Monthly Archives: September 2011

Win One of Ten Copies of Cherie Priest’s Ganymede

UPDATE: 12:03: They’ve all been given away. Thanks!

My pal Bill Schafer at Subterranean Press has ten copies of Ganymede, the latest installment of Cherie Priest’s terrific Clockwork Century series, and you can win one if you live in the US and if you are very fast. Here’s what you do:

1. Be one of the first 10 people to e-mail Bill at “subpress@gmail.com,” using “Ganymede Giveaway” as your e-mail header and providing your physical mail address (in the US; non-US addresses are out of luck, sorry).

2. That’s it.

These sorts of giveaways have gone very quickly before, so get typing. Also, you will be notified if you win, but not otherwise, so if you don’t hear anything within a day or two, assume you missed out this time around  — and consider getting the book anyway, because Cherie’s a damn good writer, and this is easily one of the best steampunk series ever.

Good luck!

I Missed This Because I Was Away From the Internet Earlier This Week

And if you missed it too, SFSignal’s flowchart for NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books is pretty awesome. And as a bonus it pegs Old Man’s War reasonably well. Check it out.

Small Housekeeping Note

Regarding the sidebar, as I know you are all passionately interested.

1. The “Today’s Books Sent to Scalzi” feed is back because I started updating it again after a couple of weeks (reason for delay: Not a whole bunch of books coming in for a couple weeks, and then suddenly A LOT. It happens like that sometimes).

2. Whateverettes is out at least temporarily, because del.icio.us is undergoing some changes, which apparently broke the WordPress widget I’ve been using with it. Hopefully it will get fixed soon; otherwise I’ll look for a way to replace it. I took the advance move of reserving the “Whateverette” Twitter account just in case.

3. “The Blatherations of Others” moved up higher in the sidebar queue for those of you who want to find what others said, more easily.

More updates as circumstances warrant.

 

Farewell, Suzuki Sidekick

We’ve been meaning to donate our Suzuki Sidekick since we took delivery on the Mini Countryman. Today was the day we finally did it, giving it to the local Ronald McDonald House Charities to auction off (or whatever) in order to benefit small hospitalized children and their families. Here is Krissy with the Sidekick and a coffee mug filled with balloon flowers, which she was given in appreciation for the gift. The donation coincided with a local radio charity drive for the Ronald McDonald charities, so when we handed over the title and keys, I was briefly on the radio to talk about it; shortly thereafter I was being asked on my Twitter feed if that was me on radio. Yup.

It was a bittersweet moment for Krissy, since the Sidekick was the first car she had bought new, and she’s had it since 1997. But we hardly drive it since we have the new car; it served us well and now it’s time for it to serve other people more usefully than it’s serving us. We treated it well so if whomever gets it continues to do so, it’s got some life left in it yet. So good luck to it and to those with whom it will eventually find a new home.

The Big Idea: Thomas Mullen

Writers, almost by definition, have something to say. What they don’t always have, alas, is the knowledge of the best way to say it. We fumble about through revisions and drafts, adding characters and situations — and then dropping them — to figure out the best way to get across the things we want to draw our reader’s attention to. Thomas Mullen knows about this: As he was building The Revisionsts, he knew he had things to comment on, and characters to do that commenting for him. The challenge was how to put all the ingredients together in just the right way.

THOMAS MULLEN:

We live in a politically polarized time, as we are so constantly reminded. So here are two statements from opposite poles:

1. You’d have to be paranoid to believe that government agents are reading your emails and eavesdropping on your phone calls.

2. You’d have to be naïve to think that they aren’t doing that.

Which is right?

I lived in Washington, DC, from 2002 until 2008. I moved there at the one-year anniversary of September 11, and I left just two months before Barack Obama was elected President. Which means I was there for the Bush years, or the post-9/11 years, or the Orange Alert years, or what Cheney would have called The Dark Side years. We were told that America was under attack, so, as the residents of our nation’s Capitol, we couldn’t help feeling that there was a large target on our back.

My wife and I didn’t work in politics and we knew very few people who did. It’s a large city, remember, and despite what anti-establishment political candidates say, it is indeed possible to throw a rock and not hit a bureaucrat or lobbyist if you aren’t in the biz. Still, living there during The Dark Side years, it was hard not to feel the effect national politics had on our literal and figurative backyards.

