I may be on book tour, but that’s not reason not to show off a stack of new books and ARCs! What here calls to you? Tell us in the comments.
I may be on book tour, but that’s not reason not to show off a stack of new books and ARCs! What here calls to you? Tell us in the comments.
You know, I lived in the Commonwealth of Virginia for four years, but in that time I never managed to get down to Richmond, its capital. I came here for the last stop of my very first book tour in 2007, and now I’m back, a decade later, and happily so. If you’re in or around Richmond, please come visit me tonight! I’ll be at Fountain Bookstore tonight at 6:30, and I would love to see you there.
Nashville, you’re up tomorrow! I’ll be at Parnassus Books, early — 2pm (I’ll likely be coming there directly from the airport, in fact). See you soon!
Yes! I have a balcony this time! And it is lovely. I may go out and write on it. Being on tour has its occasional perks.
I’m in Chapel Hill tonight, at the great Flyleaf Books, where the fun begins at 7pm. If you’re in the area, come on by and see me!
Tomorrow, I return to Richmond, VA for the first time in ten years (yikes! Where does the time go) at the Fountain Bookstore. If you’re near Richmond, I would love to see you there!
Also, in this short entry I have used up all my all explanation points for the day!
Chalk, by Paul Cornell, is in many ways a remarkable book. But it’s not an easy read, and for Cornell, it’s a story that has personal meaning for him, and is a book that has a lot of him in it. He’s here now to tell you more about it, and why as a writer it took him years to get this story right.
Chalk is a book that’s been with me for over twenty years. It’s taken that long, and many, varied drafts, to shape the ideas in it into a story that, hopefully, works. That was partly because the subject matter is intensely personal to me in several ways. It’s a book about bullying, about growing up in the 1980s, about Wiltshire’s prehistoric landscape, so often I found myself having to force onto the page material I had found difficult to express in real life. It’s a novel about the interaction between magic, consensus reality and the mind (Isn’t ‘consensus reality’ a strange term, when actually what’s involved is the opposite? A simple majority doesn’t make a consensus. Nobody experiencing a different reality seems to get a vote. For a lot of people, ‘non-consensual reality’ would be closer to the truth).
In the real world, it seems to me that every time the impossible touches the accepted it’s a singular event, something so strange and startling that human efforts to categorise those events (crop circles; the UFO myth; ghosts) have come to feel to me to be missing the point to an almost obscene degree. We encounter the unknown and seek to make it mundane. Which is a different thing to seeking to understand it. So I wanted my story of Waggoner, a child at school who has something terrible done to him, and then has horrifying things from both this world and another take an interest in him, to be rooted entirely in his subjective experience.
Waggoner is split into two boys, both with his name, who live alongside each other. I want to underline that that’s not a metaphor, not a literary device, or if it is, only in the same way that all magic is. The book says it ‘really happened’. The way that reality contorts and fudges things to let the second Waggoner be there is an aspect of the text I feel very strongly about, because I feel, again, that’s how the impossible touches the everyday, on a moment by moment basis, not by laying down a set of rules for itself and keeping to them. That’s physics, and/or fiction that seeks to fulfil different expectations than this book does.
‘Are you an evil twin?’ Waggoner asks the other version of himself at one point. But he’s not. He may be the one who does awful, violent things, but the Waggoner who narrates the story isn’t ‘the good one’. Waggoner tries to make sense of what’s happened to him through writing his own stories, and sometimes imagines what he’s going through to be a revenge plot, with the possibility of victory over his tormentors, but it’s not. It’s a lot harder on him than that. Chalk is a book about cycles of abuse, and as a victim, Waggoner’s only possible heroism is in seeking to break those cycles. That point, that there’s no nobility or ending to anyone’s narrative in acts of revenge, has been at the heart of these twenty years of multiple drafts. It’s a hard thing for me to force myself to accept.
In many ways, Chalk is a book about whose narrative wins. The new Waggoner has aims which are part of a great and noble story of heroism and struggle, and are as horrifying as that sounds. The previously whole Waggoner has the stories he writes, which use every genre he can find in his environment to try to digest what he’s dealing with. Angie Boden, the heroine of the book, has created for herself a whole method of practical magic from the pop charts, and her narrative of the world is based on that. And Waggoner’s Mum and Dad are trying to tell a meaningful story of themselves as failing middle-class people in Thatcher’s Britain.
I’m in there somewhere. I’ve decided it’s a very bad idea to indicate how much of Chalk happened to me. If you’re a fellow survivor of, well, virtually anything, I hope it’s a book which leads you along through a narrative that will wake all that stuff and then slay it. It’s the blues. It’s comfort through reworking. I hope it gives you control. I know you don’t want revenge, not really. Not when you look around and see all the revenge narratives unfolding everywhere.
Who would have thought it would take me twenty years to write a book about right now?
Ahhhhh, there we go. Parking lot excellence.
If you’re in or around Raleigh tonight, I’ll be a Quail Ridge Books at 7pm, in its spiffy new location. Come on down!
In the Research Triangle but can’t make it tonight? I’ll be at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill tomorrow. See me then!
For everyone else not in the area, two interviews with me, talking about The Collapsing Empire and other topics: One at The Verge, and the other at The Chicago Review of Books. Get inside my head! Mind the low beams.
Here’s the thing about ghosts: Nearly all of them have one thing in common. Or so author (and current Nebula Best Novel Award finalist) Mishell Baker believes. In today’s Big Idea, she tells you what that thing is, and what it means for her new novel Phanton Pains.
Long before I began writing stories about a young woman with two lower limb amputations, I was intrigued by the phenomenon of phantom limbs. The idea that a part of your body could stab you with pain from nerve endings long gone, leaving you no way to soothe what was no longer there, struck me as both fascinating and nightmarish. While my protagonist Millie isn’t troubled by this particular malady in a literal sense, I couldn’t resist finding ways to haunt her with it both supernaturally and psychologically.
The Arcadia Project books are all as much about mental health as they are about magic, and often about the way those two things interact. So in Phantom Pains what I wanted to do was take two alternate forms of metaphorical “phantom pain” – grief and ghosts – and see the ways in which the fuzzy edges of these concepts bleed together.
Nearly every ghost story involves grief, or at least a grievance. Spirits don’t tend to hang around on this plane if they have all their problems resolved. But unlike an angry monster, a wrathful or grieving spirit has no obvious remedy. This has always been my favorite part of a ghost story: the quest to discover how to defeat a foe that swords, fire, stakes and poison can’t touch. A foe that nothing can touch. Every ghost story is a detective story, which is why ghosts lend themselves so well to urban fantasy, a type of fantasy that so often has one foot deeply planted in the mystery genre. Before you can rid yourself of a hostile spirit, you have to understand it. Blind stabs can’t kill something that isn’t there.
In a similar way, every story of grief involves a ghost. The loss of a person, a job, a way of life is a messy thing to heal, because every moment in your life is so strangely full of, haunted by, that new emptiness.
I attended Clarion in 2009, and one of my classmates moved just a couple of streets over from me in Los Angeles not long afterward. We saw each other a couple of times, but mostly I’d just tell myself, “Oh, I should go see Leonard. Maybe next weekend.” In 2012, a few months after my second daughter was born, Leonard was diagnosed with leukemia. He was going to be fine, they said—they’d caught it early. But I still made myself leave my brand-new baby and go visit him in the hospital. I’m glad I did, because the next day he surprised all of us by dying.
The worst part of the grief that followed was that my brain kept throwing that old habit at me: “Oh, I should go see Leonard. Maybe next weekend.” That option had been taken from me now, severed cleanly and unexpectedly, and yet my mind still kept trying to put weight on it. Every time I reached to soothe that guilt with a mental promise to myself that I’d go and visit, there was nothing there to follow up on. No way to ease the pain. I’d been given all the visits I was ever going to get, and I had to live with that.
Anytime we battle the invisible, whether it’s a ghost or something that haunts us psychologically, the only weapon is investigation. Find the source of the pain and hold a mirror to it, create something real and tangible that you can fight in its stead. For physical phantom limb pain, the answer is often a literal mirror. If the amputee holds a mirror in such a way that they can now “see” the missing limb in the proper spot, this is, in many cases, enough to make the discomfort vanish.
What would the equivalent be, I wondered, for the invisible enemy in my story? What supernatural equivalent of a mirror could be held up that could force the invisible to become visible, to bring the hidden into the light where it could be vanquished? This question is at the center of the story, because our heroine—who is also suffering the “phantom pains” of grief, guilt and PTSD from the deaths in the last book—is one of the few to whom this lethal invisible enemy has deigned to show itself. She has very few allies in the fight, because the people in charge have every reason to believe that she’s either flat-out lying or crazy.
I had a fantastic time weaving together the themes of grief and ghosts in this story, because in addition to being creepy and cool, it also had tremendous personal meaning for me. Especially for those of us with mental health challenges, many of the battles we fight in life are invisible. I liked the idea that a battle doesn’t have to destroy a city block in order to be earth-shattering—that sometimes the fate of the world might literally be all in your mind.
That said, in fiction, you’ve always gotta explode something, or someone, right? Otherwise, where’s the fun?
And it’s not of a parking lot! I take that as a good sign.
Tonight I’m in Lexington, Kentucky, one of my favorite places, at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, which is one of my favorite stores. The event starts at 7pm and this audience gets to be to guinea pig, because I’m reading everything here for the first time ever (uh, except one thing, which I’ve only read once before). If you’re near Lexington, come on by.
Tomorrow: Raleigh, North Carolina! Thursday: Chapel Hill! Yes, a North Carolina twofer. See you soon!
Hey! It’s out! The Collapsing Empire, my twelfth novel, is here and available at your favorite bookstore and/or online retailer (in the US/Canada; in the UK it’s out in two days). It’s the first book in the new space opera series (called “The Interdependency”) and introduces some of my favorite characters ever in a universe I think you’re going to love.
The reviews have been pretty darn good, too:
“Fans of Game of Thrones and Dune will enjoy this bawdy, brutal, and brilliant political adventure” —Booklist
“Political plotting, plenty of snark, puzzle-solving, and a healthy dose of action…Scalzi continues to be almost insufferably good at his brand of fun but think-y sci-fi adventure.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Scalzi has constructed a thrilling novel so in tune with the flow of politics that it would feel relevant at almost any time.” — Entertainment Weekly
It’s also out in audio, with narration by Wil Wheaton, from Audible.
Plus, I am on tour, starting today, beginning in Lexington, Ky. The full itinerary is here. Come see me! I’ll be reading new material plus other stuff, and as always will torture you with a song if someone brings a ukulele (and someone almost always does).
This book means a lot to me, folks. This is the first book in that 13-book contract I signed with Tor a couple of years back; this book is significant not only for itself, but for being a launch project that that particular long journey with my publisher. I wanted to start it off with something new and fun and good, and I really think I have. I can’t wait for you read it.
Hey there! Wanting to have me deface a copy of my upcoming book The Collapsing Empire (or other books of mine), with my signature, and possibly a personalization? Here are all the ways you can make this happen in the next few weeks!
1. Come see me on tour between March 21st and April 29: Yes, it’s a long tour, with two dozen stops over five weeks. Which means there’s a reasonable chance I will be (somewhat) near you. Why not come see in person? I will be reading from the upcoming book (Head On, the sequel to Lock In) and will have other entertaining bits going on as well. And I will sign your copy of TCE while you are there! And other things you might bring. Here’s the tour schedule. Note that some events are ticketed; go through the links for details.
2. Pre-order the book from the stores on my tour: If you can’t make it to one of my events but feel like supporting the stores I’m visiting, call them up, order the book from them, and ask them to have me sign it when I’m there for the event (important note: ask for that before the date I arrive for the event, not after). They will generally be happy to take your order, have me sign it, and then ship it to you, for their usual shipping fee. I will also generally be signing remaining Scalzi book stock on the tour, so even if you call after I’ve gone, they still may have signed stock.
3. Call Jay and Mary’s Book Center in Troy, Ohio: I am signing their entire Scalzi stock today before I go on book tour, so you can call and they’ll set you up. Additionally, even if they run out of signed copies immediately, if you’re willing to wait to have me sign your book until I’m back in town (which during the tour happens March 30 – April 2, and April 9 – 16), you can still order from them and I will both sign and personalize your copy.
4. Check with Barnes & Noble: I signed a whole bunch of signature sheets for them earlier this year, which were put into copies of the book. So your local B&N might have them on the shelf. They’re also selling them online.
5. Try an airport bookstore: As I’m slogging through the airports of this great nation of ours whilst on tour, when time permits I’ll pop into their bookstores and sign stock (with their permission). When that happens, I’ll probably note it on Twitter. But otherwise, particularly in a hub airport, just check out the bookstore (which you should do anyway). There might be a signed book!
And there you go — signed copies of The Collapsing Empire. Go get ’em.
The sunsets around the Scalzi Compound have been a bit uninspiring recently, so let me offer you this one, from Baja California, on March 8. I think it’ll do quite nicely, don’t you?
MARSHALL RYAN MARESCA:
It’s fascinating how much we love the thief-as-the-hero trope, and we love having them pull a heist.
I mean, in real life, we don’t praise thieves, and we certainly don’t root for them. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of any living thieves that we have romantic notions for. We certainly romanticize the thieves of the past: Jesse James or Bonnie and Clyde, but that’s with a distance of history that makes them almost fictional. And we love fictional thieves. From Oceans 11 to The Lies of Locke Lamora to Six of Crows to The Fast and the Furious, we can’t get enough of bad guys doing things well. We love to see stories about thieves pulling some heist or caper, slipping through the fingers of the proper authorities, and heading off into the sunset with their ill-gotten wealth.
Why do we love it, when most of us would never support this in real life? Do we want to live vicariously through them, getting away with things that we know we would never get away with? Do we harbor secret fantasies along the lines of, “I would never actually rob a casino… but if I did, this is how”?
I’m no different, because I love that stuff. So I wrote The Holver Alley Crew, which is flat-out a fantasy heist novel. Two brothers have a job, so they put together a crew, and they pull the job. Absolutely, my favorite part of writing this book was coming up with the plans. I loved writing whole sequences of the characters going, “Here’s what we want to accomplish, what do we need to do?” I loved coming up with elaborate, “here’s our way in, here’s how we do this, here’s how we get away” plans. Then I threw wrenches into the works to ruin those plans, so my characters would have to improvise new ones.
I feel part of our love affair with charming thieves and clever rogues we want to believe that if we had to be thieves, if we had to pull a heist, we’d have the smarts and the moxie to pull it off. But we wouldn’t do it just because we had a passing whim. We would only do it because we had to. Only because circumstances made us desperate.
I think we can all understand desperate right now.
It was important to me to make my heist-pulling thieves good guys who want to be law-abiding, legitimate businessmen. But then a fire comes along and destroys all they were building: home, shop, legitimate life. With that lost, they have to go back to pulling heists, and they make a point of putting together a crew of people who were also ruined by the fire. It’s not about just getting back on their own feet, they want to help their neighbors as well. Just enough to get themselves back on the straight path they were on.
Of course, for any heist, you need a crew:
The Planner: Asti Rynax, former intelligence officer, forcibly retired. The one who can figure out all the angles and put together a plan so crazy that no one will see coming. Deadlier with an apple and a lockpick than most people are with a pair of knives.
The Burglar: Verci Rynax, Asti’s brother. Gadget-maker, window-cracker, and the only one who can keep Asti grounded.
The Sharpshooter: Helene Kesser, best crossbow shot in all West Maradaine, with a mouth as sharp as her aim.
The Muscle: Julien Kesser, Helene’s cousin. Strong as an ox, but not allowed to fight, or you’ll answer to Helene. Loves cheese.
The Driver: Kennith Rill, carriage driver. Designed an unrobbable carriage, which they now have to rob.
The Apprentice: Mila Kentish. Teenage beggar girl that no one notices until after their purse is already gone.
The Old Boss: Josie Holt, the boss of North Seleth, who’s willing to give the Rynax boys one last chance for old time’s sake.
Can this crew pull of their heist, charm your socks off and ride off into the sunset? You’ll have to read it and find out.
For those of you thinking to yourself “Huh, I wonder if Scalzi is going to talk politics ever again,” today is your lucky day, because over at the Los Angeles Times site I talk politics! Namely, about the fact that I simultaneously live in rural conservative America and liberal cosmopolitan America, and what that fact means for what I think about both, and how I approach my neighbors in both communities.
This was a difficult piece for me to write, one, because it’s a complicated subject, and two, because one thing I really wanted to avoid was that “hey, both sides are equally correct here” fence-sitting nonsense that so many pieces like this have. I’m really not on a fence — Trump and his administration are terrible for the US, certainly for people who are not white and straight, but even for them, too. I mean, shit, look at Trump’s proposed budget today, and the “replacement” health plan. There’s little there that’s not going to be terrible for everyone except defense contractors. For all that, I know my neighbors pretty well and I have empathy for them, even as I disagree with them politically and feel like they really screwed themselves as much as if not more than Trump is going to screw with liberals.
Did I manage to convey what I was hoping to convey? Maybe? I think this piece has a lot of places where I can be criticized, including for omissions and elisions — it’s a piece to be published in a print outlet, so it has a hard limit in terms of words — and I think it’ll be fair to point them out. Over on Twitter, someone’s already noted I might have pointed out that my ability to more-or-less-comfortable live in both bubbles is in no small part due to the fact I’m a straight white cis male, which I think is perfectly correct (I’m well-off, too, which doesn’t hurt). There will be other places to pick at the piece. This is fine. Pick away! In the comments! Er, politely, please. Standard Malleting protocols apply.
Moving aside slightly to the subject of frequency of political posts here at Whatever in the immediate past and the near future, I’ll note a) I was on vacation, b) have been prepping for a book release and long book tour, c) start said long book tour on Tuesday, at which time my focus will be on touring, and less on politics. So expect probably fewer political posts than usual through April, simply because my attention will be elsewhere.
Also, I mean, frankly? There’s only so many ways I can say “Jesus, but Trump’s an ignorant bigot” without getting exasperated with myself. The snarky bits are better formatted for Twitter; here at Whatever is where I will do deeper dives from time to time, when time and scheduling allow. Here or on at the LA Times, which has, delightfully, given me a fine mainstream venue to discourse at, a fact which I appreciate immensely.
In any event, I think the LA Times piece I’ve written is a good one and I hope you find it thought provoking. Enjoy.
It’s relatively easy to start a book series — you just start writing. But ending a series on a logical and satisfying note? That’s a slightly more complicated trick, which Ryk E. Spoor attempts with Challenges of the Deeps. In this Big Idea, Spoor is here to tell you about sticking this particular dismount.
RYK E. SPOOR:
In two previous Big Idea columns, I wrote about the challenges of first building the larger-than-life universe of Grand Central Arena, and then the scary challenge of following this with an exploration of both adventure and personal understanding in Spheres of Influence. Writing the third Arenaverse novel, Challenges of the Deeps, presented me with a very different set of problems.
These stemmed from a purely practical issue – for various reasons, Challenges might be the last Arenaverse novel for quite some time (until I could write and self-publish another), barring Challenges or my forthcoming magical girl novel Princess Holy Aura suddenly taking off big-time.
That meant that I had to figure out a way to make Challenges of the Deeps a reasonable, if not conclusive, final volume to the series – one that might leave the reader with a lot of questions, but would still, somehow, feel like a conclusion – not leave them frustrated when they closed the book.
I first considered the idea of actually finishing the series – of getting to the true Big Reveal of what the Arena really was, the reason it was built, and what that meant for Humanity and the other Factions. But I quickly concluded this was impossible. There remained so much to do that I simply couldn’t imagine that I could get to that point without at least three books to work in, and more likely five or six if I wanted to really tell the story properly.
When I thought about it that way, I realized that what I was really doing was ending the beginning, while setting up the chance to begin the ending – just as if I was concluding the first book in a trilogy. And just like Phoenix Rising, the first in the Balanced Sword trilogy, the challenge was to figure out what themes and plots had to be brought to a conclusion now in order to provide a moment for the universe to, in effect, take a breath, look around, and prepare for the next great arc in the progression towards the ultimate mysteries.
Put that way, it became clear that the purpose of Challenges of the Deeps was to complete the process of establishing Humanity as a true force in the Arena – not just a group of peculiar newcomers, not just a nine-days’ wonder, but a group that others would ally with, would commit to, would look at and know “these are the people who may change the Arena”.
Looking back through Grand Central Arena and Spheres of Influence, there are of course a huge number of overt and implied plot threads that remained. The overarching one – which I had to accept I was not going to answer in this or even the next book – was the question of the Voidbuilders – who and what they were, why they had made the Arena, and what would happen to those who discovered the answers to those questions. But while I couldn’t answer it, I could – and in fact would have to – provide at least some movement towards obtaining that answer.
Another – present since early in GCA – was the issue of the Molothos. Humanity had been effectively at war with one of the most powerful factions in the Arena practically since their arrival, and I had already planned that it would be in the third book that the Molothos finally found Humanity’s Sphere. But I’d also planned on the Molothos War taking at least one or two more books to resolve. Could I resolve it in one? I knew that if I could, I should; having Humanity survive and resolve a conflict with the most feared of the Great Factions would certainly go a long way to cementing their place in the Arena, and would give the reader a good sense of resolution in plot.
Another dangling thread was Ariane Austin. In Spheres she had been forced to confront her own failures as Leader of the Faction of Humanity, and to decide to really shoulder that burden, but the question of the strange powers sealed away was still left unaddressed, and had been hanging fire since GCA. If I could, I needed to resolve that – let us see Ariane begin to really unlock that power and establish that she needed neither Shadeweaver nor Faith to do so. Fortunately, I’d already set up the opportunity to do that in Spheres, with the mysterious mission into the Deeps that Orphan had asked them to get a crew for.
Similarly, Simon Sandrisson had his mysterious … connection to the Arena that he had only begun to explore and understand, DuQuesne and Wu Kung also had some strange anomalies that needed to be addressed, and other characters such as Oasis and Maria-Susanna were themselves dangling plot threads that needed to be if not tied up, at least brought to a point that they were no longer merely nagging questions.
There were also some personal story arc threads to complete. Wu Kung had suffered a terrible loss of his entire virtual world – which, as AIs in the Arenaverse are as much people as those of meat, meant he had lost his friends and family to the actions of an unknown enemy. That needed resolution, as did the question of the Genasi – the native species of the Arena that now had a chance to become true citizens of the Arena.
And … I really, really needed to start moving the personal relationships along. Ariane, Simon, and DuQuesne had been doing a sort of dance around the issue since the first book – for, admittedly, damned good reason, what with all the sudden-death situations, paradigm shifts, and pressure, not to mention Ariane ending up in the position of commanding officer for both of them. But even with those reasons, it had to come to an end somehow.
The most obvious plot thread, of course, was at the ending of Spheres, when Ariane announced her intention to fulfill her commitment to Orphan and accompany him on a secret mission into the Deeps of the Arena, a mission I knew the purpose of and that was vital to completing part of Ariane’s own arc.
I started thinking about that mission, and suddenly I realized that it provided the opportunity I needed to do everything necessary, if I changed one thing: kept Simon Sandrisson from going on that trip. Originally I’d intended that journey to be an entire book in itself, the three main characters plus Wu Kung traveling with Orphan to his unknown destination, with only minor flashes of what was going on at home, culminating of course with the Molothos discovering the location of Humanity’s Sphere. But seeing everything that needed to be done in this book, it was clear that what I needed was to split Challenges of the Deeps across two locations: the Deeps themselves, where Orphan would take them, and Nexus Arena and Humanity’s Sphere, where all other action was taking place.
Leaving Simon behind was a wonderful opportunity. It threw Ariane and DuQuesne together under circumstances that their relationship could grow, while allowing them to help Orphan address his problem — and bring Ariane to a place where she could truly learn about what she had become.
More importantly, it put Simon in a position where he had to take charge of his life, without being able to rely on Ariane or DuQuesne to backstop him. The Molothos could discover Humanity’s location early on, and have an honest-to-goodness space-opera style battle of fleets be the final climax of the book – and Simon would be the one who would be heavily involved in defending Humanity. As a character it would force him to become more of what he currently was only in potential.
The resulting book, Challenges of the Deeps, ended up being one of the most densely-packed things I’ve ever written; I start by sending our heroes to a meeting with Orphan, and a chapter later get Wu Kung and Humanity involved in the Genasi’s Challenge to the Great Faction of the Vengeance – and from that Challenge (which is itself one of my favorite sequences I’ve ever written) charge into the Deeps with Ariane, DuQuesne and Wu Kung while throwing Simon in the deep end of the political pool… and set him and Humanity up for warfare, while putting the others in danger from a more personal, but even more mysterious, opponent. Along the way I throw some light on Oasis/K, the Analytic, Maria-Susanna, and finally discover the name of the adversary who murdered four Hyperions and destroyed Wu Kung’s virtual world.
I end the beginning – bringing Humanity to a point where they have true, powerful allies and a victory that leaves no one in doubt of their position. And I also begin the ending, by giving us hints as to some of the deep past and showing, I think, a vague outline of where the ultimate direction of Humanity – and especially Captain Ariane Austin and her friends – will take them.
It was a hell of a lot of fun to write, and I think that it’s as good a temporary stopping point as I could possibly have imagined. I hope the readers agree with me.
In today’s Big Idea, author Randy Henderson and his protagonist have a chatty conversation about Henderson’s new novel, Smells Like Finn Spirit. Let’s see what they have to say to each other this time, shall we?
Well, Finn, this is it. A trilogy! As its main character, how do you feel?
“Like you had three chances to imagine me in a paradise with pizza trees, milkshake rivers, and unlimited sexy time for me and Dawn. Remind me, which book had that?”
I’m afraid the readers wouldn’t have enjoyed that as much as you. Well, the sexy time, maybe –
“Which you made as awkward as possible, the little you did allow.”
What, and milkshake rivers would have made it better? Do I need to remind you what happens when you drink milkshakes? If you think sexy time in the Land of Dairy Pain would have been–
“Okay! Aren’t we supposed to be talking about big ideas?”
Yup. So then, what do you think is the big idea behind Smells Like Finn Spirit?
“Oh, I don’t know. A number of words come to mind. Autozombitons. Waer-Bear Stare. Merlin-lite. Groin pain. Feypocalypse. None of them make me feel warm and fuzzy for some odd reason. What do you think the big idea is?”
I guess for me the big idea is how the series and I have evolved over these three books together. It has been as much a journey for me as for you.
“You say evolved, I say escalated. I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss when all I faced were gnome mobsters and sasquatch mercenaries.”
Well, Finn Fancy Necromancy was fun, to be sure –
“I didn’t say it was fun.”
— but the sequels needed to offer something a little deeper in the worldbuilding and the characters so that they weren’t just repetitious repeats, and supported a trilogy arc. And as I look back at them, it is interesting to see how the events in this world, and my life, seeped into that world.
“You mean more so than your questionable taste in music?”
For the hundredth time, Finn, there’s nothing wrong with Milli Vanilli’s music!
“I was actually thinking of Right Said Fred and ‘I’m Too Sexy,’ but you were saying?”
