Monthly Archives: October 2011

And Now, the Cover to Redshirts

Irene Gallo, Tor’s art director, tells the story of this cover over at Tor.com, including showing off some alternative covers. Go take a look while I write up my own comments here. This post will be updated with those comments within the hour.

Update:

Okay. Here’s what I think of this cover:

I love love love love love it.

Why do I love it? Let me count the ways.

1. The title of the book is Redshirts. What should the cover be? I mean, duh, this is not rocket science. It’s simple, iconic and obvious in the best way.

2. Also, the cover looks almost exactly like I imagined it should look like in my head.

3. But it actually looks better than I imagined it in my head, because I am not an art designer or an art director, whereas Irene Gallo and Peter Lutjen are, and this is what they do. I love it when reality is better than what you imagined.

4. And aside from any of this, I think this is a magnificent piece of commercial art. Book covers are advertisements, both to readers and to booksellers. This cover works because it’s clear from the cover what you’re getting in the book, and you can see the thing from across a crowded real world bookstore — or in a tiny thumbnail on your favorite online bookstore. It’s an eye-catcher, and if you know what a “red shirt” is, and almost everyone does at this point, it’ll make you smile.

In short: Love love love love love it. I really could not be happier with this cover.

That said, I also love these alternate, rejected covers. In the article I linked to above, Peter Lutjen explains the idea behind these, and why he fiddled with these before going back to the idea of an actual red shirt. I think these covers are fantastic and very clever (I’m particularly fond of the middle one), but I don’t think they do what the final cover does, which is have the ability to grab you from across the room.

I also think that if Tor ever decides to try to spin the book to a non-science fiction crowd, say in a trade paperback edition for hipsters, these covers are the way to go. My brain is already calling these my “Michael Chabon covers,” with no disrespect to Chabon, who as far as I know has never shied away from his science fiction nerd tendencies. But you see what I’m getting at here. Be that as it may, each of these covers is smart, engaging and witty, and I really adore them all. I just like the final cover more.

And thus this is, for a commercial author, the best of all possible cover art situations: Four exceptionally cool cover treatments, with the best being the final art.

I like my life. I like my job. I like my publisher. And I need to send both Irene and Peter a big-ass fruit basket.

(Also: If you haven’t gone over to the Tor.com article already, here’s another reason to do so: the jacket flap synopsis is over there.)

Occupy My Brain

Question today in e-mail:

[Today's] Big Idea got me to noticing that you haven’t weighed in on the Occupy phenom — curious, that. Staying out of it?

Not so much staying out of it as recognizing that I have some complicated thoughts about it, and I need to figure out exactly what I’m thinking before I go on about it here. Also, in the middle of thinking about it, I took a couple weeks off to be in another country entirely and didn’t watch or read news at all (yes, it’s possible, and yes, it’s even possible for me), so I’m also catching up on the latest twists and turns.

In short: Thinking about it, not avoiding it. I imagine I will blather about it soon. You know. Between pictures of pets and sunsets.

The Big Idea: N.K. Jemisin

I have admiration for writer N.K. Jemisin. Not only because she’s one of the most accomplished and exciting fantasy writers to arrive in the last few years — as the praise and award nominations for the Inheritance Trilogy series of books gives evidence for — but because she looks up from the computer more than occasionally and thinks and writes cogently about the world around us. In her Big Idea for The Kingdom of Gods, the concluding book of the trilogy, Jemisin nods toward what’s going on the world and the US right now and tracks the parallels in the books.

N.K. JEMISIN:

Revolution is on my mind a lot, these days.

(Don’t worry; I’ll keep this non-political. Mostly.)

Maybe I shouldn’t say “revolution.” I should say “societal change”, because that’s all revolution really is. All human societies go through these kinds of upheavals; they’re normal, natural. Things fall apart, the center does not hold, a new center appears. Sometimes it’s just the same old center with a new veneer — but the fact remains that it had to change to survive.

