Monthly Archives: July 2016

Cybermorality: Time travel and killing Hitler, pt. II

Last time on Cybermorality we asked the big question: should you travel back in time to kill Hitler? A fundamental assumption in that debate—one that maybe you accept, maybe you reject, or maybe you didn’t even notice—is that killing him is justified because if he’d never come to power, the world would be much better off.

Let’s examine that assumption. It’s got two parts: (1) killing him is justified because (2) if he’d never come to power, the world would be much better off. I think the truth of (2) is self-evident. It’s (1) that we need to examine more closely.

For one thing, it’s not at all clear that you have to be violent to remove Hitler from power. You could just help him stay in art school. Or pull a Back to the Future and see to it that his parents never meet. Or—my preferred method, since I’m a philosopher—engage him in reasoned debate. See if you can talk him out of his irrational anti-Semitism and ineffective authoritarianism. They’re really stupid positions; arguing against them isn’t hard.

But maybe you want to say that’s impossible. He’s a closed-minded bigot. He’s power-hungry. You can’t reason people out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into. That sort of thing. Personally I place a lot of faith in the power of reason, but I do understand where you’re coming from.

So let’s take it one step further. Let’s postulate that the only way to prevent Hitler from rising to power is to kill him. You can’t reason with him, can’t guide him into becoming a mediocre artist, can’t prevent him from being born, yadda yadda yadda. Let’s say your only options are to let him be (and he comes to power, and horrible things happen) or to execute him (and they don’t).

There’s still another question to be asked: does he deserve to be killed?

Maybe your first thought is, Well, duh. Of course he does. The dude is a genocidal maniac. But keep in mind, you’re going to kill him before he does any of that. In fact, that’s the point: to take him out before he’s guilty of any of his horrendous crimes.

MinorityReportPhilip K. Dick toyed with this idea in his short story, “The Minority Report.” (You can read a summary here.) The central question there is whether it’s right to punish people for things they haven’t done yet. We should point out that in some cases the answer might well be yes. For example, if Joe Thug is trying to whack you on the head so he can steal your wallet, lots of people say it’s not wrong to preemptively kick him in the wee-wee and run. You don’t have to wait for him to actually hit you before you hit back.

But that case is far too easy because Joe has already committed assault by threatening you. By kicking him, you’re just preempting his attempt at battery. For it to count in Philip K. Dick’s sense—what he calls “pre-crime”—the cops would be able to arrest Joe for assault and battery before he even leaves home.

The Hitler case is legitimate pre-crime. We already know what he did. But maybe even his case is too easy, because his name is synonymous with evil. So let’s take a current hypothetical case, the one that’s on the news every night.

I don’t know what it means about my country that the two most hated people in the nation are the front-runners for the presidency. What I do know is that millions of people fear a Trump presidency in the same way they fear a meteor eradicating all life on Earth, and millions of other people fear a Clinton presidency in exactly the same way. The “argument,” such as it is, goes something like this:

This candidate knows absolutely nothing about national defense, nothing about securing our nuclear arsenal, and nothing about dealing with terrorism. Therefore if this candidate becomes president, we all die screaming in a nuclear fireball.

Trump or Clinton, take your pick; either way, you won’t have to look far to find someone spouting this line of rhetoric. (I recommend ignoring these people. There’s plenty of well-reasoned, well-informed journalism out there too.)

But let’s say it turns out not to be rhetorical. Let’s say you intercept a time traveler who has come back to kill the candidate in question. This person brought along some history textbooks from eighty years from now, conclusively proving that this candidate is directly responsible for millions of deaths by nuclear fireball. The only solution, your time traveler says, is to kill the candidate.

So you lock this person in the bathroom and call 911. Good idea. But just for argument’s sake, let’s say all of this really is true. The case for killing the candidate (again, you pick which one) is the same as the case for killing Hitler: namely, if this person comes to power, the death toll will run into the millions. But as of today, this person hasn’t come to power, hasn’t got any nuclear weapons, and hasn’t brought about the deaths of millions.

You have at least three options:

1) It is always wrong to kill an innocent person. Even if this candidate will be responsible for millions of deaths, and even if the candidate will deserve execution for that, s/he doesn’t deserve execution now.

2) Killing one to save millions is morally right. But only if no nonviolent means are available, of course. (If, for instance, it would be enough to kidnap the candidate until November, that would be much better than shooting this person.)

3) Both options are equally right and equally wrong. As of today the candidate is innocent, and therefore deserves to live, but it’s also wrong not to kill the candidate if that really is the only way to prevent millions of deaths.

