What Have You Done for Paris?

As Paris exploded, I was writing a book.

As the recriminations mounted, I read Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

I’ve spent almost all of my free time since Friday the 13th either writing No Time, arguing on Facebook, or reading about physics.

It’s one Hell of a contrast.

Hawking, in a direct and engaging way, explains current ideas about how the universe came to be, the fundamental building blocks of matter and energy, the shape of galaxies and the fate of existence. He recounts a litany of human beings working together to understand the nature of the universe. He is calm, hopeful, and full of wonder. The world in A Brief History of Time is a place that can be understood through observation, cooperation, and rigor.

What a world of difference from the world where over 150 Parisians died in a bursts of gunfire and bombs, where le President orders random carpet-bombings, and where Americans of every political and cultural stripe grin at the opportunity to grandstand. Yes, France has stricter gun laws than the United States. Yes, Japan had an earthquake almost-but-not-quite-the-same-day. Yes, whatever political concerns you, personally, may have are far more important than Beirut or Paris. Yes, whatever points you want to score are appropriate in the wake of a horrific attack on sacré Paris.

It’s obvious by now that ISIS claims responsibility because of how it helps their recruitment effort. ISIS wants the refugees of the Middle East (and all Muslims) to see the world as a battle between East and West, between Right and Wrong, a clash of civilizations to tighten the trousers of Samuel Huntington and Richard Dawkins. The next day, Poland helped them immeasurably – they closed their doors to Syrian refugees. Rhetoric across the West is revving up again against the wicked mussulman and his swords and his bombs and his army of wives. If your enemies helped everybody see the world the way you do, wouldn’t you take the credit?

You know what’s not obvious? Who was actually responsible for the attacks. We’re going to have to trust les gendarmes to work that one out. Because right now, unless you read French, you probably know less about it than I do, and I know jack shit.

Some of you, and deep down you know who you are, are right now using Paris as a means of making your point. On Thursday the 12th, how many of you had heard about the attacks on Beirut? No, not ‘those people’ on your friendslist, you. You, the one sharing that clever meme about the Lebanese flag and that heartrending cartoon of all the tragedies that the media ignores. Did you know or care about Kenya on the 12th? Then why are you using Paris as a piggyback?

If you care about Beirut, show me where to give blood so it gets there. Show me where to send medical supplies. Fill my feed with that, the way I’ve been showing snide, cynical slacktivists how to actually do something to help the Parisians.

How about you? Yes, you, who went to Paris once in 1993 and hated it, but are now insisting we all #PrayforParis. Have you even read the Quran? How is it, then, you now are an expert at discerning the true intentions behind the words, and know that those intentions are murderdeathkill? Why are you worried about Islamist terrorists when study after study shows the most dangerous demographic in America is white males?

If you are eager enough to give blood to defend all we hold dear, why not give blood? You can save lives across the world, whether it’s for a specific attack or for the low-level violence and natural tragedies that make the cosmic background radiation of human life.

And you, eagerly consuming every thinkpiece on Atlantic, or FOX News, or Huffington Post, without even bothering to check the BBC or, mais non!, Le Monde? How can you possibly claim to be any better than your ideological enemies, the one you are using Paris as a cheap pipe-bomb to attack? How are you any better-informed, any better-acting, any less an asshole?

One such thinkpiece summed it up perfectly:

“Paris wasn’t just a massacre. It was a megaphone to be used for whatever you wanted to shout.”

Je m’appelle Mathieu, and it is not my Paris. It is not yours, either. I am sick and tired of the grief-shaming and the war-drum, and of everyone throwing Paris in the mud for their petty political battles. It is the City of Light, the City of #OuvrePorte, a city that is grieving and a city that is angry. It is a city in need of answers, in need of friends, and in need of peace.

I said on the 13th and I say today: Vive la France. Vive la paix. Vive le Paris.

If you can, donate to one of the aid organizations at work in Paris. Many of them also work in Beirut, which I can actually find on a map. If you can’t, sing La Marseillaise, or at least hum a few bars. Watch Mr. Rogers’ short comment about looking for the helpers, and look for the helpers next time you watch the news.

There are better things to do than argue on Facebook. Like reading Brief History of Time and looking up at the stars in wonder, or creating a new work of art, or donating a little money or blood to provide aid to Paris. One day, I’ll learn that. One day, I hope we’ll all learn that.

