Max Barry is the author of seven novels and the creator of the popular online game NationStates. He also once found a sock full of pennies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Sometimes he coaches kids' netball.

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Thu 18
Feb
2021

Banned by Facebook

What Max Reckons This is what happens when I try to post a link to my website on Facebook:

Error saying This post can't be shared: In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.

First, I’d like to say how gratifying it is to finally be taken seriously as a news publication. But the interesting part is how Facebook has responded to an Australian law it doesn’t like by nuking users. Here is the story so far:

  • News companies got sad because it’s harder and harder to make money, even though what they do is arguably more important than ever, and their products are at the heart of a lot of online activity, generating ad revenue for social media companies.
  • The larger Australian media companies had the idea that Google and Facebook should have to pay them for this privilege, and the Australian government, always happy to help out a major media company, so long as it’s supportive, went right ahead and drew up legislation.
  • Google launched a PR and lobbying campaign to argue why this was a terrible idea. Facebook was all silent and mysterious and then yesterday just dropped the hammer on every single site that looked Australian, instantly wiping out the Facebook presence of hospitals, charities, newspapers, bald novelists, and everything in between.
  • The ban is also retrospective, so while all those home-grown 5G conspiracy theory posts are still up, any posts that debunked them by linking to a news site are gone.

I assume this situation is temporary and either Facebook or (more likely) the Australian government will back down. But it’s a fun reminder that there are now basically three companies in the world who control what everyone hears: Facebook, Google, Apple. When they choose to, as Facebook did, they can excise a big chunk of what would otherwise reach your attention, and it’s just gone.

What happened to antitrust? That’s what I want to know. I’m pretty sure we used to be a lot more interested in breaking companies into smaller parts before they reached Godzilla proportions and couldn’t be stopped from doing whatever they liked. I feel like we should have kept doing that.

But I’m glad I’ve maintained this site, even as we all gave up visiting a list of favorite bookmarked sites and switched over to reading whatever the algorithms told us to. If I’d relied on a Facebook page, everything I’d ever posted would be gone.

Thu 11
Feb
2021

Coach Max

Max I don’t want to brag, but I coach a kids’ sports team. I can’t post a picture, because, I have learned, when you coach a kids’ sports team, not all the parents want you posting pictures of their children on the internet. This is just one of the many insights I have gained, as coach of a kids’ sports team.

The kids are all girls aged under 11, and the sport is netball. You might not have heard of netball, if you live in one of those non-netball-playing nations, such as all of them except for a handful of ex-British colonies. It’s like basketball, except instead of dribbling the ball, as soon as you catch it, you have to come to a dead stop and try not to blow out your kneecap.

Netball
Imagine my netball team like this, but with players a quarter of the size, and some looking in the wrong direction.

Also the players are restricted to particular zones. This makes netball very tactical. One thing that makes it less tactical is when the players are under 11 years old. But it’s super-engrossing to a person like me, who loves closed systems where you set up a bunch of agents with instructions and let them loose and see what happens. It’s like writing novels, and programming, but with real little humans.

Another similarity I noticed between writing and coaching a kids’ sports team is that delusion is helpful. It’s best to be heavily deluded while writing, to avoid the awareness that your first draft is garbage. You need to think it’s fantastic right up until it’s time to rewrite it, so that you actually get there. Coaching kids’ sports is the same: There’s really no place for objectivity. I’m not there to tell a ten-year-old what her weaknesses are; I’m there to make her feel good about the time she made a smart pass, so she’ll want to do it again. In both cases, there is a lot of wilful blindness to incompetence while seizing on hints of gold.

It’s way more fun than I expected when I answered the netball club’s call for volunteer coaches, no experience, expertise, or prior knowledge necessary. One thing I love about sport is how it creates a tension-soaked contest that is 100% artificial, with no real-life consequences. You can watch a game of something and get happy or sad and then go right back to whatever you were doing. This works even with kids’ sports, apparently, because I care a lot about what happens on the court each Saturday morning, and it also doesn’t matter at all.