This may take some air out of the basic intuition that it’s obviously right to kill Hitler. It might also leave you with some uncomfortable commitments:

If you chose 3, you still have to land on 1 or 2. You can’t abstain; choosing not to intervene is the same as choosing 1.

If you chose 2, I’ll bet I can talk you down a lot lower than a million lives. Would you kill one innocent to save a thousand others? A hundred? If so, why not kill one to save ten? If you’ll go that far, why not kill one to save two? And if that’s too far, what’s the magic number? More importantly, how do you justify that number? Or is it just an arbitrary choice?

If you chose 1, you’re actually on pretty solid ground, philosophically speaking—if you can stand your ground. Almost all of my ethics students say killing innocents is always wrong, until I pose one case for them; after that, almost all of them say there are exceptions to the ban on killing innocents.

I’ll give you that case on our next installment of Cybermorality. Until then, hop over to facebook/novelocity, facebook/philosofiction, or Twitter @AllBeinMyself and make your opinion known!

Steve Bein

When a Series Dies an Early Death

One of the thing that traditionally published authors know is that your relationship with your publisher isn’t permanent.

Most of the time, our contracts with them are for a limited number of books. They purchase two books, see how those go, and then maybe purchase a few more.

Sometimes they don’t.

With my first contract, I made sure that Book #2 (the last book of that contract) could be read as a completion to the series…just in case the publisher didn’t offer to purchase my next book. Fortunately, they did, so I got to end The Golden City series the way I wanted. Yay!

I wrote books 3 and 4 for my second contract. Book 4 was the beginning of a new series, but since I didn’t have a new contract, I made sure it could stand alone. Yes, there are a lot of things that remain unanswered in that book (Dreaming Death) but overall, the story doesn’t end on a cliffhanger or anything like that.


But by the time I was coming up for my next contract, the merger between Penguin and Random House was motivating my publisher (which was an imprint of PRH) to clean house. They didn’t renew a lot of their writers…and I was one of those swept away.

So what happens to my story now?

Most writers live with the knowledge that this can happen. We’ve seen it happen to our friends.

Fortunately, nowadays there are a lot of ways that the series can go on now.  The author can self-publish the story, whether by funding it themselves, or going with crowd-funding. There are also a few smaller publishers who are willing to pick up a half-finished series. (There are a lot off drawbacks to that for that publisher, though, the main reason that it’s not common.)

The writer, however, usually needs to move on to a different series to stay afloat.

This can be frustrating and disappointing to readers (AND the writer.) But it happens. Far more often these days than anyone likes.
So what can the reader do when their favorite series is cancelled?

  1. Watch the writer’s webpage or blogs to see what they have planned for the next books in the series.
  2. If the writer’s going to finish out the series by crowdfunding, either donate…or just spread the word. (Others may not have seen the news.)
  3. If the writer does publish the remaining books in the series, purchase them. (Yes, we’re always asking you to buy our books. It’s how we survive.)
  4. If the writer DOESN’T publish the remaining books in the series, buy what they’ve got coming out next.

Some writers aren’t prepared to self-publish things. Either they don’t have the time (it IS time-consuming), the funding (we do have to eat), or the desire to put out that series ending on their own.

Please don’t let that scare you off of buying their next series. I guarantee, that author is working as hard and fast as they can to get new stories out there.

The publishing industry is changing so fast these days that writers are constantly under pressure to decide what’s the best next step to them. Whatever that step turns out to be, they can’t get buy without the support of their readers!

So stick with them!


Which favorite series of yours died an early death?




5 Tips to be a Prepared Panelist at an SFF Convention

So you’re going to attend a genre convention as a panelist. Whoo hoo! If this is your first time, it’s normal to be nervous. If this is your thirtieth time, it’s normal to be nervous.

Here are some tips to get you geared up, regardless of the content of your panel(s).

5) Know your schedule before you get there.
Carry a notebook or Post-It pad. Make sure your entire schedule is in there–panels you’re on, panels you want to attend, or any other important events during the con. Why? The paper-bound con guide can be very unwieldy to carry or poorly organized. Sure, the con may have an app or allow you to save your schedule online, but the internet can and will go down. Some convention centers get absolutely horrid reception.

PostItschedule_smI like to use Post-It notes. If my badge is in a plastic sleeve, I will slip the sticky notes right inside the back so I can reference my schedule at a glance without having to dig into my purse in a big crowd.

4) EAT. Seriously.
Food is kinda important, but the very nature of conventions can make it hard to eat. Your schedule might have you booked solid, or the venue might not have restaurants close by, or you’re on a restricted diet. You need to take care of yourself. The last thing you want is to have low blood sugar in the middle of your panel and be listless or feel faint… or for your stomach to be growling like a caged werewolf.

