Heading into a very fine weekend, and what better way to do that then with some very fine books and ARCs? Tell us what in this stack is beckoning you to read it!
Heading into a very fine weekend, and what better way to do that then with some very fine books and ARCs? Tell us what in this stack is beckoning you to read it!
And she’s happy to see you. And a little squinty, as I took the picture in full daylight and she prefers her sunglasses for that. But, you know. Good squint, I’d say.
Creating alternate histories are no small matter, especially when your series of books features a different version of the Roman Empire landing in North America. Now in Eagle and Empire, the third book of his Clash of Eagles series, Alan Smale talks about the challenges of writing different past — and making more history as one goes along.
I’ve long had a fascination for books that tear up the world and patch it back together differently, for really large alternate histories; not picking my way gently forward as changes begin to ripple from a point of departure deep in the Napoleonic Wars, say, but witnessing the far-downstream effects of a giant splash. Those are the tides I’m riding with the Clash of Eagles trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives in its more-or-less classical form through to the thirteenth century, and is now trying to open up Nova Hesperia – North America – with substantial assistance from the seafaring Norse who “discovered” it first.
The point of departure for my alternate timeline is way the heck back in 211 A.D., with Geta defeating his malevolent brother Caracalla after a decade-long firestorm of a civil war that nearly splits the Empire. As Emperor, Geta then ushers in extensive reforms. His actions unwittingly ward off the Crisis of the Third Century while strengthening the Empire against “barbarian” invasions, and, sure, I have Appendixes in the Clash of Eagles books laying out the details. But my characters don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing the dusty events of a thousand years past – they’re much too busy running around and dodging pointy missiles and trying to stay alive.
So, let’s review: in Clash of Eagles, Gaius Marcellinus and his legion march in from the Chesapeake Bay and get their rear ends handed to them, first by the Iroquois, and then by the warriors of the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now. For Book One, the Big Idea was: “Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height.” In the second book, Eagle in Exile, Marcellinus is – as you might guess – largely separated from Rome and from his new Cahokian home base. There’s a coup in Cahokia, and a vicious despot replaces the more measured and even-keel Great Sun Man who originally kept Marcellinus alive.
Before you know it, Marcellinus is cast out with a handful of friends, navigating the untamed Mizipi River on a Norse longship, fighting off threats from all sides. The Book Two Big Idea: “wild adventure in an ancient North America, in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear.” (Suffice to say that Marcellinus’s attempts to help always have unforeseen consequences, and also that his loyalty to Rome is not so easily tossed aside.)
Okay, so welcome to Book Three, Eagle and Empire. More legions have marched into Nova Hesperia by way of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by the Emperor Hadrianus III himself. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the Mongol Horde is landing on the west coast and crossing the Rockies. Having had his plundering ambitions in Asia thwarted by the solid power of Rome, Genghis Khan has set his sights on the brave New World, and so one aspect of the Eagle and Empire Big Idea is “a titanic confrontation between the Mongol Horde and the legions of Rome on the Great Plains of North America,” a terrain which naturally benefits the nomad horsemen of the Khan.
Needless to say, the various nations and tribes who were already living on the Hesperian continent have their own very strong opinions about all this, and have continued to take independent action. Cahokia is now first among equals of a great Hesperian League, an alliance between disparate tribes that in the past sometimes made war with each other and sometimes simply ignored one another, but who are now forced to work together to resist the dual (and dueling) forces stomping all over their various territories. Other tribes cast their lot with Genghis, for various reasons, and so the stage is set for all manner of internecine carnage.
But now let’s home in on the human element, the soul of the story, behind all the cut and thrust and steel and shine.
Geopolitics aside, Marcellinus has a basic and central conflict between his old life as a Roman general , and his new life of family and community in Cahokia. He has friends and loved ones, duties and responsibilities, and many of these people and factors are at odds with one another. He has sworn several oaths he can never break, but even some of those oaths collide.
The three Cahokian children who were tasked with learning the outsider’s language back in Clash of Eagles have grown up to become influential in Cahokian society by the time Eagle and Empire begins. Tahtay is now War Chief of Cahokia, and a leading figure in the Hesperian League. Kimimela is a warrior and budding clan chief; she’s Marcellinus’s adopted daughter, but spends more time opposing him and working around him than chatting cheerfully with him by the camp fire. And then there’s young Enopay, not at all martial but empathic about people and an all-around smartypants: as a sometime-admirer and sometime-manipulator of key Romans, he also has his part to play in how this all resolves.
So another Biggish Idea that threads through Eagle and Empire is the complex interaction-space between all these different people (and peoples), their differing beliefs and motivations, and the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nature of Marcellinus’s challenges as a somewhat loyal Roman and eventually-decent human being, deep in the midst of this continent-wide upheaval.
And if you do read the books, and we meet up in the bar at a con sometime, maybe we’ll talk about what the world of the Clash series might look like after another thousand years has gone by and the events of Eagle and Empire are, in their turn, buried in the distant past. I have a few ideas about that too, of course…
I’m not writing about Trump and his party pals as much as one suspects I might here, and honestly, here’s the reason for it: Everything is happening so damn fast these days. Hard as it may be to believe, if I’m going to write something more than a snarky tweet, I want to be able to actually think about the thing and frame it in my head, and every time I try to do that, by the time I’ve figured out what I want to say, that dense, angry Tribble-scalped bastard has done something else, and I have to rethink. I literally can’t keep up, especially because I’m trying to do other things, too, like write books.
