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Alec Austin

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[Links:| Brief Interviews With Therianthropes, in Daily Science Fiction ]

Cryptic Enthusiasm [Oct. 22nd, 2014|12:12 am]
ETA: This was supposed to be a comment on Pamela Dean's post about her and Pat Wrede's forthcoming Liavek collection. Leaving it here to preserve the comment thread.

Hurrah! Looking forward to it.
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Further McLaw updates [Sep. 3rd, 2014|07:32 pm]

Patrick McLaw speaks for himself.

The claim that the books had nothing to do with things appears to have been walked back, as well.
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Patrick McLaw update [Sep. 2nd, 2014|04:20 pm]

In light of yesterday's post, it's worth noting that the LA Times claims that McLaw's books had nothing to do with his suspension.

It's not clear from the article if McLaw's lawyer had more to say than "he is receiving treatment", so take the news with whatever serving of skepticism/salt you prefer.
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What all schoolchildren learn [Sep. 1st, 2014|04:15 pm]

So I expect many of you have heard about the Patrick McLaw case, wherein a someone noticed that a (black, male) 8th grade language arts teacher had published a novel involving a horrific school shooting, and the usual engines of scholastic and police overreaction kicked into gear. At least, that's what it looks like given the facts we've been provided, wherein McLaw's only enumerated offense is having written and published a book describing a terrorist act under a pseudonym. (For a lot of people, I fear, that will seem entirely sufficient justification. But more about that anon.)

The Jeffery Goldberg piece I linked to at the Atlantic is fairly good, overall, but I wanted to call out the rhetorical flourish he ends on, where he claims that this will be "teaching the children of their county something awful about the power of fear over reason." And I don't want to be a shit here, but seriously, Mr. Goldberg? The children of our country - especially the ones in junior high and up - already know.

Let me tell you something: When I was in high school, the administration thought I was one of the bad kids. I got in fights; I wore black all the time; I wrote bleak little stories about cannibalism; I regularly had teachers threatening me with punishment for making too much noise while being over a hundred feet from their classroom. The only reason I didn't get in more trouble than I did was that I was going to a private high school - the same school that Barack Obama went to - and the administration understood that they risked non-trivial losses of tuition, volunteer labor, and/or lawsuits if they exercised their authority over their pupils with the same enthusiasm that many public schools across the nation do.

Again, many of you are probably aware of the Florida school that banned Cory Doctorow's Little Brother from classrooms. It's worth noting that the principal did this by fiat, completely ignoring processes that were in place to handle complaints about the content of books.

Par for the fucking course.

In my personal experience (I've never been a teacher), school and school district administrators act autocratically not only towards their students, but often towards their teachers as well. This exercise of arbitrary authority frequently trickles down to the student/teacher level. Mouth off at the wrong time? Detention and/or a chat with the vice principal. Running in the hall/making too much noise/whatever? Detention, etc. And remember, this is *arbitrary* authority, because the students and the teachers all know who's likely to get away with bending (or even flagrantly breaking) rules because they're 'good kids', or because their parents are well-connected, and who'll have the hammer of discipline come down on them for the slightest misstep.

Back to Patrick McLaw. I mentioned a story I wrote in a creative writing class, about cannibalism. At one point, my mother described it to one of her friends, who expressed utter horror and a fervent desire to have me psychologically examined. As much as we want this kind of reaction to be an anomaly, look at the frequency with which parents challenge books and demand that they be banned from a school's curriculum. Fear of difference, of the grotesque, of anything that might tarnish our little darlings' precious (and probably non-existent) innocence is omnipresent in our society.

When that escalates to fear for children's lives (however unfounded), things get really ugly.

As you may have gathered by now, I did not have the best high school experience. After Clarion West, I channeled that into writing a black comedy-- working title: Casual Violence-- about a high school in Hawaii. There may have been explosions involved. I finished a round of revisions in August 2001. Then some planes crashed into some buildings.

That book never got sent to agents.

Look. As far as we know, Patrick McLaw did nothing wrong. But what we need to remember when we have these conversations about censorship and moral panic and Soviet-style discipline being imposed on educators is that for a significant portion of the population, this is the system working as intended. (See also: Sunil Dutta's vile argument for civilian subservience to cops.) In the day-to-day life of our schools, almost no one in a position of power is willing to argue for liberty instead of security, for fear of that age-old bleat: "Won't someone think of the chiiiiildren?" This is equally true in our media.

One last anecdote: When I was up for a National Merit scholarship, I walked into the room where the finalists were gathered with several of my friends, and the other students who were in the running-- and some of the teachers-- just stared at us. What the hell were we doing there? There had to be some kind of mistake. Never mind our test scores. We hadn't been properly anointed.

