Monthly Archives: June 2008

Reminder: Insult the Crap Out of Me

Remember that you have only until 11:59:59 tonight (Eastern) to get in your entries for the “Hate Mail” contest, in which the winning hate mails will be published in the book itself. Yes, that’s right, your words describing how much I suck will be enshrined forever in the Library of Congress. That puts it all in perspective, it does. And the winners will of course also get their own copies of the book, to enshrine (or not) as they see fit. Have fun with it, you bastards.

The Big Idea: Judson Roberts

The Vikings: You know them as burly guys with braids and swords who gave teleological and philosophical underpinnings to the music of both Richard Wagner and scores of heavy metal bands — but what do you really know about them? If the answer is “really? Not much,” don’t feel too bad; most people are in same boat (one that has a dragon head) with you. But fortunately for you Judson Roberts does know a lot about the life and times of the Vikings, and uses that historical verisimilitude to inform his “Strongbow Saga” of books, of which The Road to Vengeance is the latest installment.

So there’s not a small amount of irony that in his quest to recount the world of the Vikings, Roberts discovered he had to go through some experiences here and now, in our world, to get that era right. Here’s Roberts to explain why that was so.

JUDSON ROBERTS:

When I set out to write a historical fiction series, I had several specific goals in mind. First, I wanted to tell a fast paced story with lots of action, excitement and adventure. Second, I wanted to bring the ninth century time period and the Viking peoples, within whose world the story is set, so vividly to life that readers would feel like they were being swept into that world and were experiencing it. And third, I wanted to strive for the highest possible degree of historical accuracy, particularly because I feel the Vikings have for the most part been badly misrepresented in fiction.

Two of my all time favorite books served as my inspirational role models. The first was James Clavell’s Shogun, and the other The Lord of the Rings. As far as I’m concerned, Shogun sets the gold standard for the three goals listed above–prior to reading it I’d known nothing at all about medieval Japan, with its samurai history and Bushido culture, but by the time I finished the book I felt like I’d been transported to the far side of the world, and back to the early 17th century. And Tolkien’s Middle Earth, although a fictional creation, becomes more real for me every time I read it than the real world settings of much historical fiction.

My earliest drafts fell far short of achieving my second goal. I wasn’t bringing the Vikings’ culture to life. I wasn’t succeeding at getting inside the heads of a people who’d lived over a thousand years ago. What I was creating felt comparable to the dreadful 1993 Disney-produced film of The Three Musketeers, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen, whose characters may have been garbed in costumes appropriate to the period, and placed in authentic looking settings, but as soon as they opened their mouths you heard twentieth century surfer dudes, and every shred of the movie’s credibility went out the window.

Ironically, what led me to my breakthrough big idea was having almost every aspect of my life get blown to hell.

I was living on the east coast at the time, where I’d created and had been running an innovative anti-gang and drug program for a local district attorney’s office in North Carolina. The program, a several-year project funded by a federal grant, had been so successful that a larger statewide drug intelligence and interdiction program modeled after it was being planned, and as my small, local project was being gradually phased out I was offered a high level position in the soon to be created new agency.

Unfortunately, the new statewide program was to be funded primarily by the federal government. The year was 2001, and the newly elected Bush administration swept into office, bringing with them a disdain and distrust for any program or plan originating during their Democratic predecessor’s term, including the new state program I’d been planning to move to. With a stroke of a pen they killed its funding. I suddenly found myself, at age fifty, unemployed and with an unusual background and skill set: investigating and prosecuting various types of organized crime, with special expertise in large conspiracy cases and electronic surveillance–skills for which there was virtually no market, especially in North Carolina, except for the government that now was not hiring.

On top of that, my first marriage, which had endured for thirty years but had been struggling for the last ten, came to an end, and I was having a lot of trouble with my health, but a succession of doctors were unable to diagnose the cause. After months of efforts to turn things around that proved unsuccessful on every front, I followed in the footsteps of Davy Crockett, who uttered these immortal words as he left the east and headed west toward the destiny he found at the Alamo: “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

There is a point to this story. In Texas, I built a new life from the broken fragments of my old one. I fell in love and remarried, I succeeded in getting my health problem identified and under control, and on the career front I moved in new directions–first as a private investigator, and later as an actually published, income-earning writer rather than merely an aspiring one. But going through the overall experience led me to an understanding of how the Vikings’ beliefs gave them a perspective on their lives very different from how we tend to view our world today.

