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slippery when wet

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Wed 27
Apr
2005

Get your brave new world right here

What Max Reckons Occasionally I wonder how social values will change over the next several decades. I’m pretty sure they will change, and our descendants will look back on the early years of the 21st century and find some of our ideals bizarre—as repugnant as we find slavery, sexism, and repression. But which ones? Here are some guesses.

  1. Speciesism. As a race, we’ve shown a pretty clear trend toward abolishing arbitrary divisions between people. We no longer consider some races to be sub-human, for example, or one gender to be undeserving of the vote. Ethical vegetarianism, practically unheard of a century ago, is increasingly common, and animal cruelty is now widely considered to be a terrible thing. To me this suggests we’re on the way to overthrowing the belief that animals have no feelings worth considering, and that we have the right to eat them. I don’t think we’ll ever consider animals to be our equals, but we won’t think their feelings are worthless, either.

    Prediction: First we’ll outlaw agricultural practices that cause animals pain, and eventually we’ll stop eating them.

  2. Patriotism. When you’re under threat, patriotism makes a lot of sense: your chances of survival go up if you band together with similar people. But as globalization brings people of all nations closer together, making international travel and communication astonishingly easy, national boundaries mean less. The more we learn about foreigners, the more we find we have in common with them; and not only that, as the world undergoes a slow, inevitable cultural homogenization, we do have more in common with them.

    At the same time, a consistent pattern shows up every time citizens of a large Western nation go to the ballot box: city-dwellers vote liberal and country people vote conservative. How long before residents from Manhattan, London, Sydney, Paris, and Berlin have more in common with each other than they do with rural residents of their own country? Do they already?

    Patriotism is a pretty crappy ideal in the first place. It’s clearly untrue that people who happen to have been born in your country are more special or worthy of your support than people who happen to have been born somewhere else. In fact, patriotism is even less defensible than racism, because at least there you have a biological basis on which to discriminate. When you’re patriotic, you’re using an imaginary line.

    Prediction: Eventually people won’t identify themselves primarily by their nationality, but rather by their belief system.

  3. Faith. Recent events in certain Western countries notwithstanding, the influence of religion on people’s lives has been falling for as long as recorded human history. So I don’t see why it should stop now.

    Prediction: Few people will believe in a literal God or identify themselves as followers of a religion.

  4. Privacy. There’s more concern about privacy in democratic countries today, but there is less actual privacy. It’s increasingly difficult to interact with government departments and corporations without supplying personal details, and, thanks to improving technology, it’s increasingly easy for those bodies to amass, analyze, and use that information. Governments have strong incentives to invade people’s privacy, since it increases their ability to control the populace, and they have very little incentive to protect privacy.

    As technology creates more powerful and more easily accessible weapons, a single rogue person will be capable of inflicting greater harm on other people. The best defense against this is probably surveillance. Since human beings are more interested in safety than privacy, I don’t think we’ll fight hard enough against loss of privacy to stop it happening.

    Prediction: People will no longer believe in a basic entitlement to privacy from government.

  5. Selflessness. Regulated capitalism harnesses the power of self-interest to make societies more productive. It generates enormous amounts of wealth that, more or less, benefits society as a whole. Thus, capitalism is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

    However, capitalism rewards selfishness. People who act only in their own best interests tend to accumulate more money than those who don’t. For evidence of this, you don’t need to look any further than the types of personalities who end up running major corporations—or corporations themselves, which are by definition the purest embodiment of selfishness, and society’s biggest wealth-generators.

    In capitalist societies, money means success: power, influence, and status. And since the wealthy are society’s winners, they are its role models. To succeed, others will emulate their behavior.

    Prediction: People will believe less strongly in the moral duty to help others, and more strongly in the morality of self-interest.

That’s my best guess (for now): a society that looks back on mass-farming with horror, shakes it head at our obsession with flags, pledges, and anthems, sees little difference between religion and superstition, finds bemusement in our worries about privacy, and sees altruism as naive, even childish. Utopia? Well, not exactly. But then, I’m not predicting what I’d like to happen.

