FALLOUT 4: The Dude Abides, the User Interface is, uh… Scruffy.

In late November, a cryogenic chamber deep beneath a post-apocalyptic Boston suburb cracked open to disgorge the Dude. As in Jeffrey Lebowski. Just don’t call him Mr. Lebowski. “El Duderino” is also acceptable if you’re not into that whole brevity thing. I have a tradition of using the protagonist from The Big Lebowski as my inaugural character for any new Bethesda-style sandbox game; I use the Dude’s moral compass to guide my roleplaying decisions, and generally the Dude wanders amiably, leaving peace and freedom and the smoldering corpses of assholes in his wake.

You might think I should have used light brown rather than gray hair. That's just, like, your opinion, man.

You might think I should have used light brown rather than gray hair. That’s just, like, your opinion, man. Though I mostly agree.

The Dude brought pure water to the Capital Wasteland. The Dude crushed Caesar’s Legion at the Battle of Hoover Dam. The Dude also served as Archmage of Skyrim, and even took down Mehrunes Dagon, though the character modeling of Oblivion was not really suited to the task of capturing the Dude’s proper hirsute glory, and he ended up looking like a scruffy, red-cheeked Billy Bob Thornton. The Dude… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough. Let’s talk about the game.

I. ATOM BOMB, BABY, LOADED WITH POWER…

You can judge that I have generally enjoyed Fallout 4 from the fact that the Dude is currently level 90-something, which represents well over one hundred hours of play. It was more or less inevitable that I was going to enjoy it, even if it failed to innovate in any department, simply because I go weak at the knees for everything this style of game has to offer. I no longer really have room for MMOs in my life, but vast single-player lotus-eating experiences promising hundreds of quests, hundreds of locations, hundreds of NPCs, hundreds of secrets and items and systems to learn… well, pass me some more of that delicious lotus, please.

Give me tunnels and wrecked buildings and hidden bunkers to prowl, let me painstakingly scour every shelf and bucket for useful junk, and I am yours indefinitely. I loved the interconnected metro system of Fallout 3, and I loved the multitude of dungeons in Skyrim. One of the triumphs of Skyrim was the lovingly handcrafted feel of those dungeons, and Fallout 4 builds solidly on this tradition. The landscape is littered with story hints, puzzles, clues, thoughtful tableaus, visual jokes, and easter eggs– here you see the site of someone’s accident, here someone’s tragicomic scheme gone wrong, here someone’s heroic or pathetic last stand.

This astoundingly detail-obsessive play area joins with the game’s brilliant mock-1950s production design to create what I think is its strongest feature, a vivid and all-encompassing sense of atmosphere. The back alleys of Boston are lonely and threatening, the wilderness is eerie and mist-haunted. At one point I exposed the Dude to a great deal of radiation simply so I could have him stand on the tip of the USS Constitution’s prow, high in the air, and watch the majesty of a crackling green wasteland storm rolling in across the city. The game certainly doesn’t fail to deliver a sense of wonder.

There are other things to love, to varying degrees. Fallout 4’s selection of companions is genuinely interesting, usually well-written, well voiced. The game’s new iteration of Dogmeat is possibly the finest useless dog simulator ever programmed. Dogmeat is endearingly animated and will carry a ton of junk for you, though the way he darts across the landscape, runs away from you when you need him most, stands exactly where you are trying to build things, alerts enemies, and blithely sets off traps can be wearying.

Nearly all the old familiar enemies have been given makeovers; ghouls are sneakier and more flexible. Molerats burrow and attack like fuzzy submarines. Even the lowly bloatfly has ceased to be a pinata containing trivial amounts of XP. Enemy use of cover in firefights is gratifying– gone are the days when “charge at the player in a straight line while blazing wildly” was the only attack strategy a raider gang would adopt. Certain changes are a bit much, however. The blindingly fast juke-and-sideslip animation ghouls occasionally use to throw off the player’s aim is straight out of that fucking Remo Williams movie. How did radiation-crazed feral corpses learn that? Seeing a 12-foot-tall Deathclaw use it is even sillier.

C'mon, guys, it was goofy enough when Joel Grey did it in Asian make-up. Who the hell taught Sinanju to Deathclaws?

C’mon, guys, it was goofy enough when Joel Grey did it in Asian make-up. Who the hell taught Sinanju to Deathclaws?

II. HUNTING TREASURES AND SPRINGING TRAPS IN THE RUINS

I’ll meander through some additional praise and ruminations, then commence the airing of grievances. Those uninterested in dissection of the minutiae of Fallout 4’s gameplay might consider skipping straight to section III, which features bitching and yammering of more general interest.

Gunplay is very satisfying, more akin to New Vegas than to Fallout 3. There are occasional issues with certain weapons blotting out the screen when you attempt to aim down their barrels. Weapon customization, like the junking and crafting system in general, feels like a decent but incomplete start to something that could end well (DLC, don’t let us down)– too many weapons currently have too many glaring holes in their customization options. I’d love to see a Gunrunner’s Arsenal-style DLC or patch liven this situation up, and add more weird super-science/scavenged tech options to boot.

Melee combat is less well-served; the limited attack animations provide for nothing like the visceral and fluid hack-and-slash simulation than Skyrim did, and nearly every enemy in the game is far too quick with a punch or butt-stroke that will halt your attack animation and start you over from scratch. Melee stealth characters are the least happy of all; despite the profound damage multipliers they can stack up, the game appears to have no provision for silent stealth removals. Even a master of infiltration kitted out in specialist stealth gear can alert an entire building full of enemies by sticking a knife into a sleeping guard’s throat. That seems contrary to the spirit of the perk investment required to build such a character.

