Hamilton, and Thoughts on the Uncanny Valley of Musicals

On Saturday night Krissy and I went and saw Hamilton in New York. This was a moment greatly anticipated by a large number of my friends who had seen the show (or at least listened to the soundtrack) had fallen head over heels in love with it, and who wanted to induct me into their Hamiltonian cult. I had previously refused to listen to the cast album of the show, choosing to go into it fresh (although only to a point — I obviously knew who Alexander Hamilton was, and I had read the Ron Chernow book that Lin-Manuel Miranda used as a basis for his play), so Saturday was my entrance into the congregation. Having been thus baptized, I would now be available for Hamilton sing-alongs and arguments as to which Schuyler sister was the best and so on.

Having now seen Hamilton, here’s what I have to say about it:

One, it is in fact really good. I see why all my friends went nuts for it, and also why it won all the awards it did and propelled Lin-Manuel Miranda into the stratosphere of celebrity. It’s all entirely deserved. I suppose I could quibble here and there if I was feeling contrary — the play is notably episodic, particularly in the second act, and some characters and plot points are jammed in and then dropped out, which suggests the play could have been more tightly edited — but one can always quibble on details and miss out on the overall effect of a work, which in this case is significant. I hugely enjoyed myself, and was thrilled in particular with the second half of the first act. I’d see it again, surely.

Two, I don’t love Hamilton like my friends love Hamilton. This is not the fault of the play, nor a matter of me being contrarian to be contrary, and choosing not to love that which my friends love, simply because it’s already gotten all their love. It’s because of something that I already knew about myself, which is that generally speaking I have a level of emotional remove from a lot of live action musicals, both in theater and in film. I can like them and enjoy them, and certainly admire the craft and skill that goes into making them, but I don’t always engage with them emotionally. A really good live action musical can easily capture my brain, but in my experience they rarely capture my heart.

Why? The short answer is a lot of live action musicals exist in the emotional equivalent of the Uncanny Valley for me — an unsweet spot where the particular artifices of musicals make me aware of their artificiality. The longer answer is I’m perfectly willing to engage in live musicals intellectually — and why wouldn’t I, says the writer of science fiction, a genre with its own slate of artifices — but seem to have trouble with them emotionally. Live humans stepping outside of their lived experience to burst into a song directed to an audience pretty much always makes my suspension of disbelief go “bwuh?”, and then I’m not lost in the story, I’m aware I’m a member of an audience. That sets me at a remove.

Which is, to be clear, entirely on me. This is my quirk, and not an indictment of live action musicals. They clearly work perfectly well for large numbers of people, who do not suffer from my own issues regarding emotional engagement with the form. Nor does it mean I don’t enjoy musicals in general. I do. Not being at 100% with musicals doesn’t mean that the experience is like ashes in my mouth. Getting 90% of the effect of a musical can still be pretty great, and was, in the case of Hamilton. It does mean, however, that the fervor so many of my friends feel about a really great musical is usually not something I feel.

Interestingly, in my experience the way for me to engage emotionally in a musical is to add more artifice to it. For example, I’m a sucker for animated musicals — I think Beauty and the Beast is one of the best musical films of all time, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a brilliant operetta, and Moana, whose songs were written or co-written by Miranda, made me cry where Hamilton didn’t — precisely because the animated format adds another layer of willing suspension of disbelief. I mean, if you’re willing to accept talking candelabras, or skeleton kings or the ocean as a comic foil, it’s not that hard to accept characters breaking out into song, either.

Likewise, I have an easier time with funny musicals — or more accurately, musicals intended to be comedies as well (Hamilton has several funny moments, including the bits with King George, but is not meant to be a comedy). I enjoyed the hell out of The Producers and The Book of Mormon and Spamalot because they were fundamentally ridiculous anyway, so the breaking out into song doesn’t pull me out the way it does with more serious musical work.

Going the other direction — movies with songs in them which yet are not musicals — also works for me too. Strictly Ballroom (the film) feels like a musical and yet isn’t, and I love it insensibly. The concert film Stop Making Sense is a perfect film, from my point of view; watching it is like going to church. And I’m looking forward to Sing Street because everything about it suggests I’ll get the thrill watching it like I got watching The Commitments back in the 90s.

Again, this is about my quirks, not an argument that, say, Hamilton would have been better as Hamilton!, a funny farce where a zany founding father gets into all sorts of hilarious hijinx with his best ol’ frenemy Aaron Burr. It wouldn’t have (although I have no doubt now that someone will try it). It’s merely to the point that for whatever reason, a lot of live action musicals exist in a place I can’t get fully emotionally engaged with it. I find that interesting, and wonder if I’m alone in this.

The real irony? Not only did I perform in musical theater as a kid (and enjoyed it! And would do it again!) I’d kind of like to write a musical one day. Not to say “you people have been doing musicals all wrong, this is how you do it” because, yeah, no, I’m not that asshole. But because I think Redshirts in particular would make a damn fine musical, of the funny sort, and because I know I appreciate and engage with science fiction better, having written science fiction, so who knows? Maybe that trick will work again in another genre and medium. Or (actually “and”), maybe I should just go and see more musicals. That would probably help too.

In the meantime: Hamilton is excellent, as advertised. Go see it when you can. I’m not likely to join the HamilCult, but that shouldn’t dissuade you, should you be of a mind to.

(Also: Angelica Schuyler was the best Schuyler sister. I mean, come on.)

Leaving New York

Dear New York: You gave us a delightful weekend, and we loved visiting you, but now I’m afraid we must depart and return to our Ohio environs. Thank you for having us. We’ll be back again, you can be sure.

(Also, for all of you who want a Hamilton review from me, I’ll be posting one probably tomorrow or Tuesday. Tune in then!)

Today’s Visit to the Central Park Zoo, In Tweets

The Big Idea: Matt Ruff

Books are often turned into television series — but what about stories going to the other direction? As Matt Ruff shows you in this Big Idea for Lovecraft Country, stories intended for one medium sometimes find their full flower in another entirely.

MATT RUFF:

Lovecraft Country started out as a TV series pitch. The big idea was to create a show like The X-Files, in which a recurring cast of characters had weekly paranormal adventures—only instead of being white FBI agents, my protagonists are a black family who own a travel agency in 1950s Chicago. The agency publishes a quarterly magazine, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, that lists and reviews hotels and restaurants open to black customers. (Such travel guides actually existed during the Jim Crow era, and contrary to what you might expect, they were most useful to travelers in the northern and western U.S., where discrimination was just as common as in the south but explicit “Whites Only” signs were rarer.)