I value things like this, because I have a habit of turning my hobbies into jobs, and then a thing I was doing just for fun becomes work. Not real work. Not the kind most people do, with bosses. But it’s fun and invigorating to do something new that doesn’t overlap with anything else.

Having said that, I did build a website to generate netball rosters, since it gets complicated when you have eight or nine players and seven positions and four quarters and at the last minute Stephanie can’t play Wing Attack because she hurt her foot chasing a butterfly. It runs a mutating genetic algorithm to sift through tens of thousands of combinations and find the most efficient one. It’s free and public, so you can use it for your kids’ sports team, too.

Mon 18
Jan
2021

2017-2020: Well That Could Have Been Worse

What Max Reckons I don’t want to be that guy, but honestly, I feel those Trump years could have been worse. They weren’t great, obviously. Not as as good as they would have been if the President had been, say, a random person you pulled off the street. With a random person, you’d have good odds of drawing someone who wasn’t a narcissistic liar with no sense of empathy. So that would be better.

Given the person we did have, I think we got out of that one okay. By “we,” I mean the world. And that’s mainly because Trump didn’t really care about the rest of the world: He was all about America First. I really thought Trump would be unable to resist invading another country, since that’s an excellent, time-proven way to reap some personal benefits while pushing the costs onto other people, a tactic businesspeople especially enjoy. Somewhere around half of all business activity, in my opinion, is about genuinely creating value, while the other half is about gaming the system in order to capture profits while pushing costs onto somebody else.

One of the most shocking things I ever saw was the US after 9/11 transforming into a scary militaristic vengeance machine with no patience for concepts that had previously seemed to be core values, like tolerance and dissent. That was disturbing: watching TV networks and newspapers line up behind the White House like good soldiers, and cheerlead the invasion of an unrelated country. So I’m happy Trump didn’t try to lead a return to that.

Instead, all his enemies were domestic, and he attacked them so crudely and blatantly that they were able to rally and defend themselves, and may even be able to grow back stronger, like an immune system after an inoculation. I’ve always liked how Americans have so many principles, or at least lay claim to them—not at all like Australians, who will roll with whatever seems to make the most practical sense at the time—and 2017-2020 was a great time for putting principles to the test, and finding out who had them, and what they really were.

Therefore, I have to say, as someone who half-expects the world to fall into a corpo-anarchist apocalypse any day now, that definitely could have been worse. I didn’t like the 2017 tax cuts (more inequality, bringing forward the day when the common people begin guillotining the capital classes), the COVID bungling, and the continued breeding of alt-right brain viruses, which don’t just affect the US but also get exported to the rest of the world and spawn things like this:

Make Australia Great

Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

But nobody got nuked, no-one got sucked into an international conflict that will drag on for ten years, and we all got a good look at what’s actually happening in social media, which might have otherwise bubbled away quietly until it was permanently entrenched.

So that’s pretty good.

Thu 17
Dec
2020

More Max Content

Jennifer Government I got a reply from that high school teacher who asked what Jennifer Government really meant. You can read it here but this is the part I especially liked:

I wish you could hear all of my students’ reactions to this book over the years— this is one of the books they go absolutely ballistic over, and it’s such a joy to hear them discuss it. The first year I did it, I split the ninth grade into Team Advantage, US Alliance, and the Government, and we had an interactive (completely non-violent, I promise) marketing simulation. It was part of a media literacy unit and the two loyalty programs had to recruit as many members from the other grades as they could, while the Government group watched for ethics violations. That group of kids still talks fondly about the book. There has been a solid lack of engagement overall with distance learning this year, but we got to this book, and suddenly there were signs of life! It’s great to be able to teach it.

So Elizabeth is one awesome teacher.

