Sad puppies at the dog show

I’m not sure why I’m writing about this, since I don’t have a dog (hah) in this fight. But writing every day is important practice, and this happens to be what I’m thinking about right now.

I am a sci-fi fan. I think? I’m not sure what the official qualifiers are.

On the one hand: I started reading Asimov and Heinlein as a kid, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Heinlein in particular was enormously influential on me. Hell, I wound up giving one of my kids “Heinlein” as a middle name. On the rare occasion when I pick up a book for purely recreational reading, I don’t think “hmmm, what genre do I want to read?”. It’s pretty much a given that it’s going to be either sci-fi or Pratchett. And I’m running out of Pratchett.

On the other hand, I’ve only ever attended one sci-fi convention, the Heinlein Centennial (sense a theme?) in 2007. And in general I don’t really seek out other sci-fi readers, although I’m happy to geek out with them when I meet them at programming conventions.

I don’t know a lot about sci-fi awards. I suppose at times I’ve picked up a book at the bookstore and noticed a “Winner of…” sticker and thought “oh, that’s nice”. I know there are Hugos and Nebulas and… other ones I’d probably recognize if I saw them. Most of my awareness of sci-fi awards comes from the fact that I sometimes read author blogs, and authors naturally discuss awards.

Recently some authors got upset about the direction one particular award has been going. Apparently, they think that it’s rigged so that more literary sci-fi with social justice themes always wins. As I understand it they want more recognition for “cracking yarns” about chisel-chinned men blasting aliens and rescuing the space princess. Or something.

So, I suppose I’m just a “casual” fan, but here are some of the elements I’ve always liked in sci-fi:

  • An engaging story
  • Compelling characters
  • Mind-expanding big ideas, well-explored
  • Using a future setting to question social norms

Heinlein did a great job at this. Well, to be fair, he wasn’t the biggest of big-idea authors. But where he had them, he explored them well.

And boy howdy, did he question the conventions of his time. Ultracompetent women who were as likely to rescue a man as to be rescues. Non-white protagonists. Line marriages and other forms of nonmonagamy. At least one transgender protagonist. And in his later work, explicit acceptance of homosexuality.

When it comes to seriously “big ideas”, I think of people like Vernor Vinge. The whole “zones of thought” concept. A fully-realized society of dog-like creatures who function as “pack minds” of 3-5 members. I mean, whoah. Mind-blowing stuff.

Recently I picked up Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie because a bunch of people were talking about. And wow. This book nailed all of my sweet spots for great sci-fi. It was very much like reading a Vinge book for the first time: a massive, painstakingly realized universe with wholly novel rules and social norms. Big ideas that literally expanded my mind—I remember watching my own brain as it struggled to assign gender to characters in order to visualize scenes, and thinking “wow, hello, suddenly obvious unconscious presumptions”. A protagonist who was sympathetic despite being far removed from a typical human. And, yes, a rollicking good story that compelled me to buy the 2nd book in the series as soon as I’d finished the first.

Now as I understand it, this is one of the books that the “sad puppies” are angry about. And I have to wonder: if Ancillary Justice doesn’t qualify as the pinnacle of what good sci-fi should be, what the hell does? Stories like this deserve to dominate award slates, in the same way that (I assume) some of those classic Vinge tales dominated in the years they came out.

But I’ve realized something. I’ve seen this dynamic elsewhere.

I’m not really a “dog person”. I like dogs, but I don’t feel a need to own one myself. My wife has a dog, and I think that’s fine.

I know lots of people who love dogs. People who spend lots of time with their dogs, who talk about them all the time. People who think of them as their “children”. Even people whose careers center around dogs.

And yet, there’s a funny thing: I’ve never noticed any of my dog-loving friends being that interested in dog shows.

