Today I decided I was going to make an actual effort to get some mileage out of the prime lens (50mm 1.8f) I got with my dSLR. So I did a little portraiture. Here are the results.
Today I decided I was going to make an actual effort to get some mileage out of the prime lens (50mm 1.8f) I got with my dSLR. So I did a little portraiture. Here are the results.
Already the last weekend of February — yikes! Fortunately here is a fine stack of new books and ARCs to help ease us into March. What here would you want to read next? Tell us in the comments!
Stone Cold Bastards.
I have no idea the exact date or what influence triggered the name to pop into my head, but I do know I was in bed, it was late, and I had just turned out the light.
Stone Cold Bastards.
I switched the light back on and grabbed my phone to jot it down before I forgot it. My wife didn’t even ask why the light was back on; she was used to me taking random notes at random times on my phone. It’s part of being a writer’s spouse, just like me running last minute, random errands for her is part of being a public school teacher’s spouse. These things happen.
No clue what the novel was going to be about or even if it would become a novel. I have about 200+ titles/ideas/notes on my iPhone that I doubt I’ll ever get to in my lifetime, so there was a distinct possibility that SCB would amount to nothing.
Except that’s not what happened.
On March 16th, 2013 I jotted down a quick description “Like The Dirty Dozen meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meets The Omen”.
Damn. That’s one serious mashup right there.
A day later I wrote “Old school, crack military team of gargoyles holds a Sanctuary against a Demon Siege”.
What the hell is an “old school, crack military team of gargoyles”? Were gargoyles in the military? And what’s up with capitalizing “Demon Siege”? My brain is weird.
I eventually fleshed it out some more and added the idea to my pitch sheet. Pitch sheet? Yep. Like I said above, over 200+ notes on my iPhone. I take the ones that refuse to let go of my mind and I add them to a pitch sheet. This is something I can email to publishers if I ever get asked “So, what ideas do you have?” Best to be prepared when opportunity knocks and all that jazz.
I was pretty stoked about this idea and constantly pitched it to publishers. It was gonna be a throwback to the old military movies of the late sixties and early seventies. You know, the ones with the misfit band of soldiers that have to come together and save the day while also sacrificing themselves because, hey, misfits die, it’s what they do.
Except I write genre fiction, so I switched out the human soldiers for gargoyles come to life when the End of Days shows up. I also switched out Nazis for demons. Well, humans possessed by demons. I wanted flesh and blood. I wanted a body count. I needed human bodies that could get hacked and slashed and shot and clubbed and crushed and just completely obliterated by some seriously badass stone fists.
I was in love with the entire idea.
I pitched it to five or six different publishers and they all passed.
Until I found Bell Bridge Books. They got my pitch sheet and to my complete surprise, Stone Cold Bastards was at the top of the list of what they would like me to write. Holy snack crackers! The Bastards’ time had finally come! Three years after I had originally come up with the idea.
Man, I was ready to get to the writing. Three years of those Bastards in my head meant I knew exactly what I wanted to write. And when I sat down to write the novel, it flowed so easily.
The gargoyles came to life when the Gates of Hell opened. There was a Sanctuary where the last humans left on Earth were being protected. Lots of action, violence, intrigue, snark, and blood. It was perfect.
Except it wasn’t. There is a reason editors exist. A big reason.
You see, I had been so focused on the gargoyles, and creating these badasses made of stone that would fit the title, that I forgot about why they were there in the first place: to protect the last humans. And, man, my human characters? They sucked.
Generic, cardboard cutouts. Unlikable. Boring. I gave the reader zero reason to care at all whether they lived or died. It didn’t matter how much ass the gargoyles kicked if the reason for kicking ass was to save a bunch of losers. The demons had more humanity than the actual humans.
Time to fix that!
I fleshed out the humans, I gave them souls, I gave them lives that readers cared about. I wove relationships and friendships into the story. I brought the gargoyles and the humans closer together. Stone hearts warmed as flesh hearts began to beat like they should have from the beginning. I not only gave the gargoyles a reason to care, but I gave the readers a reason to care.