Tue 19
Apr
2005

Ride the Walrus

Max I’m always looking for new things to do in the shower, because I’m male and have no hair. There’s very little you can do in a shower when you have no hair; it’s basically “wash face, soap underarms, sing a little song.” I can’t get out after that; standing naked under running warm water is too nice. I want to stay there, but need entertainment—and yet, at this very moment, I have no pockets.

Sometimes I fill my mouth with water and spray it everywhere. The key is not to just blurt it out: you want to generate a fine mist, accompanied by a satisfyingly whale-like PFFFFFFF. That’s good fun. When I’m lacking in inspiration, I just stand there, swing my arms, and watch the water spray off my fingertips.

But now I’ve discovered a thrilling new activity. (No, not that.) It’s terrific fun, and I’m sharing it so you can try it at home yourself.

Now this may require some adjustment of your bathroom facilities—last week I was traveling around and it didn’t work in all the hotel room showers I tried. What you want is a medium-sized shower rose (not a horrible little needly one) with strong pressure (which, unfortunately, counts out all of you living in England). Position it as close to the top of your head as possible.

Then close your eyes and throw your head right back. If you’ve got it right, the shower jets water directly on your closed eyelids. This sensation may be accompanied by a flaring white kaleidoscope or visions of God. And not only that: water streams directly into your ears, making an adrenalin-pumping roar, like you’re standing under a waterfall, or, now that I think about it, hearing the voice of God. Maybe they should choose the Pope this way. But anyway, it’s pure excitement! I’m telling you, you have to try this yourself, before it becomes a Disney ride.

Thu 14
Apr
2005

Annnd we’re back

Max I just got home from a week’s vacation to find that my web host decided that was a good time to kill my site. Mmm, helpful. This is a periodic thing: once every few months, they go, “Hmm, this site seems to be generating load on our server, let’s disable it.” They don’t notify me; they just go ahead and do it. When I notice my site is down, I fix it and send them an abusive e-mail. They apologize profusely, say the tech didn’t follow proper processes, and promise it’ll never happen again. A few months later, it happens again.

This is the fourth time. I’m an idiot for staying with them, right? It’s just that they’re a great host in all other respects. They give me everything I need. They’re practically perfect. It’s just, from time to time, they get violent. But it’s not their fault. They don’t know what they’re doing. They just lose control sometimes. I shouldn’t provoke them with all that traffic. It’s really my fault. I know they really love me.

I’m an idiot, right?

Thu 07
Apr
2005

Max: the long version

Writing I did an interview with Australian Speculative Fiction recently; they’re putting together a book on Australian sci-fi writers and apparently I qualified. They e-mailed me a list of questions and, as per my usual policy, I decided, “Must respond to that soon,” then let it sit in my inbox for about a month. (I blame my mail program. Thunderbird lets you press “1” to mark a mail message in red as “Important” to make sure you don’t lose those e-mails you really need to follow up. But this gives me a totally false sense of accomplishment and closure, as if I have dealt with them and can move on. I now have a solid red inbox.)

Fortunately they kept hassling me about it, so I eventually got around to pounding out my answers. I mailed them off, they thanked me, then a week later sent me a copy of their article for the book. Of my response, they’d used four sentences.

Four sentences!

I can’t let all those other sentences go neglected. So here’s the full text, for anyone who’s interested.

1. Why do you write (insert genre)?

That’s like asking why you pick your nose: you just do. I mean, not YOU, necessarily. I’m sure you’re very hygienic. But writing is a compulsive thing: I do it because I do it. First I get an idea and it bounces around my head for a while. If it sticks around… well, I can’t just leave it there. That would be cruel. If I’m intrigued enough to want to know what happens next in this story myself, I sit down at a keyboard and find out.

I’ve never chosen a particular genre and thought, “Okay, let’s come up with a story in that.” In fact, I don’t think about genre at all. That’s the kind of thing I don’t worry about until I’m trying to sell it. When I was searching for a literary agent for Jennifer Government, one wrote back, “Sorry, we don’t represent science-fiction.” And I thought, “Science-fiction? Is that what this is?”

2. What are your motivations in writing (insert genre)?

Not very sophisticated, unfortunately. I just enjoy it. Sometimes people say I must be very disciplined to write full-time, as if I have to force myself to work on a story. But that’s not it at all; I write because it’s great fun.

I have had times when I haven’t enjoyed my writing, and I’ve forced myself to knuckle down and wade through it. This made me feel very noble and hard-working, but the fiction I ended up with was the most unmitigated crap. It turns out that, for me at least, when writing is fun and easy I’m producing good writing, and when it’s a struggle I’m wasting my time.

3. What is unique about your work?

I notice all these questions inflame the ego. I’m not sure that’s a good idea, when you’re dealing with writers. We don’t need much encouragement in that regard.

Actually, I think it’s hugely helpful to be able to convince yourself that what you’re working on is the greatest piece of literature to ever grace a page—because a novel takes a really long time to write, and if you lose faith in it, well, you might as well go watch The O.C.

“Unique” is a big word; you can argue that very little in literature is unique. But I hope my books are distinguishable by their amusing take on life, particularly all things corporate, and their focus on telling a good story with a minimum of messing around. Oh, and their complete lack of physical description. But I’m working on that.

4. Do you write in other genres or mainstream?

All of my novels are corporate satire, but the first is mixed with romantic comedy and the second with science-fiction. Of course, what kind of a genre is corporate satire? I may have gone needlessly specific there. But if that’s not my genre, I’m not sure what is, so I’ll stick with it.

I can see myself writing about things other than corporations, but I don’t think I’ll ever lose my love of humor and satire.

5. When did you first begin to write?

Apparently I dictated a book about frogs when I was two. Does that count? It was non-fiction, and somewhat terse in style, but it was published, in the sense that my Mum stapled all the pages together. Some time after that I veered off the path of journalism into fiction. I remember writing horror short stories in high school that featured my classmates — they were very popular, except among people who were in them — but I don’t remember ever actually starting writing. I’ve just always done it.

6. Do you do much research for your novels?

I do as little as possible. I will research before I’ve started work on a novel — because this is basically just reading about subjects I’m interested in. But once I’ve come up with the book’s basic premise, I don’t run out and bone up on all the relevant topics. Doing research at this point feels to restrictive: I end up trying to fit the story into the confines of reality, when I should be bending reality to fit my story. So once I’ve started writing, I avoid doing any research, even if it means leaving big, obvious gaps in the book that need to be filled in later.

7. If you could write and be published in another genre what would that be?

I’m not especially established as a science-fiction writer, but I’m interested in doing more of it. I want to write a sci-fi movie, because there is a shameful dearth of good ones.

8. What did it feel like when you had your first book published?

The first time I saw my book on the shelf of a bookstore, it looked as if someone had sneaked a copy in there. The other books all looked legitimate, but mine felt like an impostor.

It was a truly magical time, because I also thought that my run up the New York Times bestseller list was surely only a matter of time. Then reality had to go and spoil it.

9. What are your goals for writing in future? Eg break into the US market.

More than anything else, I want to tell good stories. Hmm, wait, that sounds as if so far I’ve been telling bad stories. I mean that my main motivation is to create stories I’m proud of. I hate working on a novel that doesn’t feel right, and I would hate the idea of having a novel published I didn’t love.

Sales-wise, I don’t want any novel to sell fewer copies than the one before it—but this is not something I can do much about, other than write good stories. So I’ll stick to that.

10. In your opinion, are there any uniquely Australian elements in your writing either in your characters or setting?

Only one of my books is set in Australia, even partially, and it’s a very Americanized Australia. So I don’t write what you would typically consider to be Australian literature: no Aussie slang, Outback settings, or lovable rascals. But I do think my sense of humour is very Australian. I’ve heard from a few readers that they recognized that style in my books, even before they knew I was an Aussie. Also, I think my appreciation for satire is an Australian characteristic.

11. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Yes, but none of it is startlingly original. Aspiring writers should write: that’s by far the most important thing. A person with no contacts and no knowledge of the publishing industry but who writes a little every day and loves what he’s doing is eventually going to get published: I really think it’s that simple. Some people will hit it big with their first novel, but most of us need time to learn what we’re doing. I have two published novels and a third coming out soon: these are, together, the second, fifth, and seventh novels I’ve written. This is success in publishing: getting three out of seven books onto the shelf.

12. Why do you think there are so many Australians writing in this genre now?

I ended up going outside Australia to find a publisher, so I’ve never really connected with the local scene. As a result, I don’t know much about it. Hmm. Maybe I should read this book.

Sun 03
Apr
2005

Dirt is Good. Dirt is Good. Dirt is Good.

What Max Reckons Today is an important day of celebration in Australia; it’s National Dirt is Good Day. No, really, it is. Now, I know, if you live in New Zealand, you’re wrinkling your forehead and going, “Wait a minute, Max, Dirt is Good Day was a few weeks ago,” and if you’re Turkish or Pakistani it was last year, but that’s not important; those are just funny little international differences, like how it’s currently Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and New Zealanders celebrate Christmas on the last Tuesday of February.

National Dirt is Good Day is sponsored by OMO, a washing detergent made by Unilever, and by “sponsored” I mean “invented.” Apparently you don’t have to be a government to go around inventing national days of celebration; anybody can do it. So Unilever has decided we need one in celebration of dirt. Here’s why:

Years of scientific study by child health experts shows that playing outdoors is an essential part of a child’s learning and development.

Getting dirty through constructive play is how children learn and express their creativity. It also helps them to stay healthy by encouraging them to exercise and bolstering their immune systems.

I dunno, it seems like this makes just as much sense without the phrase “Getting dirty through”. It seems like they inserted that fairly arbitrarily. But no, no, I’m not one to argue with unsourced “years of scientific study.” I should just be grateful that private enterprise has stepped in to deliver this crucial health message.

I clicked through the web site to find out how I could celebrate Dirt is Good Day at home—I don’t have any kids, but since it’s such a significant occasion, maybe I could pinch somebody else’s. The first couple of recommended activities seem interesting enough, but the further you go down the list, the more they seem to be basically, “Take one child, roll him around in the mud, and wash his clothes with OMO.”

The second-last one is “Mud Splatters”: its ingredients are (a) water balloons (b) mud and (c) paper. You’re meant to insert (b) into (a) and throw it at (c), marveling at “the amazing effects on the paper as the mud splatters.” There is no mention of the possibility of kids turning their attention to the amazing effects of mud splattering on other objects, including each other. Which seems like the logical progression to me, but apparently to Unilever it would be a surprising and unexpected development.

The final recommended activity is “Mud Pie.” The description is quite detailed, but I’ll summarize it for you: get a big pile of mud and try to make your parents eat it.

At the very bottom of that web page, in black text on a blue background, I noticed this:

Safety Note: Ensure children do not play with dirt that may have been contaminated by animals. Ensure that children do not put dirt or dirty hands in their mouths. Potting mix is dangerous as it contains a potentially harmful bacteria, do not use. Ensure any cuts are covered. Wash hands afterwards.

Wow! I always get a warm, fuzzy feeling when corporations take an interest in my personal wellbeing, but tucking away a safety warning where nobody will see it as part of a campaign to make children play in dirt is extra special. Maybe they should call it National Dirt is Good So Long as It Isn’t Contaminated by Animals and You Don’t Put it in Your Mouth and Wash Afterwards and Cover any Cuts and For God’s Sake Don’t Go Near the Potting Mix Day.

But it’s been a big success for Unilever, with consumers apparently embracing the message of: “No Stains. No Learning.” (An earlier draft, I’m guessing, is, “No Stains? Bad parent! Bad!”) So surely it’s just a matter of time before other companies jump on the bandwagon. There could be ExxonMobil National Go For a Long, Aimless Drive Day, or AT&T National Just Check Your Relatives Are Still Okay Day. Because they care about us, you know?

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