I’m not entirely pleased with Fallout 4’s iteration of the perks system; apart from the fact that some of the granularity and flexibility of the old skills system feels missing, I find the new system hamstrung by curious omissions. There are no shotgun-specific perks, far too few energy weapon perks (the one specifically governing radiation damage is a poor bargain, considering how many enemies treat ionizing radiation as air freshener), and some of the more specialized perks hardly seem worth the opportunity cost. Damage resistance perks, in particular, seem to scale poorly considering how high those ratings now run in the game, and the lack of general mobility perks (run a little faster, jump a little higher, etc.) was a weakness of Skyrim I’d hoped might be corrected.

I also greatly preferred the traditional critical hit implementation of previous Fallout games, in which critical hits were baked into the combat system and would occur at random (influenced by player stats and perks). Fallout 4 turns them into a sort of meter-filling minigame, and not a very diverting one at that. I find the system totally uninteresting and could count the number of times I’ve used it on one hand.

Bugs and inconsistencies do intrude on the play experience, as seems the inevitable case with Bethesda games. For example:

• V.A.T.S. is less buggy than in, say, New Vegas, but that’s hardly a high bar for a game to fling itself over. I haven’t been put off much by the slow-time effect; what have been frustrating are the occasional lengthy pauses once I’ve selected an action (letting bad guys get in a few more shots, occasionally to mortal effect) and the lag time following an attack execution, during which I’m stuck watching the enemy recoil, die, etc. and cannot take cover or run. This is vexing when a pack of ghouls or a super mutant suicider is sprinting toward me. And there are occasional flat-out bugs, most frequently one where my character will mime the use of a Stimpak rather than make an attack with the indicated weapon. That’s always good for a laugh.

• At one point, I had a random encounter with two identical versions of an NPC, each holding a gun on the other and arguing about which was the real human and which was a synthetic replacement. I used the Dude’s conversational prowess to trick the synth into revealing itself, at which point it became hostile to me and was gunned down by its real human counterpart. All well and good, until a few days later, when the two twins respawned in a different location and were both immediately hostile to me. Three days after that, they appeared again, chasing me across the trading outpost at Bunker Hill, and they were flagged such that when I returned fire the entire area became hostile to me. This is the sort of seemingly minor goof that can rapidly spiral out of control in a game with so many variables.

• More glaringly, I discovered that the ultimate Railroad quest line becomes critically bugged if one has killed any of the named Brotherhood of Steel NPCs; at the point the player discovers that the BoS is about to break into the Railroad’s HQ and attempts to warn them, the “warning” dialogue with Desdemona never becomes available, and the only way to resolve the situation short of console commands is to re-enter the Institute, initiate hostilities to blow your cover, and pick up with the Minutemen version of the endgame. That’s sloppy as hell… when the Dude had decided the BoS were a threat to liberty rather than an asset, it seemed a natural thing to stroll over to their airport base and shoot it up a bit for fun. In so doing, I killed named NPCs that would lock me out of the Railroad endgame hours later. This isn’t akin to expecting the storyline to hang together if I strolled onto the Prydwen and took out the commanding general of the BoS; these were NPCs on the ground who could have easily become caught up in random firefights as I operated nearby. You hate to see a structural failure this big at this level of play.

• The recurring “help a settlement” quests for the Minutemen are also problematic as hell. For starters, it’s annoying to be given no chance to turn these quests down. They’re assigned automatically after speaking to Preston Garvey (sometimes even for merely approaching him!), which you have to do if you want any XP for the previous quest(s) he gave you. The “kidnapped settler” quests often have a timer attached AND they physically remove a worker from the settlement in question, so even if you’d rather be off exploring or furthering another quest line, you’ve got a limited window in which to play babysitter for these hapless idiots. Of course you can leave them hanging, but if you’ve got any investment at all in doing well for your settlements or with the Minutemen, that option is a no-go.

The logic and scripting of the recurring quests is sadly slipshod. Consider Sanctuary Hills, the home base of the Sole Survivor, the home base of Preston Garvey and the reborn Minutemen, the very first settlement in the network of safe havens protected by the Minutemen. Yet when the settlers there have issues, they repeat the same dumb script used all over the Commonwealth– “Are you from the Minutemen? We didn’t know you’d actually come! We didn’t know you’d really help us!” Seriously, pretend electronic person… you live in Minutemen Central! Next door to the commanding general of the Minutemen! He handcrafted the bed you sleep on! And you somehow didn’t think the Minutemen were real? There’s no Bed Fairy, motherfucker… the Dude went into radioactive ruins and battled raider gangs to make you that nice comfy mattress!

• Speaking of making mattresses, the new settlement building system is ambitious, diverting, and severely undercooked. Following on my complaints with the Minutemen quests, it’s worth noting that the building system doesn’t seem to interact with them at all. You can ring a settlement with twenty heavy machine-gun turrets, enough firepower to turn a platoon of super mutants into aerosolized quiche, and its inhabitants will still be kidnapped or have their food stolen by low-level raider gangs. What the hell’s the point of protecting your farmers behind expensive walls of automated death if the wasteland equivalent of playground bullies can still shake them down for their lunch money?