Which is my job. I should have seen that from the start, but it’s hard when you have a burning idea and that idea eclipses everything else. A killer title. Gargoyles come to life. Demons to kill. End of Days. Except none of it worked without humanity at the core.
A couple more passes and the novel was done. And it was so much more than what I had hoped.
I had set out to write a novel steeped in pulp fiction with a seventies grindhouse ethos, but in the end I had a contemporary fantasy that not only had all of those elements, it had depth and heart and soul. I’ll admit that I grew a little teary when I re-read the ending.
Now it’s out in the wild. The Bastards have been set free.
In a way, so have I.
All because of a title.
All because of Stone Cold Bastards.
A couple of months ago I realized I was going to need a new laptop; the Dell XPS 12 I have, while still working perfectly well while plugged in, will only last for a couple of hours on battery — this is what happens to old laptops. I have a Chromebook Flip, which I actually really like, but it’s tiny (a 10-inch screen and a smaller-than-usual keyboard), and while it’s fine for short trips where I don’t have to do much writing, if I do have to write anything longer than an email or a short blog post, my hands get cramped quickly. What I really wanted was a another Chromebook Flip, just slightly larger.
Well, and that’s exactly what I ended up getting. The new laptop is the Asus Chromebook Flip c302, which has a 12.5 inch 1080p screen, a full-sized, backlit keyboard (which is actually hugely important to me), a relatively hefty processor for a Chromebook, good battery life and the ability to fold back into tablet format, all for $500. Like all Chromebooks, it’s largely dependent on one having a full-time connection to the Internet, but the one thing I really always need — a word processing program, here represented by Google Docs — is available offline too, so that’s fine. Also it like its smaller predecessor has the ability to run Android apps, many of which can also be used offline at this point. In short, it’s going to be able to do what I need it to do, nearly all of the time.
I did for a fair amount of time agonize between getting this or the new Dell XPS 13 2-in-1, which is roughly the same size as this and also has a tablet mode, but also has a more substantial processor and of course the ability to run Windows programs, including Word and Photoshop, both of which I use quite a lot. The deciding factors for me were twofold: One, the way I use my laptops typically doesn’t run toward using heavy-duty programs anyway (if I’m not using Photoshop, for example, I’m editing my photos on my phone, not my laptop), and two, this is two to three times cheaper, depending on which XPS configuration I got. I like that, not only because I’m cheap but because, having once had lost a fairly expensive laptop at the airport, and then (once I recovered it) having it stolen from me at another airport, I’m more comfortable traveling with a computer that I can afford to lose, or accidentally drop, or have eaten by bears, or whatever.
The Chromebook’s general need to be always connected was a drawback five years ago but honestly isn’t much of an issue now. My phone has a mobile hotspot so as long as I’m in the US it’s not like I ever don’t have a connection, and wifi is ubiquitous enough that you really have to go out of your way not to have it (and anyway, as noted above, the one thing I always need has an offline mode). In short, this is a computer that makes sense for how I work today.
Having now had it for a few hours, my general impression of it is pretty positive: The screen is pretty and bright (and 1080p is honestly perfectly acceptable in a screen this size), the keyboard is sufficiently large and easy to type on, and I’ve written pay copy on it, so it’s literally already paid for itself. If you’re a Chromebook fan, I can definitely recommend it (I’ll note I was considering between the c302 and the new Samsung Chromebook Plus, which spec-wise is very close to this computer, at around the same price. But the Samsung apparently doesn’t have a backlit keyboard, and that was the dealbreaker for me).
So, look! My new computer. If you see me on tour next month, you’ll see it too. Be sure to say hello to it.
