Well, I haven’t gotten COVID: Vector interviews Nick Mamatas

Nick Mamatas author pic. Taken from Wikipedia under CC license - credit Melinda R. HImel

Thanks for chatting! How are you? Are you working on anything at the moment?

Well, I haven’t gotten COVID and my son didn’t get COVID and my parents didn’t get COVID and my sister didn’t get COVID. I am purposefully not working on anything at the moment. I’m watching deadlines crumble like empires.

Back in the past, you wrote on Livejournal: “A subculture is not a counterculture. A consumer culture is not a subculture. We are not all in this together.” Recently there were ripples in SFF writer communities over the term “squeecore.” Raquel S. Benedict and JR talk about it on an episode of Rite Gud. They weren’t expecting their words to get fine-toothed, so their description of squeecore is a grab-bag of gripes and jibes, not some kind of elaborate legal case. But the core of squeecore, as I understand it, is something like a “subculture that thinks it’s a counterculture.” What do you think of the term?

Squeecore seems to be a name for the commercially published writing created by authors who got interested in writing by participating in post-fanfiction.net fan fiction cultures. So, it reads differently from previous writing, including previous fanfic-inflected writing from, say, the K/S photocopy generation. I think the podcasters were essentially right, but made the error of creating a taxonomy in order to dismiss a particular taxon as bad and their own stuff as good. 

Yes, there was a lot about the episode I liked — and I fully get why they would want to move from critique to pointing out alternatives — but I did find the recommendations list a wee bit less convincing. To their credit, they are upfront about the personal connections.

This is every new writer’s impulse. I was teaching at an MFA program a decade ago, and had to sit through a meeting of students pitching their academic theses. They had to write one academic thesis, and one creative thesis. Every thesis was “Why do all these books suck, except for the ones that inspired me?” I once asked Rudy Rucker why he created “transrealism” and he said that it was because he was just starting out and hadn’t been published much, so he wanted to get some extra attention. It works every time!

I used to invent a new genre every Wednesday, and none of mine caught on. So not every time. Can squeecore claim to any countercultural credentials? 

I certainly don’t think squeecore, much of which is published by the Big Five, and with large advances, is the counterculture at all. It’s geek culture, which is resolutely commercial and has for the moment taken over the world. An aspect of geek culture is the pretense of social victimhood, however, so there you have it—the absurd spectacle of someone with a six-figure advance and all the publicity they can eat denouncing the gatekeepers while clutching a sponsored-by-Raytheon Hugo rocket. That doesn’t mean squeecore can’t be good or that the rough stuff is any better, it’s just a cultural issue. Your quote comes from a post called “An End to Geek Pride,” which unfortunately did not lead to an end to geek pride. Then came Gamergate, which the alt.right used to expand its base, and now we all have to explain what a cartoon frog means to our grandparents.

The Raytheon reference, for those who don’t know, is because said weapons manufacturer was sponsoring red carpet photos at the Hugo Awards this year. The frog reference — actually never mind. Today we mostly want to talk about your recent book The Second Shooter. Readers should be cautioned of some spoilers ahead. 

The Second Shooter
The Second Shooter

I think this is a great novel. It draws on the conspiracy thriller playbook, but it is filled with things you’d never find in a typical conspiracy thriller. The fantastical elements, of course, but also the style of humour, and the space you allow for some subtly-wrought interpersonal moments. Can I start by asking what the connection is between The Second Shooter and your earlier book Bullettime?

There isn’t one, except that I am highly interested in the phenomenon of mass-shooting events, both school shootings and more explicitly political shooting / terror events. Bullettime is a story about personal choices — three timelines of the same person — while The Second Shooter is about mediated reality.

I suppose one commercial commonality the books have is that the manuscripts were both presented to a publisher’s sales meeting by an enthusiastic editor on the day of mass-shooting events, which rather understandably soured the mood.