My lead character, Atticus Turner, is a 22-year-old Army veteran who works as a field researcher for the Guide. Atticus is also a nerd whose familiarity with genre fiction comes in handy when things start to get weird, as they do: It turns out Atticus is the last living descendant of Titus Braithwhite, an 18th-century wizard and slave trader who founded a cabal called the Order of the Ancient Dawn. Now the modern incarnation of the Order has plans for Atticus.

In addition to occult forces, Atticus and his family have to deal with the more mundane terrors of American racism, such as sundown towns. Lovecraft Country’s title is a nod to this duality of horrors—H.P. Lovecraft being known for both his tales of cosmic dread and his embrace of white supremacy.

While transforming my original idea into a novel, I kept the structure of a season of television. The long opening chapter, like a two-hour pilot, introduces the main characters and sends them on a dangerous cross-country journey. Each subsequent chapter offers a self-contained weird tale—a “monster of the week” episode—starring a different member of Atticus’s extended family. In “Dreams of the Which House,” Atticus’s friend Letitia buys a haunted house in a white neighborhood and has to play the dead off against the living to keep what’s hers. In “Abdullah’s Book,” Atticus’s uncle George enlists his Freemasons’ lodge to stop an ancient treatise on magic from falling into the wrong hands. In “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe,” Atticus’s aunt discovers a portal to another world. In “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” Letitia’s sister Ruby goes home with the wrong guy and wakes up to find that she’s been turned into a white woman. In “The Narrow House,” a dead man forces Atticus’s father to revisit the 1921 Tulsa race riot. In “Horace and the Devil Doll,” corrupt Chicago police detectives use sorcery to terrorize Atticus’s 12-year-old cousin. All of these episodes fit together to form a larger arc story about Atticus’s struggle against the Braithwhite clan and the Order of the Ancient Dawn.

For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of diversity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

—-

Lovecraft Country: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

View From a Hotel Window, 2/16/17: New York

Not here on business — well, that’s not entirely true, I’m doing a little bit of business while I’m here. But I’m mostly here for a Valentine’s weekend with Krissy, where the plan is to camp out in a hotel room, order lots of room service, and maybe see the play that’s going on across the street. Some play called “Hamilton”? About some old historical dude? Rumor is it could use some people coming to see it, so we thought, what the heck, why not support the arts. We’re good that way. Anyway, if I’m scarce around here the next few days, that’s why. Hope you’ll find ways to entertain yourselves nevertheless.

New Books and ARCs, 2/15/17

Here’s a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs that arrived over the last couple of days to the Scalzi Compound. I just know there’s something calling to you from the stack. Tell us what it is in the comments!

The Collapsing Empire Review in Booklist + Chapters One and Two (and Soon Three) On Tor.Com

So! Here’s what’s news in the land of The Collapsing Empire:

1. A review of the book is up from Booklist, and it’s pretty great. Here’s the bit I especially like: “Fans of Game of Thrones and Dune will enjoy this bawdy, brutal, and brilliant political adventure”. It also praises my “well-known wit, whimsy, and ear for dialogue that is profane and laugh-out-loud funny.” I will accept both of those statements!

2. But don’t just take Booklist’s word for it. Tor.com, having previously published the prologue to The Collapsing Empire, has also published the first two chapters of the book: Here’s Chapter One, and here’s Chapter Two. Chapter Three will be up tomorrow. Happy reading!

3. The Collapsing Empire book tour is already pretty extensive — 22 dates over five weeks — but it may soon be getting even more extensiver! (Note: “extensiver” is not a real word.) We’re currently negotiating adding at least one more date to the tour. When/if it gets locked in I will let you all know. It should be soon now.

4. Uuuuuuhhhh, that’s it for now.

 

 

The Big Idea: Jacqueline Carey

Shakespeare is a font of inspiration for writers, not only for the words he put to paper, but for the worlds built around the words. For her new novel Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey explores the world of The Tempest, one of the bard’s greatest plays. What does she find there? Here she is to tell you.

JACQUELINE CAREY:

In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the action of the entire play unfolds over the course of a single day. But what happened in the twelve years on the island leading up to that day? Why does the magus Prospero keep his daughter Miranda ignorant of her history? Why does he take the supposedly monstrous Caliban under his wing, and keep him there after Caliban attempts to rape Miranda?

Telling the story of those twelve years and answering those questions was my Big Idea.

From the beginning, I had a strong sense that this story ought to be told in the alternating narrative voices of the two characters in whom I was most interested, Miranda and Caliban.  I also wanted to work within the structural confines of Shakespeare’s text, which presented an immediate challenge, as we’re told in The Tempest that Caliban didn’t possess the gift of language until Prospero and Miranda taught it to him. But challenges are interesting things, because they force you to stretch and grow as a writer.

I envisioned my Caliban as we first encounter him not as a grown man, but a “wild boy,” as Miranda calls him; essentially, a feral child born on the island and left to fend for himself after the death of his mother. In the course of researching children raised without human contact, I learned that children who had acquired language skills prior to their isolation were in some cases able to reacquire them.

This, then, determined the arc of my two narrative voices. Over the course of the book, Miranda grows from a precocious, tender-hearted six-year-old girl to a frustrated young woman grappling with adult issues she hasn’t been given the tools to understand, and her voice reflects this evolution. By contrast, Caliban’s voice emerges in a halting and tentative fashion, at first a mere handful of words repeated in a rhythmic manner. At times in The Tempest, he sings ditties to himself and I chose to incorporate that element, giving his evolving narrative voice a singsong quality laced with guttural and susurrant notes, a tendency toward onomatopoeia, and an inconsistent grasp of grammar and tense.

I gave him desire.

I gave him anger, too.

Once you start delving under the surface, there are a lot of ideas to be unpacked in The Tempest. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare was influenced by the essays of Michel de Montaigne, one of the early proponents of the “noble savage” notion of humanity, which provided one motive for Prospero’s academic interest in Caliban, a figure raised without the benefit—or taint—of human civilization.

Speaking of Prospero, the nature of his magic was another one of the greatest challenges this book presented me. Although the magus is a distant, cold and controlling character in my vision, I wanted to offer a genuine depiction of a Renaissance magician, so I immersed myself in the study of Renaissance magic.

That shit is mad complicated, you guys.