At the center of everything, in the universe of my Inheritance Trilogy, are the gods. They’re who the story has been about all along, even though the first two books of the trilogy have focused on humans caught up in godly affairs. So what does revolution/societal change mean when gods are involved?

We have plenty of examples of how this goes in mythology. In general, societal change among gods is… messy. Think Ragnarok. Think Cronus castrating his father and noshing on his own kids. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, the first two books of my trilogy, we learned that there have been not one but two major upheavals among the gods: the one called simply “the Gods’ War”, which was pretty much an Extinction Level Event for mortalkind (they got better); and a quieter but no less brutal war between the gods and their half-god, half-mortal children, called demons. The demon war wasn’t so much a war as an extermination; the gods won hands down. But a few demons survived — as did the psychological fallout of that war, because now everyone knows that the gods are willing to kill off their own flesh and blood, if necessary, to maintain their power. Which has left the gods’ loyal full-blooded children, the godlings, kind of concerned for the past few millennia. Because nothing stays the same forever, even among gods.

Societal change doesn’t have to be violent, though. There have been plenty of bloodless — or relatively low-blood — revolutions in human history, including a few recent examples. Still, it’s human to fear change — and given that the gods in my books made humans in their image, fear of change is a perfectly natural reaction for gods, too. Especially when that change threatens one’s own safety or whatever power one has accumulated within the old system. We’ve seen how this happens, over and over again: those for whom the old system never worked lay the groundwork for the change. Those for whom it sorta kinda halfway worked eventually join them, depending on how much they’ve got at stake — and it’s these people, the ones who once supported the status quo and then turn against it, who often have the most impact. They’re the canary in the coalmine, so to speak; the sign that something must change, or the society itself will collapse.

But that’s usually when those for whom the old system was perfect freak the hell out. Sometimes they fight back, and that’s the point where things can get ugly. Sometimes they read the writing on the wall and make concessions before that point, so that at least they can retain some control over the change. Either way, the change occurs.

Until that happens, fear can make people do strange things. I’m a USian, and I can’t help noticing that we’ve become awfully apocalyptic lately, as a society. Every time I turn around, there’s a new end-of-the-world movie coming out in which the world as we know it gets destroyed. Now, I like a good apocalypse as much as the next girl — especially one with zombies — but… really? We just got through one period of apocalypse hysteria in the late Nineties, when everybody was terrified of Y2K; since then it’s been one apocalypse or another. The end of the Mayan calendar. This guy. This movie, which was bad enough to qualify as an apocalypse all its own. Basically, I’ve been hearing about the end of the world in one form or another for twenty years. I’m plum apocalypsed out.

We’ve even got people in our government actively working to bring about the End Times — But whoops, I said I wouldn’t get political. Back to my point.

There’s a school of thought which holds that this “apocalypse fever” is a kind of mass freak-out by the people who hold power in our society (like the people who greenlight films in Hollywood). They see change coming, and to some of them it probably feels like the end of the world. Some would rather see the world end before that time of transformation comes, because at least they’ll theoretically go out while they’re still on top. I get it; there’s a certain romance in this. In a postapocalyptic society, there’s an elegant solution for the biggest problems: shoot them in the head. Or take off and nuke them from orbit. (It’s the only way to be sure.) A lot easier, and probably more fun, than dealing with problems before an apocalypse.

But fortunately — or unfortunately, depending on your personal viral load of apocalypse fever — most of us can’t trigger an apocalypse whenever we feel like it. Gods, unfortunately — or fortunately — can.

So. The Kingdom of Gods, third and final book of the Inheritance Trilogy, tackles these problems from the perspective of the gods, as they face a time of epic change. I tried to reflect this change in a few ways: on the micro scale, as Sieh (the god of childhood) inexplicably begins to grow up, and on a larger scale, as the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms of the world finally turn against the Arameri — the ruthless, power-obsessed family that has controlled everything for the past few millennia. But this is epic fantasy centered on gods, so why should I stop with something so minor as the complete overthrow of the world order? Must’n’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling. So while all this is brewing in Sieh’s personal life and human society, one of Sieh’s fellow godlings decides it’s time to strike a blow for freedom against the ultimate oppressors: parents. Or in this case, the three gods who created and control all reality.

