Before I head out to Wiscon, here are today’s new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here calls to you? Tell me in the comments!
Before I head out to Wiscon, here are today’s new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. What here calls to you? Tell me in the comments!
Things! About me!
1. This weekend I’m at Wiscon in Madison, Wisconsin. However, aside from “Sign Out,” the mass signing event the convention holds, I’m not on any programming. Why not? Because I didn’t want to be and didn’t volunteer for any. Sometimes I just hang out! So, if you’re going to Wiscon this weekend and want to say hello to me, you’re in luck (likewise, if you have a book for me to sign at Sign Out).
2. This May I’ve been in a “semi-hiatus” state to get work done on the books I’m writing, and the good news is it’s been useful! The bad news is the books aren’t done, so I’m going to go ahead and extend the semi-hiatus, probably through June. The other good news in this case is that are 13 Big Idea pieces scheduled for June, so between them, sunset pictures and cat pics (and yes, the occasional political rant from me) you should be fine for another month.
3. Really happy about the positive response to The Collapsing Empire reveal on Tuesday. This is just a heads up that there will be other reveals coming up soon as well. Yes! I have not been idle! Uh, mostly. So, you know. Stay tuned.
“What price fame?” You’ve heard the phrase before, no doubt, but with her novel Roses and Rot, author Kat Howard puts a spin on it that you’ve probably not experienced before. Here she is to explain it.
My debut novel, Roses and Rot, is an extremely loose retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad. Loose enough that I usually call it a riff, not a retelling – I took some of the pieces I liked, tossed others, switched some around. But my favorite part – the part that led to the big idea that led to the writing of the novel, well, that’s gone.
Let me explain.
It comes out in the original ballad that the young and handsome Tam Lin is in trouble because he has been stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, not exactly:
And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.
(Text from Child Ballad 39A)
And I was fascinated by this idea – the idea that somehow, somewhere in the past, something had happened to put Fairy in a sort of vassal relationship to Hell. I love this tiny piece of the ballad, but as much as I wrestled with the idea, the connection between Hell and Fairy is something I haven’t figured out it. And no matter how hard I tried to wedge anything Hell-related into early drafts of what became Roses and Rot, it didn’t work. So I had to let it go. But that didn’t mean I had to let everything go.
In the ballad, Tam Lin has no great desire to go to Hell. And so he asks his lover, Janet, to save him so he doesn’t wind up paying the tithe that Fairy owes.
Roses and Rot as it is now came out of thinking about that. About thinking about what kind of relationships were strong enough that you could ask someone to rescue you from Hell – which was, in the ballad, a difficult and dangerous task. And about what would happen if the person who was chosen for that sort of sacrifice actually wanted to go.
Hell is easily avoided if it looks like Hell. And Imogen and Marin, the two sisters at the heart of Roses and Rot, grew up in a situation that gave them a pretty good idea of what Hell looks like. They’ve spent their lives doing everything they could to make sure they got out, but it’s never quite worked. Their Hell took the form of a person, their abusive mother, and she keeps tracking them down, keeps sliding back into their lives.
But what happens if there’s something that happens after going to Hell, and that something looks like magic, like a gift, like everything you’ve ever wanted, handed to you on a plate? What if this after (or its equivalent, since Hell as a place isn’t in Roses and Rot) looked so good, there is a competition to go to Hell?
Here’s the deal. I’ll offer it to you: You get success, guaranteed, absolute top of the charts, your name lives forever, sort of success. But first, you spend seven years in a place that’s not very nice. That might in fact be so bad you could think of it as an equivalent of Hell. Oh, and not everyone who goes makes it back out alive.
Do you take the bargain?
Imogen and Marin are two young women who’ve already been through Hell once, and they’ve gotten themselves out the other side of it. They’re both artists – Imogen a writer and Marin a dancer. They’ve worked hard, made sacrifices. What’s being offered is everything they’ve ever wanted. And there’s only one spot.
Death’s a risk that might seem acceptable to you if you grew up somewhere that felt like Hell, and paying the tithe would be your guarantee that you would be safe in the future. It might also be an acceptable risk if you’re an ambitious artist, close enough to see success, but not quite close enough to securely grab it. But your death might not be an acceptable risk for someone who loves you. They might not be able to just stand back and watch you go. They might decide to save you, even if you don’t want to be saved. Even if saving you means making sure that you don’t get everything you’ve ever wanted.
Roses and Rot began as an idea about why you might send someone to Hell. It turned into a story about why you might have to save someone from walking into it on their own.
All the details are over on Tor.com, right now.
“But Scaaaaaaalzzzi, clicking through is sooooooooo much woooooooooork!”
Oh, fine. Here.
Cover artist? Sparth, aka Nicolas Bouvier, whose work will be familiar to you if you, you know, play video games at all.
But seriously, go over to that Tor.com link for more details.
Some very fine stuff here today. What is calling to you from the stack? Tell me in the comments!
Yup, that’s a nice one.
It’s another all-Baen Books day for new books. Why? Because Baen keeps sending me a ton of books, that’s why! Tell me what here in this pile looks interesting to you.
(Disclosure: Black Tide Rising (out 6/7) features a short story co-written by me and Dave Klecha.)