Bring a stash of snacks–granola or energy bars, nuts, jerky, something safely portable. Use Google Maps or Yelp to map out nearby eateries ahead of time; you can focus the online map and search for places right nearby!

If you’re feeling weak and hungry, don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. I bet someone will have some food on their person or be willing to dash for the nearest snack bar for you.

3) Know the layout of the convention.
Large convention centers were surely designed the same folks who create video games dungeons. There are dead ends, winding corridors, nonsensical room numbers, boss monsters. Sometimes the maps shown online or in the con booklet aren’t that useful, either, because they don’t clearly show where floors connect to different levels or across streets.

Reserve some time right at the start of the convention to walk the grounds. Find where your panel(s) will be, and also where you might find the nearest water fountains or bathrooms.

2) Read up on your fellow panelists.
If you have time, read a book or two by your fellow panelists, or at the very least, read their biography, know where they are from, and where they have been published. Maybe there is someone you want to get to know more, so you want to sit beside them to chat; or maybe there is someone you know you want to sit far, far away from.

(Note: A lot of conventions will have a space in their initial questionnaires about “who I do not want to be on a panel with.” You should also feel free to turn down a panel if you think it’s a poor fit or that you’ll clash with another panelist.)

1) Jot down notes during the panel.
I like to use a pen and paper. Some folks use their phone instead. Whatever the medium, it’s nice to have a way to jot down quick notes during a panel. Why? Sometimes questions are long and convoluted, or maybe a fellow panelist will babble on so long that you forget the original question. Maybe someone will mention a book or author that sounds really good. Maybe you need to keep score of something, or need to preserve a neat tip or research morsel. Don’t trust yourself to remember anything during the low-sleep high-craziness action of a convention.

All of these tips revolve around a central concern: YOU. Take care of yourself. A little work to prepare will make for a less-stressful, happier time during your convention!

Beth CatoBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Don’t let the program get in the way of your convention

Back in another life, during the decade I spent as a college professor, I often told students, “don’t let your classes get in the way of your education.” Which isn’t to say that coursework isn’t a critical part of the college experience, but rather to stress that it’s not the only part.

The same can be said of a convention and its program items. Panels are great (and thanks in advance for coming to mine!). Readings are one of my favorite things. Kaffeeklatsches, Literary Beers, Signings, Workshops, Masquerades, Dances, all of these things have their appeal and allure. Do them, certainly, sample them with wild abandon.

But don’t stop there.

Particularly if you’re attending a convention that moves from city to city (e.g., the Worldcon, WFC, Nebulas). I’ve lost track of how many people I see at these events who fly in for the convention, check into the hotel, then fly home after checking out — all without bothering to experience the place they’ve inhabited during the span of the event.

Before you head off to your next con, go online and do a little research. Find out what kinds of activities, local sites of interest, special events, and so forth are happening in that city. Many of these options will be free or quite low cost. Often your hotel will have a free shuttle to take you hither and yon.

Best of all, these are things you can do with other people from the convention, folks with whom you already share a passionate interest. Imagine expanding those relationships to include other areas! Crazy talk, right?

Here are some of the you-won’t-find-them-in-the-program things I like to do:

  • Go to Restaurants – I’m not talking about hitting the Kansas City incarnation of your favorite chain restaurant. Go to a place that’s unique to the venue and sample the local cuisine! Every night of a convention I put together a different group of people to break bread with, old friends and new.
  • Visit Used Bookstores – I’ve long since mined out the ones near me, but who knows what treasures you may be able to bring home while visiting other cities (hint: go early, other con attendees might beat you to that autographed copy of Venus on the Half Shell
  • Walking / Hiking / Geocaching – Weather permitting, get out of the damn hotel and move! I don’t manage it every day of a convention, but when possible, I like to start the morning with a brief walk around, check out the sky, breathe the local air, maybe find a hidden cache if I can. Getting a bit of physical exercise in the midst of a con makes me feel righteous and can be used to justify subsequent acts of excess. No, really.
  • Hit A Museum – Major conventions are typically in major cities. These cities are prone to having specialty museums/exhibits that you just can get at home, even if home is a different major city. Seriously, you’ve come all this way, take some time to soak up a bit of culture. Plus, if you like, wear a fannish t-shirt and causally freak out the mundanes. Just because.

Now I know what you’re going to say in response to this. Conventions are expensive. They consume vast amounts of our limited resources. Naturally, you want to squeeze as much out of the experience as you can, so shouldn’t that mean staying at the convention and sucking every ounce out of that program book?