In fact, the building system interacts very poorly with the “attack on a settlement” events in general. I deliberately tested this using an attack on the Abernathy Farm– after fast-traveling there, I stood back and watched as one of my aforementioned walls of automated death mulched the offending raiders in about three seconds without my assistance. I then reloaded the game and ignored the attack until it was too late, which resulted in several dead settlers and a field of burned crops. This sort of inconsistency is frustrating, to say the least.

Frustration is a constant theme of the building system. The structural pieces tend to fit awkwardly into the existing landscapes, which cannot be leveled to allow flat and even floor placements. Some existing features or buildings can be removed completely to make way for your vision; the same features at other settlements cannot be touched. Arranging and fitting settlement pieces is a cumbersome process and only a few elements snap together seamlessly. Most damningly, the system bugs out at frequent intervals, randomly causing water supplies, beds, or settler populations to vanish entirely. These things are restored when you take the time to personally visit the settlement in question, but this becomes another intrusive little chore eating into your time with the game.

What’s the appeal of arranging the fine details of electronic dollhouses if the game won’t even properly take care of them when you’re away?

III. PLEASE JUST LET ME MAKE MY DAMN SANDWICH IN PEACE

In this last section, I’ll try to explain where I feel that the roleplaying and user interaction elements of Fallout 4 have gone a bit off the rails, in one relatively trivial fashion and two more serious aspects.

When the player initiates a conversation with most NPCs, they first respond with a canned flavor line. This is universally true of vendor NPCs; after hearing the pointless chat line, the player must initiate conversation again (within a narrow timeframe) in order to call up the functions menu. To give you a visual example, here’s that menu for Trashcan Carla, a vendor who wanders the northwest portion of the map:

"Do I look like a woman with a burning urge to buy 30 Bloodbug probosces?"

“Do I look like a woman with a burning urge to buy 30 Bloodbug probosces?”

Certainly, one can press a key to speed through the superfluous dialogue options, but this is occasionally risky (especially with previously unmet NPCs, as you could accidentally agree to a dialogue option without reading it first) and at any rate secondary to the point– why is this speed bump there at all?

My contention is that I, the player, know perfectly well what a vendor NPC does. I’m activating them to buy or sell items. Yet the design of Fallout 4 places a pointless hiatus (“Back again?” says Carla, “Time to trade?”) between me and that vending. Even after that, it offers conversational options completely orthagonal to the reason the vendor NPC exists. Look at the four possibilities on Carla’s menu above:

BARTER: Yes! I want to buy and sell things!
NO: I changed my mind. Please go away.
DIAMOND CITY: Ask Carla about a specific plot point she can speak of.
UNSURE: Tell Carla… that you don’t know why you clicked on her.

Wait, what? What is that fourth option doing there? Why is it taking up conversational space? Why did a voice actor record lines for it? This is weird enough to qualify as a piece of avant-garde theater; Vendor NPC as written by Samuel Beckett. Click the vendor NPC to tell them you’re not sure if you want to use them as a vendor NPC!

A more serious issue is the substantial reduction in information the player is given in Fallout 4 concerning precisely what their character is about to say. Previous games would give you a list of complete dialogue options before you selected one; if you hovered over “Stick a radioactive corn cob up your ass, you two-timin’ sonofabitch” and clicked it, then that’s exactly what your character said to the NPC in question. Fallout 4 not only maps dialogue options to the diamond shape of a console button pad (so there are never more than four available), it abbreviates them, and what you see on screen may have surprisingly little to do with what comes out of your character’s mouth.

Here’s a fine example from very early in the game:

Leave vault. World strange. Talk small. No context. Why for?

Leave vault. World strange. Talk small. Context gone. Why for? Where go?

What the hell does “no food” mean? I have no food? I want no food? I need no food? There’s no food around here? And how about “get food?” Does it mean that I want to get food, that I should get food, that the player and the NPC should go get food together, or that the NPC should go get some food and bring it to the player? Even with context from the rest of the conversation, puzzling this stuff out can be a chore.

Here’s another well-known example, from a conversation involving Diamond City journalist Piper, in which the player may elect to “support news” or “hate newspapers:”

Freedom of the press is cool and all but if your paper doesn't carry Bloom County you're just fucking dead to me, Piper.

Freedom of the press is cool and all but if your paper doesn’t carry Bloom County you’re just fucking dead to me, Piper.

Now, what actually comes out of the voice actor’s mouth if you choose “hate newspapers” is “Newspapers just like to stir up trouble.” That doesn’t strike me as a particularly hateful line. More like a suspicious one, moderately antagonistic at best. As I see it, if I as a player am in conversation with an NPC who has described herself as a reporter, admitted to owning a paper, acted like a muckraking journalist in front of me, and wears a fucking newsboy cap with a little paper chit sticking out of it that says ‘PRESS,’ if I select the conversational option “hate newspapers” it’s because I want to be an unmitigated cast-iron jackass to her, not give her a minor nudge. If I could have seen the complete dialogue options in advance I’d know what I was letting myself in for– the abbreviations force me to guess, and the criteria by which I should guess are arbitrary.

These textual abbreviations might be perfectly acceptable if the game would consistently offer a matrix of intentions– “be placating,” “be friendly,” “be threatening,” and so forth. But it does this only intermittently. If you’re endeavoring to roleplay in a certain manner, or improve your standing with a specific NPC, getting a surprise setback from one’s dialogue choices is not amusing. I know there are already mods in existence to provide the full onscreen text of dialogue choices, but this isn’t a mere aesthetic tweak or preference. This is a fundamental gameplay system which should be more or less down to a science by now.

