And the award for most satisfying email of the year goes to...
I’ve had some nice letters from readers of my books, but one this really takes the cake! Every year the Library of Congress runs a competition for school kids to write a letter to their favorite author and explain the impact that their book has had. The results for this year’s contest were just announced, and the National Winner, the top prize in the 4-6th grade division, was a letter written by Xander Sanchez, 11, to me, about my book The Elements. Read it. This really is pretty much what authors live for (that and the royalty checks).
Looking over the list of authors and books to whom winning letters were written, one thing stands out: my book is the only one that is not about people and their human problems. I don’t have anything against people, and lord knows I’ve had enough human problems of my own to write a book or two. But I really feel a lot more comfortable spending time with things that are not people.
There are many like me, and I feel that we are an underserved population. In many ways, I write the books I wanted to read when I was younger. (And did, of course: many such books have existed for a very long time. Just not many compared to the number of books, movies, TV shows, and YouTube channels that focus exclusively on messy relationships and people dying theatrically.)
All my books are about the natural world and the many wonderful, predictable, understandable, fascinating, and completely non-emotional things in it. Chemistry follows rules. Machines do not have moods, and that’s a good thing. It doesn’t make them any less interesting, it just makes them less messy and stupid.
When I write, especially in my most recent book How Things Work (due out in October, 2019), I make a conscious effort not to introduce unnecessary human distractions. Gender issues? Machines have no gender, and my books have no gendered pronouns (except when referring to specific historical persons). I don’t do this for any sort of political reason but simply because I don’t want to introduce any unnecessary distraction. Machines treat all people equally, without regard for their gender, race, age, or how much they really want the thing to work properly. So I do the same.
I think that my way of talking about the non-human world is comforting to many who, like me, are fundamentally not happy with people. I’ve learned to get along with them, but it wasn’t easy, and it took a while. Maybe my books provide some validation for people who need a little support for their love of and preference for the inanimate.