In other news, there is more of my stuff headed your way. You know how I said I was working on a bunch of different things that would probably all finish around the same time, and that totally sounded like an excuse. Well, they all finished around the same time. Maybe not all of them. Some I gave up on. They were trash. But a few, I finished.

So there will be a new audio-book in 2021: “Discordia.” It’s a novel, but you listen to it. I don’t know when it will come out exactly or who will narrate it. I’ll let you know on that. But it will exist.

That’s plus Providence hitting paperback on May 4, 2021, and the new flagship book The 22 Murders of Madison May releasing in hardcover on July 6, 2021. When you have multiple books in one year, you get to call one of them a flagship. I heard that somewhere.

And if that’s not enough, I inked a TV deal for my short story, “It Came From Cruden Farm.” You can read that one for free right now on Slate.com. Not easily, because they refused to indent the paragraphs properly. Site-wide company formatting standards, blah blah blah. I was like, “This is like hanging the Mona Lisa under florescent lights,” and they were like, “I’m not sure it is,” and in the end we compromised on doing it their way. Anyway, it’s there. And you might also be able to watch it, at some point in the future. It’s with Disney/Fox, so, to be honest, I’m not totally sure they didn’t buy the rights just to bury it and make sure it never gets made.

So 2021 will involve a glut of Max. It might even be worse than I’ve described, because there are Jennifer Government, Lexicon, and Company TV/film projects in development, too. But people are always developing things and mostly they never get developed. So let’s forget they even exist and maybe we will get a nice surprise.

It’s late December! In Australia, we like to celebrate with a traditional 8-week holiday to go camping and swimming and things like that. That’s what I’m planning. I hope your 2020 was basically good, like how working from home involves a bit of mental disintegration but, wow, you save so much time on the commute. Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff, especially in this age of distractions. Take care, be well, see you in 2021.

Wed 09
Dec
2020

What I Meant

Jennifer Government

Hi, Max! I teach Honors English 9 and 10 at a high school in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve been teaching Jennifer Government to my students for three years now, and they love it. I teach it as part of a dystopia unit, and I chose it because JG is so relevant to the world we live in. We focus a lot on historical and biographical literary theory and author intent, but I always tell them you can’t know for sure what the author’s intent was unless the author says it themselves. Long story short, I am re-working my introduction to your novel, and I thought it would be amazing if you had anything you would like to share with my class about the book. It would be a great way for them to connect with an author and hear from the source what some of your intentions and thoughts were when writing it. Thank you!

Elizabeth

Thanks for teaching my book, Elizabeth. I approve of people being taught what I think, especially in formal settings.

I know there’s a whole bunch of theory around authorial intent, and I don’t want to be THAT GUY, you know, who is all, “Uh, maybe the curtains are red just because they’re red, did anyone think of that?” You’re not fooling anyone with your faux world-weary cynicism, Owen. No-one except that one girl. God damn you, Owen.

So let me put on the record that books are totally full of symbolism and meaning, and everyone should listen to their English teachers. I think authors consider every word in their novels pretty carefully, and have opinions on why it should be that and not something different. I’m pretty sure the world’s copyeditors will back me up here.

That said, I am a little frightened by:

you can’t know for sure what the author’s intent was unless the author says it themselves

… because sometimes I’m not sure what my intent is. Sometimes I’m interviewed and I give what feels like a reasonable answer, but if I’d thought about the question more, I might have said something different. I intend a lot of things at different times. Some things I intend never make it onto a page.

Also I’m a fan of the reality TV show Survivor, the one where people get marooned on an island and have to vote each other off, and this reminds me of how after the game, the contestants each have a story about how their every move was part of a Machiavellian plan, even though it’s pretty clear that, a lot of the time, they were just tired and hungry.

So I’m not sure you should trust me. And I’m also unsure I can come up with an intent for THE WHOLE BOOK, as opposed to, say, why it’s Billy NRA and not Billy Smith & Wesson.