It’s frustrating, because I have a lot I’d like to say. It’s just that by the time I would say it, it’s already three news cycles back, and all I’m left with is me howling SEE I TOLD YOU THIS SHIT WOULD HAPPEN, and really, now, how often can I say that before it gets boring.
So: Sorry, folks. I’m trying my best. But Trump watching isn’t actually my full-time gig. And it’s really hard to keep up.
Behold the Sketchers Men’s Diameter Slip-on, size 8.5, which just arrived here at the Scalzi Compound. This is the third pair of these that I’ve gotten, the first having been purchased more or less on a whim three years ago at Sears, back when you could still go into Sears without being crushingly depressed at how far the store had fallen. The shoes are super boring — there’s really nothing that calls your attention to them. I wear them because they’re cushioned and have arch support, and because they’re easy to take off and on at the airport. They are, in effect, designed to be worn by middle-aged men who value comfort over fashion, which is, basically, me.
I came to these shoes reluctantly, I’ll note. I was a devotee of Vans slip-ons for years but a few years ago had to come to terms that Vans slip-ons are not actually designed with the “increasingly middle-aged” demographic in mind, since they have zero arch support, and wearing mine to conventions or anywhere else that required lots of walking meant having feet that felt like they were being stabbed by the end of the day. I still love Vans and have a couple of pairs, but I save them for short trips and lazy days. For other every purposes: Super boring, cushy Sketchers above.
(I suppose I could find prettier shoes with equal arch support, but, meh. These work well enough, and they’re relatively inexpensive. I have dress shoes when I need dress shoes.)
The funny thing is that when I wear these shoes, every once in a while another middle-aged dude will compliment me on them, and I’ll look down and see him wearing the same shoes. Because he’s a middle-aged dude and he knows. Arch support, man. It’s a thing.
Physics happens — today and every day. But how much do you think about the physics of your ordinary day? James Kakalios thinks about it a lot, and after this Big Idea piece for his latest book The Physics of Everyday Things, you might think about it more often, too.
My motivation to write The Physics of Everyday Things derived from comments from people like my cab driver father, who would ask me, back when I was a physics major in college and would describe to him some recent discovery in particle physics or astrophysics: “That’s nice – but how does this change my life?” Breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson or ripples in spacetime (gravity waves) generated by the collision of two super-massive black holes warrant all the attention (and Nobel Prizes) they receive.
But equally deserving of notice is research on the human scale, the domain of solid-state physics and materials science, which is my particular field of study. More physicists work in these fields than in any other. They address fundamental problems involving the quantum nature of matter—that might sound abstract, but those questions can often lead to practical applications, such as the transistor and the laser. From high energy-storage batteries that power hybrid and all-electric cars, to the EZ-Pass device that lets us zip through toll booths, to the self-parking feature we might use to maneuver into a tight spot, my father, if he were still with us, would likely agree that scientists and engineers have certainly changed automobiles—and thus, would have changed his life.
All of our lives have indeed been changed thanks to scientific research (and much of it supported by the federal government, so to all you taxpayers reading this, take a bow). The technology we take for granted, from the smartphones in our pockets, to touch screens to MRI’s, can sometimes seem like magic. As a physics professor, I feel it is very important that I emphasize to the general public that these devices really are magic!
Of course, I don’t mean anything mystical or supernatural like you’d find in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, but rather the magic in a Penn and Teller show in Las Vegas. In the latter, physics principles are not violated but are exploited in order to create dazzling effects. Similarly, the amazing and indispensable devices that we use every day are only possible due to our understanding, gained over the past hundred and fifty years, of the rules by which the natural world operates. While professional magicians are bound to not divulge their secrets, in The Physics of Everyday Things I reveal how the “magic” of the technology we routinely employ is accomplished.
However, I did not want this book to be simply an encyclopedia of technology, with listings from alarm clocks and batteries to x-rays. How to tell a story that also explained the physics underlying the devices that surround us? My first (unsuccessful) attempt used the history of technology to introduce the concepts that underlie modern devices. This draft sucked. For those interested in the history of science, there wasn’t enough of it, and readers who didn’t care about history had to slog through too much of it before they got to the parts they wanted.
The Big Idea for the book came from my editor at Crown (the talented Domenica Alioto) who suggested that we drop the history, and begin the story by examining the devices people employ at the start of the day. I instantly realized that this would be structure of the book (which would turn out to be the subtitle): the extraordinary science of an ordinary day. The book would follow “you” through a busy day, from moments before you awake to when you drift off to sleep at night. You start your day, drive into the city, go to a doctor’s appointment, then on to the airport. Passing through the TSA checkpoint, you take a flight to another city, where you give a business presentation, and finally check into a hotel.
Whenever you interact or employ modern technology—from your toaster while making breakfast, to withdrawing money from an ATM, to making a photocopy, to watching the flat-screen television in your hotel room—I would interrupt the story and explain the physics principles underlying these devices. Domenica’s suggestion of a “narrative physics” was the Big Idea the book needed. This way we would get straight to the good stuff, and in describing the story of your day, I could write a popular science book in the second person singular.
While writing this book, I found myself observing my day with fresh eyes, noticing technology that I previously took for granted. For example, I paid attention when the motion sensors turned on the lights as I walked down a darkened hotel hallway. This gave me an excuse to research how these sensors worked. I previously had assumed that they all operated as a version of “radar,” where a signal was sent out and the device noted if a moving object interfered with the reflected wave. While some motion sensors do indeed use this “active process,” many lower power sensors are “passive” and instead use pyroelectric detectors to register the infra-red radiation you emit. I was excited to learn this because (a) I did not know this and thought it was cool; (b) it would give me a reason to explain what a pyroelectric material is; and (c) I could then show the connection between these materials and piezoelectrics such as quartz crystals used to keep time in your smartphone and computer.