Question in email:
You’ve been pretty quiet about the Hugos this year so far. Now that voting is open on the finalist list, do you have anything to add?
Not really? I mean, after the initial bit of freakout, everything seems to have settled down, hasn’t it? The Puppy attempt to troll the Hugos this year consists of three categories: a) Stuff that was going to get nominated anyway, b) Stuff from people they classify as “SJWs” that they nicked off the Locus Recommended List, c) Their own stuff. My response to each category is, a) no credit, b) nice you can read someone else’s list, c) hmmm, well, this is still basically mostly shit, isn’t it? And I’ll likely vote accordingly. But it hardly seems getting much worked up about.
The only other thing to add about the Pups is that at least this year we can dispense with the polite fiction that their trolling the list is about anything other than trolling; there’s no ideological battle here, it’s just assholes trying to make other people unhappy. Which is what it was last year, too, mind you, but this year there’s no quasi-political fig leaf on it. Assholes gonna asshole, and that’s the size of it.
I do note there is a push to disqualify these trolls from the ballot. My thoughts on that: One, it’s too late for this year, the ballot is what the ballot is. Since at least a couple things on the ballot go out of their way to trash me, I think my opinion here carries a little weight (I, uh, won’t be ranking those very highly, I will note).
Two, moving forward, in a general sense I don’t have a problem with declaring ballots with obvious slating on them invalid, because slating is bullshit and contrary to the intent of the awards. That said, the Worldcon needs to make that declaration well ahead of the nomination process (along with the notation that its rulings on the matter are final and not open to debate), and it needs to make sure anti-slating rules are applied no matter who is attempting to slate. I’m also of the mind that if anti-slating procedures like E Pluribus Hugo and 4/6 are ratified and effective, then best to let them do the work.
Bear in mind that no amount of rule tweaking will keep specific bullshit off the finalist lists. There has always been stuff on the final ballots that have made people wonder “how the Hell did that get there?” The goal is to make sure that bullshit is there because people actually liked it, not because they had marching orders from the sort of sad waste of skin who has nothing better to do with his or her life than futz with the Hugo ballots.
From my own personal point of view, this year there’s enough on the Hugo ballot in most categories that I would be happy to give a rocket to, and in relatively few categories where there’s not, well, that’s what “No Award” is for. Which means, no offense to George RR Martin and a couple of other folks whom I admire, I hardly think the Hugos are wrecked, this year or permanently. There’s good stuff in there. Let’s reward it. Twenty years from now, no one will remember the silly bullshit or the assholes who spewed it, but they might remember the good stuff we chose to honor. That’s how the award is supposed to work.
Here is Athena looking toward the future (and, more prosaically, in the direction of our mailbox, but even so).
This end of the school year will bring some pretty big changes for Athena. Today is the last day of school, so technically speaking, Athena is now what they call a “rising senior.” But practically speaking, she’s done with high school. She has only one more required class between her and graduation, and she will be taking that, along with other courses, at the local community college next year. The local CC has an arrangement with the high school for students in just this sort of situation, which is nice. But it also means that Athena’s no longer going to school here in town.
Which is a pretty big deal. She’s been at the local school since kindergarten — the building houses elementary, middle and high school all in the same building — so her moving on from there is, in a very real way, a signal break from her childhood. I’m for it, in the sense that I think a year at the local community college will be useful for her both academically and in terms of her getting used to the rhythms of college before she goes off to a four-year school. But still. Changes. And more changes to come.
In any event — off into summer we go.
Bernie Sanders is not going to be president, nor is he going to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States. To date, he has won fewer electoral contests, pledged delegates and total votes than Hillary Clinton, and in each of these cases the margins aren’t close. While it is technically possible for Sanders to close the gap with Clinton in the nine contests remaining, from a practical point of view it’s impossible. In order to pull ahead in pledged delegates, Sanders would have to win something like 70% of all remaining delegates; given that he is substantially behind in polling in California and New Jersey, the two largest remaining contests, this is extremely unlikely.
Even when Sanders wins, he doesn’t win by enough — his win in Oregon, for example, netted him only nine pledged delegates over Clinton, which leaves her 272 delegates ahead. To be clear, and as I’ve said before, Hillary Clinton doesn’t have to win any more states to win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States; all she has to do is not lose too widely. If Sanders could win all nine remaining contests — which he won’t — Clinton would still end up with an overall larger number of pledged delegates and votes, so long as the contests were close enough, close enough in this case being a margin less than 68% – 32%.
Bernie Sanders is not going to going to be president, nor is he going to be the Democratic candidate for President of the United States. I know it. Clinton knows it. Most disinterested observers know it. Sanders himself almost certainly knows it, because he is not a stupid man. He’s being beaten, fair and square, in contests, pledged delegates and vote counts, even before things like superdelegates are added into the mix. The only people who don’t seem to know it are some of Sanders’ supporters.
Or, to be more accurate, a number of Sanders’ supporters are aware he’s losing, but are under the impression that the reason he’s losing is because of nefarious action and the game being “rigged,” rather than, simply, he’s won fewer contests, pledged delegates and overall votes than Hillary Clinton. Why? Because apparently these supporters just really really really want Sanders to win, and because he isn’t ahead there has to be something else at play than more Democratic primary voters preferring Hillary Clinton to their man.