In the modern western world, we have a tendency to believe (until events beyond our control prove us wrong) that we are the masters of our own destinies. The Vikings knew better. They believed that everything–the lives of all men, the pantheon of pagan gods they worshipped, and even the world itself, was subject to and controlled by a power or force they called fate. And they believed that fate was not random, but was shaped by an intelligent hand, or more precisely, three pairs of hands. For the Vikings visualized fate as an immensely vast tapestry being woven on the looms of three ancient sisters called the Norns. Although the life of any individual might consist of no more than a few brief lengths of thread in the overall tapestry of fate, nevertheless every thread was positioned and woven into the pattern of the tapestry with purpose and intent. It was not necessarily granted to men to understand the purposes of their lives, or the reasons for the twists and turns they might follow. And for certain no one could escape their fate. But it was within the power and control of every man to face whatever his fate brought him with courage and dignity, or with fear and disgrace–and such, to the Vikings, was the ultimate measure of a man.

Understanding that, I was at last able to re-approach my characters, and to tell their stories and portray their world as they themselves might have seen them. The rest is history–mixed liberally with fiction, of course.

—-

The Road to Vengeance: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read excerpts from The Road to Vengeance and the other Strongbow Saga books here, and explore through Roberts’ research on the life and times of Vikings here.

The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

In its review of The Iron Hunt, her latest, Publishers Weekly called Marjorie M. Liu “one of the best new voices in paranormal fiction” — and given how hot the field is these days, that’s not a small compliment. The Iron Hunt finds Liu doing what she does best: Creating a strong character who stands between humanity and the demons who, as you might expect, do not exactly wish us well. It’s always something. But the roots of the book arise out of ground you might not expect, or eve have been aware of. Here is Liu to tell you how a quote from one of the fathers of modern Chinese literature set her on the path to The Iron Hunt.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

Every writer searches for that meteoric fragment of inspiration, and the following quote from Lu Xun was mine, from the beginning, as I began the mental somersaults that would take me into the creation of The Iron Hunt:

“Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?”

“But if a few wake up, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

There. The Big Idea. But let me backtrack for a moment.

My first big idea was an old idea by the time I got around to writing The Iron Hunt – the sequel to a novella penned almost two years ago. Called Hunter Kiss, its central conceit was born from watching the news, my evenings exposed to stories of kidnappings and bloodshed; reports of mass rapes, mass murder. Fearsome crimes. And I would sit – as many do — safe on my couch, staring at the television, and ask myself, “Who does that? Who is capable of that?”

Better yet, why? No doubt there is an occasional madness to human beings – and while some insanities are delightful and quirky, and become the eccentric mainstay of some talented individuals, it’s those other, darker urges that electrify, terrify – and that remain, at their worst, unfathomable. All you can do is brace yourself.

Yet, that’s how the first idea started, and it could not have been simpler: Some people are evil. Of those, not all become wicked by themselves. I envisioned the spiritual manipulation of humans in biological terms. Demons – so to speak — riding on the backs of souls, feeding like parasites on the energy of strong emotions. Needing human pain to survive.

Alien creatures, not of earth. No hell, no heaven, just an invasion from another world. An army, locked inside a prison located in a dimension beyond ours, from which demonic rats and scrappers occasionally escape through cracks in the veil separating us from them – becoming malevolent shadows, whispering in human heads. Not the worst of the demons, either. Not by a long shot.

This was something I wrote down after a particularly bad dream. I didn’t think much would come of it, until I saw a documentary on tattoos around the same time I had a novella to write (and never underestimate the inspirational qualities of a deadline). As I rested in bed, watching some dude covered head to toe in scales and monsters and swords, I remembered an old Sci-fi Channel commercial – also about tattoos — and thought, “How cool if those were alive.”

And Maxine Kiss was born. The last Prison Warden. Covered in living, breathing, demonic tattoos. Part of a symbiotic relationship inherited from mother to daughter. Maxine was the first Big Idea – after the demons, before Lu Xun: loner, nomad – the iconic gunslinger — no friends but the demons who live on her body; and totally clueless about the vast history of her legacy, or how much danger the world is in.

A world unabashedly influenced by my obsessions with C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Anderson, and Jorge Luis Borges. If you read too much of them, ideas are bound to get stirred up, inspired by orphans and magic, quests and destiny — and those damn labyrinths. Add a dash of quantum physics, and an alien race that treats genetic manipulation like a divine art, and you’ve got urban fantasy blended with science fiction. Part of the Big Idea — but still not the Big Idea.

Which takes me back to Lu Xun, who was a wanderer, a man keenly aware of the natural oppression of society, as well as his own intellectual loneliness. Swallowed up by the world — which will kill any individual, slowly, who stands alone. And plenty do, whether they realize it or not. The end of the world happens every day, for some. Might not have anything to do with demons or prison veils, or aliens from other dimensions and planets, but in the end, in your heart, you give up, succumb to apathy, die alone – or you search out others of like-mind to share the burden of living, and fight for something better.