Last, and perhaps most questionably of all, Fallout 4 also features “idle” dialogue for NPCs when you leave them hanging in the middle of a conversation, and here’s where I assert that someone has really failed to grasp the paradigm of player/screen interaction. As I see it, when I leave an NPC in the midst of a conversation for five minutes, it doesn’t actually imply that five minutes has passed in the reality of the game with my character standing there, mouth agape, saying nothing. What it means is that I, in the REAL world, am making a sandwich or using the bathroom, or something similar, and in the game environment zero time has elapsed. To have an NPC repeating a snotty or threatening line like “I wish you’d pay attention, this is important,” over and over while I’m doing my goddamn chores doesn’t add flavor or aid immersion. Indeed, it damages immersion by intruding on the player space at a time when the player is clearly not willing or able to respond to the game.

Think about this– it’s a single-player game that actually yells at you when you walk away from it at certain times. If I wanted that sort of fucking pressure, I’d just go back to MMOs! The whole point of a single-player game is that it should work for ME and not intrude on my ACTUAL SPACE. A game that keeps poking me to remind me it exists is not something I ever wanted or needed. I’m sure this seemed like a perfectly innocuous flavor feature when it went into the game, but innocuous is the last thing I’d call it.

Serious qualms and criticisms aside, Fallout 4 is a vast and infinitely tangled yarn-ball of radioactive adventure and furious kersplodery that delivers precisely the sandbox I was hoping for. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for smarter, sharper execution as Bethesda moves on (Elder Scrolls VI, come to daddy and consume his life), but I can forgive a great deal of stumbling in exchange for mostly not screwing up the core elements of something I find frankly hypnotic. It could have been shockingly great, but “pretty damn good” is nothing to be too sad about.

The Dude abides. I sure hope he makes it to the championships. Guess we’ll have to see what happens in the DLC.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Lying Crazypants Liars Who Lie

One of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with my irrational anxiety attacks is the way they have kept me largely shut up when it comes to long-form electronic posting. My social phobia concerning short, sharp things like Twitter or Tumblr was pretty well broken back in 2012, following a glorious bit of impromptu shock therapy in which my girlfriend got me thoroughly tipsy and encouraged me to livetweet the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics. My issues with more involved forms of display have been less cooperative, and though a more rigorous new therapy regimen has borne some fruit, it’s obvious that blog and website updates from me have been scarce for some time.

This was especially frustrating in the wake of the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention, after which the ponderously self-important blowhard John C. Wright publicly accused veteran editor and lifelong fan Patrick Nielsen Hayden of both assaulting Wright’s wife and masterminding the long-term “corruption” of the Hugo Awards, to which the SF/F field largely replied: “Meh.” Now, some of that is certainly due to Wright’s tireless self-marginalization and frothing bigotry, but regardless, I think Patrick deserved better of his friends and colleagues. He deserved to have someone stand up and state plainly what he could not– that John C. Wright talks a big game about truth and courage, but that he is demonstrably full of shit.

I wanted to be that person. I prepared a lengthy post to that effect. And then anxiety did its usual crushing, grinding thing, and days became weeks, which became months. It is now the new year, Hugo chat has started up in earnest, and Wright is once again plying his mealy-mouthed combination of false civility and vicious nonsense on the subject. I have decided to weigh in with a reminder that the narrative Wright wants to push is an absolute full-blown fabrication.

Shortly after Worldcon, Wright posted a rant titled “Smeagol Nielson Hayden,” which you are encouraged to read (though do take a strong drink with you as an escort). You can find it at:

http://johncwright.livejournal.com/964882.html

Everything I’m going to be responding to is taken from it, and Wright’s statements appear in bold text below. Wright begins by describing his attendance at the 2015 Worldcon:

I was asked beforehand more than once if I thought there would be any unpleasantness or insults from the few but vocal pests in jest I call Morlocks who have been steadily infiltrating and corrupting the science fiction community in general, and the Hugo Award process in particular, over the last twenty years. I answered in the negative. The Morlocks are a cowardly lot, and would not dare say to my face the foolish lies they say behind my back on the internet. Besides, like me, they came to have a good time and to celebrate our mutual love of science fiction, and applaud in the fashion of good sports what we each severally take to be the best the genre offers. I thought there would be no incident.

Note the striking way in which the tone of Wright’s rhetoric veers wildly from one paragraph to the next. One moment, his “Morlocks” are a dire threat from outside the field, “infiltrating” and “corrupting.” Three sentences later they share a mutual love of science fiction with Wright, and the circumstances of his disagreements with them have acquired a trivial hale-fellow-well-met sort of cast. Oh, what gentle shenanigans! This tonal shift is a constant tic of his; the opponents that are part of a “silly kerfluffle” will, just a few lines of text later, be described as willing Satanic defilers who must be fought with prayer, fire, and sword unto the ending of the world. You’d think there wouldn’t be much ideologically consistent wiggle room between these two extremes, but what the hell. Magical thinking pants always come with an elastic waistband.

Why was Wright at the Hugo Awards ceremony? He secured five nominations on the final Hugo ballot for 2015, and in this respect he was the most egregious beneficiary of a premeditated and publicly coordinated slate-voting campaign run by the people fandom has come to know as the “Sad Puppies” and the associated/overlapping “Rabid Puppies.” That’s not allegation, or conjecture, or opinion. It’s what happened. This campaign wasn’t even technically against the rules, though it was fueled by a baseless sense of paranoid entitlement and was certainly shepherded by a number of vocally antagonistic jackasses.

