A Fortnight of Trump

It’s been two weeks since I’ve written about Trump here! And what a two weeks it’s been! Herewith, not-especially-well-organized thoughts on a fortnight of a not-especially-well-organized administration:

1. I mean, these are remarkable times, aren’t they? There are moments in life when you are very truly aware that you are living in history — things that will prominently be in history books fifty or a hundred years down the line — and there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind we’re right smack dab in a middle of some bona fide history, people. It’s kind of exhilarating! Mind you, I’m hoping it’s the exhilaration of a nation reawakening to a commitment of democratic principles, rather than the exhilaration of a consumptive’s moment of clarity before they finally hork out the useful portion of their lungs. But either way, it certainly is a time.

2. I’m feeling many things about the Trump administration, but I have to admit one of the primary emotions I am feeling is a deep and abiding embarrassment. I’m embarrassed that my president and his administration are clearly malign, but I’m also embarrassed that they are so clearly incompetent. These people are both ignorant and stupid, and while on one hand that’s a silver lining — it blunts the effectiveness of the previously-mentioned malignancy — on the other hand the fact that a great nation installed these bumptious yahoos in the first place says very little good about us.

3. This is also why I am mildly exasperated at the idea floating about, that the fumbling bullshit nonsense these numpties are up to represents 11-dimensional super-chess political moves. Folks, no. Really, just, no. If they were 11-dimensional super-chess masters, they wouldn’t have had a negative polling rating eight days into their administration; they’d instead have made us delighted to waltz down the path to a comfortable and complacent fascism. But they didn’t, because they can’t, because they’re not that smart. A White House that spends four days litigating the size of an inauguration crowd is not a clutch of masterminds. Masterminds wouldn’t have given a shit about how many people showed up on the goddamn National Mall.

But don’t you see, Scalzi? All of this is distraction from their true mastermind evil plans! Folks, you realize that needing these jackasses to be masterminds is a form of vanity, yes? We couldn’t have possibly chosen to be ruled by custard-headed bigots who can’t find their asses with GPS and an Eagle Scout! They must be smarter than that! Well, no, they’re really not, and yes, we really did. There are lots of ways to explain that — I favor the whole “the GOP’s decades-long plan to undermine its voters’ dedication to truth and public institutions really paid off” angle of things personally — without having to haul out the 11-dimensional chess board.

4. But don’t worry, folks! Blundering numpties are dangerous enough! And to be clear our blundering numpties have a plan — white authoritarianism is a thing, y’all — and fundamentally what they have on their side is that they don’t really respect law, or tradition, or you. You’re either useful, or fuck you. Incompetent or not, they’ll keep going until they can’t, and they expect you to follow the rules they have no intention of following. The thing is, the rules can stop them — from the Constitution on down — but only to the extent that people hold them to those rules, and plant their feet.

Our problem as I see it is that the House and Senate are currently controlled by the GOP, i.e., the folks who spent the last few decades undermining inconvenient truths and political comity, and whose current leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, apparently are working on the motto of “Whatever, man, so long we get to kill Social Security and Medicare, too.” So, yeah. It does help that Trump is busily antagonizing Republican senators who offer even the mildest of complaint regarding his policies and incompetence, but let’s face the fact that spines are in short supply on the right side of the aisle at the moment. Will that change? We’ll find out!

And the Democrats? They spent the first week apparently under the impression things were normal, and it took two solid weeks of protests and phone calls to suggest to them that maybe just going along might not be the thing for them to do. As I’m typing this they’re putting sticks into the spokes of several cabinet confirmation processes of especially problematic candidates, so that’s good! But then Rick Perry just passed his Senate panel vote with Democratic votes, so maybe not every Democrat got the memo (I actually personally think Perry is likely to be one of the least problematic of the cabinet picks — he’s ignorant as hell about his position, but I think he’s more likely to listen to people who aren’t ignorant with regards to his duties, and isn’t that just a perfect encapsulation of the Trump years, when “ignorant but maybe trainable” is a positive). I’m mildly optimistic that the Democrats will generally get the memo that giving a pass to the incompetent and malign will not age well, especially when the incompetent and malign have no intention of ever returning any political favor. Again: We’ll find out!

5. What about Bannon? He’s smart, right? Well, he appears to be the smartest person in the White House right now, which is not the same as actually smart. But inasmuch as his personal philosophy appears to be “I’m a bigot and I have a box of matches” and he’s found a useful idiot in Trump, he’s definitely a problem. Is he the actual president, a la Cheney? He’s certainly got his hand up Trump’s ass, and he and Putin seem to be having a thumb war around the vicinity of Trump’s epiglottis in order to see whose turn it is to work the puppet. I think it’s self-evident that Bannon’s a racist piece of shit who shouldn’t be anywhere near the White House, but I also thought it was a self-evident Donald Trump was a racist piece of shit who shouldn’t be anywhere near the White House, too, and look where that got us.

Bannon’s reflexive racism and anti-semitism makes the Trump administration do stupid things, a fine example being it offering up a release on Holocaust Remembrance Day that somehow didn’t manage to mention the Jews, i.e., the principal targets of the Holocaust and the reason the Nazis built out the entire apparatus of the Holocaust. When called on it, the White House offered the same rhetorical line — “well, others suffered in the Holocaust, too” — that Holocaust deniers use to minimize the extent of the atrocity done to the Jews. Bannon’s fingerprints are all over this, and it’s appalling both that the White House put out a release like this, and that it either didn’t realize that everyone would see the dog whistle to America’s home-grown Nazis… or it didn’t care whether everyone saw it or not. Either, to me, is all Bannon; neither is especially smart.