The heart of The Iron Hunt is quiet, and very simple. Rooted in character. Our world, and the world of the book, might be a difficult place, and dangers abound – but you have a choice whether to see only the suffocating walls, without hope. You have the choice to do good or evil; or to coast, in apathy, within the deadly status quo. And that choice – for the heroine, Maxine, for the friends she finds — is what rests at the core of The Iron Hunt.

The Iron Hunt: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt or listen to an audio excerpt of The Iron Hunt here.

Make-Up Contest

So, I said I’d post a Big Idea piece today, and then didn’t, because, uh, I was running errands. Yes, that’s it. Well, I’ll post one tomorrow. In the meantime, and to keep you amused, a contest!

Explain what, precisely, is going on in this picture:

Frankly, I want to know myself.

Contest open through, oh, let’s say, 10pm Eastern, tomorrow, June 24th. There is an actual prize attached to this contest. A very cool prize. Which does not actually involve something I’ve written, in case you’re wondering. Which may be an extra incentive for some of you.

Various Thingery, 6/23/08

Some stuff:

* Remember that you only have until Wednesday to participate in the Hate Mail contest, in which your delightful bits of vitriolic spite can get you a free copy of my upcoming book — and get your winning entry printed in said book itself. There’s some good ones so far, but hey: You’ve been saving up to unload on me with both barrels for years now. You may never get a better chance.

*Speaking of contests to win copies of books, Subterranean Press is sponsoring a contest to win an Advance Reader Copy of the UK edition of The Graveyard Book, the upcoming novel by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean. All you have to do is come up with the epitaph for your own gravestone. In addition to possibly winning the UK ARC, the epitaphs the folks at Subterranean like best will be ensconced on their own headstones in a special page of SubPress’ Graveyard Book site. Nifty.

* One more SubPress goodie: Subterranean Magazine Online is featuring an audio version of the Cory Doctorow story “After the Siege,” which won a Locus award just this last weekend (congrats, Cory!). The story is read by Mary Robinette Kowal, who you may recall part of the audio of “The Sagan Diary,” and who is nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year.

* To get back to me for a moment, the first professional review of Zoe’s Tale is out and about, from Publishers Weekly, and it’s a good one: I won’t quote the whole thing here, but I’ll note the review calls the book “touching” and says that “engaging character development and Scalzi’s sharp ear for dialogue will draw in new readers, particularly young adults.” Well, I like new readers. Clearing the PW bar in terms of reviews of the books always makes me happy, too.

Update: The full review is up here (scroll down a bit). There are also postive reviews of Tobias Buckell’s Sly Mongoose, Elizabeth Bear’s Hell and Earth and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s short story collection The Ant King and Other Stories.

Away Time

As hinted at in a previous entry, I have a project deadline coming up which will require me to actually spend time writing away from here during most of the work day, definitely for the next week and probably through the July 4th weekend. I won’t tell you what the project is yet, except to hint provocatively that it is very cool and that you’ll all be very excited when you learn about it. But I need to get it, you know, done.

How will this affect your life as a Whatever reader? Probably not much, since my plan is to do a bit of time shifting: WordPress allows scheduling of entries, so I suspect what I’ll do is write stuff for Whatever in the evenings and then schedule to pop up at regular intervals during the next day. So you’ll get updated entries, I’ll finish the project I’m working on, and everyone is happy. And as previously mentioned, over the next week I’ll also have a few Big Idea pieces for you; that should keep you busy as well.

However, it does mean that if you send me an e-mail and/or respond to or ask me something in the comment threads, I probably won’t immediately respond, because I’ll be away from Teh Intarweebs for most of the workday. Please exercise patience. Thanks.

I Hereby Declare This Big Idea Week!

I’ve got a stack of Big Idea pieces for books that have been released this month, and I have a writing deadline I need to attend to (more on that in another entry), so I’m declaring this Big Idea Week, in which I’ll be providing you more than the usual number of Big Idea entries, from more than the usual number of very cool authors. Because you deserve it! And I have to be writing something else! Yes, it’s funny how that works sometimes. You can expect the first of this week’s Big Ideas later on in the day. Prepare yourself accordingly.

RIP, George Carlin

He passed away from heart failure yesterday, at the age of 71.

