Thursday, 3 July 2014 • 0 comments
Bracing Tonics. A CRM excavation at the site of a former Manhattan beer garden unveiled a trove of 19th-century bitters bottles. Bitters — tonics that combined herbs and spices along with a hefty dose of alcohol — were used as digestives and medicines at the time, even by otherwise abstinent teetotalers. From the relief writing on the bottles (which today are highly collectible), the archaeologists were able to track down the original recipes, which they then recreated and shared. Also worth noting: in the comments, an author plugged this apothecary recipe book.
Flipping my Lid. Speaking of cocktail books, I recently downloaded food writer Corin Hirsch’s Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England, which includes recipes I intend to inflict upon our guests this July Fourth. I’ve always wanted to try flip. I’ve had switchel before, but didn’t care for it.
Columbia Uber Ailes. And in not-so-alternate-history news, Fox News reached through a tear and stole the logo for BioShock Infinite.
Image of Ritmeier’s C.W. Bitters, c. 1906, on display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Madison, Wisconsin.
Friday, 20 June 2014 • 0 comments
You may be aware that a few years ago, I began writing 19th-century alternate histories as a literary vacation after Smedley. The series soon morphed into a stream of weird Westerns, ghost stories, and even a little steampunk; while simultaneously their creation transformed into a kind of palliative during the Years of Real-Estate Madness. Distracted by garages, painting, buying, selling, and restorations (not to mention paying employment), my attention was too fragmented to think about more books or even short nonfiction with its relevancy demands and expiration dates. The great thing about short fiction is I can write something, walk away for weeks, and then come back to pick up where I left it.
In keeping with a theme of endings and new beginnings, it’s time for Strange Wests to ride off into the sunset as I readjust my focus toward longer projects and nonfiction. Nobody has been more astonished than me by Wests’s reception from editors and readers. A bunch are in various stages of the pipeline, which means there’s more to appear, and never say never: I’m happy to write fresh material as the inspiration or invitation strikes. And I’ve come to depend on fiction writing as an analgesic too much to quit it altogether. I will still be writing historical shorts as time allows, only these, for the immediate future, will be set in New England.
My goal is to bundle Strange Wests into an e-book collection to be published in 2015.
Friday, 13 June 2014 • 0 comments
It never ceases to amaze me as a professional writer how often I am solicited to write for free. I’ve been having a simmering dispute with a longtime market of mine over language (or lack thereof) in our contracts, and I had thought the matter resolved but then this week it erupted again. Without going into the nitty-gritty, the company basically said to me, Jackson, we’ve enjoyed your work so much all these years that instead of paying you, we want you to write for free. But don’t worry — if we happen to find any spare change under the couch cushions, we’ll think about sending some your way! Unwilling to continue under their absolutely Mephistophelean terms, I resigned this past Wednesday in cold disgust.
Being a writer is like being a restaurant owner whose clientele is just as likely to sprint for the door, half-eaten burrito in hand, as to pay you. And yet while anyone — even the culprit, else why would he run? — recognizes dining-and-dashing as theft, no one blinks an eye at not paying a writer. The writer, the artist, the photographer is the first to initiate the chain of commerce but the last to benefit from it, the first to act but the last to be paid.
The majority of my career has been spent freelancing and yet the bulk of my income has always been from web-related services, not writing. The few individuals I’ve known who wrote freelance full-time lived in near poverty. The gravest problem with freelancing is not the low pay — many jobs pay terribly — but the erratic or late payments, making it impossible to depend on them to cover bills (although Mrs. Kuhl is quick to point out that many companies suffer from late or non-payments; the difference is that bigger entities have the capital to ride it out or absorb the losses, whereas a freelancer — a company of one — feels the razor’s edge more sharply). Just ask this Columbia J-School grad, although for what it’s worth she can take solace in the fact I’ve run up much larger tabs than $1,200 with delinquent markets.
I am not a Harlan Ellison I-don’t-take-a-piss-without-getting-paid type but I believe in writing without payment in only two situations. The first is if I’m promoting something — like, say, Smedley or an anthology I’m in. This is easy to double-check because generally the title of the thing I’m promoting is right there in the article. Whatever time and energy I’ve invested in such promotion is a marketing expense, a commercial sent across the airwaves that may, or may not, result in a sale of the thing. If I think my efforts have led to at least one ring of the cash-register bell, then I count myself ahead.
The second instance is when I’m trying to grow my platform or, to put it another way, promote my brand, whatever that is. Writing a personal blog pays dividends, if only to telegraph to readers that the cats haven’t started eating your corpse yet. Where you have to be cautious is when you don’t own or control the content. There is a species of coprophage that will try to entice you to write “for exposure.” Any editor who uses the word “exposure” is a BS artist, because either their readership is too low for it to be worthwhile or it’s so big they could actually pay you in the first place. “Exposure” is the recompense offered by amateurs and thieves.
The big red flag is if an editor or publisher won’t pay but nonetheless charges readers for the content. A few months ago I was asked by an editor for permission to reprint an article of mine in an e-magazine she publishes for tablets and e-readers. The magazine is not free; in fact, its cost is comparable to other e-magazines on the market boasting much higher circulations. The only compensation offered was a link to my website. In sum, this editor is assembling a virtual magazine in her kitchen from contributions she hasn’t paid for — so her overhead is effectively zero — but charging a non-nominal price for subscriptions and single issues, and therefore all of the money she makes on the magazine is profit, or at least goes to pay the salary of her single employee: her. Apparently, working for exposure is fine for some animals, just not for others.