Well, I can look back now, and see how I was channeling some the darkness of the real world into the growing darkness in the books.
“You mean like the growing darkness that culminated in Limp Bizkit’s cover of George Michael’s ‘Faith’?”
No. Book 3 only goes up to 1992 culturally, you know that. In 1992 we were riding high on Grunge, there was no way we could have foreseen a future that terrible.
“Then do you mean the growing cultural darkness foreshadowed by the Jerry Springer show?”
No! What I meant was, Book 2, Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free has elements of racial tension and a group of feyblood rights activists pushing back against the abuse of power. Bigfootloose was begun at the end of 2013 after the Trayvon Martin decision and a number of other difficult events in our nation, and written over the course of 2014, a year that saw great upheaval in my personal life. Looking back, it all seems pretty obvious to me how that seeped into my work.
“It also has demonic male underwear models, and yarn bombing sasquatches. You didn’t exactly write a revolutionary text there.”
Well, no. I wasn’t writing a political piece, I was trying to give readers a fast-paced and funny fantasy adventure. But in a series that’s been labeled “dark and quirky,” book two tipped a little more onto the darker side and book one on the quirky side, I’d say.
“So then was book 3, Smells Like Finn Spirit, influenced by Trump’s rise?”
No, at least not the plot. I actually conceived book 3 in late 2014 well before the Orange One dominated the election season.
“Wait. You have Arcana Supremacists who are making their big moves to control the arcana government, allying with a traditional foreign enemy under the belief they will get the better of the deal when inevitable betrayal occurs, and risking the equivalence of magical nuclear war in seeking ultimate power – and that’s all coincidence?”
Oddly enough, yes. There are some strange parallels in retrospect, so maybe I was just tuned on some subconscious level to what was coming. Like the Oracle from the Matrix!
“More like Season One Deanna Troi. And you know I love politics even less than I like lentils, and that’s saying something. So how about you get to the point?
Fine. Having (I feel) grown as a writer during this journey, and gotten the hang of writing to deadline, I feel that in Smells Like Finn Spirit I successfully blended the humor and pacing of book one, plus the best aspects of world-building and character development from book two, all with half the calories.
“You also made me fight for my life in the Fey Other Realm, and face an apocalypse.”
These things build character.
“I’m already a character. Literally. And literally.”
Right. So in short –
“Too late –”
– I’m pretty dang proud of how this “dark and quirky” urban fantasy trilogy turned out, and our growth together. And, well, I’m proud of you, Finn.
“Wow. I, uh, well that’s really – wait a second. You found out I requested Character Protective Relocation, didn’t you?”
Maaaybe. But come on, Finn, would you really be happier in some other author’s head? What if they renamed you, like, Blaine, and put you in a 1600’s love triangle with a vampire and a pirate or something? I mean, you wouldn’t even have decent plumbing, let alone access to a Commodore 64.
“Well, you did give me a Sega Genesis in this last book. And all those RPGs: Curse of the Azure Bonds, Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Wasteland –”
That’s right, I did! And introduced you to Nirvana, Boys II Men, Blur – come on. Would you really take Dawn away from her music?
Sigh. “No. I suppose not. But if we are staying in your head, then we want –”
Oh, look, the links! That means it’s time to go.
“Hey! Don’t think this is the end of –”
Specifically Miami University, down the road in Oxford, OH (to head off any comments on this score, the Miami in Florida is named after the Miami Valley of Ohio, which is where we live, and Miami University was actually founded before Florida became a state). We’re super-thrilled about this; Miami was one of Athena’s two top choices for college and it has an excellent reputation for undergraduate education — among national universities, in fact, it ranks #2 in the nation for undergraduate teaching (#1: Princeton; #3: Yale; my own University of Chicago isn’t even in top 20, alas). And it’s one of the “public ivies.” So I feel pretty sure she’ll get, you know, a decent education. Krissy is happy it’s not too far away — it’s about an hour down the road — so we have a decent chance of seeing our kid on more than just the occasional holiday. And Athena is happy, because now she knows she’s going to college. In all, a happy day.
One thing different now than in the past: Athena found out her status by checking in online (they posted acceptances at midnight), so she didn’t have to wait for either the happy big package or depressing thin slip in the mail, like I did 30 years ago. I figure this is actually a positive step forward. It seems slightly less stressful in any event.
So: Yay! My kid’s going to college! If you would like to congratulate her in the comments, I would not look askance upon it.
A couple dozen books came to the Scalzi Compound whilst we were on the cruise — here’s the first stack of them. See anything you like? Tell us which ones in the comments!
Sometimes, as a fan, you hope your a new book or show or album from your favorite creative people will give you the experience you want. But sometimes it doesn’t. What then? If you’re Tom Merritt, you use that as an inspiration to create a novel. Here’s Merritt now to talk about how his book Pilot X came out of a moment that wasn’t.
When I was 18 I went off to college, hours from the only house I ever lived in, barely knowing anyone, and scared to death. When I was 23 I moved to Texas with my then-girlfriend, leaving everything in my home state behind, and scared to death. When I was 29, the girlfriend no longer with me, I moved to San Francisco alone, barely knowing anyone, in a job I wasn’t sure I knew how to do, scared to death.
We’ve all felt alone and we’ve all made decisions that felt too big for us. What do we do when there doesn’t seem to be a right decision? Knowing someone else who’s faced the same thing helps, even if that person is fictional.
In 2006, Doctor Who returned to TV. I was captivated by Christopher Eccleston’s lonely, haunted portrayal of the Doctor. I loved that he was the last of the time lords, sole survivor of a time war, driven mad by what he had to do, and running from that past.
When the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who promised to show us the moment that made him that way, when he had to destroy his own people to end a war, I got very excited. Finally, we would see the moment that drove a good man to make an impossible decision.
But that’s not what I got. I enjoyed the episode, don’t get me wrong—it was fun and thrilling in all the right ways. But it didn’t deliver the big moment I was expecting, at least not in the way I wanted.
What should a good person do when faced with a choice between the survival of the universe, and the survival of their own people? How could you live with yourself if you had to destroy everything you knew, to save a universe? Those were the questions I wanted to see explored.
Those questions haunted me for a year.
So, I wrote several pieces of a story about a timeship pilot who had to face that moment. I created a character who did not want fame, did not seek power, but just wanted to do what he enjoyed: flying his ship. Events beyond his control thrust him into a situation where he, and only he, could decide the fate of the universe. He would have to destroy his whole culture and orphan himself or watch everything in existence burn.
I didn’t want any easy outs for him either, so I created strict rules of time travel. If I made it possible to go back in time and assassinate the folks who caused everything to go bad, it would be a short story. Even if our hero didn’t do it, somebody else would have. Besides, I don’t think time travel would work like that.
I think time travel is rigid. If you could go back in time, the effects of everything you did in the past should already be felt in your present. Headache-inducing, I know. Suffice it to say you can’t change the past. What you did in the past already happened. Trying to change the past would be like trying to escape a planet’s gravity—you can’t do it by ordinary means like jumping or even flying. It takes a lot of energy and explosions. Of course, with sufficiently powerful and advanced technology it might still be possible.
I also didn’t want to rip off Doctor Who. The comparisons were close enough as it was. Sure, I was going to have a time traveler, a ship, and race of time travelers, but that was it. No Earth, no companions (I made the ship the companion) no sonic screwdriver, no Daleks, et cetera. The main character is never a doctor, and not a madman in a box. Jelly babies and fezzes do not once make an appearance. There is, however, pie.
All that scene setting, all that character creation, all that work on the mechanics of time travel, served to make one moment inescapable. Pilot X must face the heart-breaking moment when he must destroy everything he knows, to save everything but himself, then try to live with the consequences.
Why does that situation appeal to me so much? I think it has to do with those moments in our life when we have to break with the past. When it feels like we must leave everything behind and no matter what we do, some part of our self will be destroyed. Maybe it’s a metaphor for growing up. When we leave home for the first time we end our childhood. We can’t keep it. We can try to cling to it but it won’t be childhood any more. Or, we can leave it behind and set off to make ourselves something new.
My growing up (if it’s even done) took a long time and I traveled far from home often on my own. I know that feeling of having to leave everything behind and starting over. Granted, I never had to destroy a people or save a universe, but I have felt events force me into making big decisions and then had to face the consequences of those decisions alone. That’s what I saw in the Doctor. That’s what I put into Pilot X.
My hope is that I captured a bit of what I felt back in 2006.
While I was on the JoCo Cruise, the US and UK editions of The Collapsing Empire arrived at the Scalzi Compound. Here they are, with cat for scale.
Also, there’s this tweet from last night:
And if you’re asking, “Gee, isn’t the audiobook out next week?” the answer is indeed it is! Wil would have done the narration last week, but he was on the JoCo Cruise too, with me, and on which we discussed the book while lounging on the Lido deck, as one would. Which is to say we knew this well ahead of time and scheduled everything to move quickly this week. Don’t panic, we meant to do this.
Also, it’s eight days before release date here in the US, ten days in the UK. Still enough time to pre-order your copy (via your favorite local or online retailers) so you can have your copy on the day it comes out.
Also remember that I’ll soon be on tour, with Lexington, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Richmond, Nashville, Austin, Houston, Dallas and Chicago on the first leg. If you live in one of those towns, you should come see me! I’ll be reading new stuff that no one else gets to see or hear probably for a year or so. Lots of bragging rights going on there. Plus I’ll sign your books and stuff. You know, like you do. Or at least, like I do.
Eight days! I’m really excited.
It’s Thursday! No, not the date (it’s still Monday, sorry about that), but the novel, written by Jake Kerr. And in it, Kerr attempts an update on a classic, if dated, fantasy novel. How hard could it be, right? Well…
So, my new novel is about a future Earth where the population escapes the polluted and dying planet by logging into linked virtual reality servers. They take on roles as fantasy characters, live in former time periods, cruise the Tinder server—all in an effort to get away from the sad world where they live. A mysterious group wants to destroy the virtual reality network to force the citizens to wake up and force the corporations and governments to clean up environment. Their belief is that the planet was purposefully polluted to move people to the corporation-controlled virtual reality operating system. Our hero infiltrates the supreme council of this group and finds that her life is constantly in danger as she moves from secret meetings to administration buildings and virtual reality fantasy servers where she is a level 73 mage. Along the way, everyone betrays everyone else and nothing is what it seems.
That is the description of Thursday, and based solely on that you would never know that it is an adaptation of G. K. Chesterton’s classic The Man Who Was Thursday. And therein lies the following tale.
I first read The Man Who Was Thursday in college, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels. The humor. The plot twists. The intrigue. I was entirely enthralled. Michael Moorcock called it one of the top 100 fantasies of all time, and it’s a seminal novel in the thriller genre, with its series of chases and pursuits. It’s an amazing book with one significant problem—it’s very dated.
The humor references have little cultural meaning to many readers today. The surrealist/spiritual metaphors and allegories are highly specific and jarring for many. And the expositional and philosophical prose is far out of fashion. To make matters worse, the frightening bad guys are anarchists, a group that provides little sense of dread today.