Veteran’s Day

“The Last of the Light Brigade,” by Rudyard Kipling

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

They felt that life was fleeting; they knew not that art was long,
That though they were dying of famine, they lived in deathless song.
They asked for a little money to keep the wolf from the door;
And the thirty million English sent twenty pounds and four !

They laid their heads together that were scarred and lined and grey;
Keen were the Russian sabres, but want was keener than they;
And an old Troop-Sergeant muttered, “Let us go to the man who writes
The things on Balaclava the kiddies at school recites.”

They went without bands or colours, a regiment ten-file strong,
To look for the Master-singer who had crowned them all in his song;
And, waiting his servant’s order, by the garden gate they stayed,
A desolate little cluster, the last of the Light Brigade.

They strove to stand to attention, to straighen the toil-bowed back;
They drilled on an empty stomach, the loose-knit files fell slack;
With stooping of weary shoulders, in garments tattered and frayed,
They shambled into his presence, the last of the Light Brigade.

The old Troop-Sergeant was spokesman, and “Beggin’ your pardon,” he said,
“You wrote o’ the Light Brigade, sir. Here’s all that isn’t dead.
An’ it’s all come true what you wrote, sir, regardin’ the mouth of hell;
For we’re all of us nigh to the workhouse, an’ we thought we’d call an’ tell.

“No, thank you, we don’t want food, sir; but couldn’t you take an’ write
A sort of ‘to be continued’ and ‘see next page’ o’ the fight?
We think that someone has blundered, an’ couldn’t you tell ’em how?
You wrote we were heroes once, sir. Please, write we are starving now.”

The poor little army departed, limping and lean and forlorn.
And the heart of the Master-singer grew hot with “the scorn of scorn.”
And he wrote for them wonderful verses that swept the land like flame,
Till the fatted souls of the English were scourged with the thing called Shame.

O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,
Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;
Our children’s children are lisping to “honour the charge they made – ”
And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!

SF Review: The Martian


A few months ago, I went to work for a legal referral service. My first day there, I signed up with a secret society of science fiction readers, dedicated to reading the entirety of the SF&F top 100 list and sounding witty while they do it. Which is how I ended up reading Andy Weir’s The Martian.

Mark Watney is a steely-eyed missile man.

Obligatory shot of Matt Damon.

Obligatory shot of Matt Damon.

Although, in my mind, he was a black guy from Chicago. Why Weir didn’t name Mark Watney “Smith” and go ahead and call it A Martian Called Smith, I’ll never know.

I enjoyed The Martian. It’s good. It’s not great, but it is very, very good. I can safely say that it’s the greatest Robinsonade of the 21st century. The Robinsonade in literature has been pretty sorely lacking since, oh, Lord of the Flies. And yet, with starry-eyed cheer, Andy Weir delivers a fine one. And, by God, he makes you believe in it, even if you think you know better.

In a lot of ways, The Martian is a throwback: science so hard you can break your teeth on it, the scientist as hero, the Robinsonade plot, the moral at the end almost straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What George Lucas did for 1930s serials, Andy Weir has pretty successfully done for 1950s science fiction. I don’t mean the whole raygun gothic style, Watney’s sarcastic comments and pop-cultural awareness are closer to Star-Lord than Buck Rogers.

Mark Watney (left), shown here demonstrating his appreciation for the music of The Who and of CSI: Miami.

Mark Watney (left), shown here demonstrating his appreciation for the music of The Who and of CSI: Miami.

I mean the heart of old SF: an unshakable, almost religious faith in the power of a single individual to solve the hardest obstacles using brainpower and grit. I’m not the only one who’s made that connection.

I’ve heard it argued that Robinson Crusoe’s great strength is in Crusoe’s moral development over the course of the book. Remove that moral element, and you have Mysterious Island, which devolves into Swiss Family Robinson, which devolves, ultimately, into Survivor. All you have left is the clever tricks. The Martian escapes this fate by doing to the heart of old SF what Watney does with the artifacts left behind with him: dust them off, shine them up, and hook them up in a new way so everything works…mostly.

But Andy Weir isn’t mired in an SF future where everyone smokes and uses protractors. Watney, as mentioned, can go toe-to-toe with Star-Lord for wit, charm, and pop-culture references. He has the sense of the sardonic we’ve come to expect from all literature (and protagonists). More importantly, he needs other people in order to succeed. While Crusoe thanked God for a footprint in the sand, Mark Watney is both more proactive in finding company and has a slightly larger vision. Watney realizes that no man is an island, even when he’s the only man on Mars.