As my wife and I worked our jobs and went out at night and bought a house and had a child, the steady drumbeat of borderline unbelievable news pounded in the background. The National Security Agency is wiretapping and eavesdropping on citizens’ phone calls and emails and texts without warrants, despite laws prohibiting this? The CIA is torturing prisoners, not only at Guantanamo Bay but also at secret “black sites” spread across the globe? U.S. intelligence agents are abducting people and putting them on unmarked planes to nations like Egypt, where the prisoners are “rendered” to their evil secret police, armed with pliers and cattle prods? Our wars are being fought with the assistance of privatized mercenaries who fire into crowded markets to blow off steam?

These all felt like the plot elements of some conspiracy-theory film from the Seventies, like All the President’s Men or The Conversation or The Parallax View. Those movies work like bad dreams, playing to our worst fears while indulging in a nihilistic worldview about the way societies really work. Only, this wasn’t a movie. These things were actually happening, and the dark orders were emanating just a few blocks from my house.

Equally galling to me, as a writer, was the fact that when some of these stories hit the news, much of the debate focused not on the legalities of these acts but on the fact that someone had dared leak them to the press. At a time when journalists were being laid off due to the changing digital landscape, the government was threatening lawsuits against writers and their sources for compromising national security.

The idea that government agencies or privatized spy firms are watching us (and worse) is terrifying, and not simply because we don’t like having our privacy compromised. We like to believe that we have control over our lives, that we’re the masters of our fate. Stories of surveillance are so enraging because they tap into this deep-seated fear that maybe we aren’t in charge. Maybe we have no effect on anything, and there’s a vast System stacked against us, and it’s useless to resist.

For a long time I’d been kicking around a few scenes and chapters and character sketches, not sure where they fit in. I wanted a young man, recently fired from the CIA, who has taken a demeaning job, tailing antiwar activists for a private intelligence contractor. And I wanted some antiwar activists, not unlike my son’s former nanny, a hardcore leftist who was great with babies but who sprinkled her adult conversations with phrases like “the Bush regime” and “after the revolution.” I wanted a young corporate attorney, whose brother has just died fighting in Iraq, to agonize over whether she should leak information on one of her clients, a war contractor. And I wanted a young illegal immigrant toiling as a maid for a cruel, mysterious diplomat.

The novel underwent various false starts and at least one near-death, for two main reasons. First, I wasn’t sure if these various strands worked in the same book. Second, and more bedeviling, was whether I could even address such political issues in a work of fiction without seeming heavy or pedantic. A writer needs to be empathetic, to see the world through the eyes of all his characters, and that means people all across the political spectrum. Could I write about post-9/11 America and the Iraq War without sounding like some kneejerk liberal mad at Bush, or like a neoconservative angry at those who didn’t see the world as he did? Simply constructing a plot suddenly became an exercise in political handwringing: if the bad guy turns out to be an over-reaching government, that makes it a conservative book, right? And if the bad guy is an evil corporation, that makes it a liberal book, right? How do you steer clear of this political third-rail, getting at the deeper human truths that speak to all readers rather than kowtowing to a convenient ideology?

Time will tell whether I figured any of that out. But part of what helped me confront all this messy realism is the one character who is the least realistic, but who unites the various plot strands. Zed is a time traveler. He’s been sent from a perfect future as an officer of the Department of Historical Integrity; it’s his job to make sure that a horrible event occurs as dictated by history in present day D.C. Only then will his perfect future come into being.

The nature of time travel and enforced time lines underscores the idea of fate and personal choice that I’d already been pondering. Are we really independent actors on life’s stage, can we truly determine our fate, or are we following narrowly defined roads that have been laid before us by larger forces? Call it God, call it History, call it an all-powerful Government or all-knowing Corporations. Are we in control? Who makes history? Who can grab hold of the reins of fate?

I’m still not sure I know the answers to any of this, but it was a blast trying to find out.

—-

The Revisionists: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Eavesdrop on the characters from the book. Visit the author’s blog.