Writing this book led to a new appreciation of how only a handful of physics principles are necessary to understand the broad array of technology that has changed our lives. This is, in fact, not just a Big Idea but the Giant Idea of the book. The universality of physics means that insights into nature that enable infra-red light emitting diodes and photoreceptors (the basic elements of a television remote control) also apply to pyroelectric-based motion sensors and account for the heat trapping properties of greenhouse gases. The physics is the physics. By the end of this short book, I hope the reader will develop a “physicist’s intuition” (“I totally knew it was going to be capacitors!”) and can anticipate the explanations of how everyday things work.
Sometimes the Big Ideas for books have their origin in other books, and how those books inspire us when we write our own. For her new book Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner reaches back to a favorite author and how that writer’s big idea laid the groundwork for hers.
MEGAN WHALEN TURNER:
Back in the last century, authors only knew what their readers were thinking if their readers sent them fan mail—written on the bodies of dead trees—or if their readers were reviewers for print outlets like the New York Times or Kirkus. And then, around the time my first novel, The Thief, was published, Amazon introduced online reviews and bloggers started putting up posts about what they were reading. Suddenly ordinary people had a voice in a much larger conversation about books.
As a newbie author, I was self-Googling like mad and just before The King of Attolia was published. I found a livejournal site dedicated to my books. I lurked. I did tell them I was lurking, but I knew right from the start that having authors around is a great, wonderful, exciting thing—right up until they make it impossible to have an honest conversation about their books, so I was careful not too lurk too often. In return, I got to watch these smart, funny people pick through everything I’d written and I became more and more convinced that they didn’t need my input, anyway. Everything in my books that I hoped they’d see, they were pointing out to one another. Watching them, I decided I should probably probably keep my mouth shut and leave readers to figure things out for themselves. That’s why when they got around to sending me a community fan letter, I’m afraid that my answer to most of their questions was, “I’m not telling.” Over the years, it’s hardened into a pretty firm policy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t talk about the books, about writing, about what’s hard or easy, or about where my inspiration comes from. I just try not to add information about the stories that’s not already on the page or offer my opinion on what anything in particular means. Sometimes I blow it, because I like to talk too much, but I try not to. Making up your own mind about a story, or sharing stuff with other readers, is the part of the fun of reading. I never want anything I say to short circuit that process.
This does make writing a Big Idea piece tricky.
Fortunately, our host has a pretty wide definition of what constitutes a Big Idea and even whose Big Idea we need to talk about anyway. So, instead of starting with my book, I’d first like to talk about The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff was a British author. She suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and she wrote the kind of books that she wanted to read during the long hospital stays of her youth. Back then, the boys’ ward had the “boy” books and the girls’ ward had the “girl” books and Sutcliff had to rely on sympathetic nurses to sneak the boys’ books over to her.
In The Eagle of the Ninth, a new centurion comes to Britain with big plans: serve the empire, get his veteran’s pension, and buy back his family’s farm. And then, in his first battle, all his plans go up in smoke. His leg is broken and he has to face the fact that he might walk, but he will never fight again. Seeking some new purpose for his life, in a journey both physical and psychological, he travels north of Hadrian’s Wall to retrieve the lost Eagle of the Ninth Roman Legion. His new slave, Esca, goes with him and, of course, they both come back free men.
Sometimes when a light bulb comes on in our head, it’s not because we had a Big Idea, it’s because someone else reached in and flipped a switch. When I was about fifteen, Rosemary Sutcliff did that for me. The term “plot armor” hadn’t been invented when I watched Sutcliff destroy a writing convention in her very first chapter. Serious injuries and death were only supposed to happened to red shirts. The Eagle of the Ninth made me wonder for the first time, just who gets to be the main character in stories of heroism and adventure.
I knew that when I wrote Thick as Thieves, I wanted to revisit Sutcliff’s story, and I knew that I wanted to focus on Kamet, the enslaved secretary to Nahuseresh, a prince of the Mede Empire. Kamet is educated, he’s entrusted with the management of his master’s entire household, and he’s ambitious. He may not see freedom in his future, but he sees power. When an Attolian soldier first offers to help him escape from his master, he laughs it off—until a friend warns him that his master has been poisoned and Kamet will be blamed for the murder.
Initially reluctant, Kamet takes up the Attolian’s offer and flees the Empire. For the soldier, this story is a quest. He’s been given a task by his king and he means to carry it out. For Kamet, the trip is a means to an end, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Attolian king. He has his own agenda and this is his story.
As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, “The evil one suffered patiently as inevitable seems intolerable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping from it.”
Saga Press today announced a new anthology called Robots vs. Fairies, in which, as you might expect, there are stories about robots, and stories about fairies, and perhaps a few with robots and fairies. The anthology includes a story by me, entitled “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Human Era for the First Time,” which, well. The title pretty much spells it out.
The author line-up for the book, as well as the story of the really very cool cover, is available here on the Barnes & Noble blog; the book itself will be out in January 2018. Something to look forward to in the coming year.
This is my Wonder Woman.
To mothers and the people who love them, have a fantastic day.
Sure you do! Here you go. This is from when Cory and I did a stop together at Google during our book tours.
So, I’ve been following this thing that’s been happening in Canada, where (briefly), Hal Niedviecki, a white editor of a literary magazine, in an edition of the magazine focusing on the indigenous writers of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he encouraged white writers to include characters who weren’t like them, saying “I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
This outraged a bunch of folks, and Niedviecki ended up apologizing and resigning, which in turn outraged a bunch of other (mostly white) literary and journalistic folks, some of whom briefly started going about on social media about actually trying to fund an “Appropriation Prize” before at least a few of them realized that maybe they shouldn’t be doing that and started backtracking as fast as they could.