Now, any writer with the self-awareness of an eggplant casserole would have known to tread lightly in fandom following this clusterfuck, which, let me repeat, was a result of vote engineering by a dedicated minority rather than of general acclaim from the field. Instead, according to Wright’s very own account, he strolled good-naturedly into the Hugo Awards in the blithe expectation that everyone else would conveniently ignore the chicanery that had brought him there.

I am sad to report that I was mistaken. The Archmorlock himself displayed his courage against the short and girlish figure of my meek and gentle wife.

At the reception just before the Awards Ceremony itself, my lovely and talented wife, who writes for Tor books under her maiden name of L Jagi Lamplighter, and who had been consistently a voice of reason and moderation during the whole silly kerfluffle, approached Mr. Patrick Nielsen Hayden at the party to extent to him the olive branch of peace and reconciliation.

Before she could finish her sentence, however, Mr. Hayden erupted into a swearing and cursing, and he shouted and bellowed at the tiny and cheerful woman I married.

This is a load of crap. Having heard Patrick’s (hereafter also referred to as “PNH”) version of these events directly, and the version reported by several others, I say without hesitation or qualification that John C. Wright is a liar. PNH did not “erupt” into anything, and there was no shouting or bellowing. PNH and Lamplighter were at a reception attended by roughly ten dozen people, including a number of notable SF/F creators, editors, and fans. Isn’t it curious that none of them noticed an alleged shouting fit by one of the most instantly recognizable editors in the field? That none of them reported or commented on such an immediately newsworthy incident? That Wright himself, who was physically present at the reception, did nothing there or afterward, but was perfectly happy to take his story to the web a day later? What was that about other people not having the courage to “say to your face the foolish lies they say behind [your] back on the internet,” John?

The encounter between PNH and Lamplighter took place within arm’s reach of a small group of witnesses, including Laura Mixon, from whom I received a recollection of events before writing this. According to Mixon, she turned away from PNH and Lamplighter after Lamplighter’s initial approach, and took a seat that placed them directly behind her. The first notion Mixon had that the conversation had ended was when PNH sat down beside her a few moments later. That’s how much “shouting” and “bellowing” were involved.

As PNH told Mixon: When PNH realized who Lamplighter was, he said (closely paraphrased): “I’m a practicing Catholic, and I found your husband’s comments about me hurtful. His comments about Moshe Feder were the next thing to Blood Libel. I don’t want to talk to you, and please tell John C. Wright to shove his opinions up his ass.”
After PNH sat down, Lamplighter attempted to re-engage him in conversation twice despite his repeated declarations that he didn’t want anything to do with her. Mixon finally said, “Can’t you understand that he doesn’t want to talk to you?” and Lamplighter took the hint at last.

I should mention that during the last few months of the Sad Puppies kerfluffle, I once upon a time accurately described him, Mr. Moshe Feder, and Mrs Irene Gallo of Tor Books as ‘Christ Haters.’ The support of abortion, sodomy, and euthanasia rather unambiguously put a soul into the position of open rebellion against Christian teachings. In addition, any man who bears false witness against his neighbor, delights in poison-tongued gossip, and destroys writing careers of anyone who does not support his politics not only disobeys Christ, but violates the ordinary decency of ordinary men of good will of any faith.

That would indeed be the very comment that PNH found hurtful, except the full and actual quote is “Christ-Hating Crusaders for Sodom.” Isn’t that lovely? Ha ha! What a “kerfluffle!”

Wright’s casual allegation that PNH “destroys the writing careers of anyone who does not support his politics” is another flat-out lie. Who are these writers disenfranchised by PNH for reasons of politics? What is the process by which PNH was able to work this scheme upon them? This is an allegation that would shake the field to its foundation… if only it weren’t total bullshit. Patrick has in fact worked as an editor for writers whose politics are avowedly, publicly at odds with his own, and they would be very surprised to learn that he had destroyed their careers. As Beth Meacham, another veteran Tor editor, has said many times in public: “We edit books, not people.”

Also, isn’t that a cute bit about “any man who bears false witness against his neighbor?” Wright cleverly finds a means for authorial self-insertion even in the middle of a polemic.

It seems that Mr. Hayden is a Roman Catholic and was so deeply moved to offense by my words that he could not retain a levelheaded and professional demeanor while speaking with my short little wife. He shouted filthy words at her and stormed off. I do not know if there were tears in his eyes.

Except that, as we’ve established, PNH did maintain such a demeanor, and he did not shout at Lamplighter, nor did he “storm off,” unless moving three feet and taking a seat counts, in which case I would suggest that Wright needs to recalibrate his dramatic sensibilities. As for whether “shove it up your ass” qualifies as “filthy words,” your mileage may vary. My total lack of concern for Wright’s histrionic aesthetic prudery should be pretty clear at this point. The salient facts remain:

1. Patrick Nielsen Hayden did not verbally or otherwise assault L. Jagi Lamplighter at the 2015 Hugo Awards reception.

2. Patrick Nielsen Hayden does not destroy the writing career of “anyone who does not support his politics.”

3. John C. Wright is a liar.

And that’s it, right? What more is there to say? What more could anyone–

Before I continue, I should explain to the reader that Mr. Hayden, and no one else, was the driving force behind the corruption of the Hugo Awards in these last fifteen to twenty years.