 

A Trip Into the Mailbag

Any time is a good time for a mailbag column at FilmCritic.com, answering questions on new films and previous columns. So this week I answer questions about whether Contagion is a science fiction film, why science fiction films have such a hard time with memorable women characters, and whether George Lucas is really all that when it comes to influencing the film industry. You know you want to read it, and I know I want you to read it too. As always, leave your own thoughts and comments over there.

Two Scalzi Short Works, Now in E-Book Form

If you follow this link, you will see news from Subterranean Press that Nook and Kindle editions of “Questions For a Soldier” and “The Sagan Diary,” two short works set in the Old Man’s War universe (“Questions” takes place between Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades; “Sagan” takes place between Ghost Brigades and The Last Colony). “Questions” is 99 cents; “Sagan,” $2.99. Worth every penny, if you ask me. Anyway, if you’ve been wanting e-book versions of these stories, now you’ve got ‘em.

I Resent the Implication That I Have Become a Zombie of Some Sort

Honestly, just because I’m away from the blog for a day or two does not mean I’ve gone over to the undead side. Yes, my skin is pale and rotting. Yes, I find it hard to enunciate with a decaying jaw. Yes, I have a big steaming pile of tasty, tasty brains harvested from the screaming skulls of my former neighbors. What of it? Those things, in themselves, prove nothing. Nothing at all.

Damn it, losing one’s thumbs makes it hard to type.

Actually, forget I said that. Or mumbled it, at least.

Anyway, another day I’ll be away from the blog for most of the day. Hey, it happens.

In the interim, a project for you:

We all know that zombies are the monstrous creatures who crave the brains of the living. Create and describe the monstrous creatures who crave one of the three following organs of the living: Pancreas, gall bladder, lymphatic system. Because, honestly. Just eating the brains? Seems wasteful, even for monstrous creatures. Time to build a whole ecosystem of them shambling bastards.

I’ll check in later in the day to see how all y’all are doing with the project.

Look and Feel Update, 9/23/11

So, yes, I’ve gone ahead and changed the blog theme here at Whatever, for two reasons. One, I was getting bored with the old theme, as I do about once every year. Two, the previous theme did not allow for some new functionality I thought it would be useful to have. And thus: New blog theme. This current theme is called “Minimum” and I imagine that barring some horrible implosion of something or other, I’ll keep it for about a year or so, until I get bored with it and move to something else. I suspect the look you see now (10pm Eastern, September 23, 2011) is going to be close to the final look; I may tweak things here and there but by and large this is it.

One new functionality that the theme offers is additional flexibility when signing on to make comments; now you may sign in to comment with WordPress, Twitter or Facebook IDs (as well as signing in the old fashioned way or just leaving your e-mail). This will undoubtedly make some of you happy. You’re welcome.

The minor drawback to this new theme as regards comments it that it doesn’t number the individual comments, which is a little annoying (this is because — I assume — the theme allows for threaded comments, which makes numbering the comments somewhat useless. I won’t be threading comments, incidentally). For those of you used to referring to previous comments by thread number, allow me to make another suggestion and refer to those previous comments by the time they were posted — so instead of say “John@75,” just write “john@3:34pm” instead. Same effective utility, slightly different referring number.

I had made mention a couple of posts ago that I was thinking of using IntenseDebate as a comment system; I haven’t yet done it primarily because I can’t figure out how to activate it. This is a WordPress VIP account, which means things have to be done slightly different than they could be with a freestanding WP install; I can’t just install any plugin I want. I may still try to figure out how to get it to work, but then I might also just decide to be a lazy-ass, as I so often do.

And that’s where we are at the moment.

A Book With an Oddly Resonant Title for These Here Parts

The folks over at National Geographic sent along to me one of their latest books, figuring I might appreciate it, given its title. And, well. Yes. It does intrigue me on the title alone. It’s also a pretty interesting book aside from the title; what it does is track technology through the ages, showing how the world got to where it is by a series of (yes) big ideas. The book’s conceit, however, is to go at it backwards, starting with recent developments and then moving back through time to show how development steps one from one idea to the next. So the information technology chapter, for example, starts with Linux and head back to the abacus, which was developed circa 3000 BC. It’s a useful way to do things, in terms of putting it all into a slightly different perspective.

This is exactly the sort of big, pretty, information-dense book that I would have geeked out about when I was 12 years old, which is nice because I have a 12-year-old in the house. But it’s a fun read for anyone interested in how ideas connect together over time. And of course: Great title.

Various & Sundry 9/23/11

What’s up? Well:

* For those folks still interested in the follow-up to the Redshirts auction will be happy to know that I met with the library folks today and they are very happy about everything that’s happened, and that they are making plans on how to put that money to its best use for the library — i.e., they’re not going to go out and spend it on gum or anything. More details as they happen, but in general, everything’s groovy over here.

* People are asking me what I think of the suggestion of sub-atomic particles going faster than light. One, it would be really interesting if it were true, since it would basically upend our model of how the universe works; Two, I suspect strongly that it’s an error somewhere along the chain of observation and we’ll find that out sooner rather than later; Three, that if that’s not how it plays out, this particular observation will have to be replicated a few dozen times before people are comfortable throwing a century’s worth of physics into the “obsolete” bin. Even the people publishing it is all “please check this for us, will you?” Which is what scientists do.

If you want to take a look at the paper that describes all this itself, it’s here. I looked at it and was reminded that my ability to understand it was only slightly better than that of an average monkey, so I will rely on actual scientists to tell me if it holds up. If it does, well. Exciting times. Physicist Brian Cox talks about it here (this is an audio file).

* I’ve also been asked for comments about the Republican presidential candidate debates. The short answer here is that I don’t have many, since I haven’t been watching them, on account that I don’t really want a shoe in my TV. I’ve been reading transcripts and follow-up commentary, none of which convinces me that any of these fellows (and one lady) will be coming remotely close to getting my vote next year. I heard about the booing of the gay soldier from the floor at the debate, but there’s some question of whether it’s the work of more than a couple of idiots, so I’m choosing not to get too worked up about that.

All of it is a reminder that 2012 is likely to be an especially aggravating election year; I’m happy not to devote too much of my attention to the election just yet.

* What I am devoting my attention to: Checking the copy edit of Redshirts. I’m happy to say that generally speaking it’s been well done, and the copy editor in question here is making me look like I’m more grammatically ept than I actually am. Which is always a positive. The CE and I have a small difference in opinion about commas (not necessarily relating to the Oxford comma, incidentally), which I will win because I get to STET. But it really is a small difference of opinion and in the main this is a good copy edit, and I’m happy to have it. If you get a final copy of the book and there’s a screw-up, blame it on me, not the copy editor.

As a small aside to this, I will note that that I have to be careful when typing out the title of the new book, since the omission of a single letter changes it from “redshirts” to a vulgar term for “bloody stool.” And I’ve unintentionally omitted that letter a couple of times already. Diligence, always diligence.

Let It Not Be Said That I Am Not Actively Fulfilling My Obligations

For the ukulele performance, Redshirts auction winner Brad Roberts said that any tune I favored will do. Well, this particular tune is pretty easy (four chords! Over and over!) and I know it reasonably well. So there it is.

And before anyone asks, yes, if I do make to 4th Street Fantasy as planned next year, I will take the uke with me. Along with the pie (I will actually probably make the pie once I’m there. Seems easier than trying to carry it on a plane). And yes, I will also play the uke. Bear in mind that as I know 4th Street Fantasy to be filled with actual musicians, I’ll be the idiot cousin of the musical world there. Be that as it may.

The Big Idea: Karen Healey

The unexpected: When it happens in books, it’s interesting. When it happens in real life it’s interesting too, although not always in the same way. During the writing of her highly praised novel The Shattering (“an intense and powerful novel,” wrote Publishers Weekly, in a starred review), author Karen Healey found herself captivated by the unexpected — both in how it affected the characters in her books, and how she found it suddenly having its effects in her own life.

KAREN HEALEY:

I didn’t set out to monetize my crazy.

I didn’t even know I was crazy.

I was just lying in bed one morning, idly thinking through all the things that might happen that day and working out how to deal with them, reminding myself that I had to restock the painkillers in my go-bag and check the expiry date on my emergency kit water bottles, and rehearsing my parents’ eulogies just in case I would be called upon to make them at short notice, when I had my Big Idea for my second novel.

“Hey!” I thought. “What if there was a character who plans the way I do for horrible events that might happen? And something happens that she hasn’t planned for! Something awful, something really awful. A dead parent?

“No, Karen, everyone plans for that, don’t be silly, what’s something they don’t plan for? A sibling’s death? A sibling who commits suicide unexpectedly? Hmm. Her older brother killed himself with her father’s shotgun, and she hadn’t planned for it, and it’s upset her entire world.

“But! What if someone tells her it was actually murder? What if she had a plan to deal with murder, one that involved finding out who it was, and revenging herself on them? Okay, but why would someone suspect a murder – unless something similar had happened to them. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of unexpected suicides that aren’t. Of older brothers.

“And what if the murders don’t have natural causes? What if something sinister and supernatural is going on that a logical approach to a rational world can’t deal with? Oh wow, that would be so rough on someone who needs to plan for everything.”

I figured out most of the plot while I was lying in bed that morning. It all came from that first Big Idea, of someone who planned and prepared for horror, and was horrified when plans and preparation weren’t enough.

Someone like me.

But of course Keri wasn’t really like me. She was a biracial teenager from a low-income family who wasn’t afraid of physical violence and loved sports. I was a white woman in my late twenties who shied away from physical confrontation and thought that sports were doubtless very nice for those who enjoyed them. I had far more in common with the other two narrators; smart, book-loving Sione and showy, confident Janna.

Months later, well after I’d completed the first drafts, I ended up in a counsellor’s office. I’d spent weeks unable to sleep properly. I was afraid of everything: afraid of flying; afraid that my friends and family would die; afraid that I would be kicked out of university for being stupid; afraid that my first book was incredibly racist and would hurt people; afraid of earthquakes and fires and floods; afraid that every choice I had made to bring me to this point was wrong.

Twisting my hands together, I confessed to a nice woman that I thought I might have generalized anxiety disorder. (I’d looked it up beforehand. It’s important to be prepared!)

She agreed, gently, that I might.

Unlike anyone who’d spent much time around me prior to that point, I was genuinely shocked.

It wasn’t that I thought mental disorders were nonsense. My youngest brother has anxiety and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with autistic tendencies, and many friends have been diagnosed with clinical depression or bipolar disorder. When people implied that depression could be defeated by cheering up and getting a hobby, or that ADHD was caused by bad parenting, I got rightfully riled.

But when it came to the disjointed state of my own brain, surely it wasn’t a genuine problem, right? I really wasn’t trying hard enough! If I could stop being so lazy and think things through more carefully and make a stronger effort to be a better person, then I could control everything and the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed would just go away.

Right?

Wrong.

I can’t control everything. I can’t make myself neurotypical through sheer willpower. And no matter how hard I plan or how many preparations I make, the unexpected will always, eventually, happen.

It probably won’t involve black magic, though, which is an advantage I have over Keri.

The Shattering is a book about families; about the ones we are born into, and the ones we make, and the ones that make us. It’s a book about small town communities, about the steps adults will take to keep children safe, and the steps teenagers will take to make adults do the right thing. It’s a book about the cost of magic, and the clashes of cultural identity, and the sheer, terrifying beauty of New Zealand’s West Coast.

It’s also a book about what can happen if your conception of your town, your family, and your self is shattered.

And it’s about what you can do with the pieces afterwards.

I kind of lied up there; my Big Idea wasn’t really the point where Keri’s preparation for the worst failed to be enough. I began the book after her brother’s suicide, when the shattering of her world had already taken place.

What was most interesting to me, and I hope, interesting to my readers, is what she and her friends did next.

—-

The Shattering: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Comment Fiddlination

Folks: I’m trying out a new comment system associated with WordPress called IntenseDebate, which should offer (me at least) a little more functionality as regarding handling comments here. What this means is that over the next little while you may see some cosmetic and functionality changes with comments. It shouldn’t hamper your ability to comment, however. And if it does (or if I just don’t like the new functionality), I’ll swap things back to how they were previously. In any event, don’t be alarmed if there are changes here and there. That is all.