As I’ve been reading this, I think I have a reasonably good idea of what was going on in the mind of Niedzviecki. I suspect it was something along the line of, “Hey, in this special edition of this magazine featuring voices my magazine’s reading audience of mostly white writers doesn’t see enough of, I want to encourage the writing of a diversity of characters even among my readership of mostly white writers, and I want to say it in a clever, punchy way that will really drive the message home.”
Which seems laudable enough! And indeed, in and of itself, encouraging white, middle-class writers out of their comfort zones in terms of writing characters different from them and their lived experience is a perfectly fine goal. I encourage it. Other people I know encourage it. There’s more to life than middle-class white people, and writing can and should reflect that.
But it wasn’t “in and of itself,” and here’s where Niedviecki screwed up, as far as I can see:
1. In an edition of his magazine about indigenous writing in Canada, his essay pulled focus away from indigenous writers to focus on white, middle-class writers, (probably unintentionally) signaling who was really more important here.
2. He tried to be clever about it, too, and the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Specifically, the crack about the “Appropriation Prize,” which probably sounded great in his head, and by all indications sounded pretty great to a bunch of other mostly white Canadian authors and journalists.
3. Which is a point in itself, i.e., the easy conflation of “diversity of characters” with “appropriation.” Very basically, the former says “I as a writer acknowledge there’s more to the world than me and people like me and I will strive to represent that as best I can,” and the latter says “The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.” And, yeah. Maybe these two should not be conflated, even if it makes for a punchy, memorable line in an essay. Also, if you genuinely can’t tell the difference between these two states, you might have work to do.
(This is why the white Canadian authors/journalists yakking about funding an Appropriation Prize are particularly clueless; they’re essentially saying “Hey! Let’s give money to white writers for the best fake version of people they’re not!” Which is not a good look, folks, really. Words do mean things, and “appropriation” doesn’t mean a good thing in this context.)
This whole event really appears to fall into the category of “Well-meaning person does something they thought would help and instead makes things worse.” Niedzviecki thought he was championing diversity in Canadian writing — because (I have no doubt) he actually does wish to champion diversity in Canadian writing — and instead blundered into controversy because lack of understanding about what he was doing, or at least, lack of understanding of how what he was doing would look outside of his own circle of experience. He meant well! But he showed his ass anyway.
And, well. Join the party, Mr. Niedzviecki! There are many of us here in the “We Showed Our Ass” club. And judging from the response to the piece, and Mr. Niedzviecki’s decision to resign his post, more are joining as we speak. “Cultural Appropriation: Why Can’t We Debate It?” asks one Canadian newspaper column headline, from another white writer who clearly doesn’t understand what “cultural appropriation” actually means and seems confused why other people are upset by it. Niedzviecki, to his credit, seems to have picked up the clue. Some others seem determined not to. And, look. We all show our ass. The question is whether we then try to pull our pants back up, or keep scrunching them down to our ankles, and then poop all over them and ourselves.
Now, related but slightly set apart (which is why I’ve separated this part off with asterisks), let me address this issue of diversity of characters in writing, using myself as an example, and moving on from there.
I’m a white male writer of North American middle-class sensibility, and I try from time to time to write characters that are not like me, because it reflects the reality of the world to do so, and because in science fiction I believe we write the futures we want to see, and I want to see diversity. How do I do, writing these characters who are not like me? Well, that’s for other people to decide. But here is my thought on doing it, which I take from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s essays here on the subject:
a) I should write diverse characters.
b) I’ll screw up sometimes, and when I do people with the lived experience I’m trying to represent will let me know.
c) I’ll learn and when I write diverse characters again, I’ll try to do better. If I make mistakes again, they’ll be new ones, not the same ones over again.
d) Repeat until dead (or I quit writing, which I suspect will happen simultaneously).
With that said, while I think it’s useful for me to have diverse characters in my writing, I also think it’s even more useful for publishing to have diverse writers. This is not just because of some box checking sensibility but because other writers tell stories, create characters and interrogate writing in ways I would never think to. I’m a pretty good storyteller, folks. But my way of storytelling isn’t the only way it gets done. As a reader I like what I like, but I also like finding out about what I didn’t know I’d like, and I even occasionally like reading something and going “wow, that was so not for me but I get that it’s for someone.”
This is relevant because even when I write diverse characters, they get filtered through me, and while that’s fine and I think necessary, in a larger sense it’s not sufficient. I’m not running me down here. I give good character. But as a writer I know where my weaknesses are. Some characters I will likely never explore as deeply as they could be explored by other writers, because I am not able to write those characters as well as others could. I strive for diversity in my writing. But my writing won’t ever reflect the diversity that literature in general should be capable of. You need writers whose lives are not like mine for that.
White writers adding a diversity of characters into their work is one thing. Publishers seeking out and publishing a diversity of writers is another. A fall down happens when people — writers, editors, and publishers — appear to think having the former is somehow equivalent to the latter, or that having the former is sufficient, so that the latter is optional, if the former is present. It’s not. The former can be laudable (if it doesn’t fall over into appropriation, which it can, and when it does is its own bag of issues), but it’s not and never is sufficient. A field of literature that comes only from one direction is bad literature because it’s incomplete literature. There’s more to it and it’s being missed out on. And that’s a much larger issue.