And the complex chemistry and detailed mathematical calculations involved in alchemy and astronomy don’t lend themselves to good storytelling, so I chose to focus on the one element of Renaissance magic that offered the most vibrant symbolism—the depiction of specific images representing the decans of the thirty-six degrees of the Zodiac utilized to evoke celestial correspondences.

See what I mean?

But it was a decision that allowed me to give my Miranda greater agency within her own story. I made her an artist, a painter, a keen observer of the natural world, able to translate the image of a slit-eyed goat into a proud-necked horse, of a hissing and coiled serpent into a defiant and foot-trodden dragon.

To what end?

That, she does not know.

Yet.

—-

Miranda and Caliban: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook. View the book trailer here.

The View From the Top of Amazon’s Heap

Yesterday nine of my novels were on sale for $2.99 in ebook format, across a bunch of different retailers, but most prominently on Amazon, because, well, Amazon. Amazon has a number of different ways to make authors feel competitive and neurotic, one of which is its “Amazon Author Rank,” which tells you where you fit in the grand hierarchy of authors on Amazon, based (to some extent) on sales and/or downloads via Amazon’s subscription reading service. And yesterday, I got to the top of it — #1 in the category of science fiction and fantasy, and was #4 overall, behind JK Rowling and two dudes who co-write business books. Yes, I was (and am still! At this writing!) among the elite of the elite in the Amazon Author Ranks, surveying my realm as unto a god.

And now, thoughts!

1. To begin, it won’t last. The thing that got me into the upper echelons of the Amazon rankings was an unusual sale of a large number of my books for what is (for me) a very low price point, and that sale is meant to be of a short duration, i.e., one day. When that price point goes away, my Amazon sales will go back to their usual level, and my Amazon Author Rank will decline to its usual ranking, which is — well, it kind of bounces around a bit, because honestly that’s what most Amazon Author Rankings do. I’m often somewhere in the top 100 for science fiction, but I’m often somewhere not in the top 100, either.

2. Why? Got me, and this is the point I often make to people about Amazon Author Rankings (and other various rankings on the site): They’re super opaque. I mean, in this case, there’s a direct correlation between my $2.99 sale and the boost in my author ranking. But it’s also the case that sales are not the only criterion — a large number of top Amazon authors are ones who sign their books up for Amazon’s subscription service, for which they don’t make sales, but make money based on however Amazon decides to track engagement with the book via Kindle. How much is that criterion weighted versus sales? I don’t know, nor, I suspect, does anyone outside Amazon, nor do we know what other criteria go into the rankings.

3. This opacity works for Amazon because it keeps authors engaged, watching their Amazon Author Rankings go up and down, and getting little spikes or little stabs as their rankings bounce around. I mean, hell, I think it’s neat to have a high ranking, and I know it’s basically nonsense! But I do think it’s important for authors to remember not to get too invested in the rankings because a) if you don’t know how it works, you don’t know why you rank as you do, at any particular time, b) it’s foolish to be invested in a ranking whose mechanism is unknown to you, c) outside of Amazon, the ranking has no relevance.

4. Which is also a point I think people forget about: Amazon, despite its dominant position in the bookselling industry (particularly in eBook), is not the entire market. Regardless of my day-to-day Amazon ranking, I generally sell pretty well and pretty steadily in book stores and other eBook retailers, and in audio and in translation, none of which is tracked by Amazon for its rankings. Most authors who are not wholly committed to Amazon via its subscription service likewise have outside sales and attention channels. It’s in Amazon’s interest to keep authors’ gaze on it, and especially to have authors sign on to its subscription service, with a bump in Amazon Author ranking a potential and implicit part of that deal.

5. This doesn’t make Amazon malign, incidentally. Amazon’s gonna Amazon. And in a mild defense of Amazon, one reason that Amazon’s rankings, of authors and books, weighs so heavily on the psyches (and neuroses) of authors is that author-related data in publishing is often either equally opaque (in the case of publishers) or effectively non-existent (in the case of self-publishing, which would rely on thousands of authors accurately self-reporting data to some informational clearinghouse). I mean, here’s Amazon saying “Look! We have rankings! Tons of rankings! Rankings for every possible subdivision of writing! And your book is probably a top ten bestseller in one of those!” Amazon gets authors. Authors love validation, even if that validation comes in the form of a “bestseller” label in a genre subdivision so finely chopped that the ranking is effectively a participation ribbon. As I write this, Old Man’s War is #1 in the following Amazon subdivision: “Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Fleet” That’s pretty finely chopped, and I might argue not especially useful (there’s not really a “space fleet” subgenre in SF). But if I were a newer author, I’d be thrilled! Even as an established author, it doesn’t suck! Hell yeah, space fleets!

6. The flip side of all of this is that it’s very easy, if you’re the sort of personality inclined to do so, to transmorgify your Amazon ranking into a dick-waving contest. Every now and again I see authors who don’t like me much crow about beating me or one of my books in an Amazon ranking, as if this were a sort of personal victory against me. My responses to this tend to be, a) congrats, b) you know it’s not actually a contest, right, c) and if you want to assert that it is anyway, well, then, bless your heart. If you believe the world is truly a zero-sum contest in which evanescent book/author rankings promulgated by a corporation for its own interests represent the final word on your self-worth, which apparently must be assessed in relation to me (or any other author you might have a bug up your ass about), then please, take this victory. I want you to have it. Everyone else should maybe not do that.

7. Which is not to say one shouldn’t have fun with rankings, when the opportunity presents itself:

8. And that’s really the point of Amazon Author Rankings (and other rankings Amazon might offer): Enjoy them when they’re up but don’t stress about them when they’re down. One’s writing career will have many moving parts, and Amazon’s rankings are only about Amazon’s part in that, and then only opaquely. I’m having fun being at the top of Amazon’s heap. It won’t last, and when it doesn’t, I’ll still be fine. And I’ll still be writing.

One Day eBook Sale: Old Man’s War series + Redshirts, Lock In and Fuzzy Nation, $2.99 Each

Hey, if you live in the United States or Canada and like your books in electronic form, then for today only (February 11, 2017), a whole bunch of my ebooks are on sale for $2.99 each. Which books?

Old Man’s War
The Ghost Brigades
The Last Colony
Zoe’s Tale
The Human Division
The End of All Things
(So, really, the entire Old Man’s War series of novels. Plus:)
Fuzzy Nation
Redshirts
Lock In

Which is a very large number of my books you can get really cheaply, today.

Where can you get this price? Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, iBooks and Kobo. Basically, pick your favorite online retailer.

(Canada, I only checked Amazon for you. It’s also $2.99, Canadian.)