With that said, my great criticism is that The Martian offers nothing new. Mark Watney solves problems and defeats forces of nature, he comes up with clever tricks and makes history. It’s riveting to watch, and Watney is a great guy to spend a few hundred pages with. But you don’t come away from The Martian with any new ideas, or with any new ways of looking at things.

And, in the end, that’s the point of science fiction – to make us see things differently. Philip K. Dick made us question what was real, Frank Herbert demanded we look at messiahs with distrust, Ursula LeGuin challenged how we thought about gender. Back before them, Asimov showed us an alternative to Frankenstein and Heinlein showed us several alternatives to liberal democracy. The Martian doesn’t ask us to see things differently. Assuming we’re not already in the habit of seeing the world as populated by total fucking assholes, it’s pretty conventional. The Martian reassures us that yes, people are basically good and yes, human reason can overcome the worst difficulties. …and that’s about it.

I did enjoy the book as a marvelous adventure, same way I enjoy Captain Blood, Treasure Island, and, yes, Swiss Family Robinson. I have hopes that Andy Weir will set his sights a little higher with his next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. If he has vision and daring to match his storytelling and his science, he could be another Greg Bear or Robert Forward.

And when I’m in the mood for less mind-bending fare than Man in the High Castle, Blood Music or Neuromancer? When I need a dose of tarnished idealism, that still believes in the power of fragile flesh and steel, and by God make me believe, too?

I’ll pick up The Martian.


Life is meant to be lived from a Center, a divine Center… a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. It takes no time, but it occupies all our time. Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, 1941 Pacific Yearly Meeting, Advices and Queries, Simplicity, Advices

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Heinlein’s Rules #6: Write a Better Story Tomorrow

Think of this as “Mathieu’s errata to Heinlein’s rules.”

With a couple of exceptions, I hate looking over my old work. The patch-job of an exposition, the research errors, the way society has changed since the story was written…they all make me cringe.

And that’s a wonderful thing.

Because it means I got better in the meantime.

I’m the sort of man who’s only happy in motion. As long as I did better today than yesterday, and will do better tomorrow than today, I’m satisfied. If I’m stuck or idle, it doesn’t matter how much I’m making or how secure I am, I hate life.

Heinlein’s five Rules only apply to the life-cycle of one story, but any cartoonist will tell you that what happens between the panels is as important than what happens inside them. It is absolutely vital that you learn and grow as a writer and a human being from story to story.

This is where Jack London, as much as I admire the man, fell down. From White Fang forward he wrote the same few stories about the Arctic, manly men, seafaring life, boxing, Glen Ellen, Socialism, and the inherent superiority of the white man*. Robert Heinlein, on the other hand, is exemplary in this – yes, Heinlein always writes himself into his books, but it’s never the same man twice.

What do I mean by ‘learning and growing as a writer’? For one, new techniques. I used to be absolutely terrible at writing action sequences and sex scenes. But I learned how to block out the movements of my characters during action sequences, so I knew where and how fast everyone was going. And I learned to focus on the single emotional theme for each sex scene, so they don’t descend into passionless IKEA erotica. I still have issues with exposition…but I’m getting better. Because I’m studying how other writers have handled it (both well and badly) and trying new approaches. Fan-fiction and short stories are wonderful for this kind of thing.

I also mean stretching your limits – I wrote No Time partly because I’d never written a mystery before. Now, when I want to work in some of the things I learned writing a mystery (such as how to conceal or withhold information from the reader) into a romance or a fantasy piece, I have those tools. This is part of why I do write in so many genres – that, and because it’s fun.

I also mean writing characters and situations you find troublesome. I applaud Eliazar Yudkowsky for “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” insofar as he tried to write Voldemort as reasonable…from Voldemort’s point of view. Voldemort’s criticism of liberal philosophy and democracy as a whole is extremely troubling, partly because it sounds like he’s making legitimate points. That required Yudkowsky to climb inside the head of an avowed authoritarian – no easy task for someone who grew up in a liberal democratic republic!

My addendum to Heinlein’s rules is very simple. Rule #6 is “write a better story today than you did yesterday.”

Keep that up, and not only will your fiction get better with time…you’ll get happier.

