Robot Sci-Fi is going backward

February 16, 2017

You probably know the story of where the word “robot” came from: it was coined by Karel Čapek in his 1920 play R.U.R., or Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play tells the robot ur-story, in which people build robots, the robots are too human, so they rebel and kill everybody. It’s an artifact of industrial-age Marxism, and has been told and retold ad-puking-nauseum. Isaac Asimov was already tired of it by the 1940’s.

I just saw the pilot of Humans. It’s still alive, 97 years later.


In science fiction, non-human intelligences like robots or aliens are either going to be stand-ins for humans… or they aren’t. If you want to tell a story about people, just use people. Don’t make them aliens or machines or demons, because the point of writing about those things is to show how different, how non-human, those entities could be. A story that does this well can teach us about ourselves by revealing to the reader what humans are not.

Asimov has been the grandmaster of robot fiction for 70 years, and his title is safe. All he did was write stories in which the robots were tools. Doesn’t sound profound, but if you haven’t read his I, Robot collection, you should. You’ll see what I mean.  Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 explores how an extraterrestrial civilization a billion years ahead of us might spend its time from day to day, and Larry Niven’s short stories showed aliens just as smart as people, but with wildly non-human psychology.

Since its high-point in the 1940’s, robot fiction has gotten big-screen flashy (Terminator, Battlestar Galactica) in its visuals, but has regressed back to the same tired worker’s rebellion trope born in 1927. Here is an English-language two-hour audiobook version of R.U.R. Click around and listen to some of the dialog. The style is dated, but you’ve heard every single plot point before.

I named my short story collection after the robot story in it: “Turing’s Revenge.” The title refers to Alan Turing’s test for artificial intelligence. That test should give you a hint about whether your robots are going to rise up and kill you or not. No spoilers, but I put my own spin on the robot rebellion trope.

To help me get over how much I didn’t like Humans, I’ve decided to give away a bunch of Kindle downloads of Turing’s Revenge and Other Stories. If you have an Amazon account, live in the United States, and would like a free story about robots (plus stories about aliens, a cyborg assassin, etc.), email me.

The official contest is over, but I have a few spare ebooks left.  Good luck!



Five Years as an Indie Author

March 17, 2016

Five years ago today, I uploaded my first novel to the Kindle. I caught the bug instantly and have indie-published every title since.

ibmpcxt3 Back in 1986, I hammered out my first short story at the keyboard of an IBM PC XT. By 1991, I was looking to publish, so I wrote letters to several magazines, asking them for their writer’s guidelines. I made sure to include an SASE with each letter, so I would get a response. Once I had those guidelines, I could format my stories in the way that each editor wanted, and maximize my chance at getting accepted.  It took money and time, but that was the business.

Have you ever heard of an SASE? That’s a “self-addressed, stamped envelope.” In other words, a form of extinct communications technology. And in those days, if I wanted to submit to a magazine in Great Britain or Canada, I also had to include “international reply coupons.” You can think of those as a particular species of carrier pigeon.

I have vivid memories of letters, envelopes and stamps spread across my dorm room floor. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, after reading of the success of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, I was itching to try self-publishing. It was clear that the ebook market was flooded with readers and starving for writers, and the first writers who had jumped in were doing very well. I knew the ereader craze might be a fad… and that’s why I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it, especially if it didn’t last. I was afraid that if I missed it, I would be kicking myself forever once it was gone.

So I uploaded Outrageous Fortunes in March of 2011, and started getting a nice check every month. I was hooked. Since then, publishers have continued to punish writers with deadlines, complicated contracts, occasional bankruptcies, and lately, censorship. For five years, I have been open to the possibility of pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher… but less and less open, year after year.

And the technology has continued to provide delightful surprises. How far from those SASE’s have we come? This far:


That 34-character-string is an address for a bitcoin wallet. My readers can pay me directly with it (if they know how). No stamps, no checks, no envelopes, no postal service, no banks, no governments. Human to human, anywhere on Earth, instantly.  The path between the reader and writer is now clear of all intrusive debris.

Today, not many of my readers know how… yet.  But as William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”

Novelists Don’t Collect a Paycheck

August 4, 2015

And that means we writers need day jobs. I still collect a paycheck from my career teaching math, science, and economics. But the essence of a paycheck is this: you are being paid for your time, whether per hour, or every two weeks, annually, whatever.

And you can only be paid for your time once. Then it’s gone.

Robert Kiyosaki, in his once-trendy but now all-but-forgotten pop-finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, proposed that wealthy people don’t get paid for their time. They get paid for owning “assets” — stocks, bonds, real estate, intellectual property — things that pay you just because you own them. (You can reject Kiyosaki as overhyped, but his book made a huge impact on me.)

As I was reading it, I was floored by the realization that a novel is an asset. (Specifically, intellectual property.) A good novel behaves as if it were a share of valuable stock, paying the writer royalties exactly as a stock share pays dividends. I started viewing my body of work as if it were an investor’s portfolio.