There’s more to the story than this — a rather complicated romance, several mysteries, an eternal boy forced to confront adult mortal problems — but I think I’ll stop there. Don’t want you to revolt, after all.

—-

The Kingdom of Gods: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit Jemisin’s book page, which features excerpts from all three books of the Inheritance Trilogy. Read her blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Dear Angels: Hire Kim Ng

The Los Angeles Times has a terrific opinion piece by Helene Elliott on why the Angels baseball club (I believe at this point, the team’s full name is The California Angels of Los Angeles in Anaheim Where Disneyland Is, or some such) should hire Kim Ng as their new general manager. Ng has been an assistant general manager for the Yankees and Dodgers, where teams she has helped put together have gone to the playoffs and won World Series, she’s now working in the commissioner’s office, she’s highly regarded in the sport, and she’s smarter than hell. I can speak to that last one personally because I knew her in college; she and I were dorm mates. Her intelligence and passion for sports was evident even then. Having watched her career in baseball since those days, I have no doubt she’s ready for the big chair.

As someone raised in LA, I’ve been a long-time nominal Dodger partisan, and even that ridiculous man Frank McCourt can’t keep me from that mild fan association. Tell you what, though; my American League affiliation is entirely unset. If the Angels want to pick up a new fan — in Ohio, even! — all they have to do is give Ng the job everyone already knows she’s totally qualified for, and would be fantastic for the ballclub in. I’m waiting here with my credit card, at the Angels shop online. Just let me know, guys.

Update, 10/28: They hired some dude. (Puts away credit card.)

Reminder: I’m GoH at SFContario in Toronto, November 18 – 20

That’s right, Canada. You thought you were safe from me. But you are not. I have a passport! YOUR BORDER WILL NOT STOP ME. Uh, unless your border people go, “Dude, turn back, eh?” At which case I will turn back, you big meanies. Barring that, however, I’ll be in Toronto this November 18 – 20 as the International Guest of Honor for SFContario 2, joining fellow guests of honor Karl Schroeder, Gardner Dozios and Trixy Pixie Toyboat (whoops, my error). It will be tons of fun — imperial or metric tons, take your pick.

What will I be doing there? Oh, you know. EVERYTHING. I’ll be on panels! I’ll be doing readings! I’ll be interviewed! I’ll be presenting the live show of the Creation Museum Tour, which has become strangely popular. I might bring my ukulele and sing Canadian songs! Really, there are all sorts of things I’ll be doing. Most legal. You need to come to this convention. It will be more fun than your brain can currently posit. It’s not a slight on your brain, mind you. No human brain can posit the amount of fun we will have. So don’t ask me how I can posit it. You really don’t want to know.

Also, if for some inexplicable reason you cannot manage to make it to SFContario, I will also be doing an event at the Merril Collection on November 17. Here are the details.

So yes, Canada, a whole lot of me, come mid-November. YOU NEED TO BE THERE. Otherwise I will just strap on a feed bag filled with poutine and cry for three days straight. No one wants that. And no, I won’t take pictures. You want to see the Scalzi Poutine Feedbag, then you know what to do. See you there. Bring extra gravy.

The Big Idea: Lia Habel

Sparkly Zombies: A good idea? It’s a question one might ask of Lia Habel, whose novel Dearly, Departed features both romance and the dead. But as Habel explains in this Big Idea, there’s a fine line between creating the dead that can love and might feel love, and just making them hunkly, glittery dream fodder that are only cosmetically dead, so to speak.

LIA HABEL:

I never dreamed that I’d be a published author. I never dreamed that I’d have the opportunity to present a Big Idea. So I’m really despising Past Me right now, because there are just too many damn ideas in my book to choose from. I wrote Dearly, Departed to amuse myself, and consequently threw in everything I love without a shred of remorse or a moment’s hesitation. The book is like my own personal toy box – guns, pretty dresses, kick-ass girls, retrofuturistic machines. The works.