Why not? Well, I have a guess. It’s because dogs shows aren’t really about the creatures my friends adore. Dog shows are about genetically-manipulated freaks. Animals that have been condemned to neuroses, sickliness, and early death because of a single-minded focus on maximizing compliance with an arbitrarily chosen list of physical attributes:

In looking at what they characterize as “good sci-fi”, this seems to be what the Sad Puppies want the Hugos to be: a dog show. They took an Honor Harrington story, measured its muzzle and haunches, and stamped those measurements as the ideal stats for all good sci-fi to follow.

(Note: I mean no disrespect for Honor Harrington stories. They are fun reads. But there are plenty of them already; I’d hate to see a genre that consisted of nothing but.)

Let’s be honest: If Brad Torgeson &co. “win”, it will have no effect on me. Like I said, I’m only dimly aware of awards, and of sci-fi “fandom” as a distinct entity. Great authors like Leckie will keep writing, and fans like me will keep buying based on reviews and on the recommendations of friends. So I don’t really care that much one way or another about how this plays out.

I just feel like commenting that if the “sad puppies” really want sci-fi fandom to be a dog show, that seems kind of sad for them. And in the long term, counterproductive for them as authors.  It can be frustrating to be a moderate-sized fish in a big pond. But that doesn’t mean draining the pond is the best response.

Where is my cow?

A man, left for dead, possessed, wild-eyed, dirty and bleeding, drives his foes before him and emerges from darkness while screaming out the words of a children’s book. Because no matter what happens, no matter what kind of day he’s had, this man is always home for story time. Because Some Things Are Important.

This is the image that brought me to tears, on a plane somewhere far away from my children. It’s absurd and silly and heartwrenching all at once. It’s the kind of thing Terry Pratchett managed to pull off, page after page, book after book. Terry could have been perfectly successful as a fantasy parodist; a teller of silly tales. But he decided to be so much more than that. There is more insight into the human condition in a Pratchett novel than on whole shelves of philosophy texts.

Goodbye Mr. Pratchett. Thanks for keeping me sane on so many flights, in so many bleak hotel rooms. Thanks for reminding me to love humanity because of their pettiness and stupidity and not just in spite of it. Thanks for Sam Vimes and Granny Weatherwax and Lord Vetinari and all the other wonderful characters who I sometimes forget are made-up. Thank you for everything.

The fetishized Heinlein

Robert Heinlein — or a limited version of him that only wrote Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and maybe Farnham’s Freehold or Sixth Column — is to a certain brand of conservative science fiction writer what Ronald Reagan is to a certain brand of conservative in general: A plaster idol whose utility at this point is as a vessel for a certain worldview, regardless of whether or not Heinlein (or Reagan, for that matter) would subscribe to that worldview himself.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

I just finished listening to the audiobook of So Good they Can’t Ignore YouSome notes:

First off, I have no argument with the basic premise of the book. The idea that you should first identify your passion and then follow it no matter what is backwards, counter-productive, and has damaged a lot of lives. Passions take work to discover, and many people who are now passionate about what they do stumbled into it by accident while trying to make a buck. It’s nice to see a book finally confront this sort of Disney-style wishful thinking head-on.

It’s easy to agree with Newport, because my career so closely mirrors the careers of his successful case studies. When I was a young man with options in front of me, I had some strong but ill-defined passions. But I also needed to support myself, and I knew that some of my passions (like having a family) would take money. So I didn’t try to find a job that involved following my bliss. Instead I took an opportunity to do something that I enjoyed, was good at, and which made good money.

Since then I have been, as Newport puts it, steadily building “career capital” and periodically trading it in for greater and greater autonomy. First, from a soulless mega-corp to a small software company that let me work from home part-time; then to a fully remote three-person startup; then to freelance work; and finally to selling books and videos and setting my own schedule.

I never worked out a theory for all this the way Newport did, but it seems like I instinctively came to similar conclusions. I’ve always felt compelled to reach a point where I feel legitimately in-demand before making a move—an unconscious form of measuring career capital.

I’ve also placed a lot of “little bets” in recent years. Such as launching a podcast, drafting a short ebook and selling it before it was done, or launching RubyTapas while still working as a freelancer. Each one gave me a way to validate (or not) an idea for new business.