One of the major characters in The Second Shooter is the talk show host Bennett. He functions like an antagonist, but a weird antagonist, since the story kind of kicks off with him saying, “Hey, let me be the antagonist, for likes, shares and follows.” Can you tell us about writing right-wing characters? You appear to be good at it. The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan has talked about an “ideological Turing test,” which is kind of: Can you write characters who have a very different ideology from you, such that readers who have that ideology will recognise themselves in it? You pass if those readers feels, OK, this author does understand my ideology from the inside.  How do you approach it? How well do you think you do it?

I’m excellent at it. I’ve been online since I was seventeen years old, in the days of USENET and TinyMUDs. I’ve heard it all, seen it all. I know tons of libertarians, “Orthobro” Christians, anarchists of every smelly stripe, technocrats, etc. Recently, a fellow who writes for a right-libertarian magazine reached out to me to tell me that he enjoyed the book, and that he read one scene about the protagonist in the third grade to his kids (!) and that they enjoyed it too. I said that now they’d never grow up to share his politics and he said that if they ended up as left-anarchists, he’d be satisfied.

I am sufficiently excellent at writing right-wing characters, or flawed left-wing ones, that reviewers have occasionally decided that I am a right-winger. 

When liberals or leftists write various kinds of right-wing character badly, what mistakes do they make?

Usually by giving them positions too easy to refute (young-Earth Creationism) and by creating clichés (televangelists, “Lionel Asbo” types) or simply by making their left characters too perfect so that everyone suffers in comparison. Those are the two ways to stack the deck.

“The world got weirder so the book had to get weirder”

Bennett remains an ambiguous character, by the end. Can you imagine a different beginning, middle, or ending for Second Shooter?

Sure! Shooter even had another ending, at first, when I outlined it back in 2016. There was more of a romantic connection between two of the characters, a perhaps cringe-worthy sacrifice, and the protagonist realizing that he has become a … dun dun DUN second shooter himself.

Then, the Trump election, pizzagate, QAnon, and a million other smaller conspiracy theories gained currency, and the entire third act, and much of the second had to be thrown out and reconceptualized. The world got weirder so the book had to get weirder.

Right. I feel like speculative fiction writers have been expressing some exasperation at the world recently. “Stay in your lane! Go back to being a baseline!” But — speaking to your point about mediated reality — it’s not just that the world has got weirder. It’s also that speculative fiction is much more firmly a part of what people consume as news. Conspiracy theory, in the Anglophone world anyway, has grown more integrated into the authoritative discourses that say “this is reality.” 

We interviewed Juliana Huxtable recently, and she talked about the double-sided nature of conspiracy paranoia, how it plunges you into these counterfactual constructs, but how it is also in some sense necessary to make sense of the complex systems of technology and finance that shape the world around us.

In films, it’s a cliché that the conspiracy-minded side character ends up being uncomplicatedly correct about conspiracies. In books, it’s often a matter of perception and the true nature of reality, as opposed to mere government / secret society stuff. Fnord, or Rome never fell, or that sort of business.

I saw a tweet some time ago from Charlie Stross that given QAnon etc. speculative fiction writers must not write about conspiracy theories that turn out to be true anymore. (But I can’t find the tweet now! They must have gotten to him too!) I disagree with this; we just have to treat conspiracy theories with every ounce of respect the most sophisticated believer in them deserves. There is occasionally a rational kernel somewhere buried in them—are there Satanic pedophiles running the government? No. Did Epstein kill himself? Also no, and he was clearly marketing young people to powerful government and business officials for child sexual abuse purposes.

Journalism is another big theme of The Second Shooter. What are your thoughts on newshounds in 2022 and beyond? 

Journalism is dead. Now that every human being who wishes to has the ability to issue press releases in the form of social media postings, those postings have become the news. The basics of news reporting—that one only prints what one has heard from two independent sources—has absolutely been flushed down the toilet. And politicians have taken great advantage of this via instant press release. In my own little attempts at reportage recently, I’ve had more than one person agree to an interview and then object to my questions and insist that I only link to their published statement about the issue posted on Medium or the like.

The other issue is that many journalists are trained only as journalists, and cannot so much as read a graph properly. In the days of the worldwide plague, this is deadly.

My day job is at a university, and some days it feels like Higher Education is dead, because students are such cyborgs, and our pedagogy (least of all our edtech)  just doesn’t reflect how students are embedded in social media and other networks of data and finance. But I don’t know. Can you please underline the thesis sentence in your piece, ‘The Term Paper Artist’?

It’s because students have never read term papers.

Thank you. It’s hard to write things unless you read things. That’s topical too.

So, I really loved the black and red magic in The Second Shooter. Just to enormously generalise about my own group of friends and acquaintances over the years, my sense is that witchiness tends to replace, rather than reorganise, the political activism that people do? Sometimes it’s a relief — so-and-so was being chewed raw by reality, but now they’re getting into astrology / Wicca / herbalism / X, and you’re less worried about them. Like they’ve found a way to keep themselves a bit safer. But that safety seems to soften political engagement. Does that chime with your analysis or not? Can magic, broadly construed, make a useful contribution?

I don’t think magic, by which I mean psychological ritual that pretends more or less effectively that some exterior force is helping us, is avoidable in politics, and that includes even the most material of leftist politics. All those hammers and sickles are clearly sigils summoning something not yet present. Even when they have the numeral 4 somewhere in the middle. 

All that said, the goofy bullshit people find in bookstores is generally of no help, even on the individual psychological level. If your magical tome uses the same InDesign page layout template as the publisher’s cookbook line, you’re doomed.

But if you use “magic” to organize yourself, to create a focused and undivided mind, you can accomplish great things. By great I mean significant, the way the Bush administration explicitly refused to be hemmed in by the reality-based community. 

Interesting. Related question. Is chanting in a crowd excruciating, or is that just me?  Maybe virality is the antidote to the chant — you get to boost some external thing as though it were your own expression, but you can add your own inflections. But do some people really experience solidarity or exhilaration or something?

Chanting is a fight in a proper demonstration! At an anti-war rally, do you chant, “Justice not Vengeance,” a duplicitous objectively pro-war chant promulgated by the Democratic Party, or do you chant “No Blood for Oil”? Demonstrations gather people with different opinions, and chanting is a way to see who holds which opinion, and whose minds can be changed. 

OK of course. I hadn’t thought of it like that. Can you tell us a bit about “Three Word Chant!”, which comes up in The Second Shooter at a quite crucial moment?

“Three Word Chant!” as a chant during the Battle of Seattle was both an expression of ultra-solidarity (we can agree that we must be here and chant) and of exhaustion (chanting is ridiculous). But also it worked; the Battle did bust that WTO meeting.

Also of interest: during Occupy, where in many places outdoor amplification was barred, the “mic check” became a ritual. Everyone repeated what the speaker said, so that everyone could hear. This was important, as people found themselves speaking as someone else, and then another speaker would use the “mic,” and one would chant the opposite. In the end, Occupy was too incoherent to succeed but from its ashes did come a generation of powerful activists, and I think the best of them experienced lending their minds to first one person, then another, and learned something from that.

Nick, thank you so much. Can I ask one final one? Can you talk about the materiality of your writing? You know, tools, places, habits? 

Every so often, the idea of taking a photo of one’s writing workspace and putting it on social media takes hold. Many people who don’t publish very much have very nice desks, and their own room for writing, and lots of FunkoPops and posters and stuff. The people who do publish a lot and make some money often have big bay windows and maybe their own little separate building.

I write on a $10 keyboard hooked up to a eight-year-old Mac Mini (so I can keep using a pre-subscription version of MS Word) on a folding desk that is more like an overgrown stepladder than anything else, in the corner of a tiny one-bedroom apartment in which my son sleeps in the living room four inches from the desk. I’m the writerly equivalent of a piecework factory employee, including compensation and squinty, dying eyes.

Nick Mamatas is a novelist, short story writer, editor, essayist, and “the writerly equivalent of a piecework factory employee.”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

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