So, a fine day to add to your collection of Scalzi eBooks! Enjoy! And also hurry, this deal is only for today.

Today’s New Books and ARCs, 2/10/17

As we move into the weekend, here’s another stack of fine books and ARCs that have recently come into the Scalzi Compound. Which of these titles moves you? Tell us all in the comments!

Three Weeks Into Trump’s America

Hey, Scalzi! It is I, your fake interlocutor! I wish to ask you about your thoughts on Trump and the news this week!

Ugh. I mean, okay? I guess?

You don’t sound excited!

I’m at this place where I do want to talk about what’s going on with our government, and at the same time I don’t, because it’s fucking tiring and depressing to think about for longer than a tweet.

Well, you have been tweeting about politics a lot. 

Exactly — bang out 140 characters, say something snarky, and then bug the hell out. But, fine, let’s talk about stuff in a slightly-longer-than-tweet form.

Hooray! First up: Thoughts on the 9th Circuit Court stay on Trump’s Muslim ban?

Unsurprising.

That’s… not longer than a tweet.

Fine. It’s not surprising for me for two reasons. One, because the executive order was so sloppily constructed, and so clearly targeting Muslims as Muslims, that the constitutional issues with it were obvious to even a layman such as myself (Also, pro tip: If you don’t want your executive order limiting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries to be seen as an actual ban on Muslims, maybe don’t call it a ban when you tweet about it and maybe don’t have one of your pals brag about how cleverly you made a ban on Muslims without actually saying “DUDE THIS IS SO TOTALLY A MUSLIM BAN” in the executive order itself).

Two, because the administration’s argument to the 9th Circuit vis-a-vis the executive order was basically “not only should you pretend that Trump and his pals never said this was a ban elsewhere, but you shouldn’t even be able to review the constitutionality of this executive order for reasons,” followed by an attempted Jedi handwave designed to block the memory of the Constitution and two centuries of precedent regarding judicial review. Unsurprisingly! This did not work! Nor should it have. And now as a result, we have a circuit court very firmly on the record as saying that the Trump administration’s attempted rule by executive order is not going to be the fast track to blithely uncontested authoritarianism that they hoped it would be.

What about the Supreme Court?

What about it?

They could overturn the 9th!

Yeah, but they probably won’t. Even if one were to assume a standard ideological split (which I wouldn’t in this case but even so), it would be 4-4, and in the case of ties, the lower court stay would stand. But in this particular case, if SCOTUS takes it up at all, I think it’s more likely to see a 6-2 or 7-1 or even (really unlikely because Thomas is Thomas but still) a unanimous ruling because, again, one substantial part of the Trump administration’s argument is “the courts shouldn’t be able to review executive orders” — or at least this one, because national security, harumph harumph. I don’t see the Supreme Court, the highest judicial platform of our nation, saying, “oh, right, we shouldn’t do our job,” especially when told this by the nincompoops of this administration, and especially with such a bullshit, poorly-constructed executive order like this one, and especially especially when the administration’s evidence that this executive order is necessary for the protection of the nation is “trust us on this.” I mean, these motherfuckers literally cannot find light switches in the White House conference rooms.

So, really, no. I don’t see the Supreme Court siding with the Trump administration on this. Nor should they.

You’ve been wrong before.

Yes I have.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, any thoughts on Neil Gorsuch?

Uuuuuhhhh, he’s probably the best-case scenario for the Supreme Court in this particular adminstration?

But how can you say that? He’s a conservative! 

I don’t know how to break it to you, but we elected a GOP president. Also, I’m not saying he’s my choice for the Supreme Court. What I am saying is that we’re goddamned lucky Trump didn’t offer up someone from his own stable of cronies, because he doesn’t know anyone else. Gorsuch appears to be a solid, legit choice for the Court, who I am very sure will take sides on rulings that I will be entirely unhappy with.

But Merrick Garland!

Garland should be on the court, yes. He’s not. He’s not going to be.

The Democrats should block Gorsuch! Just like the GOP blocked Garland!

I don’t think that will be possible in the long run, and I think the nation is generally best served with the Court at full capacity. If they want to try, I don’t think it’s going to hurt them much, politically. But the Democrats are also in the minority in the Senate, which I suspect matters.

What do you think about Gorsuch’s “Fascism Forever” club in high school?

You know, when I was in high school, I put out a flyer for “The Elitist Club,” which I meant as a joke, but which some kids at my school signed up for, because they didn’t know it was a joke. It was an obnoxious bit of humor on my part, but that was it. Knowing that about my own past as a smug teenage dude, I’m willing to cut Gorsuch a little slack for being an asshole back in the day; his club name was even more obnoxious than mine, but as far as I know he wasn’t in fact goosestepping around the quads as a kid.

Also, as a general rule, barring actual criminal activity or an active thread of asshole behavior from then to now (see: Ted Cruz), I’m usually willing to say what happens in high school and college stays there. I did a lot of asshole things in high school and college myself; I don’t know that they’re entirely indicative of who I am as a 47-year-old person engaged in the adult world.

Thoughts on the cabinet hearings?

They’re actually going better than I expected!

But DeVos! And Sessions! And Price in the middle of the night!

The fact Mike Pence had to drag his ass over to Capitol Hill to push DeVos over into the win column is a pretty substantial thing. I would have preferred her not getting the nod, but all things considered this was a decent showing by the Democrats. Likewise Sessions, for which there was only one defection, and the vote on Price was similarly lopsided. I don’t think that vote happening in the middle of the night matters for anything, incidentally; the vote totals wouldn’t have changed, and it’s not like people didn’t find out in the morning.

Anyway, look: The Democrats are in the minority right now. If they held the Senate, things might be different, but they don’t. Be happy they seem to have found their spines. Their spine-finding is going to be important over the next few years, especially because, if memory serves, 25 of them are up for re-election in ’18.

Okay, time for some quick takes.

Do it.

Flynn talking to the Russians about sanctions?

Stupid, possibly illegal, and in any other administration would be grounds for him to be removed. He will not be removed.

Conway pimping Ivanka’s fashion brand?

Really stupid, definitely against the rules, and in any other administration would be grounds for her to be removed. She will not be removed.

Spicer lying his motherfucking ass off all the time in the press room?

Also appallingly stupid, not against rules, but again in any other administration he’d be fired. And he might eventually be fired because apparently Trump doesn’t like him much! And I suspect that on that day, he will say thank you Jesus to himself and then wander off to be a talking head and write a memoir.