Even if no money exchanges hands, I still have to question how much effort is spent growing my platform versus growing theirs. I cannot believe how frequently I’m asked to commit to regular contributions to other people’s websites. Half of me is flattered and the other insulted. Once in a blue moon I will scribble a post for John O’Neill at Black Gate, and even if my time is wasted doing so, based on what scant behind-the-scenes knowledge I possess, I can hardly complain I’m being taken advantage of. This type of writing is very dependent on circumstances and must be handled on a case-by-case basis, but my natural instinct is always in favor of my time, and hence the answer to regular contributions is always no, and to occasional articles a hard maybe.
While I wish the ending had been less acrimonious, I’m happy I’ve severed ties with the company. Installed in our gorgeous house with the renovations complete, Mrs. Kuhl and I feel that our lives are on a new trajectory, and we’ve been consciously embracing better habits and choices while simultaneously pruning dead wood. I’ve been in this business long enough to understand there are rarely hard breaks or fast stops; rather, writing is a series of waves, often overlapping, in which you write on a subject or for a market for awhile and it builds and it crests but by the time it recedes, you are already surfing another flow.
Wednesday, 4 June 2014 • 0 comments
J.D. Tuccille of Reason.com has rounded up the latest denunciations of seasteading — the concept of autonomous man-made islands:
Criticism of seasteading now takes on an oddly strident tone, and from unusual sources.
A week after reporting on DeltaSync’s Seasteading Implementation Plan, Global Construction Review, an online publication of Britain’s Chartered Institute of Building, ran an attack on the idea as an abandonment of social responsibility. The publication’s editor, Rod Sweet, took time away from the business of covering engineering and construction to “to lay bare the motivation behind the movement—the libertarian urge for the freedom to profit without having to contribute to the social conditions that make profit possible.”
In recent years there’s been a trend toward attacking Information-Age developments based not on the deficiencies of the technology or issues but rather on the perception that said plans are libertarian schemes to avoid taxes. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies? Libertarian criminality. Secession — not from the US, but into smaller, more responsive state or municipal bodies? Perfidious libertarian tax evasion. Seasteading? A misguided dream by “adherents of ‘libertarianism,’ that peculiarly American philosophy of venal petty-bourgeois dissidence.” This last written by none other than China Mieville, the Marxist don who moonlights as a successful science-fiction writer.
Any news story about seasteading invariably descends into Rapture jokes in the comments but there’s nothing inherently libertarian about man-made islands. You could just as easily use the technology for a floating kibbutz as for an art-deco Galt’s Gulch. Even one of seasteading’s major advocates has said, “We can’t build libertopia … Whatever we build will have to have security forces who will bust in your door if they think you’re designing nuclear weapons or funding terrorism.”
Regardless of seasteading’s practicality (while cautiously intrigued, I have several unanswered questions about it myself), it is troubling that scientific futurism is met so reactionarily — especially by readers and writers of speculative fiction (to see examples by readers, check out the comments sections of any io9 article on these subjects). Setting aside the questions of when and why did libertarians become bogeymen to the left (Radley Balko keeps a list), what the hell happened to sci-fi? Are Martian colonies not dismissed as libertarian conspiracies because they are decades away while Bitcoin, etc. are happening now or very soon? When did imagining a better world of tomorrow go from Heinlein to thought-crime? After all, the first proponent of oceanic utopianism was the 19th-century hero of the left, Jules Verne, who inspired those seeking an escape from the -isms of capital and czar:
“Also,” [Nemo] added, “true existence is there; and I can imagine the foundations of nautical towns, clusters of submarine houses, which, like the Nautilus, would ascend every morning to breathe at the surface of the water — free towns, independent cities.”
I think it’s more likely that, in the words of another 19th-century author, these same writers and readers, so eager to throw out the old idols, have sworn loyalty to another, and to turn your back on it is heresy.
Or maybe it’s simply because misery loves company.
Wednesday, 7 May 2014 • 0 comments
Matt Mitrovich asked me to write a guest post at Alternate History Weekly Update about my
second forty-second career as an ebook-cover artist. I don’t think I’m qualified to write a how-to article on tying shoelaces let alone designing ebooks, but I scribbled some criteria and design ideas for his readers anyway. Matt has been phenomenally helpful in promoting Altered America, which in turn played a large role in its sales spike a few weeks ago.
Rereading said post, I find its upbeat tone almost unrecognizable to me, particularly in the last graf. I’m a much different person than I was a few years ago. A big part of that is due to our house, which is very near completion (the last contractor finished today). It has been a transformative 11 months. I’ve become even more Ron Swansonish about institutions — banks, insurance companies, governments — but more Chris Traegerish about individuals. Throughout the process, so many faceless bureaucracies were lined up against us yet our skins were saved time and again not just through our own tenacity, but also because of the effort and understanding of all the people who’ve worked on the house or supported us. If I go through the day without having to extinguish some kind of brushfire crisis — What’s that? You’re NOT cancelling my homeowner’s insurance for arbitrary reasons? Hooray! — then it’s a great day. I think that optimism has spilled over to how I feel about others and their projects and ambitions.
Friday, 11 April 2014 • with 2 comments
My story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:
“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”
“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”
“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”
“Only the wealthy, you mean.”
“How is that worse than America?”
Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.
In any event, “Rio Grande” isn’t for or against libertarianism so much as it is a stab at that most pernicious of modern ideologies, utopianism. Earlier this week at Reason.com, author Anne Fortier noted the power of historical fiction:
To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.
It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.
You can purchase the whole anthology here — I’m happy to report the Kindle edition has seen a steady burn of sales since its release — or read my complete story for free here. And if you enjoyed the antho, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads!