My Thoughts on Nerdcon:Stories

I attended Nerdcon:Stories as a featured guest this last weekend, and let me tell you why I think it was one of the best conventions I’ve been to in a while.

1. It was shockingly well-run, especially for a first-time convention. From my point of view as a guest, everything went off almost without a hitch, and when I did have a hitch (my family’s badges went missing), it was resolved in roughly a minute and a half, without any sort of fuss. The backstage areas were tightly and professionally run, Nerdcon staff were on top of things to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be, and the guests were provided places, during convention hours and outside of them, to relax and hang out with each other. It ran more smoothly than nearly any other convention I’ve been to, much less a first-time convention, in which it was understood this was the “shake-out” cruise, as it were, to see where the problems were for next time.

I suspect that one reason it ran so smoothly was that while it was a first-time convention, the people running it were not first-timers; it was Hank Green and his crew from VidCon. VidCon’s been around for five years now and the 2015 iteration of it had 20,000 attendees, so Nerdcon’s 3,000 (or so) attendees probably were not a huge challenge to manage relative to that. I expect Hank’s team grafted some of their best practices at VidCon onto Nerdcon, and tweaked from there as the show went along.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, a first-time convention is a first-time convention. There are things you don’t know that can go wrong simply because they’ve never happened before. You’re flying blind, basically. The Nerdcon staff handled it all very very well. As someone who’s been in the chain of command for running a convention, I was impressed.

2. It wasn’t too big. 3,000 is a healthy size for a convention — ask most science fiction conventions if they’d like to have 3,000 attendees — but what I mean by “big” here is that Nerdcon didn’t try to do every single possible thing the first time out of the gate. The convention had “main stage” track of events, three auditoriums to run panels out of, and a signing room. By and large the “main stage” programming didn’t cut into the panels and signings, and vice versa. There was enough to do, but it didn’t feel overwhelming, or that some guests (and fans) had been flung off into some far province of the convention. Also, from the guest point of view, it also meant that everything you participated in was well-attended, which is a nice thing, too, for various reasons.

3. The featured guest list was well-curated, diverse and multidisciplinary. The emphasis for the convention was on storytelling (as evidenced by the convention’s full title, “Nerdcon:Stories”), but the convention took a small “c” catholic approach to what “storytelling” was, which meant that among the featured guests there were writers and pod-and-vid-casters and musicians and performers and playwrights and others, and all sorts of combinations of the above. The convention also made the point to reflect the diversity of creativity in terms of who creates as well, very easily giving lie to the idea that it’s somehow difficult to find enough amazingly talented people from diverse backgrounds to fill a convention’s featured guest roster.

In short, Nerdcon’s guest list wasn’t just “the usual suspects,” however you imagine that phrase to function. This was great for the convention, but it was also good for the guests, including me. I can guarantee you that a very large chunk of the Nerdcon audience had no idea who I was before the convention. Now they know me, if nothing else, as “the guy who got killed on stage during the puppet show.”

4. None of the featured guests were jerks. The guest list was also well-curated in that everyone involved, as far as I can see, was really into the idea that we were all storytellers, and that we were happy to cross the streams to engage and perform with each other, not just on panels but in other events as well. None of the featured guests — again, as far as I could tell — fell into hierarchical panic mode, trying to figure out who was the most famous or talented person in the room, and if someone did, they were probably defeated in the attempt by the fact that since so many of the guests were from different creative fields than they, any stab at a ranking would fail.

Which is good! Screw hierarchy! Better — and more fun for everyone, guests and attendees alike — if everyone on the stage just plain trusted their colleagues up there with them to be interesting and smart and talented. It seemed to work. This is was a refreshingly ego-free (or at the very least, ego-reduced) convention. I liked it. And I liked what came out of it: A chance to get up on a stage with other really talented, very smart people and put on a show for a willing audience. Which leads to the next point:

5. The convention placed an emphasis on keeping the crowd entertained. Small fan-run conventions are often more about the fans running (and attending) the conventions than the people invited as guests; large, comic-con-sized conventions are often more about being a marketplace of toys and art and autographs. This isn’t a complaint in either case — I enjoy cons large and small for the reasons mentioned above — but as a guest and in a very real sense a performer, I liked that Nerdcon was about putting on a storytelling show for an audience that had come to see that very thing.

I especially liked the “Main Stage” chunks of the convention, which featured a number of fast moving bits (rapid fire Q&A, three-song-concerts, mock debates, etc) that gave the convention an almost vaudeville feel, as in, “bored with this bit? Wait a few minutes.” That combined with the performers’ general willingness to dive in and just plain entertain meant that even if something flopped (and very little seemed to do that) it wasn’t because those of us up on stage didn’t make an effort.

(On the flip side, it helped that Nerdcon was also a very forgiving audience — they wanted to be entertained, and seemed delighted that we were willing to oblige. Thanks, folks!)

6. It didn’t go on too long. The convention was two days and done: Friday and Saturday and that was all she wrote. Enough time for everyone to have fun, not so long that one got that “hangover” feeling on the last day of the convention (“why are we all even still here?”). This is not to say two days is somehow the optimal length for a convention, merely that it seemed to be the optimal length for this one.

Having praised Nerdcon:Stories highly, let me now note I’m not saying that every convention should be like Nerdcon; they shouldn’t. Nerdcon feels to me like a very specific species of a larger genus of “convention.” It’s not a small science fiction convention or a comic-con-sized media convention, and it’s not like a book fair or trade show. It’s a specific, tuned event: a cross-disciplinary, performance-based convention. In a very real sense there’s not much out there that’s like it — the closest thing I can actually think of to it is the JoCo Cruise, in point of fact, although there are a whole lot of differences there as well.

I think that a lot of what Nerdcon has done could be applicable to other cons (for example, how they ran their signing room, which featured a sitting area for people waiting for autographs, which was brilliant and makes me wonder why it was the first time I’ve seen that outside of a bookstore event, where people were already sitting before the signing), but I don’t know that the gestalt of Nerdcon is transferable. It may be its own thing.

Or, it may be the start of another type of thing: of cross-disciplinary, diverse, performance-centered conventions like Nerdcon. Which I certainly wouldn’t mind — if they were done as well as Nerdcon managed this time.

All of which is to say: Nerdcon:Stories was a blast. I’m glad I was part of it, and glad I got to meet really excellent people, on its stage and off of it. I want to come back and do it again.

John Scalzi was the last to arrive so he had to make a grand entrance. Well done, sir. #nerdconstories

A photo posted by Genevieve (@gen719) on

John Scalzi and @maureenjohnsonbooks at @nerdconstories .

A photo posted by Genevieve (@gen719) on

The great flying Scalzi at @nerdconstories .

A photo posted by Genevieve (@gen719) on

The Big Idea: David Barnett

In today’s Big Idea for Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper, author David Barnett admits to some of the things he doesn’t know… or didn’t, until he started writing this book.


One of the first things you get told as a writer is “write what you know”.

Which is a fine idea, out of which you will probably get precisely one book.

First novels are wonderful things, into which we pour everything, all our heartbreak and joy and love and hate and intimate knowledge of the internal combustion engine and the 1969 Football Association Challenge Cup Final.

They can be a cathartic experience. Sometimes they can actually be good novels. And on occasion, they can actually be published. But they’re a necessary step on the road to becoming a novelist, and once they’re done they free up the writer to do the stuff that’s really fun about writing books, and which no-one really tells you about.

I’m talking about writing what you don’t know.

The third book in my Gideon Smith series of alternate-history Victorian fantasies (oh, go on, then, call it steampunk if you want to – I’m feeling in expansive mood) is published today, via Tor in the US and Snowbooks in the UK. It’s called Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper and it’s absolutely stuffed to the gunwales with things I don’t know – or at least, I didn’t know before I started writing it.

If there’s one big idea in Mask of the Ripper, I suppose it would be identity, and whether we really are what we think ourselves to be and what other people tell us we should or shouldn’t be. This is explored in various ways – the (nominal) protagonist Gideon is stripped of his memory and set adrift in a riot-torn London of Christmas 1890; a major character is charged with murder and their identity which we have come to accept is revealed to be a carefully constructed fiction. Then there is Maria, the mechanical girl introduced in the first book, who is seeking some answers concerning her own place in the world.

But dancing around the big idea are lots and lots of little ideas, and these zephyrs which keep the main theme aloft are largely composed of things of which I knew nothing before writing the book, or at least knew very little.

It can be quite exciting. It’s pointing your airship at the bit of the map marked terra incognita, here be dragons, do not cross. It’s stretching your writerly muscles, rather than just chucking in the same old same old.

Thus, for Mask of the Ripper, I found myself learning all about the early days of research into DNA. It was quite important for me that the trial of the character on a murder charge featured this timeline’s first usage in criminal proceedings of DNA evidence. Only problem was, 1890 was a little early for this in reality.

So I had to find out when it all happened, fit it into my own alternate-history, and spend long hours chewing over often impenetrable essays so I could work out whether or not I could have what I wanted: a device or machine that would allow DNA samples to be tested in front of a Crown Court jury with rather dramatic results.

(The scientists among you will be throwing up their hands in horror; relax. This is fantasy. I got all of the science together, gave it a bit of a stir, then made some stuff up. It happens).

For another character, I needed some motivation that would put him in London’s sewers with a team of Thuggee assassins. I came up with the Great Famine of 1876-78 in India. The sub-continent at that time was, of course, under the control of the British Empire, both in reality and in Gideon Smith’s world. The British were building a great canal, a show of strength, a Victorian architectural and engineering marvel – but ultimately a folly. Hundreds of thousands of Indians died in the famine, and the British made it worse by putting them to work on the canal that would ultimately carry their rice and grain away from the starving masses and on to British dinner tables. So, yeah, motivation there.

And finally, I had Gloria Monday. Gloria is just a supporting character in the book, and I wish I could have made more of her. Gloria is a trans woman, another concept I had to bend to my steampunk will to make it fit into my timeline. I’m indebted to Cheryl Morgan, a writer an publisher who looked at my Gloria chapters and deemed them to be, if not wonderful, at least not as offensive as they could be.

Because as a white dude from the north of England, the chances are I’m going to have screwed that one up substantially. And fear of that almost made me not write Gloria.

But… write what you don’t know.

Why? Well, a writer who repeatedly dashes off novels that require no research or stretching of imagination and knowledge would, eventually, be doing their readers a disservice, I think.

Certainly, I would. If I wrote only what I know, or was comfortable with writing, it would make for very boring books in the long run, safe books, books that take no chances.

There’s always a risk with taking chances that you will offend, upset, just plain get it all wrong wrong wrong and piss everyone off.

Or you may get it completely right and be the toast of book-land.

Or, which is more likely, you may get it both right and wrong, but with a bit of a tailwind you might get it more right than wrong, have learned something in the process, and planted your flag in a tiny little bit of terra incognita… at least for you.


Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Amazon UK

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

This is What Twitter is Made For, 10/12/15

Where will this conversation go next? I’m sure you’re just quivering with antici –

My Annual Moment of Appreciation for WordPress VIP

On October 8, 2008, I switched my blog hosting solution from its previous, sadly buggy and performance-issue-ridden state, to WordPress VIP. In the seven(!) years since, the downtime I’ve experienced on the blog due to technical or backstage issues has been so small that I literally can’t remember a single one longer than fifteen minutes, and I can only remember one of those. It’s been so solid that I never even think to worry if a larger site links in here; I know however many people come to visit, the site can handle it.

Which is to say that yet again I can whole-heartedly endorse WordPress VIP as a back-end and technical support solution for your blog and site hosting needs. Good people, great know-how and the best-of-class capability. I’m delighted to have Whatever on VIP.

And no, this annual “hey these folks are awesome” message is not bought and paid for, nor expected by WordPress VIP. I do it because when something works, you let people know it works, and you recommend it. WordPress VIP works for me. I recommend it.


Strange Horizons 2015 Fund Drive: Invest in the Future!

As many of you know, I’m fond of Strange Horizons magazine, not in the least (but not only) because it published my very first science fiction story 14 years ago this very week. SH exists largely on a donation-based model, and every year it does a fund drive. We’re in the final week of the fund drive this week, and I’ve invited Niall Harrison, SH’s editor in chief, to pop in and make a case for you sending a little bit of your money in the direction of Strange Horizons. Take it away, Niall!


Greetings, readers of Whatever! I’m the editor-in-chief of Strange Horizons, and I’d like to ask you to consider donating to our annual fund drive. Everyone who donates gets entered into our prize draw, which includes all sorts of books and subscriptions and wonderful things; if you donate more than $10 you’ll get our fifteenth anniversary ebook, including selected stories and poems from our archives, plus a new history of the magazine; if you support via Patreon you can for the first time get monthly ebooks of all of our material; and in addition to making the sixteenth year of Strange Horizons possible, you’ll also be helping to unlock the material in our fund drive special, including a new story by Kelly Link!

I’ve written quite a lot of paragraphs like that in the last few weeks, and part of me still stumbles over “sixteenth year.” I first encountered Strange Horizons in late 2003, I’m pretty sure, as a result of Matt Cheney blogging about some poetry from the magazine. It quickly became a landmark in my online genre space, and I had a fine time with the magazine in 2004. Kameron Hurley’s “Genderbending at the Madhattered” and Alan DeNiro’s “Tetrarchs” are two of the stories that have stuck with me, and much as I loved my Interzone and Asimov’s subscriptions—and loved SCI FICTION, which was at its peak around that time—SH always felt a little more unexpected. They seemed to be publishing a new generation of writers, doing different things.

In 2005, SH advertised for a new reviews editor, and I applied, and was brought on board; and after a few years doing that, at the start of 2011 I took over from Susan Marie Groppi as editor-in-chief, looking after the overall organisation of the magazine.

(It’s since then that my output of “I’d like to ask you to consider donating”-based sentences has really gone through the roof.)

Now here we are in 2015. I feel a little ambushed by the magazine’s fifteenth anniversary. I still feel like a newcomer! But no, I’ve been volunteering my time for ten years (everyone who works on SH is a volunteer), for what is now the longest-running online professional SF magazine. For all of that time we’ve been independent and funded by donations from readers, no advertising or corporate sponsorship. That feels a bit special, the more so because of what the magazine stands for.

Here’s what founding editor Mary Anne Mohanraj had to say about the SF field, and her hopes for Strange Horizons, when it launched:

The writing just gets better and better—the stories are terrific. And in addition to those female characters who started creeping in a few decades ago and now are everywhere, I’m starting to notice some who are (startlingly) not white. That’s rather nice, I have to say. The genre is starting to actually reflect the world I live in. The field is growing and expanding and shifting and changing, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it.

We started this magazine because we wanted to help with that change. We wanted to create a place to showcase some of those new writers, to bring them to the attention of a new international audience—and also to share with you our deep enjoyment of some wonderful established authors.

That goal, to showcase the full potential of SF as a form and a field, is at the heart of everything the magazine has worked at over the last decade and a half. We published early stories (or, in some cases, the first story) by writers like Charlie Jane Anders, N. K. Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Nnedi Okorafor, Vandana Singh, and of course our gracious host, to give just a very few examples. The genre is still growing and expanding and shifting and changing today (when is it not?) but in its fifteen years I like to think SH has played its part in bringing the genre a little closer to the world that Mary Anne, and the rest of us, live in.

If I’m here to ask you to consider donating now, though, I should talk about what we’ve been doing lately.

Here are two of this year’s stories, to go with the two older ones I mentioned above. First, S. L. Huang’s “By Degrees and Dilatory Time“, from May, is medical SF—a man has to get new, artificial eyes—and, for me, about the emotional experience of that technological reality; about body image and social expectations, about what changes and what doesn’t. Second, and in contrast, here’s Gabby Reed’s “Glaciers Made You“, from September, a dark slipstream fantasy filled with light and landscape and longing. Both of them bring a writer to the magazine for the first time, bring something new; both of them also feel to me like quintessential SH stories. If they work for you, you might be a Strange Horizons reader, even if you don’t know it yet.

Here are a couple of poems: the evocative “Bodega Dunes” by Carrie Naughton, and the ambitious, dazzling “Season of the Ginzakura” by Ryu Ando. And some essays: Karen Burnham on the evolution of space-based SF, and Paul McAuley on writing solar system stories. And some reviews: Indrapramit Das being underwhelmed by Grasshopper Jungle, and Nina Allan falling in love with Laura van den Berg’s Find Me.

And here, finally, is the fund drive.

Our target for this year is $18,000. Because we’re staffed entirely by volunteers, pretty much all of that (less a small amount for running costs) will go to our contributors, allowing us to publish another year of stories, poems, essays, interviews, and reviews. But at the time of posting, we’ve raised just over two-thirds of that amount, and we have one week left in the fund drive.

We have all of the rewards I mentioned at the start but what this is really about is the fact that we love what we do, we think it’s useful, and we want to keep doing it. So if you enjoy what we do, please consider donating to this year’s fund drive.

Thank you!

P.S. Those of you in the U.S., note that Strange Horizons has 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS—which means your donations to us are tax-deductible.

Heading Home Soon

I may update again later in the day, but I wouldn’t be constantly hitting refresh if I were you. In the meantime, of course, Twitter.

Minneapolis Sunrise and Sunset, 10/10/15

Minneapolis is lovely. Nerdcon:Stories, which is why I’ve been in town, is lovely. Everything is lovely. Hope things are lovely for you too.



By the way, these also constitute my “view from a hotel window” shots for this trip. Enjoy.

The Big Idea: Laura Anne Gilman

You can’t always always get what you want — particularly if you’re not precisely sure what that is. In the writing of Silver on the Road, author Laura Anne Gilman had to ask herself what she wanted, and how she was going to go about getting it.


My big idea?  Apparently was asking how badly you can screw yourself over by not being clear about what you want.

Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Devil’s West was born in 2010, when I wrote “Crossroads,” telling the story of a marshal encountering two magicians in mid-battle.

I didn’t really have any sense of the world, then – just this sense of a vast, empty landscape where demon and magicians wandered, and the weapon of choice wasn’t a rifle or a knife, but sharpened wits.  But the feel of it was so powerful, I couldn’t leave it be. So I wrote a second story, “The Devil’s Jack,” and discovered that this was a divergent American West, where the devil held sway, and everyone within the Territory – some vague space west of the Mississippi – danced to his tune.  

Okay, that was interesting. Weird west?  At the time, it wasn’t a popular subgenre, but what the hell.

So I started a third story, focusing the events in a small town called Flood.  I learned that the devil is a saloon owner, playing cards for souls.  The majority of settlers come not from the east, but southwest, by way of Spanish-held Mexico. And the native tribes, under the Devil’s Agreement, have a slightly better hand – and no hesitation about playing it.   

And about 20,000 words in* I realized that my main characters –  a 16 year old saloon girl, and a lawyer-turned-wanderer – – were at the middle of something much larger than simply a weird west adventure.  I was, in effect, rewriting American expansionist history.

Well, then.  Go big or go home, right?

Except I didn’t want to write that story.  Nothing against big, sweeping, detail-oriented alternate histories… but I had wanted to tell a relatively intimate story of two people at very different points in their lives (starting out, and approaching a mid-life crisis), and how they come to terms with the power they’ve each been given.  

And now, here was this massive** canvas they were supposed to fill.

I may have panicked.

No, okay, I totally panicked.

Sauce for the characters, apparently, is also sauce for the creator: Be clear about what you want – because sometimes you get more than you’d planned.  I’d found myself in the middle of this incredible, colorful, deep-rooted world, and it wasn’t going away.

I think it took me about a month before I was able to approach the story again, this time far more cautiously.  How was I going to make peace between the story I wanted to tell, and the story lurking underneath?

Except… that’s all history is, isn’t it?  What we read a hundred years later are dry facts and dates, but the reality was real people trying desperately to dance on quicksand.  I could talk all I wanted about who the devil actually is, about the magic of the Territory, about the rules of the Devil’s Agreement and how it changes the interactions between immigrants and natives…. But at the gut, my big idea wasn’t about politics, but people, caught up in what will become history, but living the day-to-day, because that’s all we know how to do.

So I took a deep breath, and started telling Isobel and Gabriel’s story.  About the choices you make when you don’t have enough information, and the second chances you get to remake those choices.  

Dancing on quicksand, hoping they don’t drown.

And some magic, some monsters, a dust-mad magician, and the drive for power, both personal and political, that may get them all killed….

* At this point it also became clear to me that I was writing a novel, not a short story.  Whoops.

**Literally massive – the Territory is 530,000,000 acres (basically, the entirety of the Louisiana Purchase).


Silver on the Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Ctein


What do you do when you have a great idea for a story, but it’s an idea that a little outside your usual remit as a writer? In the case of John Sandford and Ctein and their new novel Saturn Run, you take a tip from the Beatles: You get by with a little help from your friends.


Once upon a time…

… because all good stories begin that way …

John Sandford, a best-selling cop-thriller novelist, had an Idea for a mainstream science fiction novel (he’s an SF fan, but had never written any). Actually, he had two ideas, and one of them was nuts.

The first — What would happen if a starship entered the solar system and proceeded to entirely ignore us. Not, in and of itself a new idea; see Rendezvous with Rama. An unknown starship could be an incalculable threat or boon. We don’t know which, but we know how the story plays out: Humanity will unite in what is undeniably a common cause, as it has so many times in the past, and set out to investigate…

… Wait a minute. Rewind. Is this us we’re talking about? Because, y’know, history might suggest we’re not so good at this unification thing.

Right. There’d be a mad scramble, with every side trying to figure out how to gain advantage, because it would be really, really important that the Good Guys benefit from this and not the Bad Guys, a.k.a. Us vs. Them. It’d be a new space race––get to the aliens first (are there even aliens???), assess the threat, grab what goods are to be got, and make sure the Bad Guys don’t get any.

There are catches. The clock’s ticking down, so no leisurely decade-long mission plan. Design and construction have to be hurried. The ship needs to get to Saturn in less than half a year. Oh yeah, and this has to be done in secret.

The whole mission comes off on budget, on schedule, on point, and all goes well. Because, y’know, that’s just the kind of story that makes for a good thriller.

Suuure (insert maniacal authorial laughter here).

That Big Idea led to a Big Problem. How the hell do you get a ship to Saturn in under six months, not to mention building it in under two years? No “wantum mechanics” (Greg Benford’s wonderful term for totally-made-up science shit); it’s not much of a hard bolts-and-rivets thriller if people know you’re faking it. It wasn’t an unsolvable problem. John could research it. In his former life he was a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and has written forty or so thrillers, so he knows research. It’d just take several years of his life to get himself fully up to speed, that’s all.

The hitch was, John’s steady gig is turning out two novels (plus change) each year like clockwork. His readers expect it. He can’t take off a couple of years to explore himself as an author. This led to John’s second Big Idea, the crazy one.

Why not write it jointly with his friend, me? We’re both professional authors, who’ve made good multi-decadal careers out of generating words for money. We’re both disciplined and know how to meet deadlines. I already knows a whole lot about science fiction, and those Physics/English degrees oughta be good for something. John figures I’ll be able to solve the Big Problem(s).

Except for one little detail, which made it a crazy idea. I’m strictly nonfiction. Never written fiction, never wanted to. We’ve discussed this. Still, nothing ventured. John rings up Ctein:

John: I have a proposition. Hear me out before you say no. That science fiction novel? It’s not happening. You should write it.

Ctein: I don’t do fiction. It’s way too much like work.

John: Yeah, yeah. Look, just think about it. I’ll send you what I’ve got so far. It’s not much. There’s no pressure; take as long as you like. It’s not going anywhere for me. If you want to try your hand at it, you’ll be pretty much writing the whole first draft on your own.

Ctein: You’re not making this sounding more attractive.

John: I’ll help when you need it. I’ll do the first rewrite, we’ll both polish it up, my agent will sell it, and we’ll split the money.

Ctein: Money’s OK. Working for it, not so much. ‘Sides, I’ve heard it’s the root of all evil. Well, some of it, anyway.

John: Lotsa money.

Ctein: All right… I’ll probably say no. Actually, I’m pretty certain I’ll say no.

John: Whatever. First thing is, we need a spaceship and we need one that can get built fast. I figure our future US will have a pretty decent space station…

Ctein: That won’t work. I don’t think there’s any good way to turn a space station into a spaceship.

John: You’ll figure something out.

End of phone call. I read over the files and went to bed. The next morning I thought, “Waitaminit, I know how to turn a space station into a spaceship.”

I was probably doomed at that point, but it took me months to come to terms with that.

Six months later, I had done everything a skilled and experienced professional non-fiction author could possibly do. The office was a hell of a lot cleaner. Heaping stacks of papers had been properly sorted and filed. Even the computer desktop was reorganized. It was either tell John to forget it, go after the bathroom tile with a toothbrush, because, damn, that grout was dirty…or start writing.

I opted for door number three.

Four days later I sent John a rewrite of his original first chapter plus a brand-new chapter of my own. One nail-biting day later, there was a short e-mail from John: “This is okay. We can work with this.”

From that halting beginning, we went on to write the saga of the great race between the United States Spaceship “Richard M. Nixon” and the Chinese “Celestial Odyssey.”

The funny thing is, John’s nutso Big Idea actually worked. It really is both of us in the book. We each wrote about two-thirds of what’s in the final version (large chunks got rewritten so many times by both of us that it would take a forensic librarian to figure out who wrote what).

And that, kids, is how some books get born.

P.S. Oh, yeah, really — the USS Richard M. Nixon.

Because? Bwahahahaha…


Saturn Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit John Sandford’s site. Visit Ctein’s site.

Today’s Twitter Tomfoolery

It goes a little something like this.

Never a dull moment with the Scalzis, I’d say.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

Hey! Kameron Hurley’s fantastic Worldbreaker series has a new installment, Empire Ascendant! And she’s here to tell you about it! I’ve used up all the exclamation marks I’m allowed for the month now! Here’s Kameron!


What would you sacrifice, to save everything you’ve ever known or loved?

What happens when what you need to sacrifice is… everything you’ve ever known or loved?

It’s this question that plagues the heroes and villains of Empire Ascendant.

In the first book in this series, The Mirror Empire, rifts opened between parallel universes, and the people of the world called Raisa found their countries overrun by their own dopplegangers, each of them fleeing epic environmental and magical catastrophes on their own worlds. The catch? Your double can’t flee to an alternate world unless their counterpart on the other side – you – is already dead.

Cue the backstabbing.

While The Mirror Empire focused on bringing together our merry band of assassins and pacifists, rebels and blood mages, to face the coming threat, the big idea behind Empire Ascendant was to explore what would happen when a far superior hierarchical force finally confronted a small, pacifist country with no real central leadership.

My academic background is in the history of war and resistance, and I drew deeply on this when developing the series.

We know that a larger, more technologically advanced force has huge advantages over a smaller, less organized one. But history also has plenty of examples of what can happen when a larger force tries to overwhelm a small, passionate group of people on their home turf (Vietnam, Iraq, every war in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary War).  In Empire Ascendant I wanted to see how these overwhelmed societies would react, and chart what would end up being one world’s attempt to avert its own genocide.

What this means for the people in Empire Ascendant is that the tactics employed in this conflict must be more ruthless. The “rules” of war – whatever they may have been – are suspended or simply discarded. Wars of attrition rub off the façade of “just conflict” that we like to drape over the narrative of particular types of wars (especially those in which our own country is the aggressor), and reveal it for what it is: nasty, brutish, inhumane.

When you have everything to lose, you often find that you are tougher than you ever imagined. War is celebrated for this: go to war to learn what you’re really made of!  

But are you the hero, or the villain?

In Empire Ascendant, every character can be both.  

This is the story of your survival. And your destruction.


Empire Ascendant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Sunset, Dog and Cat, 10/6/15

Yes! You get all three! Because you deserve them. Yes you do.

Have a good night, folks. See you all tomorrow.

House For Sale: Come Live in Bucolic Splendor!

My mother-in-law has put her old house up for sale, on account that two-and-half acres of lawn and woods is a little much for her to keep up on her lonesome. So: Looking for a place to live in beautiful, bucolic Darke County, Ohio, home of Annie Oakley (and also, me)? This three bedroom, two bath ranch home on two-and-a-half acres with two-car garage and barn is, honestly, just about perfect. Come buy it and live where you can see the Milky Way at night!

Here’s the official listing for the house. If you’re interested, contact the listing agent, Jeff Apple. He’ll be happy to answer your questions and set a showing.

The Big Idea: Ann Leckie

And now, for Ancillary Mercy, the third book of a trilogy that began with the ridiculously successful Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie ditches the usual “Big Idea” format for something else entirely. And why not!


So let’s be real. Ancillary Mercy is the concluding book of a trilogy. Trilogies are often (though of course not always) very large single works. So in a lot of ways the “big idea” of Ancillary Mercy is a logical extension of the big idea of Ancillary Justice. And really, if you haven’t read Justice yet, Mercy probably isn’t the best place for you to start. Though, you know, you can if you want to.

So instead of going over the AJ stuff again–what is a person? Who is anybody anyway?–I instead give you the Ancillary FAQ. These are all questions I’ve actually gotten (or oveheard) at one time or another.

Q: How can you possibly wrap the story up in one more volume? There’s too much going on; I don’t see how you could manage it.

A: The easiest way for me to answer that is to actually do it. Which I have, and you can see the answer for yourself wherever fine books are sold. Or at a library near you. I love libraries. They’re awesome.

Q: Will there be more books after this one?

A: There will be more books, and certainly more books in this universe, but not books about Breq. Nothing against her, I’ve had a lovely time these past three books, but it will be nice to do something different.

Q: What is it with you and tea?

A: I love tea! Tea is the most frequently consumed beverage on this planet, next to water. I can’t imagine we’d go far from our solar system without finding a way to take it with us. Also it’s partly a very respectful bow to C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series.

Q: There was not enough Seivarden in Sword. Will you be remedying this in Mercy?

A: I have to admit the strength of some readers’ affection for Seivarden caught me by surprise. I mean, I love her, of course, I made her. I just didn’t expect her to be quite so much of a favorite.

In answer to your question, I present two Wordles for you to compare. If you’re not familiar with Wordles, it’s a thing where you take a bunch of text–in this case two novels–and plug them in and you get a graphic where the most frequently used words are larger and the less used ones are smaller.

First, the Wordle for Ancillary Sword. Note the relative size of “Seivarden.” A little difficult to find, huh?

And now, the Wordle for Ancillary Mercy.

Q: I notice the word “translator” in that Mercy wordle. And that only reminds me that Translator Dlique was onstage for far too short a time in Sword, and now I am sad.

A: I myself was sad when I realized how short a time Translator Dlique would be onstage. But there really was no way around it.

I was talking with a friend of mine recently, and saying that I’d heard from some readers who were very unhappy with the all-too-brief appearance of Dlique, and she frowned at me and said, “But what about…oh, wait! They haven’t read Mercy yet!” And then she started laughing.