This is not to say Clinton hasn’t been the preferred candidate of the Democratic establishment all along; she clearly has been. But then again, Jeb Bush was the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment this cycle, and look where that got him. You can be the preferred candidate and still have things go south. Heck, Clinton was the establishment candidate of 2008, too — she took her campaign into June, just like Sanders plans to, and still lost, to Barack Obama. Being the establishment candidate doesn’t mean much if at the end of the day someone else wins more contests, delegates and total votes than you do.
Sanders has won fewer contests, pledged delegates and overall votes than Clinton and has done so consistently since the start of the primary season; Clinton’s been ahead in all three since February 20 and the Nevada caucus, unless you think there was some skullduggery involved there (re: this nonsense), in which case she’s been ahead since February 27. It is pretty much impossible that Clinton won’t come into the Democratic convention in Philadelphia with more pledged delegates and total votes than Sanders. Sanders’ team and his supporters are floating the idea that at the convention they will try to dislodge the superdelegates currently declared for Clinton to bring them to their side and win the candidacy that way. But this would require the superdelegates to ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton was the clearly the preferred candidate of both the overall Democratic primary voters, and won more pledged delegates than Sanders. Why would they do that? Why should they do that?
The answer for a number of Sanders supporters seems to be, basically, well, because we really really really want it, and we should get what we want. And I guess it’s nice that you really really want something, but, look: Sanders has won fewer contests, pledged delegates and overall votes than Clinton, and we don’t always get what we really really want, and sometimes you just have to suck it up and be a goddamned grown up about that fact.
And then you start thinking, well, if I can’t have this thing I really, really want, what can I have? At this point, truculent Sanders supporters, either you can have someone in the White House who voted with your preferred candidate 93% of the time when they were both in the Senate, and who generally wants most of the same things your candidate wants (albeit in slightly more establishment ways), or you can have Donald Trump, who isn’t the buffoon you think he is (or, more accurately, isn’t just the buffoon you think he is), who just released a list of potential Supreme Court candidates that reads like a wish list for the reactionary right, and who will soon have the entire apparatus of the GOP chugging away for him because the GOP would rather be in the White House with an ignorant, racist buffoon than not be in the White House at all. And while I suppose a number of you would rather be “principled” and say, my guy or let it all burn, my friends, it will indeed all burn, and you will be trapped in the fire with the rest of us.
(Yes, you can also go third party, and vote for either Jill Stein of the Green Party or Gary Johnson in the Libertarian Party, etc. Have fun! But if it gets to October and the polls are depressingly close, let the specter of Ralph Nader remind you that third party votes offered primarily for protest have consequences in our political system. Yes, that sucks. Doesn’t change the fact.)
In 2008, right around this time in the election cycle, I wrote a piece about how Hillary Clinton, who was clearly not going to be the Democratic candidate that time around, but whose team and followers were thinking of certain parliamentary calisthenics which will sound familiar to Sanders supporters right about now, should let it go. She didn’t listen, of course; she slogged on through to June. Here in 2016, Bernie Sanders is not going to be the Democratic candidate, either. He, too, should let it go. I don’t expect him to listen, either. But this time the people I want to listen are his more fevered followers. Guys, you have to get ready for him not to win. He might win concessions in the platform, which would be groovy. But that’s as far as it’s going to go. He’s not going to be president, and he’s not going to be the Democratic candidate.
And when all is said and done, there will still be the general election. It’s going to be Clinton versus Trump. You’re going to have to decide what you really want for the next four years at least. It’s going to matter what you choose. Not just for yourself but for everyone else.
Sure, Arthur Conan Doyle once killed off Sherlock Holmes, but it took Paul Cornell to do terrible things to his ghost. He does it in Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? and today in his Big Idea, he explains why he thought this might be such a great plan.
The big idea behind Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? came into being in my head like a line of dominoes falling, as soon as I’d thought of the title. In the London of my Shadow Police novels, ghosts are people, either real or fictional, who are remembered by the collective minds of every Londoner, alive and dead. They’re not quite sentient. They’re only perceptible by those, like my modern Metropolitan Police officer protagonists, who’ve been gifted (or cursed) with ‘The Sight’, the ability to see London’s magic and monsters. They’re tied to the locations where they’re expected to be. So of course in that world there’s a Sherlock Holmes, and of course he’d be found at 221b Baker Street, which is, as in reality, a Holmes Museum.
Except when my heroes encounter him, he’s face down, with a ceremonial dagger through him. Because my guys somehow working alongside how the ghost of Holmes would be, in my world, with him like a hologram, unable to deduce anything, only half there… well, why are they meeting him in the first place? It’s not even interesting, it’s a side issue, a tourist attraction for them, but… if he was dead…
Holmes’ body remains ghostly, intangible, fluttering in appearance between every version of him there ever was. The deer stalker, featuring so often, is a bit more solid on his varying head. So Detective Inspector Quill, Lisa Ross, and undercovers Costain and Sefton have to work out not only why he was killed, but what it means, even, to murder a ghost. Is his ‘death’ linked to the three different productions of Sherlock Holmes which are all being filmed in London at once, leading to ‘Sherlockmania’ in the capital? (And allowing me to indulge in a bit of fond satire of all the modern Holmes brands.) Is the killing linked to whoever is committing the crimes from the Conan Doyle stories, in order, at their original London locations?