The premise of the book is thus a little tricky, but ultimately entertaining. Hundreds of years in the future, humanity is divided into new tribes. One of these tribes ends up modeling itself on the Victorian era, but through the use of advanced technology – “gilding” their buildings with elaborate holographic façades, disguising their cell phones as miniature sculptures, designing their fanciful gowns and dapper suits with specialized computer programs, etc. In time a new aristocracy is born, to which a growing splinter group, the Punks, reacts quite negatively. Neo-Luddites who despise digital technology and the idea of aristocratic supremacy to the point of engaging in terrorism, the Punks are eventually driven southward to eke out their own civilization.

And into all of this we toss some zombies – a small percentage of which manage to retain their “humanity” for a period after death. Sound good yet?

Long after the mass exile of the Punks my heroine, Nora Dearly, and my hero, Bram Griswold, are born – in different tribes, at different ends of the known world. They never should have met, but death manages to bring them together. As in, Bram dies. And picks himself up again. And that’s when the fun really begins.

When I first started writing D,D I had one goal in mind – and that was simply to create a busy, sprawling young adult novel that starred an obviously undead hero. My premise took care of the first bit, and all of it came to me in a rush over a few brief days. Now I can look back at the activities I was in engaged in at the time (steampunk chats, etc.) and see clearly from whence the ideas hailed, but back then they seemed to be coming furiously, quickly. I’m still untangling them all.

The second bit came from me – from deep down in my own creepy little soul. I grew up loving monsters, despising handsome princes, and championing the ugly and different. I’m still not sure how I ever developed this tendency. My mother raised me on horror movies, but she, being normal, was actually scared by them, whereas her weirdo daughter was simply enchanted, so I’m sure I didn’t get it from her. Nevertheless, the idea that a creature from beyond the grave might be every bit as “normal” as anyone alive, might want the same things, has always seemed quite reasonable to me. In deciding to use zombies as good guys I knew that I was going to have to sell them to both anti-zombie naysayers and those who prefer their favorite monsters to remain “uncorrupted,” though, and therein lay the challenge.

Thus Bram Griswold, two years dead and still going strong, stands on the shoulders of the horror giants that populated my imagination in childhood. Bram was my most important consideration as I began work on the Dearly universe, because I knew that I had to create a male zombie lead that could function as a serious protagonist, as a serious object of romantic interest, and still retain some inhuman qualities. I never write without my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek, but I instinctively knew that the book would triumph or fail based on Bram, and that he had to be handled carefully. Other zombie characters could be ridiculous, outrageous, vile, even comedic – but at the end of the day, Bram had to have soul. And he had to look dead, act dead – be dead. He couldn’t be a hot boy in monster makeup.

I stress over and over again that the book isn’t just a romance, but if I’m honest I have to admit that the heteromortal relationship in the book was the very first thing I thought of, the concept around which the rest of the story was built. I think that’s quite logical, looking back – if you’re trying to sell a cannibalistic dead body as a hero, better show him in the best possible light. Like, say, through the eyes of a girl who comes to love him. Ultimately, though, his viability as a romantic hero comes not from the romantic part of his personality, but from the heroic. I’m personally tired of angsty male leads, especially in young adult fiction, and so I did my best to write Bram counter to this trend. He knows what he is, accepts it, and is ready to move on. He is intelligent, fair, just, and gentle. He has a sense of humor. He’s dead, he’s rotting, and he freaking smiles all the time. He will go to his grave whistling. And all of these qualities shine brighter for the fact that they’re contained in this odd vessel.

I’m so grateful that I’ve been allowed to explore this vision, to take the idea this far. And the fact that Bram is bringing some readers over to Team Zombie for the first time is totally overwhelming. I only hope that I can do the idea justice. (So can I get maybe five more books, Great Publishing Deal Gods? Thanks.)