Thanks for asking. The answer is: No!

And here’s why. Taking a break from the convention to do other things will cause you to enjoy the con that much more. It’s just the way we’re wired. Breaking up activities, creating a little contrast, enhances the experience on both sides of the divide. The panels you attend will be more interesting for having taken a walk, that masquerade more intriguing after an hour at the museum, a reading more scintillating because of a conversation that came up the night before over a shared bowl of vegetarian yak stew.

So here’s your challenge for your next con. Pick one thing from the above list (or make up something else of your own). Choose your moment, somewhere in the span of the convention. Take a deep breath and walk out of your hotel. Better still, bring another con attendee with you. If I’m right, the two of you will enhance your convention experience. And if I’m wrong, well, at least you’ll have someone to complain with.

Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS, and Cóyotl awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

Follow him at and on Twitter at @klingonguy.

Pacing the Novel, Part IV: Building Intensity

Thanks for joining the final installment of my series on pacing the novel.  This column focuses on Intensity:  the weight given to any specific moment in the book.  If all moments have a similar intensity, the pacing feels off.  It might feel too slow if the character getting out of bed, falling in love, driving to school, and slaying a demon are all given a high degree of intensity.  Getting out of bed and commuting are not interesting–they deserve less of our attention (unless she slays a demon with her commuter vehicle) compared to the more significant moments.  On the other hand, it can feel too fast if the demon-slaying is summarized just as swiftly as that car ride.

As you consider where to focus your Intensity in the story, ask, what are the key moments in the story?  For each character?  For the external plot?  Give these the most weight.  They will be moments of personal conflict or drama.  It might be a big fight–it might also be the emotional impact of a significant decision or action.  Think of intensity as the pause at the top of the roller coaster hill. Everything seems more acute–action may be suspended because the reader wants to really experience this key moment, in all of its detail. These are the moments so powerful, so rich, that we want them to last.

In order to showcase those significant moments, cut or summarize smaller moments to decrease their intensity.  Often, authors spend their descriptive and symbolic power on minor actions, irrelevant details or character interactions that don’t turn out to be important.  Readers are aware of this stuff, and, the more time you spend on something in the text, the more important they assume it to be.

So how do we create that intensity?  Use vivid details to focus the attention of the characters and the reader into the scene.  Bring on the sensory input.  Let us taste the blood in the air, sense the fear that rushes the character’s body, or feel the pure delight of the moment their eyes meet.   Even in a battle scene where you want the action to move quickly, you’ll want to bring out a few details that ground the reader in the scene, like those martial arts films where the characters are briefly frozen in time and you can see their potential energy just before it explodes into action.

This is also a great time to pull out your literary training:  symbols, images, themes.  Choose which details, senses and feelings to focus on based on what will resonate for the character and for the plot.

Focus on character.  Give us something more, something deeper about the character and their relationships and reactions.  Significant moments need to have an impact within the book in order to affect the reader–but be careful about going overboard with character emotions.  A character who seems emotionally overwrought can easily distance your readers. Instead, aim for a restraint in the language of emotion, while instead revealing the character’s state of mind through their actions, reactions and dialog.  In particular, don’t try to create intensity simply by adding lots of direct thoughts and inner monologue.  This can make a character seem self-absorbed rather than sympathetic.

Think about the Emma Thompson character in “Sense and Sensibility.”  She seems very reserved, almost cold throughout, but we get hints of the depth of her true feelings, and when she finally cries at the end, the moment has a huge impact.

To increase intensity, dramatize the stakes:  show us why we should care, give us characters worth rooting for, and a relationship to invest in. Why is he right for her?  Why is she right for him?  Use moments where you reveal character depth to draw the reader in even further.

The taste for the balance between movement and intensity changes over time—also varies by genre and by subgenre.  Thrillers tend to be highly scene-focused, with a minimum of sequels where the character process what happens–they will build intensity around moments of discovery or action rather than those of recovery or re-action.  Romance is often the opposite.  Romances are highly sequel-focused, showing character by allowing the protagonists more time to process what just happened and worry about what might happen next.  They build intensity around moments of emotional significance, even if the external action is relatively minor–the touch of a hand could be a key moment in the relationship.

Finally, there are mechanical issues of managing the pace.   Short sentences are often used to convey action and a high level of movement in the work, but long, flowing passages can also carry the reader swiftly through.  Whether you are building intensity or movement, avoid be-verbs or helping verbs that can suck the life out of a scene. Instead, focus on active verbs and specific, concrete nouns that will take the reader on exactly the ride you have in mind–and reveal the richness of your narrative at the same time.

Happy plotting!