Despite identifying strongly with it, I do have some criticism of the book.

First and foremost, there is zero mention of the role of privilege in any of the anecdotes that Newport employs to make his point. It’s occasionally difficult to buy into the given rationale for his case studies’ successes, because it’s obvious that the people he’s talking about were also benefiting from quite a few implicit privileges. E.g. being white and male, or having the kind of upbringing that naturally puts a person in a position to go to a good school and meet interesting people, etc.

The only mitigating factor for this glaring omission is that, as best as I can tell from extrapolating from the various stories, he’s mostly talking about people from a similar level of privilege. As such, his comparisons of, say, one person who quit her job in banking to become a yoga instructor vs. another who quit his marketing job to do… something more independent but still marketing-related, still have merit since these two people probably started out at a similar station in life. So if one finds success and satisfaction while another’s business founders, Newport’s claim that the difference in outcome hinged on career capital seems plausible.

Still, it would have been a much stronger book if it had addressed head-on the question of privilege and how that effects one’s ability to pursue the kinds of career strategies he advocates.

Secondly, while Newport defines career capital as a collection of rare and in-demand skills, it’s clear from listening to the stories that that’s not the whole story. The capital his exemplars build up sounds more like it is maybe 50% skill and 50% reputation and connections.

It’s cool that he focuses on the skill part of the equation. After all, there are far too many career books that focus exclusively on the reputation and/or connections angle, to the exclusion of the part where you provide actual value. But I think it’s a bit misleading not to address the social aspect of career capital at all. That aspect might not be obvious to every reader, and some might focus exclusively on building skills, without also building the requisite relationships which will ensure their skills are in demand.


Listening to a book like this, it’s a little too easy for me to just nod along and say “yep, this confirms everything I’ve been doing right!” without actually acting on it. As the book drew to a close I started thinking about whether there were any lessons there that I should apply to my life.

One thing that it brought home was that I could all too easily plateau where I am. I’ve built up a considerable amount of career capital in the field of software engineering and the Ruby language. And I’m in the process of spending that capital, making my living by showing others everything I’ve learned along the way.

Newport’s choice of the term “career capital” makes it clear that it is a finite resource. It won’t last forever. If I want to continue to move on bigger and better opportunities—indeed, if I want to avoid eventually finding myself obsolete—I need to work on building capital now just as much as I did when I was younger.

Where I’m at right now, I see this breaking down into two broad categories where I should be applying deliberate practice. Here are some off-the-cuff ideas for what that deliberate practice might look like:

Building capital as a communicator:
  • Do talks that challenge me. Try to do talks in the vein of speakers I admire most; people who make me think “I could never give a talk that good”
  • Get critical feedback on my talks. Don’t just bask in Twitter complements.
  • Challenge myself more on video production. Critique my editing, illustrations, etc. as compared to other screencasters, documentaries, etc.
  • Put my next book through a rigorous editorial process.
Building capital as a developer:
  • Resume pair-programming sessions for exposure to other people’s problems.
  • Pair-program with my programming heroes. Try to be the “dumbest guy in the room”.
  • Step up the pace on app development. Have apps with real paying users that I am working on regularly.
  • Continue reading software classics, and challenge myself to apply what I’ve learned to my app development.
  • Perhaps most importantly, regularly study new paradigms, languages, etc. that make my brain hurt.

The latter part of the book, where it talks about mission, was some of the toughest for me. I honestly don’t know what my mission is right now. I mean, I have the overriding mission of providing for my family. But I don’t have career-related mission; or if I do, it’s something nebulous like “show programmers how to write code more happily and more effectively”.

I need to spend more time figuring out where exactly the the “adjacent possible” lies with respect to software development, and then getting closer to it. I’m not a computer scientist; I’m not going to discover an amazing new algorithm. But I feel like there are maybe some breakthroughs to be made in building applications speedily and sustainably.