JoCo Cruise 2016 Photo Set Plus Quick Nerd Boat Recap

Hey, do you like looking at pictures of other people’s vacations? Well, then you’ll want to check out my JoCo Cruise 2016 Flickr photo set, which is just that very thing! In addition to pictures of islands and such, it has snaps of the performers, concerts, two types of monkey made from inanimate objects, and, of course, a phalanx of waiters waving their arms about. As they do. Plus: Me in a hot pink tie! You don’t want to miss that.

I will note that all the pictures this year were taken with my cell phone camera, which is fine but which of course has close-up muddiness because of having a tiny sensor. Next year — because yes, I’m planning to be on the boat again next year — I think I will bring a proper camera, for proper photos, taken properly. We’ll see how that goes.

Yes, yes, you say, that’s all fine, but tell us about the cruise itself? Well, since you asked, it was pretty good! As many of you know, I am co-head of the cruise’s literary track (with Pat Rothfuss), and we were delighted this year to have N.K. Jemisin, Allie Brosh (who we shared with the main stage), Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction as participants. They were all, in a word, fabulous (plus! Michael Ian Black, who came to the boat for his comedy skills, nevertheless did a reading of his most recent work, Navel Gazing, and did a writing track panel, so I’ll claim him after the fact). With the exception of one thing, all the writing track panels and presentations went off without a hitch, which made the cruise an especially happy one for me.

(The one thing that hitched? The ship running crew drills during N.K. Jemisin’s reading, with means sirens blaring, messages coming up on the intercom, and crew members running around and slamming doors. This was frustrating for her and the audience, and embarrassing for me, and something we obviously will keep in min for future cruises. That Nora nevertheless gave a kickass reading that garnered her a standing ovation is a testament to her writing and presenting skills. Seriously, people, read her stuff, and if you can, see her read her stuff. It’s amazing.)

I was also happy this year that my family got to come with me on the trip. Last year because of scheduling issues I went on the cruise alone, which was fine but which made me realize how much better a tropical paradise is when you have people you love with you. Having Krissy and Athena (and Hunter, Athena’s beau) with me this year made it a much happier experience. Family! It’s a good thing.

Other personal highlights of the cruise (not all of them, otherwise we’d be here for hours):

* Almost missing the boat in St. Maarten because the excursion we went on ran late, which caused twenty of us to run the better part of a mile after the official “on board” time to make it before the ship cast off. We made it in part because Hunter, being young and fast, sprinted the whole way to tell them the rest of us were on our way. Because he did, Hunter was the hero of the day, we were not stranded in a foreign country, and the whole story, which is best told live and with gesticulation, goes down as an amusing experience rather than an “oh, shit” moment. Which is why it’s a highlight, and not its opposite.

* Having an “in conversation” panel with Nora where we talked about worldbuilding, writing, the culture of science fiction and fantasy today, and a number of other subjects. Nora is super-smart and opinionated and also I’m a fan of both her and her writing, so I was as much of an audience member for that as I was a participant. Okay, I’m going to stop fanboying Nora now.

* Staying up late to talk aliens with John Hodgman, John Roderick and Michael Ian Black, and, yes, it was just as awesomely nerdy as you might have expected it to be (I think Ted Leo might have been involved as well? It was late, man, and I was soooo high (note: I was not actually high)).

* Staying up late another night to do cryptic crosswords with Ted Leo and Aimee Mann and a rotating cast of contributors. I was, I should note, mostly a spectator, because it turns out I am really shit at these sorts of crosswords. But I did get one right, which earned me a smile of approval from Aimee Mann, which thrilled both the teenager version of me who loved the song “Coming Up Close” and the adult version of me who actually knows her as a person.

* Speaking of Mann and Leo, watching them rehearse with Jim Boggia, Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick was like getting a living room concert from some of my favorite musicians. I kept very very very quiet so they wouldn’t kick me out.

