Three years ago today, I started writing “Immunity Index”

I made two mistakes when I started writing the novel Immunity Index.

The first mistake was to try “pantsing” as a writing technique — that is, to write from the seat of my pants rather than from a plan and an outline. While my first drafts are always shit (which does not make me at all like Hemingway in any other sense), this first draft was especially bad and required nine painful complete rewrites.

The second mistake was trying to tell a story set in the near future. Events in the future, like the things seen in a convex mirror, are closer than they appear.

This vision of the future, however, started back in the 1980s. As a newspaper reporter, I was covering news about AIDS, then a terrifying new disease. One evening, before a meeting, I was chatting with the Wisconsin state epidemiologist. He said that as bad as AIDS was, it could have been worse. He was a gay man, and we both knew that AIDS was already a disaster, and the disaster would keep growing.

He said, though, we were lucky that AIDS was only communicable, not actually contagious. Worse would have been a fatal illness that could be spread as easily as a cold.…

In 2018, I imagined a deadly, contagious coronavirus. It was fiction. Until it wasn’t.

My fictional story, though, is better than our shared reality. For one thing, the novel has a happy ending — and it has suspense, intrigue, adventure, and a woolly mammoth.

Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4. Publishers Weekly has a review. Read an excerpt here.

24,000 days old

I’m about 24,000 days old. Despite everything that’s happened over the last 65 years, one change in the material world stands out to me the most.

When I was born in 1955, fewer than 3 billion people lived on the Earth. According to YaleGlobalOnline, that number reached 7.8 billion in March 2020.

During my lifetime, the world population has more than doubled — and there was hardly a shortage of human beings on the planet 65 years ago. When my parents were born, there were only 2 billion people. In 1804, there was 1 billion.

We should hit 8 billion in 2023, 9 billion by 2037, and 10 billion by 2056.

I can’t imagine a billion people, but I know what population growth has meant to me — this single memory, multiplied by everywhere:

When I was eight or nine years old, my friends and I would ride our bikes from our homes in Greendale, Wisconsin, to Boerner Botanical Gardens, about three miles away. (We were free-range children.) The quiet ride took us through suburbs and past farm fields and groves of trees.

The biggest crossroads was 76th Street at Grange Avenue. Grange, a two-lane country road, had a stop sign, and 76th didn’t, but it held such scant traffic that an eight-year-old had no trouble peddling across it safely.

Less than a decade later, Southridge Mall opened at that corner, and more development followed. Now, as the photo from Google Maps shows, Grange Avenue is a four-lane boulevard plus turn lanes and 76th Street has six lanes, and the crossroad can intimidate anyone not in an SUV. The fields have been paved over. The once-quiet country road bustles day and night.

Everywhere that I’ve lived and visited, roads and buildings grow and grow endlessly.

That’s what billions more people mean to me: more cars, more pavement, and more buildings — but fewer farm fields, fewer trees, fewer kid-friendly spaces, and less peace and quiet.

***

I’ve posted a new article, “What’s a masterpiece worth?” How much did Cervantes get paid for Don Quixote of La Mancha? We don’t really know, but I try to come up with an estimate, and it jives with other estimates. He earned a pittance. Read the article here.

Capricon 41: creating the present we wanted

Inspired by this poem by Ross Gay: “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.”

Capricon is a Chicago science fiction convention. We come together for four days in February at a hotel convention center, and we call ourselves family, except that this year we did not come.

We met alone together, hundreds of us, with cameras and keyboards, and we recreated what we could. Art, games, panels, films, freebies, kids activities, the guy in the goat costume, other people in costumes, music, and parties, some including DJs, and of course the commemorative tee-shirt. It depicted a goat wearing a face mask.

At a science fiction convention, fans and authors, scientists and singers, costumers and gamers are the same, energized by ideas and expression. We gather to share our love for our mutual passions. It’s a tradition. This the forty-first annual Capricon.

With the freedom of non-meatspace we could welcome people from Vietnam and Brazil and Jamaica and Puerto Rico and thirty-eight states, not just Chicago and those who could travel. No hugs, but we enjoyed a wider horizon and intentional inclusion. We had special early hours so distant fans could share their dinner with our breakfast. Two hundred things were offered to do over a four-day weekend, including bartenders to help you mix your own drinks at home at the evening parties. The box fort got built. Bar Fleet had its discotheque, this time not crowded to sweaty capacity.

At a Zoom panel I ran, discussing the power of the short story, a viewer in the chat box told us a three-word story when we wondered how short a short story could be. He wrote, “Hindsight is 2020.” There’s a lot to unpack in that, but I just laughed, glad to be looking back.

Our convention had a theme: “Creating the Future We Want.” We talked about the future, about how it was made, both by intention and opportunity. We considered various futures after global warming. With or without police. With or without forgiveness. With enough room for a few grudges to hold their distance. With enough closeness to fill the space with thanks.

We tried so hard to have fun, to give each other fun, to be the family again.

Next year, our theme will be music and we plan to meet at a hotel already reserved, brick and mortar, flesh and blood. Next February, we will have the future we are working now to create. Sing us in, 2022.

Extreme beliefs

As Charles Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

We’re doing it all over again, particularly that “epoch of belief” part. People are believing a whole lot of things. Why?

The world is a confusing place, and people want to make sense of it. As far as I can tell, some people are prone to believe the first explanation they find that seems to make sense — the very first explanation, and they stop right there, without asking if it’s a fully sensible.

It might be wiser to search for as many explanations as possible. If there are two or more sides to an issue, try to understand them all. Knowing multiple explanations might temper your belief. Can you accurately, even sympathetically, explain your opponents’ points of view? It’s easy to condemn what you do not understand.

As Mark Twain said, “If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on a hot stove again. That cat won’t sit on a cold stove either.”

The cat doesn’t understand the whole situation and has an extreme belief about stoves.

***

My next novel, Immunity Index, goes on sale May 4.