Holy sweet fucking corn muffins from Mars.

I must at this point apologize to the reader for understating my case. John C. Wright is a lying hysteric. Full stop.

When he began his lonely detached recon mission from the rest of reality is anyone’s guess, but with this he’s vanished so far up the river that even Colonel Kurtz would come out of his mud bath long enough to note that that Wright badly needs to consider the benefits of modern psychopharmaceuticals. Precisely how a single Tor editor, acting alone, could arrange “the corruption of the Hugo awards” is left to the imagination. Let’s take this utterly bugfuck fantasy and condescend to put it under the lens of a few reasonable questions:

• How would this campaign of corruption be funded? Do you imagine SF/F editors as a career class are rolling in cash? If so, incidentally, how long until you start kindergarten?

• How would it be coordinated? Other people would, sooner or later, need to be suborned or at least consulted. How would messages be sent? How could fifteen to twenty years of necessary notes and e-mails remain completely hidden? How is it that in all that time, not one person approached by this alleged conspiracy would have felt uncomfortable with it, refused to participate, and then made its existence public?

• How would all the non-Tor publishers and authors be induced to cooperate with Patrick’s plans?

• Even if Patrick were to dispense with controlling the voters and go straight to fudging the results, how would he have been able to suborn the Hugo vote-counting process that is overseen by a different group of people in a different geographic location every single year?

I know Patrick. I admire him greatly. He is a brilliant ambulatory living history of SF/F and its fandom, and yet I am fairly confident that he forgets his own phone number about once a week. The notion that he has been masterminding the corruption of the Hugos, Blofeld-like, from a cluttered office in the Flatiron Building for twenty years requires a reality scaffold big enough to occult the sun.

It was he who spearheaded the infiltration what had once been the fans’ award and expression of love for the most excellent work in the field.

Here you see unfettered psychosis, dancing in the moonlight, naked of any last stitch of evidence. Read the implication– SF/F fans whose Hugo opinions are not congruent with John C. Wright’s are illegitimate SF/F fans. They do not actually belong to the community or within it. They were “infiltrated.”

Again, treating an insultingly shitwhacked notion with far more logical due process than it deserves, let me ask– where’s your evidence, John? Where’s your evidence for your public accusation that PNH has unilaterally and deliberately “infiltrated” illegitimate non-fans into the SF/F community for political reasons? Where did he find them? How did he recruit them? See again my bullet points above– how did he coordinate with them? Where did he find the time and resources to stage this operation?

(Readers, anyone willing and able to provide documentation for Wright’s assertions is invited to mail me however many Big Chief tablets are required to contain their crayon scribblings on the subject. If I receive multiple submissions, I will pick a winner and offer, in exchange, their choice of either the true location of Atlantis or the GPS coordinates of the vault containing Walt Disney’s cryogenically preserved head.)

Once, the Hugos were the popular award given to the best works by Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Bob Silverberg, Ursula K LeGuin and Harlan Elison, and Roger Zelazny. After much patient effort, the Hugo Awards, together with the SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) were controlled by a small clique of like minded creatures loyal to Mr. Hayden.

The Hugos were also the quirky popular vote that gave mysterious acclaim to yeast vat accidents like Mark Clifton’s They’d Rather Be Right, and delivered an inexplicable landslide for the fourth Harry Potter novel a decade before Tumblr was a thing. They also gave a There, There Isaac Asimov Hugo to Isaac Asimov for an infinitely belated fourth Foundation novel that left a flaming bag of dogshit on the philosophical porch of the previous Foundation novels. In more recent years, they have occasionally delivered rocket statues to what I think of as some real talent mausoleums. However, anyone who isn’t a thrashing self-absorbed pee baby understands that the Hugos are a crap shoot born at the intersection of popular tastes and ever-shifting geographic adjustments to the pool of eligible voters. As Oscar Wilde, or perhaps George Bernard Shaw once said, De gustibus non est disputandum, you pestilent fucking cockbag.

Thereafter, the Hugo voters awarded awards to the Tor authors Mr. Hayden selected based on their political correctness, and expelled those whose politics the clique found not to their taste.

If you look at the actual evidence from the Hugo results dating back to 2000, you’ll see that Patrick’s inexorable PC blitzkrieg has been so devastatingly effective that it has delivered best novel Hugos to Tor books a whopping five times out of fifteen. If you examine Wright’s larger figure and count back twenty years, you’ll see that Patrick’s all-consuming Social Justice Shoggoth has crapped out even worse, delivering a mere six out of twenty. If Patrick were running the sort of well-oiled secret machine conspiracy Wright alleges, that’s a spectacular shitshow. And as anyone who knows Tor Books and loves it well knows, if Patrick were running an actual conspiracy using Tor’s actual resources, six out of twenty is a success rate that suggests far more effective coordination than is remotely plausible.

Either way, John, that dog just won’t hunt.

None of this was done on merit. Editors and writers in the field have been silence or shoved to the sidelines thanks to the action of the clique. I mention no names in public, but those in the field recall the various false accusations leveled against numbers of people, both working for Tor and outside.

Wright names no names because there are no names to be named. There is no work to be shown. There is no evidence to be offered.