Suppose you’ve published a couple of novels and are earning a little, say a dollar a day, in royalties. Congratulations, you’re a small-time indie author. Now, a good income stock might pay dividends of one percent per share per year, so to get that same dollar a day from a stock portfolio, it would have to be worth over $36,000.

Now, you can’t cash out! But it’s interesting… because which would you rather do? Scrape together leftover pennies from your paycheck to buy assets a little at a time, Kiyosaki-style? Or be an artistic, tortured, wild-eyed novelist?

I vote novelist. Much more fun. Oh, and if you use your author royalties to buy assets, you ace the class.

Writers Making Money

March 25, 2010

Here’s the novelist’s standard publishing model:

1) Finish the novel.
2) Write a query letter, pitch, chapter outline, and synopsis.
3) Query a hundred or more agents, offering them 15% of everything.
4) Get rejected by all of them.
5) Repeat steps 2 and 3 as needed.
6) Begin the next novel.

If you snag an agent, and that leads to a publisher, then you struggle with publishers’ dwindling editing efforts, dwindling promotion efforts, and dwindling advances.

Gee. I hope all the modern changes in the publishing world don’t upset this great model.

Actually, I love to see writers make money by slipping past this system and finding a new model — by aggressive application of moxy, hustle, or genius.

Here are my four favorite examples.

Scott Sigler

Before he was published, Scott built a large online following by giving away his self-recorded audiobooks as free, serialized podcasts. His loyal fans, who named themselves “Junkies,” have downloaded over eight million individual episodes of his stories and interact daily with Scott and each other in the social media space.

Scott reinvented book publishing when he released EARTHCORE as the world’s first “podcast-only” novel. Released in twenty weekly episodes, EARTHCORE harkened back to the days of serialized radio fiction. His innovative use of technology puts him at the forefront of modern-day publishing and has garnered brand-name exposure among hundreds of thousands of fiction fans and technology buffs.

J. C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning novelist best known for his 7th Son technothriller trilogy, which he released as free serialized audiobooks from 2006-07. With approximately 100,000 downloads of his episodic fiction still occurring each month, 7th Son is the most popular “podcast novel” series in history.

The trilogy — and its 2008 groundbreaking spinoff anthology OBSIDIAN — are available for free download at The series’ first novel, Descent, will be published this fall by St. Martin’s Press. Personal Effects: Dark Art, J.C.’s debut in a new supernatural thriller series, will also be published in June.

I especially admire the close connection he has with his fans… and his creativity in self-promotion. For example, Hutchins has the coolest press kit I’ve ever seen.

J. A. Konrath

Joseph Andrew Konrath was born in Skokie, IL in 1970. He graduated from Columbia College in Chicago in 1992. His first novel, Whiskey Sour (2004), introduced Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels. Others in the series include Bloody Mary (2005), Rusty Nail (2006), Dirty Martini (2007), Fuzzy Navel (2008), and Cherry Bomb (2009). The books combine hair-raising scares and suspense with laugh out loud comedy.

His blog, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing (, has had over 400,000 hits since 2005.

His blog. Oh, man, his blog:

I uploaded my first self-published ebook for Amazon Kindle back on April 8, 2009.

As of this morning, March 4 at 9:23am, I’ve sold 29,224 ebooks.

I’m currently selling $1.99 ebooks at the rate of 170 per day. That means I’m earning around $120 per day just sitting on my butt. If this trend continues as-is, I’ll earn $43,800 this year on previously published short stories and novels that NY print publishing rejected.

Joe has distilled his lessons from the publishing school of hard knocks into a brain-melter of a free ebook.

Bruce Holland Rogers

Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world… His fiction is all over the literary map. Some of it is SF, some is fantasy, some is literary. He has written mysteries, experimental fiction, and work that’s hard to label.

I’m lucky enough to have Bruce as my writing instructor. He writes a lot of short stories. If you think there’s no business model for that, check this out:

Since January 2002, for just ten dollars U.S. a year (twelve Canadian, ten euro, or six pounds sterling) subscribers have been receiving short-short stories by Bruce Holland Rogers in their email boxes. Most of these readers must like what they’re getting, since the majority renew. Stories go out three times a month, and they are an unpredictable mix of literary fiction, science fiction, fairy tales, mysteries, and work that is hard to classify.

Thirty-six stories for ten dollars. That’s about twenty-eight cents a story.

Bruce has over 700 subscribers. Are you doing the math yet? He elaborates in an elusive Toronto Star article:

“Part of the idea is for me to have some regular deadlines from a paying audience. I do my best work with a little bit of performance anxiety. Every story has to be as good as I can make it, since there are always some subscribers whose subscriptions are about to expire.”

The benefits to the author are obvious. In addition to the enforced deadlines and the built-in revenue stream (he makes about $275 a month [circa 2006], in addition to direct-marketed book sales and speaking engagements related to his subscription list), Rogers has found a way to overcome one of the most vexing problems faced by writers: launching their words into a void.


Is it all about money? Well, no.

But writers are good people, and they deserve to be rich. Or at least, not poor. So as long as you have the skills to write great fiction, you can learn from the trailblazers… then blaze a trail yourself.