* Watching Matt Fraction, Kelly Sue DeConnick, and John Hodgman geek out over Hamilton, the musical (and also the soundtrack). I mentioned to Hodgman I was saving my ears until I could see it on stage and he looked at me like someone who said he only breathes oxygen when he absolutely has too, i.e., he clearly thought I was daft. Well, maybe I am (holds breath).

* The goodbye concert, which is always great, but which this year featured an especially fine tribute to David Bowie. It was all amazing, but watching Jean Grae blow out “Moonage Daydream” is very likely going down in my personal list of Top Musical Experiences, Ever.

* Really, just getting to hang out with all the performers and their families and friends is amazing. But equally great: Hanging around and having conversations with the “Seamonkeys” (as the JoCo Cruise folks call themselves). Everyone is smart and kind and fun to talk and be with. As performers, one of the things which makes the JoCo Cruise such a great experience is the fact that the Seamonkeys are always willing to go with you, wherever it is you’re going. But also, as a nerd, the great experience is that wherever you’re going, you’re not alone. There’s always someone willing to nerd out with you. I love it, which is why I keep coming back.

Speaking of which: JoCo Cruise 2017 is open for booking. You really should go, if you can. It’s great. It’s always great. And next year we have a whole boat to ourselves! Which means it’s probably going to be especially great. Come along. You won’t regret it.

The Big Idea: Jason LaPier

What’s the Big Idea for Jason LaPier and his novel Unclear Skies? It’s simple: Heroes! Who maybe aren’t so much heroes. At least, not at first.

JASON LaPIER:

In science fiction and fantasy, we often encounter a character who is somehow special, whether imbued with some extraordinary trait, endowed with a remarkable skill, or just plain abnormal. They may start off as a commoner, but over the course of the story their talents or gifts are unlocked. Sometimes they are portrayed as a “chosen one”, and sometimes they’re forced to become a leader by the nature of their advantages. While I love a lot of these stories, in my series “The Dome Trilogy”, I was looking for much less heroic heroes. I was looking to take an average person, an “everyman”, and drag them through the excursion of what is more or less a hero cycle without the advantages that a hero has.

While I absolutely appreciate speculative fiction with a message, I cannot deny that the entertainment value of SF/F largely lies in escapism. We read and watch to experience worlds, events, technologies, and people other than what we know in real life, other than what is possible in real life, to give ourselves a break from the day-to-day, and to allow us the fun of wallowing in full-blown imagination.

And yet, even if the fiction is an escape from real life, we find immersion so much easier if the characters are relatable in some way. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonist is often an odd kid, someone who feels like they don’t fit in, and then eventually discovers they have a special power or talent. Younger readers know what it’s like not to fit in, because every kid feels that way at some point; a search for identity is part of the process of growing up. And adult readers remember what that was like as well, which is why so many can enjoy YA as much as their own children do.

The challenge with making an adult character develop into a hero is that they’ve already grown past that age of discovery and identity establishment. Sure, one can always learn new skills, but it doesn’t feel the same as the bloom of a gift during puberty. It’s a lot more practice, with incremental improvements. It’s work. And yet, adults in the real world still go through identity crises just as much as teens. So when a story is able to take an adult who seems lost in their life and make them into a hero, even a Chosen One, it resonates.

Take Neo from the film, The Matrix, for example. At the start of the story, he is merely Thomas Anderson, a corporate programmer, a drone. Outside of the office he’s a loner, scouring the net for some hidden meaning to his life that he can feel but can’t put his finger on. When he’s rescued, he’s reborn. His whole world changes, and he has the power – and the calling – to save it. It’s a textbook hero’s journey.

Now let’s take a look at a classic anti-hero: Arthur Dent, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur is also a directionless, middle-aged adult. His reality is suddenly expanded by a thousandfold when he discovers his friend is an alien and they escape Earth’s destruction by hitching a ride aboard a spaceship. But Arthur never unlocks special powers. He never saves anyone or anything. He bumbles through a series of adventures wearing a bathrobe (the only clothing he owns), somehow managing to stay alive. His most remarkable trait is his unremarkableness.