Q: I really think the second book ought to have been called Ancillary Mercy. There wasn’t a whole lot of “sword” in it. Why is the second one Sword and this one Mercy?

A: Originally the titles of the three books were going to be Justice of Toren, Sword of Atagaris, and Mercy of Kalr. My agent knew nothing of this–well, except the title of the first book–and thought Justice of Toren wasn’t a particularly fabulous title. He suggested Ancillary Justice and I agreed, pleased that my Justice/Sword/Mercy scheme could remain in place.
As often happens when I write–I gather this happens to lots of other writers as well–Sword of Atagaris ended up not being quite as prominent a character in the story as I’d originally planned. But I still didn’t want to switch the titles. For one thing, I think Justice/Sword/Mercy makes a better overall arc. For another, well, read the book.

Q: I’m really hankering for some Imperial Radch fan art. Is there any?

A: There sure is! And it’s fabulous.

Q: And fanfic? What’s your fanfic policy?

A: Fanfic is awesome. My fanfic policy is “I won’t read it, please don’t try to sell it, but otherwise you have fun.” And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, having people write fanfic of your book is right up there with winning awards.

Q: What sort of tea would the Radchaai drink? Is it like some kind of tea we have here on present-day Earth?

A: I’ve actually answered that question here.

Q: No, but seriously, Ann, at the end of Sword you left us with a damaged space station, a resentful and mutinous warship that has every reason to hate Breq, a mysterious ship on the other side of the Ghost Gate whose nature and motives we know almost nothing about, a civil war in progress, and possibly angry and very dangerous aliens going to turn up at some point–

A: That’s about the size of it, yes. And the only way to find out what happens next is to read it.


Ancillary Mercy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 10/5/15

I usually post new book/ARCs entries later in the week, but I’m going to be busy later this week, at NYCC and at Nerdcon:Stories, and also I received enough books to do a post today, so: Hey, look! New books and ARCs! If you see anything that interests you, tell us about it in the comments.

In Other News This May Be My Next Author Photo

I believe cornhole is about to replace kickball as the hipster sport of choice, and for once I’m out in front of the trend. Way, way far out. Who will join me on this ragged, hipster edge?

Also, for those of you going “Cornhole? WTF?” here’s an explanation of the sport. And yes, there is actually a national league. That’s where I got the jersey.

35 Years of Tor is unveiling Tor’s new logo today — it looks like the old logo, only, you know, more modernand offering a timeline of highlights from Tor’s now 35-year-long history. I’m delighted to say I show up on the timeline twice, first in 2005, when it’s noted that I and Brandon Sanderson debuted in that year, and again in 2013, when Redshirts won the Hugo award. It’s nice to be considered part of that history.

I’ve remarked on it before, but I’ll do it again now: I like that Tor is my publisher. Part of it has to do with the fact that Tor is Tor, the largest publisher of science fiction in North America and possibly the world (I’d have to check to see what’s up with China these days to be sure about that), and so being published by a company that has the talent and skill and reach of Tor is a nice thing indeed. Tor is also one of the smartest publishers, too — it hasn’t been afraid of the digital world, and it trusts its readers, which is why their ebooks are DRM-free.

Part of it is that nearly all the time I’ve been with Tor, they’ve been willing to back what I did in fiction, even if it didn’t necessarily make great sense on paper. Write a book that starts with a chapter-long fart joke? Go for it! Rewrite a classic of the genre just to see what it’d be like. Cool, let’s see what happens! Take one of the oldest jokes in science fiction — hey, it’s not a great idea to be the dude in a red shirt! — make a whole novel out of it, and tack on three codas at the end, just for kicks? Why the hell not, we’ll run it up the flagpole and see who salutes! And so on.

The leeway I’ve gotten from Tor in what they publish from me is a microcosm of how I think Tor approaches science fiction and fantasy in general, a philosophy of well, let’s try it and see what happens. Tor is no stranger to “old school” science fiction, of course — one need only look as far as the Old Man’s War series for confirmation of that — but I like the fact that they don’t hold to the philosophy that science fiction is only that (or that fantasy should only be one way, for that matter). Science fiction and fantasy by their very definitions should contain multitudes: Multitudes of stories and ideas and perspectives and authors. I look at what Tor publishes and I see a lot of different work, from a lot of different points of view. This is good thing. There’s always room for more, and I like seeing my publisher going toward the direction of more. I hope it continues to be a guiding philosophy.

Mostly, however, I’m glad to be part of Tor because of the people I know there. My editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, most obviously (and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, font of wisdom that she is), but so many other people as well. To name just a few: Irene Gallo, the company’s art director, who is one of the very best in publishing, period; Alexis Saarela and Patty Garcia in Tor’s PR department, who have to put up with me when I’m on tour; Liz Gorinsky, who even as Patrick’s assistant was always one of the smartest people in the room; and Tom Doherty himself — if anyone can be called a wizard of publishing, it would be he. There are more, many more, than this. I like the people I know at Tor. They make publishing there a generally pleasurable experience.