One National Merit Scholarship and an Master's degree from MIT later, it turns out all those things that my mom's friend and the administration thought about me were bullshit.

Whoever could have guessed?

(Title taken from W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939".)
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Ten Random Songs [Aug. 30th, 2014|03:02 pm]
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Haven't posted in a while, huh? And I cannot brain, so this will be a meme rather than anything substantial.

10 random* songs taken off of "My Top Rated" iTunes playlist:

"Break Me Out", The Rescues, Let Loose the Horses
"Something for the Pain", Redlight King, Something for the Pain
"In So Many Ways", Bad Religion, No Substance
"Shot in the Dark", Within Temptation, The Unforgiving
"One Perfect Day", Lydia Denker, One Perfect Day
"Until Kingdom Come", Kamelot, The Fourth Legacy
"Vow", Garbage, Garbage
"Duck and Run", Three Doors Down, The Better Life
"Love Never Dies (Part I)", Apoptygma Berserk, 7
"Call Me (Instrumental)", In This Moment, The Dream (Bonus CD)


- 4 of these songs (Bad Religion, Garbage, Three Doors Down, Apoptygma Berserk) predate the millennium, and are a fairly good snapshot of my musical taste in late high school and college.

- There's not as much of a clear line between the stuff from this decade and the '00s. Two songs which I thought were from the '10s actually came out in the '00s; what I was remembering was when I started listening to them, not when they were "from".

*: I did skip over some tracks that were in the playlist because of old metadata (i.e. I'd rated them at 4+ stars some time ago but don't like them that much any more). Still, it's a little surprising to me that only 2 of the tracks are metal in any appreciable way, given how hard my purchases have skewed in that direction over the last decade and a half. (One could argue for the In This Moment instrumental cover of Blondie, I guess.) Also of note: no anime or video game tracks.
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Writing Process Blog Tour [Apr. 14th, 2014|11:22 pm]
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So several of my friends (most proximately mrissa) have been blogging about their current projects and writing process as a part of a Writing Process Blog Tour. The questions in the prompt were interesting enough that I figured it wouldn't be bad to join in. (You can find Marissa's post here.)

1) What am I working on?

My current project has the working title of Coup de Grace. It's a military science fiction novel set in a North America wracked by demographic transitions, climate change, and the after-effects of a coup that turned New York City and Washington DC into radioactive craters, triggered a continent-spanning civil war, and has led to the decades-long military occupation of much of the American South.

Carl Olson and his classmates are cadets at a military academy in Minneapolis which trains the security forces of the Pan-Columbian Republic (a state formed by the union of the US, Mexico, and Canada). They're sworn to defend the Constitution of the PCR-- which has been suspended as long as they've been alive-- against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But when the Commandant of the Academy has them rescue a dead Senator's heir from Separatist guerillas, it becomes clear to Carl and his friends that the line between patriotism and treason is a blurry one, and that hard-liners in the the Army and Senate regard them and their instructors as enemies of the state.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The impetus that prompted me to write Coup de Grace was what I perceived as the cookie-cutter template of many dystopias. Take an oppressive central government, add in one or more young people who, through inclination or circumstance, are primed to rebel, and give them an external group of freedom fighters to join. Don't get me wrong: there are books which use that template that I've enjoyed. But it made me wonder what a differently-biased dystopia, which actually tried to address the complexities of politics and political violence, would look like.

As such, the Pan-Columbian Republic is more like present-day China or Russia than the Districts of the Hunger Games. The rebels fighting to overthrow it aren't noble freedom fighters-- they're largely neo-Confederates, Dominionists, and other reactionaries who feel they would be justified in killing large swaths of the (majority-Hispanic) population. Meanwhile, our protagonists are a part of the system, and have reasons to love their country as well as an acute awareness of its flaws and internal divisions.

While Coup isn't near-future SF, the PCR's long war and censorship regime have both slowed and maintained technology to the point where the tech permeating everyday life is recognizable, rather than being in decay, or so advanced it might as well be magic. Carl and his friends play for the Academy e-sports team, and wear headsets which function as cell phones and computers (as well as heads-up-displays in combat). People still drive cars, though they're all hybrid or electric, but everyone except cops, truckers, and the military takes buses and light rail to get places. The future is unevenly distributed, and it's left much of the PCR behind.

I'm also doing my best to take the military dimensions of the novel seriously, without letting the jargon and command structure overwhelm everything. Because Carl and his friends are both soldiers and cadets, they have to do PT, take classes, and have to practice and qualify with their weapons. They swear a lot, in both Spanish and English. They have a chain of command, rules of engagement, and have to follow orders. They practice muzzle and trigger discipline.