All of that filled itself in as I began to work at the central idea, and figure out what kind of a puzzle I needed this time round. I wanted it be a proper whodunit, and an astute reader is, I think, able to play along. One enormous coincidence between the locations I’d already established for the series and the Holmes canon made me leap around in delight at synchronicity at play in the world.
The case also had to allow my characters to at least begin to deal with the traumatic and terrible things that happened to them in the previous book. (Or, actually, mostly, not deal.) This is the third novel in the series which began with London Falling, but I was determined, given the popularity of the subject matter, that it be entirely accessible to new readers. If you join us here, you’ll be brought swiftly up to speed with the lives of our put-upon coppers, trying to deal with a supernatural only they’re aware of, without mentors, magical skills or special items, using only their training and an Ops Board.
The Shadow Police novels are known for their big twists, and this one is as twisty as either of the previous entries, I hope. At the end of the chapter which sets up the crime scene, an ‘orgy of evidence’ with eccentric clues scattered around Holmes’ rooms, Detective Sergeant Costain can only turn to his colleagues and say ‘mate… the game is afoot‘.
Today I received the 2016 Governor’s Award for Arts in Ohio, in the category of Individual Artist (along with Janice Lessman Moss, who is a fiber artist), and the award came in the form of some very striking prints of flowers, made by Paula Wilmot Kraus, each chosen with specific intent for the particular recipient. Mine, for example, was of poppies, which look sort of otherworldly. It was a lovely gift, given during a lovely lunch and ceremony.
I had been genuinely surprised to be given the award, since in the history of the award, which stretches back a couple of decades at least, it was only very rarely given to a writer, and never before to one who specialized in science fiction. So I was delighted to received it and very happy the Ohio Arts Council decided to go a bit into left field for the choice. And of course it’s nice to be recognized by one’s state for what one does, which in my case is to sit in an office in the tiny rural town of Bradford and write about the whole rest of the universe.
Thanks, folks. It’s deeply appreciated.
For my birthday my excellent friend Regan procured for me a Qwerkywriter keyboard, which is designed to mimic the look and clicky-clicky feel of an old school typewriter keyboard while still giving you the functionality of a modern computer keyboard. People have asked me to give a report on the thing, and I’ve been using it for a day now, which is enough time for me to give you some first impressions of it.
First off, you should all know that I am not the best person to vouch for how it feels compared to an actual typewriter, since the last time I used an actual typewriter for anything was freshman year in high school, when I typed just fast enough on a manual typewriter (25 words a minute) to be excused from a compulsory typing class. Since then all my writing, creative or otherwise, has been done on a computer. So while I can appreciate the old-school aesthetic of the Qwerkywriter, which is indeed endearing as promised, for those of you who were hoping for a report on whether this would offer a 1:1 experience to a Smith-Corona or IBM Selectric, I’m afraid I can’t help you there.
That said, I do have a frame of reference with manual computer keyboards, i.e., the older keyboards where there was a full and distinct “click” with each key depression. And as for those, well, yeah, this does the trick. The keys are clicky and clattery and for the folks who really get off on that sort of sensuously tactile experience when they type, this is probably going to ping their pleasure centers pretty hard.
For the record, I’m not someone who needs my keyboard to make a huge amount of noise, nor do I really care too much about the tactility and travel of the keys — I’ve spent too much time on laptops for that. But I do find the travel and clackery of the keys pleasant enough, and the noise does vaguely remind me of my days in a newsroom, which is a nice sense memory.
In terms of the physical aspects of the keyboard, it’s reasonably solidly built; the chassis of the keyboard is metal, as are the keytops (the mechanical aspects of the keys appear to be plastic). The keys are slightly wiggly at the top but the underportions are solidly placed into the base. The height of the base and of the keys put them at a substantial height off your desk, so if you’re used to a low profile keyboard, as I am, this will take a little getting used to and you should probably make adjustments to how you sit and type to make sure your wrists don’t suffer any undue strain (note this would be the case with any keyboard different from what you usually use; this is not a specific complaint against the Qwerkywriter). The keys are not backlit, so if that’s an important thing to you — and it is for me — be aware of that.
I type reasonably quickly (and idiosyncratically) and the keyboard had no problems keeping up with me; at the moment I’m typing slower on it than on my usual keyboard, and making more errors, but that seems more to do with me having to get used to the keyboard than anything with the keyboard itself. The Qwerkywriter connects via Bluetooth and does a pretty good job with it. I was able to connect with my Android tablet (shown in the picture above) and also to my desktop computer without any problems at all, and haven’t had any connectivity issues of note. The makers of the keyboard say that once it’s charged it can type for months before recharging, which I can’t speak to yet. Obviously it seems to be chugging along just fine.
Criticisms? A couple. One, the return bar is functional (whack it and your cursor drops a line, or you can program it for other functionality), but it really is an affectation, especially if like me you’ve never really spent any time on a typewriter. Also, because I’m not used to a metal bar being on my keyboard, my hand runs into it a lot, which I find vaguely annoying. If you’re a true touch typist who puts your hands like you’re supposed to, maybe this won’t be a problem. The base also has a fake roller bar in it, which is cute but otherwise inessential.