I will note that of all the people in the administration, I feel sorry for Spicer the most — I think he has a thankless task where people like Flynn and Conway (and DeVos and Sessions, etc) are actively malign. But on the other hand, he took the job, so I only feel a little sorry for him, and less so every single time he opens his goddamn lying mouth.

Bannon?

Man, don’t get me started on that racist piece of shit right now. I will be here all day.

Trump: possible dementia?

This is a thing that’s going around, I know. One, I’m nowhere near qualified to make an assessment; two, you know what? I don’t want to give him an excuse for being such an awful president. Unless definitely shown otherwise by medical experts, I am going to assume that Trump is both in complete charge of his faculties, and a historically awful president.

Is Trump the Worst President Ever™?

I still hold that spot for James Buchanan, who broke the country in a way that required fighting a war to fix, and also we’re still just three weeks into this administration, so it might be a little early for definitive pronouncements. But it’s also pretty clear that just three weeks in, if Trump is not the worst president since Buchanan, it’s not for lack of trying. His administration is hopelessly corrupt, he’s incurious and a bigot, his advisers are motherfucking white nationalists who aren’t even trying to hide that fact, and he literally has no idea what he’s doing.

In a way it’s exhilarating! Because this administration is entirely outside the experience of anyone, ever — it’s never been this bad, this fast. But then, it’s easy for me to say it’s exhilarating, since I’m one of those people who will be the last to be affected by the immense damage this administration has the potential to cause, and is indeed already causing. Let’s face it: Trump and his party pals are all in for me, Mr. Straight White Rich Dude, whether I want that or not. It’s everyone else they’re screwing, especially if they have a skin shade darker than my own fish-pale pallor, and even more so if they’re Muslim.

Again: I’m embarrassed that my president and his administration are corrupt, ignorant bigots, and I’m embarrassed that when given a choice between corrupt, ignorant bigots and not corrupt ignorant bigots, enough of us decided the corrupt, ignorant bigots would somehow be a refreshing change to make the electoral college go in that direction. But here we are, and this is what we’ve got.

Do you have advice for anyone following politics these days?

Briefly, until otherwise proven:

  1. Assume any utterance from Trump is a lie and/or grossly misinformed;
  2. Assume that Trump’s lieutenants will support that lie/ignorance and add their own;
  3. Assume any executive order from Trump is unconstitutional, impractical and unvetted;
  4. Assume the guiding principle of the administration is white power;
  5. Assume the rationale for any administration initiative is “because fuck you, that’s why”;
  6. Assume the Congressional and national GOP organization is all in for each of the above;
  7. Assume this is how it’s going to be until January 20, 2021 at the earliest.

That’s pretty bleak.

Yeah, well. Welcome to your refreshing change.

Last time you wrote on Trump you said you were strangely optimistic. Would you care to revise that statement?

Nope! Three weeks in, as many people want to impeach this asshole as don’t, his unfavorables are up, and GOP congresscritters are literally running away from their constituents, who are angry as hell with what’s going on. Again — Trump and the GOP are in power right now and there’s nothing that can change that in the short run. But in the last week it appears the courts are willing to put on the brakes, the Democrats in Congress are willing to stand up (just a little!) and people are ready to confront the government. Life is not optimal. But it’s better than it would be if everyone was rolling over and just talking it.

So, yeah! I’m still feeling not entirely horrible! Let’s see how long that lasts.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

I start this Big Idea for The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley, with a disclosure: I liked the book enough to blurb it (you can see the blurb right there on the cover, above). Why did I like it? Well, as it happens, Kameron’s piece today will go a long way to explain.

KAMERON HURLEY:

Humans are not suited for travel between the stars. We are fleshy bags of delicate meat, able to survive within a limited temperature range, and we are particularly sensitive to the circadian rhythms of our own planet; many of us get depressed, angry, even suicidal, when confined to dark, tight spaces. We require clean air, constant nutrition, and water in abundance. These are not optimal survival characteristics for a species that wants to navigate the extremes of space.

The cold equations can be depressing, but we must also discuss the assumptions that led us to make those equations in the first place before we dismiss our options. To make epic space operas work in the past, many writers have relied on advances in powering dead hunks of metal around in a vacuum, hand-waving the laws of physics as we currently understand them and the limitations of our own bodies and psychology to simply get us where we need to go for the story to start. Kim Stanley Robinson addressed these limitations succinctly in his article, “Our Generations Ships will Sink” and explored the issue in his own novel, Aurora.

But as a speculative fiction writer, I have to reject these limitations. I understand that we need to think beyond what we are now and explore what we could be. Equations, after all, are human constructs. I wanted to write a space opera with a gooey living starship that challenged our ideas of how we could navigate through space – and what we would become in order to do it.

The idea behind my massive generation starships in my space opera, The Stars are Legion, then, required me to research not hunks of dead metal but living, breathing organisms and their ecosystems. I looked at parasites and symbiotic relationships between animals and the bacteria in their guts and the creatures on their skin. I found that life was both horrible and wonderful, with parasites that can change the behavior of hosts and eat them alive, but also parasites that can enable hosts to endure the unendurable.

It was this idea of interconnected systems that I used to develop not dead starships, but living world ships, organisms that contained entire ecologies on their various levels that all worked together to sustain themselves. The ships could live, die, and reproduce. The human passengers, too, were just another part of the system, tied to it as we are tied to earth. They weren’t particularly special, just as we are not particularly noteworthy here on earth. They were simply another part of the whole.

To build that legion of worldships also required an eye toward human failings and psychology. As the purpose of the journey faded into memory and worlds began to die around them, petty wars, insurgencies, and alliances would play out among the survivors. The two warring families at the edge of the legion became the subject of the story, each fighting to take control over a worldship with the power to leave the dying legion to places unknown.

As a trained historian, I often look back at the past and consider what people thought was possible five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years ago. And I cast my net into the future and try and look back at us, now, from the vantage of that future. That’s how I create my worlds, not by looking at what is probable or possible according to our current understanding, but what is considered possible by some far-future generation.

Seeking the unreal and challenging the impossible is one of my greatest delights as an author. I chose speculative fiction because I could create other worlds whose only limits were imposed by my own biases, and failures of imagination. When you have the power to shape worlds, you might as well use it.