My tour for The Collapsing Empire is already pretty long, taking place as it does over five weeks — and now it’s about to get longer! Because I’m showing up at two new places:
Monday, April 17
Jean Cocteau Cinema
Santa Fe, NM
Friday, April 28-Sunday, April 30
The Santa Fe stop is very definitely a formal stop for the tour and will include me having a chat with George RR Martin, of whom you may have heard. The Southfield stop at this point is far less formal; depending on whether there is space for me on programming, it may just end up being me hanging out in the lobby bar and signing books for people who wander by. Nevertheless, I will be there (and happy to sign books). So if you were planning to attend Penguicon already: Hey, bonus! If you weren’t already planning to attend Penguicon, well, maybe you should (P.S.: Cory Doctorow, with whom I will have shared the last few dates of my tour, is a Penguicon Guest of Honor this year, so there’s that too).
Beyond that, we’re in the process firming up additional dates via other conventions, book fairs and book festivals. I’ll let you know when those dates are confirmed and public knowledge.
Here’s the official tour page with all the current dates. Hope to see you out there!
Over at Inverse, writer Ryan Britt is annoyed that two of his favorite science fiction books of the year, Death’s End by Cixin Liu, and Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey, are not on the Nebula list of nominees for Best Novel. His argument for both basically boils down to they’re both amazing so they should be obvious nominees, obviously, which to be fair is the same general argument anyone makes when they complain about something they love getting what they perceive to be a snub for whatever award they think the thing the love should be up for.
Not to single Britt out — his is merely the complaint about this I’ve seen today, not the sole complaint out there — but to serve as a reminder, as we head fully into science fiction awards season: There’s no such thing as an automatic award nomination for anything, no matter how good you think that thing is. If you think there is, you’ll be finding yourself frequently outraged for no particularly good or useful reason.
Likewise, a thing you love not being on an award ballot doesn’t mean it was “snubbed”. “Snubbing” here basically means someone (or in this case more than one someone) actively going out of their way to keep a thing off the ballot, i.e., something along the lines of “I hate this novel and/or author so much I will instead recommend a different and possibly inferior book and encourage all my friends to do so as well.” It’s pretty much 100% certain this didn’t happen here; instead, people just voted for the novels they preferred, and preferred other books.
But Death’s End and Babylon’s Ashes were good books! Indeed they were. But there were five Best Novel slots available on this year’s Nebula ballot and dozens of SF/F novels (at least!) of sufficient quality to make the ballot. The two novels that Britt points out are only a couple of the novels that could have been on the ballot, from the perspective of quality, but aren’t. There are — thankfully — always more good SF/F novels in a year than may fit on a Nebula ballot.
And not just novels but novellas, novelettes, short stories, YA novels and screenplays, those being categories that SFWA awards annually. I mean, let me use me as an example: My novella The Dispatcher was eligible for the Novella category this year. It was very well reviewed, had a huge audience, and is already up for other awards. I’m a well-known and (mostly) liked science fiction writer, and former president of SFWA, so I’m also familiar to the folks who nominate for the Nebula. The Dispatcher should be a shoo-in for a nomination, yes? Yes! I say yes! A thousand times!
But — surprise! — it’s nowhere on the Nebula novella ballot. Is this a snub? I mean, maybe — perhaps malign forces at SFWA aligned against me simply because of who I am — but the far more reasonable and likely correct answer is: The people who nominated for the Nebula awards this year simply decided on other novellas instead. There were many fine novellas this year, and the Nebula ballot reflects this, as all the novellas on it are eminently worth award consideration. I don’t consider The Dispatcher not being on the Nebula ballot a snub. It consider it a sign that it’s a really competitive year, with many excellent things to read. As a reader of the genre, and as a professional who wants the field to thrive, I really can’t complain.
I think it’s perfectly fine to champion books and stories and to be disappointed when people nominating for awards don’t have the same enthusiasm for them, in aggregate, as you do. But remember when that happens, it’s almost always not a “snub” of the thing you love, but rather an affirmation of the things the other person loves, and probably without reference to the thing you are championing. It’s a good perspective to have, in my opinion.