There’s a slot in the back for you to place a tablet or phone in, which is great (see above), but leads me to another complaint, which is not about the Qwerkywriter but is about mobile word processing apps, namely, that at this point they still don’t have some basic functionality (for example, neither Microsoft’s Office online version or Google’s Docs mobile app have the option to set a ruler on your document; Apple’s Pages does but I’m not usually working on the Apple side of things), which for me right now limits the usefulness of the tablet/keyboard setup. Your mileage, quite obviously, may vary on this (you may not have the need/desire to very specifically format as I do).
Also, for gamers, I’m not entirely sure that this is a fantastic keyboard for that. On one hand it is mechanical, which many gamers like, but on the other hand it is Bluetooth rather than directly wired, which introduces lag, and also given the key shapes, I sense a lot of opportunity for flubbed key presses.
Finally, and this is just me, but I sort of question whether I would take it out into public. It’s certainly portable (the keyboard is just under three pounds) but it’s also a little… I don’t know, precious? It’s one thing to bring a laptop into a coffee shop. It’s another thing to bring your Qwerkywriter, chunk it down, slip your tablet into the back, and clack away while you chug your soy latte. I feel like the hipster police will burst through the door in their skinny jeans and haul you away.
At home, it feels indulgent and (yes) just quirky enough to be fun. Out in the world, it might come across as oh my God look at me I am a really real writer as you can tell by my important clicky sounds. Again, I’m fully willing to admit this is a personal hang-up; I have a well-known bias against writing in public areas anyway. So take this as you will. You might be happy to be out in public with this, you shameless hipster, you.
My personal neuroses notwithstanding, the Qwerkywriter seems like a solid, pretty and enjoyable mechanical keyboard which I can recommend if you like the basic feature set of mechanical keyboards and also enjoy the old-school typewriter aesthetic. Be aware that you will be paying a premium for that aesthetic — these things are currently going for $350 — but if you’re down with that, go for it and have a ball.
(A link to the Qwerkywriter site, by the way; the other links above were to the ThinkGeek sales page.)
Madeline Ashby takes a while to summarize her work, including her latest novel, Company Town. But as you’ll see in this big idea, this isn’t (just) because she’s not great at making a fast pitch. It’s because there’s a whole lot going on in what she writes.
Veronica Mars versus The Terminator.
That’s how I came to think of my latest novel, Company Town, available today from Tor Books. I wish I could tell you that I’d made that pitch right from the start. But in truth, my pitching game just isn’t that strong. When I pitched my first novel, vN, I rambled on for a full half-hour before the editor smiled patiently and told me I should work on my pitching technique. He bought the book anyway.
I do get better at describing my novels after I’ve been working on them, for a while. It’s a bit like trying to explain a dream to one’s therapist: you think the nightmare is about a blinding black fog that swallows you whole, but as you narrate it, you realize it’s really about depression. I often feel that I don’t truly know what the book is “about” until I’m writing posts like these. And I rarely come up with a catchy, high-concept elevator pitch until far too late in the game.
“It’s about seeing,” I told some students at the University of Toronto about Company Town. I was there to answer questions about vN, which they’d been assigned to read and discuss. They asked about my next book, and I described it in much the same way io9 did, only with a lot more rambling and cursing: “In the near future, everybody is enhanced, with implants and other improvements that make them stronger, smarter, and more on top of everything that’s going on. Except for one person, Hwa—and her lack of enhancements turns out to be her superpower. Hwa works as a bodyguard, protecting sex workers in an oil rig that’s basically its own independent city state. But after the oil rig is bought by the wealthy Lynch family business, Hwa gets roped into protecting the youngest member of the Lynch family, instead. And meanwhile, someone is killing local sex workers, Jack-the-Ripper style.”
What that summary doesn’t mention until later is that Joel Lynch, the boy Hwa is charged to protect, appears to be receiving death threats from the future. Hwa figures the threats are bullshit, and suspects someone within the family of trying to de-stabilize Joel’s position as the heir apparent. It’s a classic noir plot: the bad-ass brought in to do a dirty job, who discovers family secrets in the family business. Only these family secrets have to do not just with big money and real estate and inheritance, but the future itself, and one very ruthless vision of it.
In my other line of work, I help people design for the future. Which means imagining many possible futures, and encouraging others to do the same. After all, as Alex Steffen is fond of saying, you can’t build what you can’t imagine. That’s the guiding principle of a lot of strategic foresight work, and it’s also a principle of Project Hieroglyph, an anthology and an ongoing project I am happy to participate in.
But doing this work means that you run up along a lot of different visions of the future, some of them not so nice, and some of them just plain horseshit. Once at a conference, I was doing a book signing with a prominent transhumanist who told a man in his sixties that yes, there would be more time to make up with his kids. Yes, even though he hadn’t spoken to them in years. Yes, he could expect a series of innovations — neural implants, smart drugs, genetic editing, whatever — to prolong his lifespan so that he could make up for whatever he’d done wrong. He said this with a straight face. Maybe he even believed it. To this day, I’m not sure.