—-

Dearly, Departed: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Read the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

Shiny Happy Goth Gen-Xers Holding Hands

Two studies I find of some personal interest. The first, from the University of Michigan, notes that Gen-Xers (the generational cohort of which I am a part) is largely pretty damn happy, hardworking but balanced, and optimistic about their lives. The second from an English sociologist who’s been tracking Goth since their teens and early twenties and finds them more committed to their once-youthful lifestyle than kids who are part of other subcultures.

Neither of these I find particularly surprising. Anecdotally speaking, most of the Gen-Xers I know seem reasonably happy and reasonably stable. Some of this may just be because as a general rule I weeded out high-drama people from my life some time ago and most of the Gen-X folks I know are also college-educated and comfortable, but I think there are other factors as well. One, I suspect seeing some of the mess our boomer parents made of their early adulthoods and relationships made us a bit more cautious about our own level of personal stupidity and more likely to consider consequences before we engaged in a course of action. Among other things, I imagine this is one reason why divorce among the Gen-Xers I know seems less frequent than it was in our parents’ cohort.

Two, when you spend most of your late teens and twenties being told you’re recession-era slackers who will never do better than your parents, then your expectations, shall we say, are sufficiently dampened. Everything looks good after that nonsense.

As for the Goth thing, that makes sense to me too, since the genre is pretty much designed to age relatively gracefully. The music isn’t generally specifically about being young (it’s about being mopey, which can happen at any age) and the clothes are black, which you can wear at any age. And it fades nicely into steampunk when the goths want to go crazy and wear brown. Equally importantly, Goth does not require an anti-intellectual pose; indeed, the more you know about Goethe, romantic poets, existential philosophy and the European cinema of the silent film era, the better of a Goth you’ll be.

In short, being Goth is neither inherently about being young or stupid. One can be young, stupid and into Goth. But you don’t have to be. And that helps. Beware Goth’s sullen suburban nephew Emo, however. That’s already not aging well.

Meet the Library

For those who were curious about the institution I had hoped to help last month with my Redshirts auction, here’s what the Bradford Public Library looks like (from the outside at least). It’s small but mighty, and also very helpfully labeled in large, sans serif letters, just in case one is confused as to what building it is. Over in the right lower corner you can see it has a sign out front; right now here’s what that sign says:

Aw, shucks. You’re welcome, guys. Although strictly speaking the thanks really should go to the two gentlemen who between them donated $10,000. They provided the money; I just pointed it in the library’s direction.

Speaking of which, now that I am returned from Germany I will be this week mailing the various books and goodies to the gentlemen in question, although a couple of them — the story, the pie and the black velvet painting, will take slightly longer to take care of. But the black velvet painting, at least, is in process (which means I’ve contacted an artist and we’re talking concepts). The story will probably happen later this year. The pie will occur next year at the 4th Street Fantasy convention, which I am assuming I will attend specifically to deliver the pie. The things I do, man. But in this case, totally worth it.

The Big Idea: Lauren McLaughlin

After a small time out coinciding with my trip to Germany, The Big Idea is back, and to get us back into the swing of things, we’ve got an interesting one for you by my friend Lauren McLaughlin, whose new novel Scored imagines a world where monitoring and testing is taken to its final analysis conclusion — and the results, while perfect in their way, are also not exactly what would fill most people with joy. How did Lauren get from today to a world of “perfect” testing and surveillance? It started with a walk to the park.

LAUREN McLAUGHLIN:

A few years ago, I was living in the Hackney section of London on a street known as “murder mile.” It was an area which would later erupt in a storm of sudden vandalism during the London riots. Despite its grim reputation, it was actually a great place to live and very close to London Fields. On sunny days, I would venture out to that park to have lunch under one of the giant oak trees in the company of black crows. The walk to London Fields took me past a series of abandoned warehouses and every day there were usually one or two cars with their windows freshly smashed in. Hackney was living up to its reputation.

But one day I noticed that I hadn’t seen a smashed-in window in quite some time. Following the path of a crow alighting on something above me, I noticed the bright reflective lens of a brand new surveillance camera. Looking up and down the street, I saw about six more of them. The window-smashers had obviously seen them too and decided to change their ways.