Yesterday I was having a conversation with a friend regarding the implosion of Milo Yiannopoulos, the remarkable two-day period in which the public bigot and Breitbart editor lost a high-profile speaking engagement, a lucrative book contract, and a job, because one of his positions (regarding sexual contact between adults and young teens) finally crossed a line for the horrible clutch of bigots who were keeping him around as their One Gay Friend. The implosion was inevitable — the horrible bigots never really liked him, they just found him useful, and suddenly he wasn’t useful anymore — and moreover the implosion was karmically appropriate, because Yiannopoulos is a terrible person who became famous for being terrible to others. The dude earned it, and in a very real way it’s delightful to see the comeuppance.
While my friend agreed with me that the comeuppance was indeed delicious, he also asked me, essentially: But do you feel even in the tiniest bit sorry for Yiannopoulos? Do you have empathy for him?
And the answer is: Well, sure. In my opinion Yiannopoulos is clearly emotionally damaged in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and it’s exhibited itself in a particularly itchy combination of personal self-loathing and a desperate need to feel special, and to have attention. He discovered that playing to a crowd of horrible bigots gave him attention, made him feel special and made him either hate himself less, or at least allowed him to ignore how much he hated himself, so he went with that as long as he could.
And things appeared to be going his way! Trump won, which gave him a more legitimate platform because the horrible bigots he played to were elevated and wanted him to speak at their gathering; he nabbed himself a pretty good book deal with a major publisher; and he got to go on national TV and had hit it off well with the host, even if the other guests told him to go fuck off, which of course played to his strengths as a media personality. It was all coming together!
Then, in roughly 36 hours, all of it was taken away. Not to mention his reputation and standing among much of the crowd that had previously stood behind him. And to top it all off, he lost his professional income. It was all in public, and it happened quick, and in humiliating fashion.
So here’s the thing: A damaged soul who thought he had found acceptance, reaching for the goals that he probably thought would finally satisfy him, only to have them (from his point of view) cruelly taken away, all at once, in public?
Again: Sure. I have some empathy there. That all sucks.
(And you knew there was a “but” coming)
Yiannopoulos’ damage explains but does not excuse his actions. Lots of people are damaged by life, one way or another. Lots of people crave acceptance and desire fame. Lots of people try to heal themselves through the attention of others. But Yiannopoulos decided to deal with all of that by spouting racist and sexist and transphobic hatred, by lying about his targets and by pointing his passel of online, bigoted followers at people in order to harass and threaten them, and then by laughing at and dismissing as unimportant other people’s pain and fear, pain and fear that he caused. It’s what he became famous for. It was all a lark to him, or so he’d have you believe. Saying so gave him attention and admiration, and if that attention and admiration was from hateful bigots, eh, that’d work for him. Until it didn’t.
I can feel empathy for a damaged human being, and understand why he does what he does. I get Yiannopoulos. He’s not exactly a puzzle. But my (or anyone’s) empathy and understanding for him has to be weighed against the damage he’s done to others and his reasons for doing so. And the fact is, the damage he’s caused others is immense, and the reasons he’s done so are self-serving, vain and ultimately wholly insufficient to excuse or mitigate his actions. Empathy and understanding are important, indeed I think critical, when considering the people who have chosen to oppose you. It reminds you they are merely human, and not actually monsters. But they are part, not the whole, of one’s consideration of such people; nor does empathy automatically convert to sympathy. Personally, considered as a whole and including his actions, I don’t judge Yiannopoulos deserving of much sympathy. He’s earned this moment of his, and in point of fact, he’s earned much worse than this. But this will do for a start.
And here’s another fact, which is that Yiannopoulos isn’t special. There are a lot of damaged people out there on the racist, sexist, bigoted side of things, who have been fucked up by the world in one way or another and who have decided the best way to dig themselves out of that hole is to try to take it out on other people. These are the very people fringe radical and reactionary organizations and would-be leaders seek out; they’re susceptible because they’re damaged and crave acceptance and attention. To get personal here, I look at the bigots who have decided to make me their special enemy and it’s not hard to understand why they do what they do, nor to feel empathy for what they have to be going through in their brain. But again, that’s weighed against the damage they do to others and try to do to me, and I proceed accordingly.
