored up from everything else he's acted in and directed. But for those whom the Western is near and dear, I wouldn't be surprised if he's still unforgiven.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like science fiction, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.