But when I wandered down a different street–one where surveillance cameras had yet to be installed–I discovered two more cars with smashed-in windows. The criminals hadn’t changed their ways. They’d merely adapted. Here, I thought was the perfect test case for the effectiveness of surveillance in crime prevention. And the takeaway lesson was obvious: put surveillance cameras everywhere and there’ll be no more smashed-in windows.

This was a lightbulb moment for me. I already knew the arguments against ubiquitous surveillance. I’d read 1984. I opposed the Patriot Act’s warrantless wiretapping. I worried, as did so many, that England was “sleepwalking into a surveillance society.” But what I had never understood until the moment that crow landed on that camera was how seductive surveillance could be. Despite everything I knew and believed about government overreach and the potential for abuse, I wanted those cameras there. I appreciated their protective gaze as I walked to London Fields. They made me feel safe.

That is when I became truly frightened of surveillance–not because it would be foisted upon us by a domineering government or a corporate giant, but because we would invite it. It simply had too much to offer.

Shortly thereafter I moved back to the US and became aware of the debate raging about high stakes standardized testing in the schools. Again, I knew the arguments against it: an overemphasis on testing reduces class time to little more than test prep and replaces rich educational experiences with rote memorization and gamesmanship.

But there’s an upside to standardized testing too. It provides a means of evaluating teachers and schools in ways that can help those students currently underserved, to the point of betrayal, by their education. Additionally, it can provide an end run around a poor school system for those bright students who score well.

In short, standardized testing promises true meritocracy. Who isn’t in favor of that?

So what would happen if you combined ubiquitous surveillance with high stakes testing? What if instead of filling in those little bubbles on a written test, students were simply observed in their day to day lives by innocuous-looking little dome cameras so numerous you hardly noticed them any more. And what if a software program could crunch all of that data, along with information about their web habits, phone conversations, schoolwork, emails, etc. in order to produce a monthly score that represented their overall mental fitness?

Sound like a nightmare? Or the promise of true meritocracy finally delivered? In the world of Scored, there is no gaming the system. There’s no Kaplan Test Prep. No tutors for rich kids. Rich or poor, black or white, male or female, you are the sum total of your observable behaviors. How you walk, how often you swear, who you hang out with, how much time you spend on homework are all fed into the system. The software constantly learns from these observations, fine tuning its scoring algorithm until its results are indisputable. The highest scorers get into the best colleges, qualify for the best jobs, earn the most money. The lowest scorers fulfill their destiny as misfits, delinquents, and the permanently dependent. No one can argue with the accuracy of the score because there are no exceptions to the rule. Society doesn’t allow it any more.

But there’s no way we would actually allow something like this to happen, right? Surveillance cameras in parking garages are one thing. Reducing our children to a number is absurd. We’re smarter than that. We know how complex and unpredictable humans are. We’d never funnel our children into predetermined futures based on what a software program told us.

Consider this. The majority of US colleges and universities rely on the SAT to filter out students. The SAT was originally created to predict a college freshman’s academic performance. Do you know how often it accurately makes this prediction? Seventeen percent of the time. That means that four out of five times the SAT gets it wrong.

Did you know that boys routinely score higher than girls on the SAT but that girls routinely outperform boys in college? Is this fair? Is this merit?

The SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. But when people rightly pointed out that it did not, in fact, accurately test for scholastic aptitude, they changed it to the more generic Scholastic Assessment Test. This wasn’t much better as critics, again rightly, pointed out that it did not accurately “assess” anything other than the ability to take the test itself. Do you know what SAT stands for now?

Nothing.

It tests nothing. It predicts nothing. It disadvantages girls unfairly. And we’re still using it. Why? Because it promises meritocracy. It claims to take the chaotic unpredictable nature of human intellectual capacity and turn it into something neat and rankable.

And we love that, don’t we.

—-

Scored: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit the book page here, including a trailer. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.