But anyway, I went and looked back at my original notes for Jennifer Government. I had two pages of bullet-point ideas like this:

  • “No taxation or any government regulations”
  • “Surnames are company affiliations (e.g. Jennifer Government, Johnny IBM)”
  • “Violence between companies”
  • “Jump from char to char per chapter (characters don’t even meet, you see different sides of a larger conflict)”
  • “Company names as chapters (e.g. Chapter 1: Nike)”

But they are all thoughts about what might be in the book, not what it would mean. After that, I just started writing.

I was definitely inspired by ultra-libertarian thinking, in the sense that I thought it was ultra-dumb. But I’m not sure I intended anything other than to find an interesting story. If I wound up making points about unfettered capitalism, that was fine, but way down my priority list, beneath things like finding interesting people who wanted interesting things.

I have more structure nowadays, but writing still feels more like unearthing than building. When something works, it’s usually because it comes out that way, not because I started with a piece of this and added a dash of that and tweaked a dial until I got it right. And it works only in the sense that it feels kind of interesting. And true, I guess. Interesting and true.

When I wrote the first chapter of Jennifer Government, which is Hack Nike getting introduced to a plan to shoot people for a promotion, it felt interesting and true—not in the sense that it would really happen, but like it was an amplification of something real. I liked the main character. I bought his world. I wanted to know what would happen next. That was good enough for me.

Sat 28
Nov
2020

I Think I Should Be Braver

Writing

I haven’t told many people this, but about 12 years ago, I lost a lot of money. I mean, a LOT of money. Basically everything I’d made from Jennifer Government, plus my inheritance from my father, which was half of everything he’d spent his life scraping together while refusing to spend anything on himself.

The problem was I didn’t understand financial planners: I thought they were like doctors, i.e. experts with your best interest at heart. But it turns out they are actually salespeople operating on commission. So I thought I was prudently deferring to the advice of professionals, but actually I was taking out loans to leverage investments in schemes that instantly turned to smoke when the Global Financial Crisis hit.

Luckily, I also bought a house. But for 18 months or so, I experienced a regular gut-churning fear that I was about to lose it, and my family and I would be turfed out. In practical terms, this wouldn’t have been the end of the world—no-one would have starved. But I had failed hard, really hard, in a way I hadn’t experienced before, that hurt people I cared about. It was terrifying every day.

Since then I have dug myself out. Everything is fine now, thanks. But I was thinking about it this week in the context of my career, and I’m not sure that feeling ever completely went away. I think touching the hot stove and realizing how badly it could burn left me more cautious. And not in a good way, like, hey Max, don’t give your money to salespeople. Although also that. But in a fearful way, like, don’t do anything that might let people down.

For example, I don’t blog as much any more, and part of the reason why is that I wonder whether someone will get my email in their inbox and be like, ughhh, why is Max bothering me about that. And every new book I start—like I’m starting one now—I think about whether it’s the best book I can possibly write. Which sounds noble, but is also maybe a little cowardly.

When I look back at some of my earlier work, I most like its crazy, oblivious energy. It’s not always great from a technical perspective. Some of Jennifer Government is barely readable, to be honest. But it has a wild abandon that works because it doesn’t much care about its missteps.

I used to collect rejection letters and stick them on my study wall. This was before I was published. I would sit down at my PC to write, surrounded by letters telling me my stories weren’t good enough. This sounds pretty masochistic, in retrospect. But I found it inspiring: The letters were evidence that I was a real writer, doing real writer things, getting correspondence from real people in the industry. Not great correspondence, obviously. Correspondence that said no. But I knew every great writer got rejected a bunch of times, so therefore each of mine was a step along the path to eventual success.

I think I should embrace failure a little more. Not a ton. I don’t want to, you know, be bad. But a little more trying things for the hell of it would be good. A little less thinking about how worthy something is.

So anyway, I just wanted to say, get ready for some really stupid blogs.

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