It always struck me that this extraordinary novel deserved to be updated in some form or fashion so that a new generation of readers could enjoy Chesterton’s genius. The more I thought of it over the years, the more I considered doing it myself. Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? I thought. Well, I found out when I took on the project last year.
Updating the story wasn’t the hard part. With its surreal nature and the themes of deception and truth, I immediately knew that I wanted to use some kind of virtual reality framework. I’m also a huge fan of Philip K. Dick, and two of his common themes are favorites of mine: What is reality? And what does it mean to be human?
Specifically, I thought of another favorite novel of mine—Dick’s Time Out of Joint, a fifties era paperback that centers on the protagonist living in a world that isn’t what it seems. Taking The Man Who was Thursday and moving it to a virtual reality setting where it’s hard to tell what is real and who is who they say they are while adding AIs who may or may not be considered human seemed like a perfect way to update Chesterton’s tale.
Easy, right? I even mirrored the scenes and chapters.
There was only one problem: It didn’t work.
My first draft was awful. I had stayed too true to Chesterton’s dialogue, and it sounded quaint and anachronistic. I had stripped out nearly all the exposition, and that left threadbare scenes. I had followed the plot so closely that some of the scenes that made sense in 1908 were absurd in a virtual reality setting.
What I thought would be easy was suddenly looking like a formidable challenge.
My friend Matt Mikalatos (who wrote the afterword) basically said I had written “too G. K. Chesterton and not enough Jake Kerr.”
While I grumbled about the hard work ahead of me, the more important concern was that the more I changed, the less I was staying true to the original novel. Yet if I didn’t make significant changes, many of the problematic things I wanted to fix would remain.
I’ve written homages before (namely “The Old Equations” and its thematic tip of the hat to “The Cold Equations”), but this was an adaptation. I needed to keep the connection to the original source alive and clear.
So I waded in with what I hoped was a scalpel and not a machete.
I knew I had to keep the plot, including the sparse and thin scenes without the exposition. I also wanted to mirror the chapter structure to make it feel as close to Chesterton’s novel as possible. Beyond that, however, I realized I had to make significant changes.
I had originally intended to have fun and keep as much of Chesterton’s dialogue as possible and overlay it on the SF setting. I loved the idea, but it just didn’t work. So the first thing I did was re-do practically every line of dialogue. I worked hard to keep some, but only if it made sense. After I finished, I had a much more readable and contemporary-sounding novel. While I didn’t keep the words themselves, I worked hard to keep the spirit of the them.
Now Chesterton’s plot is fantastic and truly one of the best of all time, with twists that build on twists. The trouble was that it is limited by 1908 technology, with trains and pistols and slow travel on horseback. I ended up dramatically changing some scenes, including a tense race against the clock. Chesterton based the scene on the arrival of a train. I had it based on a server pending a maintenance lockdown.
As I noted earlier, Chesterton filled a lot of scenes with expositional philosophical musing. While perfect for his novel, it simply doesn’t work in a contemporary SF novel. So I had to actually flesh out a lot of scenes with action that are only described or mentioned in passing by Chesterton. This happens in the opening chapter when Gabby Simm meets Lucian. For Chesterton it was a philosophical meeting of poets. I added a scene-specific goal for Lucian with Gabby narrating with snark.
I also couldn’t ignore the opposite point-of-view of updating a book—the demands of contemporary genre conventions. You can’t simply adapt a book to a new setting, you need to apply the setting to the book. For example, much of my book is set on a fantasy virtual reality server like Warcraft or Elder Scrolls Online. How could I set a thriller in such a setting without having a virtual reality fantasy battle, complete with a castle, spells, NPC warriors, traps, and unique magical items? I made the battle fit within Chesterton’s plot, but it is new and gives the book the contemporary feel it requires.
The final piece was the biggest challenge for me. Chesterton’s background was decidedly religious and based on the secular, frightening, and chaotic anarchist forces in 1908. My background was of a modern world dying from neglect, with virtual reality the way the population escaped this dismal reality. The world is even described as “IRL” and the IRL spaces where people live are delineated as “inside” and “outside.” Making all this work required me to add some scenes and change some of the ways that the characters interacted. For example, the opening scene in my book doesn’t exist in The Man Who Was Thursday.
At its heart, The Man Who Was Thursday is steeped in Catholic symbols and Christian messages, and this is where I am most curious about how the book will be received. I’m an atheist and removed all of those pieces from the novel. Yet I’m convinced that I’ve kept the spirit of the novel enough that if you are religious or a Chesterton fan, you will still see those things there, just not as overtly as Chesterton made them. Christian speaker and author Matt Mikalatos addresses this in the book’s afterword.
Earlier I wrote: Chesterton wrote the plot, the scenes, and the characters. How hard could it be? The answer turned out to be very hard. I’m not exaggerating in saying that each chapter of Thursday took about as long to write as two chapters in a book that I would create from my own imagination. It was, in no uncertain terms, a significant time commitment. I do believe it was worth it, however. Even if readers hate my book, maybe the spark will be there for them to search for Chesterton. I wouldn’t mind that at all.
How I spent my first post-JoCo Cruise Sunday afternoon: One, weaving slightly, because I still do not have my land legs back, and two, going through the roughly one thousand photos I took of the JoCo Cruise 2017 final concert to bring you all a curated selection of highlights and portraits of the performers as they did their thing. If you were there, you can relive the moment. If you weren’t there, well, I think it’s an argument for why you should consider going on the JoCo Cruise next year.