Look, John C. Wright is, in all modesty, a tediously pious moralizer, one of the most tediously pious moralizers shitting indigestible paragraphs today. Wright has rarely met a sentence to which he didn’t want to add twenty-three words and just a soupcon of plausibly-deniable Blood Libel. The most striking feature of John C. Wright’s religiosity is that it is indistinguishable from a professional troll’s deliberate attempt to discredit John C. Wright’s religiosity. Even an atheist can spot the thinness of Wright’s “Christian” ethos, smeared atop the fluff like the molecule-thin film of petrochemical butter on movie popcorn. Wright confuses concrete-dry levelness of tone with actual decency and civility, just as he confuses the Christianity of Christ with a viciously masturbatory conviction that God is his bigger, meaner cellmate who is going to pound every other inmate in the ass SO HARD in the showers, they won’t even believe it.

But that’s not really terribly important. Wright makes these points clear over and over again on his own time, and the fact that he’s a bigoted goofball is hardly a state secret. What is important is that nothing he’s tried to push about the Hugo Awards or about Patrick Nielsen Hayden has any scintilla of truth to it, and anyone who tries to tell you differently in the coming months is either a liar or a water carrier for a depressingly stupid conspiracy theory spun by liars.

Being good can be a shortcut. There is no shortcut to being good.

The give-and-take with the audience at any bookstore or convention appearance I make usually comes around sooner or later to the topic of publication. How to get published, how to stay published, what it’s like working with publishers; all that inside baseball. It’s probably a dreary subject to the folks that just love the stories or the genre, yet it’s like Kryptonite-laced catnip to those who want to write professionally. I know the feeling intimately. I was hungry to be published from about the age of five, and none of my less realistic career fancies (Air Force F-15 pilot long-haul trucker cartoonist!) ever truly displaced that yearning.

Most of the publication-hungry folks I’ve ever met have struck me as honest, receptive, and realistic, but there’s always a tiny minority I can spot by the nature of the questions they ask and the statements they fixate on. They’re not interested in hearing about hard work, study, or self-improvement. Their eyes glaze over when I talk about concepts like effort or practice. They want nothing to do with developing actual skills, and in a few cases they don’t even want a damn thing to do with me or my work. They just want me to tell them how to duck under that imaginary velvet rope.

It doesn’t fucking exist, this shortcut. This magic steam-catapult to perceived stardom. This underground railroad for misunderstood slacker geniuses. It’s just not there! Yet these people keep on renewing their memberships in the cargo cult and imagining that all they have to do is catch a published author in a particularly off-guard or generous moment, and they’ll receive The Secret. I don’t know exactly what they envision. Some kind of handshake? A special phone scrambler? A certain Masonic arrangement of manuscript pages that slush readers can detect with their activated third eyes?

Cripes. Once I spot them in an audience, I’m pretty sure I can see them actively translating my words to their sub-reality. “I’m not saying networking isn’t useful,” I might say, “but you’ve got to have something worthwhile to sell before you start selling!” In their heads, this transmutes to “ZOMG! THERE REALLY IS A SECRET CLUB!” And don’t even get me started on what happens when I talk about work or discipline; I can see my advice turning into the noise the adults make in a Peanuts cartoon: “MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, MWA MWA.”

Look, read this next bit very carefully: Famous useless idiots get book contracts all the time. Let us assume that we are not famous useless idiots, you and I. Therefore their situation is not germane to ours. Terrible, terrible writers also get book contracts all the time; this is because there’s no accounting for taste and because there is no accounting for taste and because, if you dig, there is no fucking accounting for taste. I can’t teach you how to get hit by a meteorite; I can only tell you about the “actively try to not be a terrible writer” approach, because it’s how me and most of my peers end up on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This situation, which is my situation and, not to put too fine a point on it, YOUR situation if you’re unpublished and want to kill that ‘un-,’ is defined by the following equation:

Hard work + self-awareness + perseverance = MAYBE

“Maybe?” you say. “What the hell do you mean, maybe?”

What I mean is welcome to the universe, kid. No guarantees about anything, and the clock is already ticking. Try the potato salad. But that MAYBE is a golden result compared to the way the equation turns out if you subtract hard work, self-awareness, or perseverance. When you do that, MAYBE becomes NEVER. In fact, it becomes NEVER in bold followed by THIS MANY EXCLAMATION POINTS. !!!!!!!!!!!! 

So I suppose it’s only natural that a tiny but aggravating minority of wannabe writers out there prefer to keep putting their chips on:

Fucking around + resentment + begging for mercy = SHORTCUT!

And they keep coming to my readings and convention panels! It’s just too damn bad that shortcut doesn’t exist.

(“But Scott,” you might be saying, “you’re talking about traditional publishing! How is this applicable to the bold new world of self-publishing and e-publishing?” Well, the answer is that not a damn thing changes. I don’t look down on self-publishing. I admire it! And if you’re the sort of non-trad-publisher who works diligently for years to hone your craft, understand your markets, broaden your literary comprehension, and generally avoid being an asshole, then you have as solid a shot as anyone at that bright golden MAYBE. But if you’re the sort of person who wants to self-publish the first and only ten pages you’ve ever written because HA THAT WILL SHOW EVERYONE AND THEN YOU’LL BE A MILLIONAIRE, you’re still looking for the imaginary shortcut and you’re totally going nowhere at the speed of uselessness squared.)

How long does the process of hard work + self-awareness + perseverance take? I don’t know; how long is a string? There is no RIGHT path. There is no IDEAL way. There is no PROPER length of time. There is only your right path, your ideal way, your proper length of time.