(Also, a supplementary thought I have, which is that that Yiannopoulos is well into his 30s. He’s not a child or a young man of whom it could be said that he did not know better. Yiannopoulos may be damaged in various ways, but it doesn’t appear that he is not in control of his actions, or doesn’t have enough presence of mind to understand right or wrong, even if he apparently doesn’t care about such things. Yiannopoulos understands what he’s doing and why. He owns his choices and actions, and he owns the results of those choices and actions, even when they result, as they did this week, in his downfall.)
So: Empathy and understanding for Yiannopoulos? Sure. Maybe even the smallest soupçon of pity. I think the ability to feel these things for him allows me to say, in full consideration, that he deserves his fall this week from the grace of the horrible and bigoted. And to continue in that vein, I wish for him the empathy and understanding to realize just how well he’s earned this moment, and to realize how much work he’ll have to undertake to atone for the damage he’s done to others. I don’t expect he’ll actually arrive at that empathy and understanding, mind you. I don’t think he wants that. I wish it for him nonetheless.
Ideals are a great thing, if you can afford them. In The Book of Etta, award-winning writer Meg Elison takes a look at ideals and what they cost, and who can afford to have them in a world where ideals are very dear indeed.
There comes a time in the life of every idealist when they must come to terms with real life. Many of us find ourselves in this terrifying era with unpleasant tasks ahead: conversations with racist family members on Facebook are just the beginning. Over and over we have to confront the reality that we are not on a non-stop flight, headed inevitably toward progress. A more apt metaphor would be that we are rowing arduously upstream toward progress, and many of our fellow rowers are openly wearing MAGA hats and rowing backward, or else nurturing secret misinformation and grievances and choosing not to row at all.
The Book of Etta is about an idealist. It’s about a fighter, a queer survivor who wants to kill fascists, free slaves, and give no quarter. However, Etta learns to row for progress alongside people who see progress differently, and are willing to obtain it by any means necessary.
That essential conflict is the Big Idea in The Book of Etta that I’d like to share, because it’s one that plagued me while I was writing it and plagues me still.
If you can free a slave by buying them, have you done enough good to negate your own support of the slave trade? If the women in your village are safe and cared for, but not allowed to leave or speak in your presence, are they free? If they’re better off than most, is that enough? If you venerate motherhood and treat all mothers with respect, isn’t that enough to make sure that all women choose that path? If humanity is in danger of extinction, isn’t it only fair to suppress same-sex love?
Etta’s answers to all of the above are no, no, and no. She inhabits a world of absolutes and cannot reconcile herself to compromises or to accepting what is good enough or safe enough or too important to question.
Etta meets Flora, who inhabits a world with no absolutes where each of these questions must be weighed against survival. An apprentice to a slaver herself, Flora understands the trade. A subject to fascist regimes, she makes allowances and avoids conflict as a way to keep out of trouble. Flora would rather live than insist on her principles, while Etta is ready to die on every hill she climbs.
I began as a writer, as a woman, as a person in that idealistic mode. I wanted to be the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and said no, things must not go on this way. What my public school education did not show me was the aftermath of that moment: Tank Man was dragged into the crowd by friends who knew it was better to live and fight another day than be flattened into another martyr, another statement, another idealist lost.
I had to face the idea that we need each other, that we are better off rowing together, even arrhythmically and begrudgingly, than we are on our own. We are capable of more if our friends keep us from becoming street pizza beneath fascist tanks.
Etta has to learn that, too, but for her the stakes are higher. Etta is born into a world created out of my terror and dread; a world where the tanks just keep rolling and most people row backwards and we all stop fighting the current.
But Etta’s fight never ends, and her book is just beginning.
My spam filter seems to be unusually aggressive recently and more legit comments are finding their way there; I just released a bunch. So if for some reason you’ve been trying to comment and your comment doesn’t appear, don’t panic, I’m (probably) not intentionally moderating you, it’s just a hyperactive spam filter. It’s not personal, in other words.
CONTENT WARNING: Features liverwurst, and the end times.
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.)
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The Human Division
The End of All Things
(So, really, the entire Old Man’s War series of novels. Plus:)
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.