So, yes. Good on me and any white writer for having diverse characters. Go us! But if your argument about diversity in writing and publishing is centered on that, and not on an actual diversity of writers, you’re missing the point in an obvious way. Everyone who isn’t a white writer is going to notice.
I tried writing about the James Comey firing earlier in the week and got mostly a lot of GRWARRRRGHNNNNGHFFFFFK out of it, so I decided to let it be, and anyway, at this point there’s very little to add to it that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, mostly relating to Trump being incompetent, possibly criminal, and in all cases a schmuck.
That said, I think it’s reasonable to address a point that both Trump and his various apparatchiks have been petulant about, namely that no one on the left liked James Comey and many people thought he should have been booted from the job, and yet when Trump booted him, they freaked out. Isn’t this what they wanted? I mean, hell, just before he got punted, I wrote this tweet about him:
So you would think I would be among the ones cheering the punting. As much as I roll my eyes at the Trumpkins, I think it’s reasonably fair for them to be confused about this.
Well, here’s an answer:
Let’s say there’s this guy who is an enormous asshole and everybody hates him and wishes that he’d get, like, hit by a bus or something. Then one day, a bus indeed comes up on the curb, smacks into him and basically turns him into paste. Does everyone then pin a medal on the bus driver? Well, no, the bus driver just killed someone. Now we look into why the bus went up on the curb. And if in this particular case the bus driver just happened to be someone the enormous asshole was investigating for possible criminal activity (because the enormous asshole was maybe a cop or a private investigator), well. There might be cause for concern. Especially if the bus driver then says “I was driving around looking for him in order to hit him with a bus!” to Lester Holt in a televised interview.
An even shorter, analogy-free version is: It’s allowed to both believe Comey wasn’t very good at his job and that Trump fired him in order to impede the FBI’s investigation into his, his campaign’s and now his administration’s ties to Russia. And while the first is a problem, the second is stuff impeachments are made of.
That Trump appeared to think that the annoyance of the first would make people brush aside the potential criminality of the second is yet another reason why he’s not actually very good at his job. So there’s irony there, at least.
Hey, look! More books and ARCs! Who’d’ve thought? If you see something here you have an interest in, tell us all in the comments. We want to know.
In the “novella” category. I’m super pleased.
Here are the other finalists in the category:
That’s a very excellent field for the category, with many wonderful writers. I’m honored to have my work among them.
Here’s a link to the entire slate of finalists in all categories. Congrats to everyone! This is a very fine way to start the weekend.
Not graduation day; don’t let the robes fool you. Senior day is the day the seniors are handed out their awards and scholarships, take their final class pictures, and then are dismissed until graduation day, two weeks hence. Technically Athena has already graduated — she finished up a semester early — but she’s walking with her classmates because why wouldn’t you. It’s a last hurrah for Bradford Class of 2017. These two, at least, seem happy about it.
Hair matters, in a lots of ways we (or, well, I, a balding middle-aged white dude) don’t often think about. But Michele Tracy Berger has, and has made it central to her novella, Reenu-You. She’s here now to talk a little about hair, about culture, and about her work featuring both.
MICHELE TRACY BERGER:
What if a visit to the salon could kill you? What if a hair product harbored a deadly virus? My Big Idea is about viruses, the politics of beauty and unlikely female heroes.
Hair and hair culture is often unexplored territory for many speculative fiction writers. Despite the wonderful world-building of the genre, the social economy of hair maintenance, styling and product manufacturing is rarely discussed. This is a shame as there is a rich story in conversations of hair and haircare, as they often embody the complexities of the U.S.’s racial legacies. In Reenu-You, hair is the catalyst which sets the stage for conflict, friendship, desire, misunderstanding and an epidemic.
We follow two characters, Kat and Constancia. While different in many ways, these women share an experience of haircare; they both use a new product called “Reenu-You”. Within days they find themselves, along with other women of color, covered in purple scab-like legions— a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. They are at the epicenter of a mysterious virus spreading throughout the city.
I’ve been interested in hair and what people make of it since I was a little girl. Beauty practices reveal a lot about what is acceptable and encouraged in a culture. There’s pain and joy in how many African Americans (and other people of color) experience their hair.
Let’s start with joy. Black people experience the aesthetics of hair as a space of creativity and innovation (e.g. ‘the Afro’, ‘the fade’, ‘cornrows’, ‘braids’, ‘the weave’, etc.). Growing up in an urban African American community, talking about, reflecting on and styling hair was a particularly important and fun aspect of my young adulthood. Beauticians held high status in my neighborhood. They nimbly moved from therapist to healer in a blink of an eye. I thought they were magical. They were like modern day shamans whose tools were metal hot combs, big pink rollers, slippery, translucent gels, and hair oils that smelled like exotic fruits from faraway lands.
But there’s pain, too. Black and brown kids often encounter the words nappy, kinky, and wooly, as pejoratives. Faced with this judgement, many internalize the belief that their hair is bad, or unmanageable. Most Black people have had to think critically about their hair, how they feel about it, how their community feels about it, and how dominant culture feels about it. I did.
I understood at an early age that there were unspoken rules about hair. “Good hair” was straight and bouncy, like the women in commercials.
I was usually in the camp of having “good hair”, frequently getting stopped on the street by people telling me I had pretty hair. These comments made me deeply uncomfortable, but, gave me a kind of social power, too.
What’s the origin of these ideas? Beauty standards, in this country, have historically favored long, straight hair stemming from dominant norms. Slave owners often referred to enslaved people’s hair as “wool”, like that of an animal.
These dominant norms were imposed on enslaved people and over time inculcated long-standing ideas about social status and worth. Straight hair (and lighter skin) over time became intertwined with a rigid definition of beauty. These societal standards and individuals’ experiences shape the complicated factors that play into why some minority women use relaxers.