—-

The Stars Are Legion: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

“The Dispatcher” a Finalist for Two Audies + Locus Award Voting + Nebula and Hugo Award Voting + Print Preorder Info

So, this is a good day for me: The Dispatcher, my novella that was released as an audiobook from Audible, is a finalist for two(!) Audie Awards, first in the category of Science Fiction, and second in the category of Original Work (meaning, first published in audio form). I’m thrilled about both, and it’s lovely to see the story, and the narration by Zachary Quinto, so honored. We’ll find out if it wins either or both categories on June 1st. It’s in very good company in both categories. Congratulations to all the other authors and narrators!

Also! The annual Locus Poll & Survey is up, open to everyone who chooses to vote, and The Dispatcher is one of the works you may vote for in the novella category (actually, you can vote for any speculative fiction novella published in 2016, but The Dispatcher, because it was part of the Locus’ Recommended Reading List, is preloaded into the category as an option). If you listened to The Dispatcher and are inclined to vote for it, then please do. If you see other novellas there you liked, vote for them, too (or add the title of a novella you liked). And also vote in the other categories as well, as there are several, all with very good works to consider.

Also! Also! If you are voting for the Hugos or the Nebulas, The Dispatcher is eligible this year in the novella categories of each. For the record, I knew that it was eligible for the Hugo, because a couple of years ago they clarified that audio publication counts toward consideration. But I wasn’t sure whether the same could be said for the Nebulas, so I asked. The official response from the Nebula Awards Committee: Yup!

So Nebula award nominators: If you liked The Dispatcher, please consider it in the novella category. Thank you.

(And obviously in all cases if you didn’t like it, don’t nominate it. Because that would be silly.)

Also! Also! Also! Remember that if you prefer your stories in text form, the print version of The Dispatcher is now available for preorder from Subterranean Books and from online and offline retailers, with cover and interior art from the fantastic Vincent Chong. The book will be available May 31, 2017, including in ebook.

And that’s all the news I have about The Dispatcher today.

OR IS IT?!???!??!??!???!!!!?!?!??

(Spoiler: It is.)

Announcing the 2017 Audie Award Finalists in the Fantasy Category

Hey! I get to tell you which works, authors and narrators are finalists for the 2017 Audie Award in the category of Fantasy. The Audies are the highest award in the audio book industry, so being a finalist for one of its categories is a very fine honor indeed.

This year, the finalists for the Fantasy category are:

That’s a very excellent slate of finalists! The winner of the category will be announced on June 1. Congratulations to each of them, authors and narrators both!

The Big Idea: Stephen H. Provost

It can happen that writing a book of one sort can be the genesis for a book of another sort entirely: Writing a non-fiction book inspired Stephen H. Provost to have a big idea for a fictional tale, one that developed into his new novel Memortality. Here’ he explains how he got from the one to the other.

STEPHEN H. PROVOST:

I’m sure you’ve wondered what it would be like to bring someone back from the dead. Who would you bring back?

And what would happen then?

These questions inspired me to write Memortality, the story of a young woman named Minerva who uses her uncanny memory to reconstruct people’s lives – to literally bring them back from the dead. But there’s a catch: She has to keep remembering them, or they’ll slip back into the afterlife and become lost to her forever.

Minerva discovers her gift when her childhood friend Raven, killed in a car crash fifteen years earlier, suddenly materializes out of a dream. He helps her learn to use her gift – which makes her the target of a top-secret government agency and a rogue operative seeking to use it (and her) for their own purposes.

That’s the Big Idea behind Memortality. I wanted to write a new kind of paranormal adventure without any of the usual suspects: vampires, zombies, werewolves and the like.

It’s a paranormal tale, action/adventure and psychological thriller rolled into one, with a dash of romance thrown in. The concept is pure fantasy, but it was inspired by the real-life stories I’ve been telling for thirty years as a journalist and a writer of historical nonfiction.

Most recently, I wrote a history of my hometown (Fresno Growing Up) in 2015, and a book on the history of U.S. Highway 99 that’s due out in June. As I was working on these projects, I realized my number one goal was to bring the past to life. I was doing much more than reciting dead facts; I wanted to create a form of virtual reality and project it onto the mind’s eye. I wanted my readers to feel as though they were experiencing the events as I described them, through the power of shared memories.

Then it occurred to me: What if someone could literally do that? What if someone had the power to reconstruct the past, to make it tangible, through the power of memory? Such a person would have to have a perfect memory – or as close as you could get to one: an eidetic or “photographic” memory. Then she would need a psychic gift that could re-create the subjects of that memory in the here and now.

That’s how Minerva Rus was born.

As a character, Minerva’s a bit like me: a loner who spent a lot of time in her room as a teenager, reading voraciously and creating her own worlds to explore. I do that now as a writer, so not much has changed – although I do venture out into the sunlight more these days.

But in terms of inspiration, Minerva owes more to my mother than to me. If I could bring anyone back from the dead, she’d be the one. During my own adolescent “dark ages,” she was the one person I could confide in, and she’s still the person I admire most, even though she’s been gone more than 20 years.

Mom was unique. She was unlucky enough to be hit by the polio virus as a teenager, just a year before the vaccine came out. Her doctors put her in an iron lung and gave her a 50-50 chance of living; regardless, they said, she’d never walk again.

But she was determined, even though her entire right side was paralyzed as the result of her illness. Not only did she survive, she managed to climb three flights of stairs every day at UCLA and earn a bachelor’s degree. Then she got married and had a son (yours truly) – something else she wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

Minerva does a lot of things she’s not supposed to do, too. She’s not supposed to be able to raise the dead, but she can. And she’s not supposed to overcome her paralysis, but … well, you’ll find out when you read the book.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been drawn to underdogs: to people who don’t fit in with society’s expectations, who are shunted to its margins but who have a unique gift to offer if the rest of the world would just pay attention. I revel in the underdog’s triumphs, whether it be in athletics, in life or in fiction. I grew up reading fantasy, with its reluctant heroes and epic quests, and watching explorers like Kirk and Spock go where no one had gone before. I became absorbed in stories of misunderstood superheroes like the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man and the Uncanny X-Men.

In a way, Minerva is very much like one of Charles Xavier’s mutants, trying to master a gift that delivers her from society’s disdain … and gives it another reason to spurn her.

The theme is a familiar one, but it inspired me to explore new possibilities as I wrote. I delved into everything from history to mythology to time travel and the depths of the human mind – a blend that led my publisher to describe Memortality as “a genre-breaking new contemporary fantasy.”

It’s hard to find an original idea these days, especially in a market that thrives on reboots and retreads. But as an explorer, I take that as a challenge: I want every story I write to be new and intriguing. I don’t want the reader to know exactly what’s behind the door before it opens. Mysteries, twists and surprises are part of what makes the journey fun.