Experiences like that got me thinking about competing futures. About how so many people view the future as a zero-sum game: I win, you lose. “Who are the winners and losers in this scenario?” is a question I get asked, a lot. Barring a major disruption (like, say, the arrival of the Internet, or the arrival of penicillin, or the birth control pill, or, or, or…) the answer is usually that the “winners” then will probably be the winners now, and the “losers” then will probably be the losers, now, because structures of power exist solely to perpetuate themselves and therefore the status quo. But thinking about “winners” and “losers” elides the variety of experience along a spectrum of possible futures, and offers only a narrow view of success or failure. The dystopia is already here. It’s just unequally distributed.
Company Town gets called a dystopia, and on some level, I guess it is. It’s a world of rampant genetic discrimination, and uncontrolled corporate oligarchy. Poverty still exists. But in a lot of ways I think it may be my most optimistic novel, yet. There’s alternative energy and vertical farming. Sex work is decriminalized and unionized and for the most part it’s a lot safer. It takes place in Canada, so there’s socialized medicine. (But it takes place in Atlantic Canada, so abortion access was once limited.) And those implants? And gene therapies? They actually work.
It’s not always great. But it’s not always awful, either. And that’s the future.
I attended the 2016 Nebula Weekend and its concurrent awards ceremony, hosted by John Hodgman (shown here with friend) and I took about 800 pictures of the reception and ceremony. The best 9% or so of these pictures is now available for your perusal at this Flickr album of the event. It’s just like being there!
Also, in case you need it, the list of award winners and other nominees is here. An excellent set of nominees all around, and I was thrilled for each of the winners. Congratulations to all!
Really a quintessential urban hotel view, I have to say.
In other news, hello, here I am in Chicago, to do events for BEA and for SFWA. You can find out about both here, and if you’re in Chicago, and wanted to have physical proof that I actually exist in meatspace, those would be the places to do it.
And yes, I’ve had deep dish pizza while I was here in Chicago. As one does.
GUY GAVRIEL KAY:
I’ve told a cute (and even true!) origin story of Children of Earth and Sky elsewhere. It involves my Croatian publisher driving too fast on a Roman road from Zagreb to the Dalmatian coast and suddenly getting An Idea: he told me I really needed to write a book about the Uskoks – Renaissance era pirates of the Adriatic whose town had been just ahead of where we were. (I didn’t know that back then, either, don’t feel badly.)
That was a decade ago, just about, but I did write that book. My new book. Eventually. Two other books came first, but…
But what I want to talk about here is another element of the origins of the novel. It isn’t the funny part, with me urgently asking him to please watch the twisty road instead of gesturing excitedly with both hands and twisting to look at me. This is the, well, the ‘thinking about the past’ part. Serious? I guess. But that’s what I do, for better or worse. I read a lot in history, I correspond with scholars, I buy them drinks, I travel, I steep myself like a Canadian teabag in boiling branch water. (Yes, I mixed northern and southern geography big time there, but I like it, so just … leave it alone, John Scalzi!)
So, the other key to Children coming together for me was a passage in a book. A great book. A monument of historical writing called The Mediterranean World In the Age of Philip II, by Fernand Braudel. I could write an essay on the greatness of Braudel, but I’ll let those intrigued google him (then read him!). I’ll say I first read this magisterial work when I was researching A Song For Arbonne 25 years ago, but it occurred to me that I might just possibly not have it entirely memorized, and a reread might be useful for the new book, mixed in with the books and articles I’d collected as I entered the research phase for Children.
Good idea, that. I get them sometimes. There is so much to be learned in Braudel, for anyone interested in the subtle, long-term forces that act upon history – and therefore on us. But here comes the point, for this essay. One passage. A short passage in a massive book leaped out at me, made me grab pen and notebook and write it down. Here you go:
“Between two enemy religions it would be unwise to imagine a watertight barrier. Men passed to and fro, indifferent to frontiers, states, and creeds. They were more aware of the necessities of shipping and trade, the hazards of war and piracy, the opportunities for complicity or betrayal…”
It wasn’t that this was a shocking new thought. It is a motif I’d even touched on before in books, but the awareness came hammering home that this – this! – was a part of what the new book was going to build itself around. I was already thinking about borderlands, lives lived there, the instability (often violently so) of where the borders were, the wars waged to change them, the decisions of the ‘great’ hugely impacting ordinary lives.
What Braudel reminded me was that it went the other way, too! Men and women did not necessarily subscribe to the desires and ambitions of their leaders. They wanted to get on with their lives. Feed and shelter their children, cut enough firewood for the coming winter, build fences to protect the livestock, walls against raiders, trade with the so-called enemy (even ‘infidels’ at times) if it would help get food for those children. They wanted to arrange to marry their daughter to the son of the farmer next door (unless they hated the farmer next door). They were preoccupied by a laborer’s illness at the wrong time (harvest season!), by an insult in the tavern, by fears for their own immortal soul. They thought about trade goods and desire and gossip and needing new oxen and the pleasures of a spring morning with the leaves coming.
These ideas, these priorities in the lives of people locked in for me as core themes for the new book. I’d aim for a novel that touched upon, that even appeared generated by a massive conflict among powerful empires and states. But I’d use that as a backdrop, a framework, for a book that paid really close attention to how men and women sought (with varying success) to live and shape their own lives in such times, across such borders, during the wars.