In my novella, the product Reenu You seductively promises an all-natural, healthy chemical-free fix to its customers –it’s billed as a hair tonic.
Although no viruses have popped up yet in women’s hair products, there’s a long and troubling history about the safety of hair relaxers. At the turn of the 20th century, the African American press reported that white-owned companies were perhaps not producing high quality hair products for their primarily Black clients.
The idea for Reenu-You developed as I watched the 1990s ‘Rio’ scandal unfold. The World Rio Corporation released a product known as Rio, billed as a natural hair relaxer. Rio was marketed almost exclusively to Black women, as an alternative to traditional relaxers.
Soon women around the country were reporting horrible reactions to Rio including itchy scalps, oozing blisters and significant hair loss. A class action lawsuit revealed that there was nothing natural, at all, about Rio. At a closer look, Rio contained a number of highly acidic chemicals!
These lawsuits continue to pop up. Presently, L’Oréal is facing a class action law suit that claims several of its hair relaxers produce harmful conditions. Also a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, documents that many beauty products “targeted toward Black women are less healthy”. Hair relaxers are at the top the list. In fact, researchers are investigating the possible connections between hair relaxers and occurrences of lupus and fibroid tumors.
Currently the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate the hair care or cosmetics industry.
Reenu-You digs into the uncomfortable space of hair and identity, leaning into all of its potential for joy and pain. I wanted to play with the trust we have as consumers about the safety of our most intimate products and raise questions about who is valued as a consumer and patient.
The stakes are higher in the novella than in the Rio case. I’m hoping Reenu-You will create more awareness about these real-life beauty horror stories.
I hope readers will carry the characters and their stories with them. The next time they visit a salon or are about to use a favorite conditioner, hair gel or dye, they might consider, what’s really in these products?
My 47th year was a pretty productive one: Three books of mine were published (The Dispatcher, in both audio and print; Miniatures; and of course The Collapsing Empire), one video game I worked on was released (Midnight Star: Renegade), I toured all around the country and saw lots of people, I had some work optioned and even won an award in Israel. Not bad. More importantly, I got to spend another year with my wife and child and with friends, all of whom I cherish beyond measure, and who have made my personal life full and wonderful.
There was that election. But, look. You can’t pin that one on me.
I have plans and ambitions for my 48th year, which outside that which you probably already know (i.e., write a whole bunch of books) I’m going to keep to myself for now. But in the spirit of commemorating the day, if you feel inclined to mark my birthday, in lieu of gifts, please consider doing the following:
1. Be decent to each other, as much as you can.
2. Be mindful of the people you care about. They’re going to need your help, and you might need theirs.
3. Donate locally, and donate critically. There are people in your own neighborhoods who could use a hand up, especially now. Also, our nation is going to need people to defend rights and principles other people seem in a rush to strip and junk. To the extent you can, give.
4. Look up from the news every once in a while and give yourself a break. This is one I especially need to remember, so I figure the rest of you could use that reminder as well. I think people can and should be engaged in the world, now more than ever. But it’s also important to know when you need to rest, so you can be more effective when you come back to it.
5. Take care of yourself. You’re not getting any younger, you know. Do things that give you joy, with people you like and love. It’s more important than you might think.
And that’s what I have for you today, on my 48th birthday. I’m looking forward to the next year.
For author and scientist Gregory Benford, his new novel The Berlin Project isn’t just a matter of speculative fiction — Benford has some very real connections to the people and characters that play a role in his alternate history. Benford’s here to lay out where fact meets fiction meets friends and family in this tome.
I got the idea for this novel when I was working on nuclear matters as a postdoc for Edward Teller. Then decades later, heard it from the guy who was at its center, and who became my father in law, Karl Cohen. All that came together when I decided to go back to writing novels in 2012.
The year 1967 seems so distant now. I was finishing my PhD thesis in theoretical physics when two of my thesis advisors took me aside and said that, just to be safe, I should apply for two postdoc positions, not just one. It was that long ago. I turned down UC Berkeley, a professorship at Royal Holloway College, London (which had read a published paper and wanted someone in that area; I’d never heard of them).
So I decided to work with Teller. In the course of many calculations and conversations, he told me of a turning point in World War Two that few knew. I heard it later from Karl Cohen:
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the effect on the US atomic program (Manhattan Project) was a one-year delay. The US Army was preoccupied with the new war in the Pacific; they failed to appoint a person to head the Manhattan Project with enough power. In 1941 the people in charge favored Urey’s centrifuge approach to producing the fuel instead of gaseous diffusion.
By 1942, General Groves was in and Urey was out of favor. Building the gaseous diffusion plant took longer than expected, and the result was a one-year delay in the project. The delay meant that the target changed away from Germany. The object of dropping an A-bomb over Germany was to prevent an invasion.
How many more concentration camp victims would have survived if the war had ended one year earlier? For one, Anne Frank. Most CC victims succumbed eventually to the rugged conditions… The difference between 1944 and 1945 as the end of the war is probably quite significant in terms of lives.
The central context for this novel came from the protagonist I chose to follow through it, Karl Cohen. I also folded in my experience of living in the US occupation of Germany in 1955-57, where my father commanded combat units.
Karl’s words made me think, because in the last year of war, whole societies collapsed. A million died each month, the Soviet Union captured many countries into subjugation, and the devastation of the Axis powers took decades to repair.