In “The Dome Trilogy”, I wanted a couple of characters in between. “Jax” Jackson lives most of his life in a sterilized exoplanetary colony. He’s a drone like everyone he knows, a detached, late-20s adult. He has the aptitude to be better than he is, but not the drive. Like Arthur Dent, Jax has his world turned upside-down by events that are far beyond his control, practically beyond his scope of reality. In the first book of the series, Unexpected Rain, an entire block of dome inhabitants suffocates while Jax is on duty as a life support operator – a mindless, push-button job – and he is charged with their murders.

From there, Jax has to awaken the intellect that had been shelved – not locked away, not latent, not even undiscovered, but simply abandoned due to apathy. He’s paired up with the one cop who believes he may be innocent, Officer Stanford Runstom. By contrast, Runstom is driven, both by personal ambition and a sense of justice. He’s a wannabe hero who has been held back by the system and his heritage.

In the newly released second novel of the trilogy, Unclear Skies, this trend continues for these two characters. Jax is still on the run, eking out a living by finding odd jobs on a remote independent moon. Here the things that he finds run-of-the-mill – what would be outdated technology back in the domes – is remarkable to a population that is behind the times. His mundane skills at troubleshooting are mythical in this environment, and in fact could be life-saving.

Meanwhile Stanford Runstom, the officer that dreamt of becoming a detective, is “promoted” to a public relations post. Somewhat condescendingly, his new department praises his simple honesty, hoping to impress clients with a straight-talker. And yet even while working for the marketing department, Runstom can’t help but fall back on his detective aspirations when trouble arises.

My hope is that between these two characters, there is something of non-sci-fi life that readers can relate to. I personally remember what it’s like to be lost in my 20s like Jax, feeling as though I should have discovered my purpose by then, but still just trudging through each day. And likewise, to discover a passion for something as Runstom has, to put everything into it, only to see it diverted time and time again. These are the trials of adult life in the 21st century, extrapolated into the 27th century, with some murder thrown in for thrills and interstellar travel thrown in for escapism value.

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Unclear Skies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Back From the Boat, Plus a Couple of Housekeeping Notes

First, here’s what my view of the world looked like for much on the past week. The sunset, to be clear, was not always there. The water almost always was. And it was lovely. Currently I’m in the “it feels like the world is gently swaying” phase of getting back into the world; this is because for the last week the world was mostly gently swaying and my inner ear got used to it, and now it has to go in the other direction. I’ll be fine by Wednesday, but today and tomorrow if I’m not paying attention I’ll drift into walls when I walk.

I’ll update you all more on the trip a bit later in the day (or tomorrow, depending), as well as catching up on other things, including news of the world and kittens, but I thought you might enjoy this balcony view to get you started the morning. You’re welcome.

And now to a couple of “back in the world” notes: One, today is the day I triage all the email I didn’t see while I was on the boat and had no Internet. If you sent me email in the last week then you got my automated response telling you I wasn’t likely to respond to it. Most of it I still will not, just due to volume. So if you sent me an email you really wanted a response to, it’d be good to resend it.

Two, the comments on Whatever are on again, as I have returned to be able to moderate, etc. Note that I have made one significant change: The time that each comment thread is open has gone from fourteen days to ten. This is due to an uptick of spam on comment threads, and also the recognition that 90% of all useful conversation on comment threads happens in the first few days, after which most of the discussion appears to be three people snarking on each other about a minor point in the discussion, over and over again. In which case ten days is more than enough time to do that.

I hope your last week was a delightful one. I know mine was. Today’s plan: Sway slightly, catch up on email, post a Big Idea (we have one for each day of the work week this week!), but generally, take it easy. The day back from a long vacation is transition-y, folks. And it’s a leap day! Best to take things slow, I think.

Anyway. Hello!