He was my favorite comedian to come out of the late 60s and early 70s. He resembled that uncle who smoked too much pot back in the day but still had more than enough brain cells to spare for long, amusing, rambling asides that after the fact you realized had a point — and a really good one. I started liking him early — I impressed the entire family at 12 years old by memorizing most of Carlin’s A Place For My Stuff! album, which probably tells you something about my family — and kept liking him since. I even saw him live once, in Fresno, where he said one of the more sensible things I’d ever heard, which is that we really ought to combine cemeteries and golf courses, because both are such a damn waste of space. I remember wishing I’d thought of that first, but then, there’s a lot of stuff Carlin said I wished I thought of first. It’s part of what made him one of my favorite comedians.

I also liked the fact that he was the catalyst for one of the more important Supreme Court free speech rulings of recent times; it’s not every comedian whose work makes work for the highest court in the land. Having your own landmark court case is much better than a Grammy, if you give it any sort of thought.

To be utterly honest about it, Carlin lived at least 20 years beyond what I would have expected him to live, given his life history. Which means, really, that every thing he wrote or did after the mid-80s just feel like a gift, something extra you get for free, because sometimes life is good to you that way. But I still think he’s gone too soon.

Supplemental Sunsettery

My daughter demanded I go out and take pictures of the sunset tonight. It was a good call:

Here’s a closeup of those backlit clouds with hot crepuscular action:

Also, not a sunset, but off to the side, your ominous red clouds for the day:

And finally, unrelated to sunsets but still darn cute, here’s Zeus lurking in the ground cover:

This concludes this evening’s sunsettery. Thank you for your attention.

Atom Feedery

I’m getting a couple of reports that Whatever’s Atom feed is broken. I suspect this may be because people are pointing to a previous version of the Atom feed. The current version of the Atom feed is at:

http://scalzi.com/whatever/?feed=atom

http://scalzi.com/whatever/?feed=atom1

If you’ve been subscribing to the Atom feed via some other URL, please make the change now.

There is also an RSS2 feed at, logically enough:

http://scalzi.com/whatever/?feed=rss2

I leave it to you to guess what the address for the simple, no-frills RSS feed might be.

My Jazz Hands, Let Me Show You Them

Athena saw the Spore Creature Creator and wanted to try it out. And thus, meet Ramona Roar:

You can’t tell from this head-on picture, but Ramona has a wicked case of scoliosis. But she has a good personality and loves to dance. Her creator is very pleased with her. As well she should be.

Book Notes, 6/22/08

A couple three things relating to books of mine:

* First, for you Francophones out there, the cover to the French language version of The Last Colony:

The tall, tentacly fellow is meant to be General Gau; the other fellow, John Perry. No, I’m not sure why John Perry is wearing a headband. Maybe it’s the fashion. The book is vague on these details. You ask: Does General Gau really look like that? I say: Could be, and in the French version, certainly.

Fun fact: L’Atalante, my French publisher, asked for a couple of reference photos of me for the cover. My assumption was they might use me as a model for John Perry, but after seeing the cover art, I strongly suspect that General Gau here has my eyes. And also my hair. And also my skin tone. So, for all you people who always say you thought I would be taller: here you go.

La derniere colonie will be out on the 26th, which is this upcoming Thursday. Just in case you happen to be in France, and near a bookstore. French Canadians: You’ll have to wait until August. Sorry, man.

* Reviews of Zoe’s Tale are beginning to leak out online from folks who have read the ARCs; here’s a really nice one from someone who apparently does a lot of “early reviews” for LibraryThing, and was complimentary about Zoë herself:

Scalzi does an incredible job of capturing the voice of a 17-year-old girl. Her sarcasm and angst were pitch perfect – I can remember feeling the emotions he has Zoe experience. His supporting characters are also vividly drawn – each character feels unique, both humans and aliens. He is able to interject some really beautiful writing in between pages of exciting action, which made me want to savor the reading experience, even as I couldn’t wait to turn the page to see what would happen next.

Neat. We’ll have to see if the reviews from to pro critics are as kind.

Update: Hugo-nominated editor Jonathan Strahan also weighs in on ZT, and says that of my novels, it was the one he liked the best. Shucks.

* By way of a preview for all y’all, I plugged the first chapter of The High Castle, the upcoming novel in the Android’s Dream universe, into Wordle to come up with a word map for the text. Here’s what it looks like:

A larger version of the word map is here. Fans of The Android’s Dream will note that a certain minor character in that book gets some rather large play in the next.

Your Home Improvement Tip For The Day

From time to time, you may discover that your sink has become clogged with a large mat of hair. When this happens you must take action. First, grab your bathroom plunger, like so:

Then, apply the plunger directly to the mat of hair clogging the sink.

Vigorously move the plunger up and down to develop sufficient suction.

It’s just that easy!

Warning: Depending on conditions, your mat of hair may be entirely unamused by your actions.