That’s what a single passage in Braudel brought back home to me, and what Children of Earth and Sky told me it wanted to be about, right then. That’s what I’ve tried to make it. The stories of the ‘great’ are not the only stories we have to tell.
If you live in or near Chicago and want to see me and maybe even get a book signed by me this weekend, there are two events I will be at for you to find me at:
Friday, May 13 at 8pm: I’ll be participating in the SFWA Conference Mass Signing, in the Red Lacquer Room of the Palmer House Hilton. And not just me but literally dozens of science fiction and fantasy authors, including many of this year’s Nebula Award nominees (click on the link above to see them). This signing is free and open to the public; you can bring your own books or booksellers will be on hand to sell you things. You may also, if you like, attend the full SFWA Conference, which will have panels devoted to professional enrichment for authors — here’s more information on how to attend the whole weekend.
Saturday, May 14 at 2pm: I’m signing at Bookcon, at the West Building of McCormick Place, booth 1958. And again, not just me: There will be many authors signing books and doing panels at Bookcon, including some of the very hottest of YA authors. Bookcon is a ticketed event.
These are currently my only scheduled public events in Chicago for 2016, so if you want to see there — this is the time!
Gentle reader, was it chance or providence that brought you here today to read Ada Palmer’s Big Idea piece about her novel, Too Like the Lightning? And does it matter if it were either? And what do chance and/or providence (or the mindset that would attribute your presence here to either) have to do with Palmer’s novel? Gentle reader, read on.
Too Like the Lightning has a cover with flying cars swooping in to land on a sparkling futuristic city above a modernist sans-serif title font. Its first page has 18th century period typography and woodblock ornaments, with permissions in French and Latin saying that its publication has been approved by religious censors and the King of Spain. The cover and title page together give you a kind of temporal whiplash, and genre whiplash too: is this historical fiction or SF? And that temporal/genre whiplash is exactly what the book is like.
In college I read Voltaire’s short story “Micromegas” (1752), one of the oldest works we can unreservedly label science fiction. In it, a pair of giant aliens—one from Saturn and one from a huge planet orbiting Sirius—visit the Earth. Since they stand many miles tall, at first they think Earth is uninhabited, but then they spot a (tiny tiny) whale, and then a ship, which turns out to be swarming with (microscopic) creatures with language: humans.
So far this First Contact story could run in Analog, but the fact that “Micromegas” is 250 years old manifests, not in its premise, but in what the humans and aliens talk about once contact has been made: How is the Hand of Providence visible in the designs of our three planets? Is Descartes right? Newton? Which is the best form of government, absolute monarchy or constitutional monarchy? Thomas Aquinas says God designed the whole universe for the good of mankind, what do you think of that, mile-tall giant aliens who live for 50,000 years? (They laugh.)
For me, the exciting difference between “Micromegas” and a modern short story is what I call Voltaire’s “question palette”, i.e. the big hot issues of Voltaire’s day, which he used aliens to investigate, the same way modern authors have used them to investigate 20th century questions, like the limits of what it means to be human, or the possibilities and consequences of democracy, empire, fascism and other modern political movements. Science fiction’s question palette has shifted many times over the 20th and (now) 21st centuries too—reacting to Marxism, DNA breakthroughs, the Cold War, and 9/11 as Voltaire reacted to Hobbes, the microscope, the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Lisbon Earthquake—but shifts over decades are nothing compared to shifts over centuries.
When you read Voltaire’s science fiction, his unfamiliar questions make it feel like you’re reading science fiction written by an alien as well as about an alien, since its author is an alien in time. Given how complex and weird history is, a mind from 1750 is often a lot stranger and more alien than the aliens we invent to populate our alien planets, and anyone who reads or watches old SF (think original Star Trek) can see the mores of the decade it was created leaking through in every “alien” society.
That’s what I wanted to do in my Terra Ignota series, to write something that would feel alien the way Voltaire feels alien, by writing in a classic SF setting but with an 18th century question palette. Too Like the Lightning takes place in the 2450s, in a pretty great future, not perfect, but full of flying cars, glittering cities, robot helpers, and school trips to the Moon, the classic signatures of World-of-Tomorrow type Golden Age SF futures. But the narrator writes in an Enlightenment voice: personal, opinionated, intimate like memoir, with long tangents about philosophy and history, and personal addresses to the “Gentle Reader.”
The question palette is Enlightenment to match: “Do you think it was Chance or Providence, reader, which made his flying car touch down on that particular morning?” We meet these kinds of questions a lot in historical fiction, and period fiction, but no one has asked them of a Golden Age type science fiction future before. They bring out different issues: constitutional governments vs. tradition-based governments, balancing religion and Reason, the best kind of monarchy, cultural relativism when it was a quirky new idea, and questions about the place of humanity in the cosmos when the cosmos was a very different shape.
I put a lot into my world building—new government models, family structure, identities—but I tried to build these out of 18th century trends too, imagining a future with roots in the long continuity of historical change. I don’t skip the 20th century—this future has continuity with our present—I just did my “What should be different in the future?” brainstorming by focusing on the things which started to change 250 years ago and are still changing now, instead of concentrating on 20th century changes. For example, Enlightenment radicals really wanted to reform the justice system, to get away from torture and the death penalty, and try deterrence-based justice instead of retribution-based justice.