Alternative histories are ways of thinking. The entire history of nuclear weapons is interlaced with scientists considering the future, often using science fiction as a prompt. The 1913 “atomic bombs” of H. G. Wells and the Robert Heinlein and Cleve Cartmill stories in Astounding Science Fiction were indeed broadly discussed at Los Alamos –as told to me in detail by Teller.
The wartime investigation into the Astounding stories, as I depict from documents I found, now seems odd indeed. The fiction writers had no classified information at all, just good guesses. Still, this possibility was viewed as very important by the security agencies, including the FBI. As Robert Silverberg has wryly remarked, “Turning war secrets into second-rate SF stories might seem, to the dispassionate eye, a very odd way indeed of betraying one’s country.”
Karl Cohen was my father in law. In 2000 he was voted to be among the 50 most prominent American chemists of the 20th Century. But he was haunted by what he felt was his personal failure to convince the U.S. government to pursue the centrifuge approach during the war. He died in 2012 at age 99. Alas, I had only begun on the novel.
I chose to portray that era through the people I knew who were embedded in the science side of the conflict. Any portrayal of real people in fiction is an interpretation, but knowing them certainly helps.
I knew personally many figures in this novel: Harold Urey, a Nobelist who first greeted me and my twin brother at the grad students reception at UCSD in 1963; Karl Cohen, my father in law; Edward Teller, my mentor as his postdoc at Livermore Lab; Maria Goeppert Mayer, for whom I graded the homework and exams in her graduate nuclear physics course at UCSD; Freeman Dyson, whom I met at the UCSD daily coffee in 1963; Leo Szilard, another coffee break savant; Luis Alvarez, whom I invited to give a colloquium at UCI, because I wanted to meet such a fabulous character, and whose account of the Hiroshima bombing I used here; Richard Feynman, an idol to all of us; Sam Goudsmit, raconteur extraordinaire; Paul A. M. Dirac, Nobelist; John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding; Fred Reines of UC Irvine, Manhattan Project physicist and winner of a Nobel in 1995; Arthur C. Clarke, who was a radar officer in the war and then a science fiction writer. Plus many others. I have tried to echo their manner of speaking and thinking. Indeed, I included my own father, James Benford, who went into Normandy on the fifth day of the invasion and fought across France, Luxemburg, Germany and Austria.
Further, every document quoted in the novel is authentic, though some have dates altered to conform to the plot.
WWII is the drama that keeps on giving, for it touches on many problems we have today, especially the role of all-powerful weapons like nuclear, biological and chemical ones.
One of the major characters is still alive: Freeman Dyson, now 93. I gave him an advance copy recently, as the photo shows. He liked the novel’s “specific premise,” as he put it: that the errors in judgment at the beginning years of the Manhattan project might well have gone differently, yielding a very different World War II. At the end of The Berlin Project we get to see that world in 1963, the year I began graduate school.
There are plenty of wars since, but none like WWII, which killed 29 million Soviets alone, and over 60 million in total, about 3% of the world population (over 80% of them among the Allies).
Such a mixed nuclear and tactical war could lie in our future, so this thought experiment has implications for our real world in the 21st Century. The next war that sees nuclear weapons used will probably also involve substantial ground forces. Think of Pakistan-India and the deep angers of the Middle East, where resort to nuclear weapons seems inevitable among demons posing as religious purists.
But my major reason for writing The Berlin Project came from the sheer fun of it. The physics I knew already; I helped design tactical warheads while a staff member at Livermore, after my postdoc, and before I became a professor at UC Irvine. The intricate interplay of great minds in pursuit of a desperate goal, the Manhattan Project, I did not know well.
But I learned, pouring through much history buried in obscure documents. I found the ID badges for the Manhattan Project and put them in the novel, along with dozens of pictures from that era. In an historical novel, show the reality as much as you can.
My sense of the story gathering momentum as the war changes its flavor drove the writing. The battles change, the possibilities blossom. This has been perhaps my most enjoyable project, ever.
I was recently gifted with a Google Chromebook Pixel, which although now two years old is still the most specced-out Chromebook you can get (the version I received has an i7 processor, 16 gigs of ram and a 64GB SSD, as well as a retina-like touchscreen). I was delighted to get it, and can attest to it being an all around lovely laptop, as well as (of course) just about the best Chromebook I’ve come across. It can run Android apps too, which is a bonus, although I don’t find myself actually using that ability much, either on this or the other two Chromebooks I currently have in the house. Be that as it may, if you have a hankering for a Chromebook, the Pixels are still well worth looking into. Google’s not making them anymore, so supplies are limited, but on the other hand you can pick one up these days for about $400, a steep discount from their original pricing (of about $1k).
As much as I like the Pixel (and I do!), one of the things I’m aware of at the moment is that I’m currently in a moment of technological sufficiency, which is to say that I’m at a point where I don’t really have a hankering for any new bit of tech. Before the Pixel arrived I already had the latest Asus Flip Chromebook, which I liked quite a bit and which I took on tour with me, where it performed in an entirely satisfactory manner. My desktop computer is a couple years old now but still near the upper end of things, techwise; as long as it doesn’t explode I’m fine. My cell phone is likewise well-specced and I’m in no rush to upgrade it. Basically, there’s no tech out there in the world I really feel the urge to pick up. I’m good.
This is very weird for me, I should note. There’s usually a laptop or cell phone or graphics card or camera or TV or whatever that I don’t have that I wish I did, and which I’m sorely tempted to get even if I don’t exactly need it (this is what Charlie Stross calls “having to make a saving throw against shiny“). But at the moment: Nope.