They also kill a lot of people, and have to live with the consequences.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I tend to joke about how upbeat and cheery my work is, but I don't set out to be dark. It's just that I'm hyper-aware of the conventions of (modern, popular, English language) narrative and how they tend to produce a very constrained range of content, characters, and points of sympathy. One of several ways I respond to these constraints is to twist things around; to interrogate the conventions that annoy me and follow through on the implications of what I find. (For example: the Braveheart trope, or all freedom fighters are good! Or raw jingoism, where anything Our Boys do is good! Yeah. About that...)

Another factor that motivates a lot of my narrative choices is compassion. I ask myself questions like, "What would drive someone to join the Nazgul?" and try not to stop at the first (read: glib) answer. People mostly aren't cardboard villains or cartoon heroes, and it doesn't add to our stories when we portray them that way. Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite creators for this reason. See his depictions of Princess Kushana in Nausicaa, Lady Eboshi and Jigo in Princess Mononoke, and Yubaba in Spirited Away. These are nuanced and comprehensible characters, even when they're being selfish, proud, or opposing the protagonists.

That doesn't mean they're always right, mind you. But how boring stories would be-- and how alien the characters in them would seem-- if they were always right!

4) How does your writing process work?

My writing process, such as it, is often kick-started by coming up with particularly vivid set-pieces. Once I've got one or two set-pieces to drive toward-- a magister who can turn his staff into an powerful electromagnet facing down a hallway full of crossbowmen, for example-- I start poking at the implications and consequences of a world where such things make sense. Often the initial phrase or image that inspired a book or story doesn't survive the development process. That's fine; ideas are cheap.

Once I feel like I have a clear idea of what happens first, I start writing. My process from there involves a lot of sitting around figuring out what needs to happen next. Some people can think on the page, throwing stuff at the wall during their early drafts and seeing what sticks, but that doesn't usually work very well for me. Doing my thinking before I start writing frees me up to improvise within constraints, rather than first being paralyzed by possibilities, and then paralyzed by the conviction that I've taken a wrong turn and won't be able to continue until I figure out how many of the pages I've just written need to be thrown away.

That said, while I often need to pause and think about what comes next (and sometimes research specific topics, like riverboats of the Yangtze, or political philosophy), I usually have a fairly clear notion of where I'm going. Especially with longer works, like books or novelettes-- I've never written a novella, and given how few places are looking to buy them, I don't mean to start-- I tend to have both a bunch of snippets from the end of the story written before I write the middle, and elaborate playlists and mixes made up of songs that will get my head in the right space and remind me of the emotional and dramatic beats I intend to hit. The typical result of this is that writing the middle of any story is the hard part-- by the time I get to the end, I tend to have a lot more clarity, as well as bits of prose that I can incorporate or discard in my wild rush to the finish.

Anyway, that's what I'm working on, and how I think about and do these sorts of things.

The standard way of doing this "tour" seem to have three people lined up to follow you next week, but I don't really like pushing chain letters or posts on my friends. So here is Marissa Lingen's process post (also linked to at the start of this post), and Michael Merriam's. If you feel like continuing things with a post of your own, indicate that in comments.
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List of proposed 4th Street panels [Mar. 31st, 2014|10:34 pm]
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I just posted a list of panels over in the 4th_st_fantasy community, for those who are interested.
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The Rhetoric of Blood [Feb. 24th, 2014|12:12 am]
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So my guest post for the Book of Apex 4 - The Rhetoric of Blood - is up at Many a True Nerd. In it, I talk about the conflation of "realism" with darkness in fiction, why I write dark stuff, and how some topics are inherently dark while others get depicted that way for other reasons.

If that sounds at all interesting to you, go check it out.
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Interview @ Many a True Nerd [Feb. 16th, 2014|03:01 pm]
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So as a part of the Book of Apex 4 blog tour, my story "Ironheart" (along with stories by swan_tower and matociquala) got reviewed over at Many a True Nerd.

Lizzie S. from Many a True Nerd also interviewed me about the genesis of "Ironheart", game systems, my writing process, and (indirectly) my fixation on Oda Nobunaga.

Lizzie and Claire will be hosting a guest post written by yours truly in a little less than a week as well, and I'll post a link here when that goes live.
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Story up at Beneath Ceaseless Skies [Feb. 6th, 2014|08:31 am]
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So my story "Atonement" is up on BCS today. It's set in a fantasy Sogdia, and is full of female soldiers, hungry ghosts, eunuch exorcists, Buddhist monks, Zoroastrians, and daevas. Spread the word, if you're so inclined.

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