I certainly had fun writing Memortality. I trust Minerva had fun living it. I hope you have as much fun reading it.

—-

Memortality: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Announcing The Expanding Tour 2017! 22 Cities! Five Weeks!

It’s now officially announced: My tour dates for The Collapsing Empire! I’m calling this one The Expanding Tour 2017, and here are the venues (follow the links for times and details):

Tuesday, March 21
Joseph-Beth Booksellers
Lexington, KY

Wednesday, March 22
Quail Ridge Books & Music
Raleigh, NC

Thursday, March 23
Flyleaf Books
Chapel Hill, NC

Friday, March 24
Fountain Books
Richmond, VA

Saturday, March 25
Parnassus Books
Nashville, TN

Sunday, March 26
BookPeople
Austin, TX

Monday, March 27
Brazos
Houston, TX

Tuesday, March 28
Half Price Books
Dallas, TX

Wednesday, March 29
Volumes Bookcafe
Chicago, IL

Monday, April 3
Books & Co
Dayton, OH

Tuesday, April 4
Cuyahoga County Library
Parma, OH

Wednesday, April 5
Brookline Booksmith
Boston, MA

Thursday, April 6
Gibson’s
Concord, NH

Friday, April 7
Odyssey Bookshop (with Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch)
South Hadley, MA

Saturday, April 8
A Room of One’s Own at Madison Public Library
Madison, WI

Tuesday, April 18
Boulder Bookstore
Boulder, CO

Wednesday, April 19
University Bookstore at University Temple United Methodist Church
Seattle, WA

Thursday, April 20
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA

Saturday, April 22-Sunday, April 23
Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Los Angeles, CA

In addition I will be doing three dates with Cory Doctorow:

Tuesday, April 25
Vroman’s Bookstore
Pasadena, CA

Wednesday, April 26
Bookshop Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, CA

Thursday, April 27
Borderlands Books
San Francisco, CA

So that’s 22 cities over five weeks. That’s a lot!

Now to answer some of the usual questions:

Why aren’t you coming to [Insert Town Here]?

Because as ever, I go where where we receive requests (by bookstores and libraries) and there are only so many places I can go while on tour. There are as usual new places — four new cities I’ve never visited before! — but as always we’re going to miss some places. There will be other tours; let your local bookstores know you want to see me.

Also, I will be doing a number of other events in other cities in 2017, so if your city isn’t here, I still may show up in it at some point (for example, I’ll be in NYC in early June). Stay tuned for more information on those appearances.

Are the events free to attend?

Most are but some aren’t. Some stores have ticketed events, which means you have to RSVP. Please RSVP in those cases. Some stores will also require you to purchase the book at the store if you want to get the book signed. And in at least one case, you’ll need to buy a ticket (good for admitting two) that includes a copy of the book.

In each case, click on the links above for details or (if details are not up on the site yet) call the store and ask.

May I bring other things to sign?

I’m fine with it but check with the store. That said, and I can’t stress this enough: If you’re coming to an event at a bookstore, please buy something at the store. Typically my book (especially if the purchase is required in order to get in the signing line), but honestly any book would do. Support your local bookstore, please!

May I give you a gift?

You may but understand that I will be unlikely to travel with it; I will probably ask the store to ship it to me. This is because I travel very light (it’s a long tour) and don’t have much space to carry things. If you bring me edible things (cookies, etc), I’ll likely snack on them back at the hotel room. Please do not poison me.

What will your event be like?

On tour events I will usually read something exclusive to the tour that no one else but people who see me on tour will hear (likely a selection from an upcoming work), and then a couple of shorter pieces, and then a question and answer session followed by a signing. My events are usually PG rated; there might be some adult themes and light swearing but nothing too out there.

If I bring a ukulele will you sing a song?

Yes, people bring ukes to my events, and yes, I will sing a song (or at least part of one) if someone brings one. BUT: Make sure it’s tuned! If the uke is out of tune I can’t use it; nothing stops an event like me trying to tune a uke for five minutes.

Hey, will you come and hang out with us after the event?

Probably not, but not because you’re not fabulous people. It’s because I usually have to get up at an ungodly hour the next morning for the next stop on my tour and/or because I already have a previous commitment with friends, whom I’ve already scheduled with. I promise you’ll get a full dose of me at the event.

I have another question you have not answered here.

Ask it in the comments!

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

Difficult times are complicated, not only for themselves but what they do to people — who are themselves complicated even at the best of times. Or so Lara Elena Donnelly might argue, both here in this Big Idea piece, and in her novel Amberlough. Is she correct? Read on for her argument.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY:

Amberlough is not a book filled with characters whose moral conviction burns like a fire. These people aren’t going to end up on the right side of history. They’re criminals and collaborators. They commit a multitude of sins from infidelity to murder.

But are they bad people?

It’s a book set in a socially-diverse and democratically-governed country, but that government is riddled with corruption. Exploitative taxation maintains an unequal economic status quo. A nascent fascist movement promises to end corruption, end unfair taxation. The movement’s only price is social conformity.

Which political option is better? Which is worse?

Ambiguity has been a central theme of Amberlough from its inception. It began life as a short story about a city auditor in love with an emcee, in a city sliding inexorably into the grips of a repressive regime. But even as the newspapers showed fascist flags unfurling from capitol buildings, even as police made violent arrests and the government came down hard on vice, the glittering nightlife roared on. People had a good time, got high, got laid. The story existed in a nebulous area between hedonism and totalitarianism.

But in the first draft, the main characters fell utterly flat. Their straightforward love story felt unrealistic in that setting. In the next draft—the one that sold; my first published piece of fiction!—I realized they couldn’t approach their relationship so simply.

Relationships are not easy under the best of circumstances—that had been driven home to me pretty hard during the time I was revising. But when you’re trying to stay in the closet so a fascist mob won’t tear you apart, when you’re fleeing your home to save your life, when you’re separated from your lover by sinister forces beyond your control, how could you love easily? How could you love unconditionally? How could you love at all?

When I asked those questions, lines blurred. Love became awkward, unwanted, an inconvenience, a trap. The story was still a romance, but the “happily ever after” was called into serious question.

The origins of Amberlough stemmed from another short story, too (I was thinking of writing a series.): a theatrical manager turned informant, trying to protect his cast of satirists, queer folk, women, dissidents, and weirdos by selling out other people, earning the goodwill of evil men and another day of dubious safety.