I sold my first novel in 2004, to an editor I’d never met, halfway across the world, on the strength of about sixty pages and an outline. That doesn’t happen very often. I don’t have an office wall papered with rejection slips (which many superb, successful, award-winning authors do), because I have never received one for my fiction.* I’m not trying to be egotistical, I’m just stating bare facts: There was no secret handshake. There was no clandestine society ritual. An editor saw something worth cultivating, worth publishing, worth taking a chance on. He took that chance. The rest is my Wikipedia entry.

Wasn’t this a shortcut? Not even having a finished novel? In a way, sure. My editor, may he be blessed and protected from paper-cuts forever, thought the unfinished fragment was so good it was worth securing before someone else could notice it.

However, the part you didn’t see before that “shortcut” was the long span of years I spent writing miserable, pretentious, silly, derivative nonsense before I became capable of writing those sixty crucial pages. I went through a Lovecraft phase. I went through a Poe phase (Gah! My Poe phase. Welcome to Farcetown, population ME). I went through a confused Clive Barker-y phase. I wrote a looming shitstack of Vampire: The Masquerade fanfic and character fic that made later Anne Rice look respectable. I wrote and desktop published a series of roleplaying games. I wrote marketing crap, memos, and business letters. I did freelance editing and PDF self-publishing. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff that had to be presented with a modicum of competence and clarity. In those days, a modicum was about all I could manage. An older friend once took me to a Disney animated film, and as it started he whispered “Dude, you really need to pay attention to this. I’ve already seen it, and I brought you because you need to learn how basic story structure works.”

I was also reading. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books across the years. In the months right before The Lies of Locke Lamora sold, I was knocking back two novels a week, dissecting them, hungry to learn everything I could.

And that’s the secret behind my “shortcut.” I decided to pursue serious writing around the age of 15 and I sold my first novel at 26. Eleven years filled with piles of books and thousands upon thousands of pages, most of which were tripe and bullshit. Eleven years filled with a ludicrous amount of youthful time-wasting… but just enough hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. Just enough by a narrow margin.

Being good is a great way to get noticed. But you can’t simply dance past the work it takes to get good. Would you expect to be invited to play first base for the Red Sox without the need to go through that tedious training, scouting, and development process? Of course not. So why the hell would you ever expect that I (or anyone else in my position) could just sort of hide you in a coat and smuggle you into a publishing career?

Still, some people do. If you read all of that and saw actual words, you’re probably not one of ’em. If you read that and all you saw was MWA MWA MWA MWA MWA, please be advised that I’m fucking bringing garlic, holy water, and a shovel to my next convention appearance near you. Truly I am. Because mere words don’t seem to dissuade you and I’m more than willing to try burial at a crossroads.

Now, people don’t just go shortcut-stalking in person. These days, I’m a Free Special Secret Bonus Guest Lecturer and Stevedore at the Viable Paradise writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. VP is an emotionally intense, mentally and creatively demanding experience administered by a bevy of zero-bullshit fully-credentialled pro writers and editors. VP is not a Writing 101 sort of affair, and the staff and instructors spend weeks in unpaid and largely unheralded examination of manuscripts submitted by prospective students, winnowing applicants down to a maximum annual class size of 24.

I can’t tell you anything specific about this process, but I will tell you that the scrutiny is intense and the discussion is quite involved. What the instructors are looking for is evidence of the three qualities I cited above: hard work, self-awareness, and perseverance. That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s all it takes to make you the “right sort” for this kind of literary boot camp. A willingness to learn and grow and toil on your own behalf. Viable Paradise is not about fluffy generalities. It’s about learning how to command and harness your creative skills to produce an original, working story on a very tight schedule.

The applications that are marked for rejection most quickly are the ones that are clearly fishing for that mythical shortcut. What boggles my mind is that people imagine they can actually get away with this shit… that they can send text plagiarized straight from published works (hint: professional SF/F editors have read a lot of books), or keep offering up something that was rejected in a previous year, without alteration or improvement, in the hopes that the instructors will suddenly drop their standards or experience total group amnesia.

If Step 1 is “write something,” Step 2 is “write something new while you shop it around,” not “sit on your ass for the next twenty years and keep petulantly holding out the Only Thing You Ever Wrote.”

If you want to be a writer who occasionally sells to professional markets, that’s one thing. But if you want to be a professional writer, you must understand that this is not a one-time gig you’re applying for. You will be expected to do this hard, lonely, brain-bending thing, and then do it again. And again. And again. Imagine yourself as a bright little kid who comes home with a graded paper, which your parents pin up on the refrigerator for everyone to admire. Then they roll out a clean new refrigerator and stand there waiting for you to decorate that one, too. Your life is now an endless line of refrigerators, kid. If you’re lucky, it rolls on all the way past the horizon and into the graveyard.

You can’t fake the ability to meet that challenge. You can only train yourself up to it. So don’t talk to me or anyone in my shoes about shortcuts, because the concept of the shortcut is like the Easter Bunny– something cuddly and reassuring and totally fictional.

*****

*I did receive a firm but gentle e-mail rejection from Steve Jackson many, many years ago, in response to a proposal to write the introduction to a certain GURPS book. A proposal I only belatedly realized could be used as an object lesson in how to NEVER EVER structure a proposal. Still, I was chuffed. Rejected by Steve Jackson himself! I wish I’d printed a copy of that e-mail.