I think part of the reason for this is a bit of self-awareness, i.e., no matter what new computer (or phone, or whatever) I get, I’m almost certainly going to use it for the same things I always do — in the case of a laptop, to write emails and occasionally work on a novel (if I’m not at home), and read social media. These are not things which require blazing speeds or massive computing power, which is one reason I’ve become enamored of Chromebooks in the last couple of years; they’re nicely good enough, especially now that I can get models with backlit keyboards. They are so “good enough,” in fact, that at this point (for me, anyway), it becomes increasingly difficult to justify spending hundreds more for a PC or Mac ever again. Maybe if my laptops were my primary computers (i.e., no desktop computer). But they’re not.
Also, I think I might have a little bit of technology fatigue, which is to say at this moment in time there’s nothing so particularly new or innovative in terms of technology that I feel an urge to race out and upgrade. Laptops are sufficiently small and light and capable; their functionality isn’t notably different from what it was five or even ten years ago, at least in terms of how I use them. The most recent attempts to innovate in that area amount to either removing capability (Apple ditching inputs and forcing its users to use dongles) or adding capability of dubious utility (Apple again, with their “Touch Bar”). Likewise, the newest generation of cell phones doesn’t add much to the party for me — again they’re either dropping capability (no headphone jacks? Screw you), or what’s being added doesn’t impress me much.
(Tablets, I’ll note, have dropped entirely off my radar; I loved the Nexus 7 tablet, which was the perfect size for me, but I barely use mine anymore. Likewise the iPad Mini I have, which I got because I’m working on games designed for iOS. What I used tablets for previously are now handled by my phone, which now has a large enough screen, or by my Asus Chromebook, which flips about to make a perfectly serviceable tablet, especially now that it runs Android apps.)
There’s nothing that grabs me, upgrade-wise, so I suspect I’m unlikely to upgrade until my current set of toys break. Which will be soon enough, as tech these days is not made to last. But when it does break, the question will be whether I’ll upgrade, or just… sidegrade, and get tech that is equivalent to what I have now and thus, relatively cheaper because it will no longer be the shiniest of the shinies anymore.
I don’t suspect this state of affairs will last, mind you. I am famously susceptible to new tech toys, and I suspect that soon some as-now-unheralded feature or functionality will presently become indespensible (or will at least feel like it is) and then there I will be, Fry-like, thrusting out a fist of dollars and telling someone to shut up and take my money. But for the moment? Yeah, I’m fine, tech-wise. It’s a weird feeling. But I could get used to it. And so could my wallet.
During the thinking about and writing of The Song of the Dead, author Carrie Patel came to appreciate traffic jams. Why is that? And how did it help in the construction of her novel? Patel is here to tell you.
One of my most vivid memories from grad school is of a negotiation exercise my first year. My classmates and I were divided into two teams in which we played researchers competing for a limited supply of a rare coconut. The premise was that we each needed it—and as much as we could get—in order to cure different diseases, and that winning meant having as much of the stuff as possible.
Game on, I thought.
For a half hour, we debated. We discussed the urgency of our research, the number of people we could save, and the benefits we could provide to society. After a civil and well-reasoned discussion, we divided up the coconut supply, and we all stepped back feeling like we’d won.
We’d all lost.
The catch was that one group only needed the fibers, and the other only needed the meat. We could have all gotten the maximum use of our coconuts if we’d only shared our full stories with one another. Instead, we made assumptions and went to battle because the story running through our minds was one of conflict.
If there’s one thing this exercise taught me, it’s that the stories we tell ourselves shape our goals, relationships, and outcomes. And that’s the Big Idea of The Song of the Dead.
A little background. The Recoletta trilogy is about underground cities that rise from the ashes of the Catastrophe, an unspecified historical disaster. To the people who live in the buried cities—Recoletta, Madina, and their neighbors—history is a thing to be feared. It’s a Pandora’s box of human evils, a story about how the wicked nature and dangerous technologies of ancient peoples led to their near-total destruction. Understandably, perhaps, the people of these cities see this history as a dangerous virus, and most of them want nothing to do with whatever story corrupted their ancestors.
For the third novel, I wanted to explore this idea about stories—how they shape people and how they create conflict—on a big, plot-wide scale and on a small, character-focused scale.
Zoomed out, The Song of the Dead was always going to be about societies that had built themselves up around different stories of the Catastrophe and about the conflict that those stories would inevitably rope them into.
That idea felt fresh, relevant, and compelling to me as a writer. There was just one problem: I didn’t even know the story of the Catastrophe. I just knew that it had to be massive. It had to explain the buried cities’ isolation and idiosyncrasies. It had to mean something to the characters in the present of the book.
And it couldn’t be the first thing that came to mind.
So, how do you develop a backstory that simultaneously pays off a mystery, contextualizes your world building, and motivates your current conflict?
Apparently with lots of brainstorming, pages of outlining, and some thoughtful car ride conversations with the husband.
At least there’s one reason to appreciate California traffic.
I won’t spoil anything except to say that I did finally discover the story my story needed, and after dusting my hands off over dozens of Scrivener files, pages of notes, and more than a few false starts, all I had to do was write the novel.
Fortunately, there were characters to help with that.
I wanted to give my series protagonists, Jane Lin and Liesl Malone, the same thorough treatment. Ever since I’d written the outline for Cities and Thrones, I’d wanted to bring these two women into conflict with one another. The challenge was to do that while maintaining them both as reasonable and well-intentioned people.
Fortunately, by the events of The Song of the Dead, they’ve been shaped (hammered, more like) by two very different stories. Each has a different version of the events that have pushed them to the edge, and they begin the novel glaring at each other across the gulf that has grown between them.
The question is, will they be able to step back from that conflict far enough to tell each other those stories, and will they be able to find peace enough for their world?