The Cutting Edge

A comment on a blog site that I read daily caught my attention last week. How come, the commenter wrote, every science fiction writer has an out-of-date website?

The commenter wasn’t referring to the information of the website, but the format of the website. He cited a number of sf writers and their websites. I clicked over, and saw what he meant.

Most of the sites are like mine was about six months ago, cobbled together from old and new tech.

I realized, as I looked at the blogs of my friends, that we all had the same problem.

When it came to the Internet, we were early adapters.

When I went to Clarion Writers Workshop in 1986, I met people who were still in graduate school at MIT and Cal-Tech. Those writers communicated with each other through this arcane thing called the ARPANET. One of those students told me if I just went to the nearby university, he would make sure I got on the ARPANET too, and we could “chat.”

Well, I thought the phone worked just fine. I didn’t know that the ARPANET, which is short for Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, and was developed for the Department of Defense, was the progenitor of the Internet (to Wikipedia). By the standards of my sf friends, I joined the linked-up world late—in the early 1990s, with something called GEnie (and I was late to that too; most of my friends had joined in the late 1980s). We had roundtable chats that devolved into flamewars, and we debated all kinds of sfnal things.

We were cutting edge.

I’ve had one of my e-mail addresses since that time. In 1996, I got my first website, which is still the basis for the website I have now. One reason my site has troubles is because it started so long ago. The person who built my site is the same person who initially built Barnes & Noble’s site (and that should tell you something). He was a fan of mine and did it for free, maintaining it for free as well, and I am very grateful.

I’m not the only sf writer who had someone build a website before people even knew what websites were. Those of us who were active in the field twenty years ago all built websites as soon as it became possible.

It takes a lot of work to maintain the sites, which some writers did all on their own. Like everything else, the writers became attached to a way of doing things, and really didn’t want to upgrade.

Or, as in my case, website building became easier, and eventually, I took over my own site. That’s good and bad. Good, because I didn’t have to wait for someone else to update the information; bad, because maintaining a website takes time.

Redesigning one takes even more time. I had help redesigning my site this spring, and while the new site looks clean and modern, a lot of the things that once worked on my site do no longer.

For example, my RSS feed, which existed since RSS feeds could be put on websites, finally gave up the ghost this past week. We had no choice: we had to replace it. And lots of people who had signed up on that feed lost their easy access to the site.

Some people will notice; others won’t, and they’ll lose my pithy quips forever. (Which probably hurts me more than it hurts those folks.)

When I scanned the websites of my sf writer friends, I realized they all had the same issues I did. They had old themes or—more likely—they had hand-programmed the site themselves years and years ago.

The sites look creaky. And that’s ironic, because the writers with creaky sites are the folks who are always at the cutting edge of new tech. In fact, the reason that blog commenter noticed it at all was because one of the sf writers had come to the blog to discuss the new cutting-edge tech—the rise of ebooks.

The commenter had assumed that because the sf writer’s site looked ancient, and the sf writer himself was 70, he was a doddering fool, rather than understanding that the sf writer is still at the cutting edge. Like the rest of us in this new world of publishing, he now finds himself with too much work. He still writes novels, of course. He also maintains his website, publishes his backlist by himself, and has started publishing writers who write in his world. If the commenter had read the actual post from the sf writer, he would have realized that the sf writer knew more about the changes in the industry than the commenter did.

But the commenter went with visuals—old website format, human male over 70, writer of a 1970s classic novel. Clearly creaky and dumb. A get off my lawn! person rather than a brilliant man who knows more about most things that most of us will ever know in our lifetimes. A man who is still learning.

It’s amazing to me that the Internet has existed for so long that websites can look ancient. And yet, when I write historical novels, I often have to stop and think about the way we communicated before the internet existed because it has become such a central part of our lives.

Why do sf writers have ancient websites? Because living on the cutting edge means neglecting the normal stuff. And we rarely notice that what we did twenty years ago looks dated now.

It’s one of the hazards of the job.

And one I find both ironic and absolutely appropriate.

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