Now go and lay down a couple thousand words. I want to see your story on my desk by Monday. :D

*with some exceptions like The Iron Heel, People of the Abyss, Star Rover, The Sea-Wolf, John Barleycorn and Martin Eden. The point still stands.

Heinlein’s Rules #5: Keep It in the Mail Until it Sells

Remember last week when I talked about the 98% rejection rate?

Yeah, get used to that.

Frank Herbert famously tried to get his weird desert-planet novel published at every publishing house that then existed. He started with the usual science fiction publishers, like Ace, and moved up to other publishers, like Random House, after each genre publisher turned him down. Even conventional publishers didn’t want anything to do with it and its freaky mysticism and drugs and sex and ecology crap. Finally, he sent the manuscript to Chilton, whom you may know better for printing automotive manuals.

Chilton decided to go with it, which is how we got Dune.

PICTURED: Not an automotive manual.

PICTURED: Not an automotive manual.

“The Remedy,” as I mentioned, was rejected by Asimov’s (and two other markets) before I submitted it to the Ray Bradbury Contest and won  third. “Gods of War” garnered six rejections before it won awards and got on MindFlights. I have others with even higher rejection counts. Some are still counting.

Blood on the Floor is an anthology entirely about how writers deal with rejection. Because we deal with it a lot. How you respond to it tells you what kind of writer you are.

I’ve gotten to a place in my career where I enjoy each rejection. They delight me. Because it means I’m one step closer to finding the right market for that story, whether it’s the Amazon list or someone’s anthology project or some professional editor’s hands. It means I can move forward with that story, and moving forward is the important thing.

This rule is both a psychology and an action. You have to get comfortable with the story coming back to you in the mail, and dusting it off and sending it right back out again. Paper your bathroom with the rejection slips. Burn them. Some of the editors will burn you (I have one response for my Asian gothic “White Man’s Burden” that turns the screen brown when I read it).

Whatever you gotta do to deal with it, and to keep on going, do that thing. Because each rejection gets you closer to that story’s first sale.

When it does…celebrate. Have a cup of jasmine tea. Somebody just paid you money for something you wrote. Nothing, nothing, comes close to that feeling – the firm and certain knowledge that someone else values your work.

Then, work on secondary sales. Once the check from the first sale clears, send it off to Escape Pod/Pseudo-Pod/PodCastle (as appropriate) and let them pay you again for the audio rights. Send the story to foreign markets (I like SF World out of Chengdu, China, but Iran has a surprisingly vibrant SF community too). Keep an eye open for reprint-friendly anthologies and contests, and send the story there. Put it up for sale yourself, if you haven’t already. I’ve made more money from “The Remedy” and “Gods of War” and “The Short, Strange Life of Comrade Lin” from self-published sales than I did on the initial sales (if any).

Before you do any of that, read the agreement with your first market carefully. Most of them want exclusive first-print English language rights in their appropriate markets followed by non-exclusive rights after one year. What that means is they want the right to publish the only copy of your story, in English, for one year after the publication date. Online markets tend to say “online” or “worldwide,” traditional magazines tend to limit it to one country (“American first-print rights”) or continent (“European first-print rights”). Each market will have its own way of handling the rights, double-check you’re not double-crossing them.

Make that story work. And if it has to go out again and again, that’s what it has to do.

And then write your next story…you still have to lay down your day’s workdcount, remember. But, most importantly…

How successful people work less—and get more done

R. Jean Mathieu:

This is just a repost, because most of this sounds like it makes good sense…assuming you’re middle-class, work a M-F workweek, and have enough clout at work to actually turn off your phone on weekends without being punished.

Originally posted on Quartz:

This post originally appeared at LinkedIn. Follow the author here.

As co-founder of Hotwire.com and CEO of Zillow for the last seven years, 39-year-old Spencer Rascoff fits most people’s definition of success. As a father of three young children, Spencer is a busy guy at home and at work.

What’s the one thing that Spencer refuses to do on the weekend? Work—at least, in the traditional sense. Rascoff says:

I never go into the office on weekends, but I do check e-mail at night. My weekends are an important time to unplug from the day-to-day and get a chance to think more deeply about my company and my industry. Weekends are a great chance to reflect and be more introspective about bigger issues.

new study from Stanford shows that Rascoff is on to something.

The study found that productivity per hour declines sharply when the workweek exceeds 50…

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