Is Tor perfect? No, it has its foibles and missteps, and it and some of its people have done dumb things in the past, because people are people and business is business. It hasn’t even always been perfect with me; I’ve had some sharp disagreements with the company in my past, and I’m sure I will have kvetches and complaints in the future. I like Tor and am happy to be published by them, and consider many of the people who work there to be my friends. But I also don’t forget that Tor is also a publishing company, owned by a larger publishing company, owned by an international holding company, with fallable humans comprising those companies all the way up to the top. Their priorities and mine are not always in sync and never will be. If as an author you don’t understand this fundamental disconnect, you’re going to be grievously surprised one day. This is not me saying know your place; it is me saying understand the context.  If you understand the latter, you might be surprised at how far you can get.

Tor and I are going to be in business together for a long time, so I’m glad I like the people and the company, and the general philosophy of the publishing house. I’m invested in Tor’s success, as they are now in mine. I’ll be happy to have that new logo on the spine of my books over the next decade.

Adulthood and What Being a Friend Means Now

The New York Times ran an interesting article today, in which the writer of the piece talked about the difficulty of making friends if one is over the age of 30. The reasons for this vary and can include the fact that one has a family and children to worry about, time pressures, scheduling, and the fact that as one gets older one becomes pickier about the people one chooses to spend time with in any event.

I found the article interesting because while not discounting all of the above, my thirties and forties have been very good years for me in terms of the acquisition friends, both in terms of quantity and of quality of friends. I can say without reservation that a number of the people that I’ve met in the last decade have become some of the most important people in my life, friends that I can’t imagine living my life without now. I don’t disagree with the writer’s general thesis — I do think it is generally harder to make new friends the older one gets — but it does make me wonder what the mechanics of my situation have been that make the last decade different for me than for this particular author.

The answer, think, is relatively simple: I moved into a line of work with a deeply-established social structure. Which is to say that when I became a science fiction author, I plugged into a field where there were lots of conventions and social events, i.e., opportunities to socialize with people who have similar enthusiasms, and where both fans and pros in the genre generally buy into the idea of a community. All things being equal, people are friendly and supportive rather than not.

Additionally, the way that the science fiction community comes together for conventions and similar events works really well for the general impositions that adults have making and maintaining friendships. When fans and pros go to conventions, by and large they are taking a bit of time from their “real” lives to have two or three days of highly concentrated social experiences: Hanging out in hotel bars, staying up late with deep (and not so deep) conversations about work and life, and otherwise focusing on enjoying themselves with others — not worrying (as much) about life, and kids, and other parts of their existence that distract from making a connection with other adults.

There’s also the fact that people in science fiction and fantasy (and also I think in literature generally) are pretty good with the social media thing. While there’s certainly the possibility of downside in blogs/Twitter/Facebook what with complete and utter assholes trying to get your attention, which we don’t need to get into at the moment, the lovely upside to social media is that it makes it easy to stay in contact with friends even when you can’t physically be with them at any particular moment. Snarking with my pals (authors and otherwise) on Twitter or Facebook helps keep the friendship humming along, so you don’t have that start-and-stop feeling that the NYT writer mentions.

(I don’t think that any of this is unique to science fiction and fantasy, mind you. There are other communities that adults can join into and have at least some of the same dynamics in play. This is just the one I lucked into.)

Finally, I think there’s a personal aspect as well. I find it relatively easy to be friendly with people, and consequently, to make friends — and also (this is somewhat important, I think), I don’t fret if I don’t see a friend for months or even years at a stretch. Because, you know, I realize we’re all adults and have lives and kids and such, and that sometimes that’s just the deal. I mean, I can usually tell pretty quickly whether I want to be friends with someone. If I do, then the qualities that make them someone I’d want to be friends with are (generally) not likely to go away. So I don’t worry about seeing them again. When I do, I assume it’ll still be there. And in the meantime, as noted: Twitter and blogs and such.

(And also, occasionally: Email and/or phone and/or other private communication! That’s right! Not everything in the New Age has to be done in public!)

I do think friendship as an adult has to be approached with the understanding that it is different for adults than for people in their twenties or below. If you try to do friendship like you were sixteen years old, then it’s probably going to end up like anything you’d approach as if you were sixteen, i.e., kind of a hot mess. Being sixteen is fine when you’re sixteen. It’s problematic when you’re thirty-six or forty-six. So, be a grown-up about what friendship is and how it’s done in between everything else in your life, and I think you’ll be fine.

I’ve noted before here, a while back, that prior to coming into the world of science fiction, I told Krissy that I was pretty sure I had made all the friends I was ever going to make. It turns out I was entirely wrong, and it turns out that I am very happy about that. I wouldn’t trade the friendships I’ve made in the last decade for anything in the world. They were a surprise for me and I’ve been grateful for them. I continue to be grateful for every new friend I make. I hope to make at least a few more before I’m done.

(Picture above of a group of us at the Hugo afterparty, borrowed from Ramez Naam)

Ohio From Above, 10/4/15

You can see where the fields are being harvested. A nice contrast of brown and green. Three weeks ago, it was mostly green. Three weeks from now, it will be mostly brown. The seasons. They happen.

In other news I am back in Ohio, for the next couple of days. Then it’s off to New York City for ComicCon and then Minneapolis for Nerdcon. Busy times here in Scalziland.

Greetings From Iowa City

It’s very pretty here today.

Reminder if you’re in town that I’ll be doing my event at 4pm at the former “Wedge” space at 136 S. Dubuque (I wrote 135 yesterday – my bad). See you there!

If you’re not in town, I hope you’re having a good day anyway, and, if you are on the east coast, that you haven’t been swept away by rain.