We’re still deep in that same reform process, discussing the definition of torture and the utility of incarceration, so my 25th century judicial system uses 20th century ideas, and 18th century ideas, and even 16th century ideas that are all part of one long-term debate. After all, ideas get revived a lot in history. If the authors of the US Constitution were looking in part at ancient Greek democracy, then aren’t political reformers in the 2450s as likely to get ideas from 1750 as 1950?
So, that’s why my cover and my title page seem like a mismatch, but both are just right for a future built out of the past, rather than out of the present, and approached with a question palette from the past as well. And it turns out that, if you ask a different century’s questions, a Golden Age flying cars future has a lot of new things to tell us.
When you do a public reading of the first chapter of your book, you always get some un-answerable questions, the ones whose answers would be a huge spoiler, like “Who planned the break-in?” or “The narrator is a convict, but what did he do?” But I was shocked (and delighted) at my very first ever reading to get exactly the right un-answerable question, the one which Voltaire, and Diderot, and the Marquis de Sade (he’s from the Enlightenment too, after all) would have asked right away of any book like this. A question which proved I’d started the book off right: “So, is there Providence?” Spoiler!
Yesterday morning, on the eve of my 47th birthday, Krissy asked me “do you feel old?” The question was rooted partly in the fact that today is my 47th birthday, partly because we were talking about time passing in a general sense, and partly because — and this is a thing they don’t tell you very often when you’re younger and you probably wouldn’t believe it even if they did — you don’t really ever feel different no matter what your age. You just go through life and then one day you’re 47 or something.
Here’s one answer to the question: No, I don’t feel old. 47 isn’t actually old, unless one has a career in sports, and I don’t. I certainly have more aches and pains than I used to. Last week I went in to get my leg checked because the spot where I tore my calf muscle last year was acting up again and the doctor said, basically, dude, you’re in your mid-40s, maybe you should stretch every once in a while. I’m balder than I used to be and I find it harder now to lose weight than I did even a few years ago, and my knees appear to be frequently unhappy with me.
But on balance these are minor things, and overall I still get to do what I want to do, physically, when I want to do them. Mentally I’m chugging along as well as I ever have, or least that’s how it appears from the inside; as far as the outside is concerned, well, you tell me. I don’t feel old, I just feel like me.
That said, another answer to the question is that I don’t feel young anymore, either. Some of this is due to the fact that there are two full generations of adults younger than me now, and some of those adults aren’t particularly young, either — sorry, everyone in their mid-thirties. Two generations of adults being younger doesn’t make me feel old, but it reminds me that the only way I’d be considered “young” is if I ran for president or landed on the Supreme Court (very unlikely in both cases). I’m also aware that adults responsible for big things are now my age or younger — the new mayor of London is younger than I am, and both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who ran for president, are younger than I am, too. Lots of important people now are people I could have gone to high school with; part of me finds that vaguely terrifying.
The other part of me doesn’t, however, which brings me to my third answer, which is that I don’t feel old, but I definitely feel like I’m an adult. This is one way of saying that I don’t look around anymore to find out who the grown-up is in any room. It’s me, or at least I’m one of them. Part of being an adult to me is knowing what your skills are and being confident in them (and when you don’t have particular skills, not being embarrassed about it — life’s like that). Part of it is being able to make decisions for yourself and others and being able to make a plan, even if that plan is “find someone who knows what the hell they’re doing.” Part of it is being responsible for yourself and, when appropriate, for others. And so on.
This doesn’t mean adults can’t be uncertain, or neurotic, or exasperated or whatever; I’m all of those things from time to time. It’s more of the knowledge that even with those things, no one else is coming to do the things you need to do. You might as well get on with it. I’ve been with that program for a while now.
I don’t think it’s that hard to be an adult, especially when one is in one’s forties; presumably by that time you will have had some practice. This is why I’m always surprised and usually sad when I see people well in the full flower of their thirties and forties or even older than that, amazingly, acting like petulant or obnoxious children, not just once in a while (we all have our moments, alas) but pretty much all the time as far as I can tell. Age does not in fact bring wisdom, unfortunately. With these folks generally I try to be charitable and assume they have some adulting skills somewhere that I’m not seeing, and otherwise steer clear of them when I can.
I like being an adult; I happen to think I’m pretty good at it. My wife is better at it, I will note, and I can rattle off a number of people of my acquaintance who I think are better at it than I am, some of them younger (and almost all of them women, as it happens). Nevertheless I know my strengths, and my weaknesses, and have several of each. I work on each of them as needed and appropriate, in part because I know that at this point, there’s no way out of being an adult. I’m going to have to keep doing it for the rest of my life. That’s fine by me.
I think in some ways the word for how I feel at 47 is “settled,” in what I think is a very positive sense. I am well-established in my career, and happy in my personal and professional life. I have enough in my past that I feel secure in what I do and my place in the world, but I think I have more accomplishments and opportunities in still front of me. It’s a nice place to be, and it’s a nice place from which to set out to do other things. I’m looking forward to it, and to the next year.