That short didn’t work. The scope was too large to fit into 10,000 words or less. And part of what made it so big was multifaceted reactions from a cast of characters in the midst of an intricate political situation.

Emotional complexity is completely doable in short fiction—in fact, it’s vital. But when emotional complexity is built on events years in the making, when it’s reliant on shifting public opinion and government policy, when it’s extrapolated from characters’ various reactions to those shifts, you need room to flesh it out. The  book got bigger and the spectrum between black and white blurred further to accommodate even more gray.

No one is morally pure in this book. Blackmailed into a corner, secret agent Cyril DePaul turns into a fascist collaborator, sacrificing thousands of lives for his own, and for the slim hope he can save his lover, cabaret emcee Aristide Makricosta.

Aristide, who has hauled himself out of bitter rural destitution on a ladder of sex and ruthlessness, is a blackmarket kingpin who sells drugs, arms, and stolen goods. He’s a man who has finally created an identity for himself that fits, even if he’s done it on the backs of others. He’s a man who will help just about anybody in a tight spot, but never out of the goodness of his heart. Except for Cyril, and maybe Cordelia Lehane.

Stripper and small-time drug dealer, Cordelia doesn’t double-deal and she doesn’t play puppet master. But she breaks hearts and she hurts people who love her. Her mother died of an overdose but she sells narcotics to pay rent. Initially, she’s complicit in Cyril’s collaboration, until the consequences of the new regime strike her personally.

Everyone has good intentions; they all end up hurt. Everyone is selfish, but only because they value their lives and the lives of people they love.

Part of me is ashamed that my view of humans is so cynical: that this tangle of secrets, confusion, and crossed purposes feels more vital, more genuine to me than a short story about true love conquering adversity. But another part of me revels in the messiness of people and their contradictions. We can love someone who hurts us, or hurt someone we love. Sometimes in seeking to do good, we do great evil, or vice versa. We are strange and imperfect and fascinating creatures, and fiction is richer when it explores our ambiguities.

—-

Amberlough: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

In Which the Eternal Question of “What Would It Sound Like If Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ Was Covered as Dark Ambient With a Cookie Monster Singer?” Is Answered

It would sound like this.

And now you know.

The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn

Author Ryan David Jahn has given a fair amount of thought into the nature of violence, and guilt, and other primary emotions and urges. They’re present in his novel The Breakout; Jahn explains why, and how they influence him as a writer.

RYAN DAVID JAHN:

In daily life, I’m surrounded by a cloud of free-floating guilt. I’ll apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong. Sometimes, when I hear sirens, I momentarily think the police must be coming for me. Not really. I know they aren’t. I haven’t done anything.

But, for a split second, part of me kind of believes they are.

If I hadn’t lost my religion twenty years ago, I might think it had something to do with original sin. Chalk it up to being home-schooled with fundamentalist Christian texts for the first several years of life. It’s part of my personality, even if it’s no longer part of my world view.

I suspect this is one of the reasons my books focus on violence. After all, a person need only feel guilty if he or she has done something to hurt someone, either emotionally or physically. Victimless crimes are crimes only technically. Guilt is, so far as I can tell, an internal reaction to the harm you’ve done to another, even if they don’t know you’ve done it. It’s your heart’s way of letting you know you screwed up. Or are about to.

Most of us try to get through without hurting anybody, maybe helping those we can if it’s not too inconvenient. Being human, we understand that at times life is difficult for almost everyone.

We are all so tough and fragile. We survive terrible events, a house burning to the ground or the death of a loved one, then six months or six years later might wake up and decide we simply can’t bother to put on our pants even one more time. Maybe if a stranger had smiled at us, or made us laugh at a stupid joke, it would have provided just enough light to help carry us through. It sounds trite, but I also think it’s true.

Most of us try to have a positive impact on the world and those around us — even if we sometimes fall short.

But the worst among us don’t care about the emotional or physical violence they do to others, and these people are the engines that drive much of my fiction. They destroy lives, leaving pain in their wake, and they feel none of the guilt the rest of us would in similar circumstances.

I’m not concerned with these people as much as I’m obsessed with what an average person might do in response to such an individual because, it seems to me, these people have a disproportionate amount of control over the lives of others. They treat humans like chess pieces to be moved about for ends that have nothing to do with their lives as they live them.

I’ve written three novels that deal in some way with revenge, and in two of them the revenge is never acted out, in part, I think, because while I understand the urge for violence, I don’t think violent acts themselves should be used as catharsis. And, in my experience, they only rarely — but sometimes — are cathartic.

I also believe that, even when necessary or justified, violence is corrosive. It is rust for the soul, and it eats away at what you are in your center.

My little brother, who joined the Navy, ended up stationed in Afghanistan with the Marines (he was a mechanic whose specialty was needed there). He watched a kid with an I.E.D. run up to his platoon and, before anyone could react, the makeshift bomb went off. He took shrapnel to the shoulder and hip and found himself hospitalized in Germany. When he told me about it late one night while we were both drinking, his eyes went far away and glossy. He’s a generally cheery guy and I’m not sure I’d ever seen him look genuinely sad before, not in that deep way you can empathetically fall into. It broke my heart to see it.

And, on the other side of the violence, was that act cathartic for the little boy’s mother? For his father? I suppose it’s possible. But one thing is certain: it was not cathartic for the child who ceased to exist the moment the act was completed.

All of which is to say, for a person whose novels tend to be obsessed with violence, I have an ambivalent relationship with it, both in fiction and reality.

My new novel, The Breakout, is the third book I’ve written that deals with revenge in one way or another. It is, at first glance, a straight-forward thriller. A marine’s sister is killed south of the border and he goes about seeking vengeance. Before he has a chance to act upon his violent urges, however, he ends up in a Mexican jail, arrested on trumped-up drug charges. Members of his platoon, as well as his girlfriend, go about trying to break him out, not sure what they’ll unleash if they succeed.

This is, in essence, the story, and if I’ve done my job well, it moves quickly, is fun to read, and has a satisfying ending.

I also hope that those who want to think a little bit about guilt and violence and where the two intersect will find something more than air to chew on. I do my best to write novels that are true, approaching them with as much honesty as I know how to and hoping something real comes out of them.

But above all, I aim to be entertaining. I want folks having a bad day to pick up The Breakout, lose themselves in the story, and forget their troubles for a while. As implied above, I think there’s honor in simply helping a person get through a tough time, and if my book can do that, I think it’s done its job.

—-

The Breakout: Amazon Barnes & Noble Indiebound Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow him on Twitter.