6. What’s really remarkable about the Trump administration is that we are literally in week two, and its managed to have enough scandal and constitutional crisis for an entire year of a normal administration. Hell, even Dubya, the former modern low benchmark for incompetence, stretched out his nonsense. Now, you might recall that I predicted this the last time I wrote about Trump — I said we’d see a hundred-day “Gish Gallop” of nonsense from them (to the extent the Trump folks had any plan at all) — but it’s one thing to say “yup, this is going to happen” and another to see it in full effect in just two dizzying weeks.

I don’t think this is sustainable, and I don’t mean in terms of people’s ability to protest, which I think is capacious. I mean that, while it is prudent to plan for four years of Trump, I’m going to be surprised if he lasts that long. I mean, this is the goddamn honeymoon for his administration. It is protests and chaos and possibly even Democrats in Congress locating (or at least borrowing) spines, and a subterranean approval rating. Even worse, Trump just isn’t enjoying himself. He’s been fucking miserable for two straight weeks and it’s not getting better from here. I suspect that not too long in the future he’ll find a way to declare victory and bug out.

Maybe that’s wishful thinking (scratch that, it is wishful thinking). But here’s the thing: The Trump administration has already set the tone: It’s racist, it’s nationalistic in the worst way, it’s authoritarian, it is petulant and thin-skinned, and it’s not actually competent. It’s been jammed up from day one and the resistance to it is just going to get stronger from here. Whatever Trump thought he was going to achieve, in his fever dream of the office of the President being some combination of a king and his “Apprentice” shtick, he’s now unlikely to get it. He’s not used to being told “no” and he hates being unpopular, and by all indications he doesn’t actually like working much. I think he’s gonna say “fuck this” after a while and leave the whole mess to Pence (I almost said “poor Pence,” but that fellow signed up for this, so). I also think it’s more likely for him to leave of his own accord then to be impeached or removed via the 25th Amendment.

Is there any way for Trump to save his presidency? Sure, there are lots of ways! But most of them would require Trump getting a personality transplant and/or ditching the core of his brain trust, and I don’t see that happening. Bear in mind “save” is a loaded term; the man is president and he’s entirely capable of weathering four years of this out of sheer cussedness. It’s entirely possible I’m wrong, Trump doesn’t care to “save” his tenure, and he’ll just do what he’s going to do because screw you, that’s why. I’ve been wrong before! Sadly, in this particular case.

7. Leaving aside the ethical dimensions of Trump’s actions to date, from a purely economic and political point of view he’s pretty much been a nightmare. Businesses have to be watching his incipient trade war with Mexico, his immigration ban and the domestic protests and thinking to themselves “well, this is no good.” Trump’s nationalism is going to end up being bad for business, and in particular it’s likely to be bad for businesses in the very states where Trump had his strongest support. This more than anything else may be what turns a sufficient segment of the GOP against Trump — in the end, you don’t screw with the GOP’s money. There’s a racist, nationalist core of Trump supporters who value that more than business, mind you — they’d rather be pure than rich — so now I guess we get to see whether the GOP would rather be racist or rich. Should be interesting!

8. I’ve noted before that Trump is the end result of decades of the GOP working to undermine its voters’ faith in the system and in truth — but that Trump arrived about a cycle too early for the GOP’s plan to really pay off like it wanted. It was hoping for a bland, unobjectionable tool (think: Rubio) to be the front man while it dug itself in like a tick into the processes of government, and instead got a loud, racist incompetent with a pack of racist reactionary pals, who see the GOP as just another tool to use or to thump on when it doesn’t do what it’s told.

This is no good for the GOP, because now that Trump has alienated women and immigrants and the Latinx/Hispanics and LGBTetc and Jews and everyone who knows and cares for anyone in those groups, and the GOP is likewise putting the fear of god into people who want health insurance, who is left for them? Old white people (especially the ones who haven’t twigged to the fact that Ryan wants to take away their Medicare and Social Security), evangelicals who want cover for their racism, homophobia and worldly greed, and the sort of white dude who still thinks Pepe the Frog is the height of wit. Annnd that’s pretty much it! Not a lot to grow on, unfortunately for the GOP, and the longer Trump’s in office, the worse it’s going to get.

I’m not saying that everyone who is appalled by Trump is going to go to the Democrats, who have their own stew of issues, which I will leave to others to essay. But unless Trump actually does manage to destroy American democracy and replace it with a white authoritarian government in the next six months, I think all he’s really going to do is destroy the GOP. Which, you know. Sow the wind, etc. This is what the GOP has been working toward. That they didn’t expect that Trump was the form they’d get is neither here nor there to that.

9. What have I been encouraged about? I’ve been encouraged to see slightly more spine in some elected officials. I’ve been encouraged that blue states, particularly Massachusetts and California, seem to be ready to take the fight to Trump. I’ve been encouraged that news organizations have decided to call lies lies and decide there is more to news than filling up a 24-hour cycle with crap (they still have the 24-hour news cycle, and it is, alas, still largely filled with crap. But the ratio of useful-to-crap seems to be getting better). I’m encouraged that organizations like the ACLU have gotten right into the fight from day one. I’m encouraged that people like Sally Yates put their careers on the line to point out the injustice of Trump’s orders. I’m encouraged that nearly every creative person I know, liberal or conservative or otherwise, has decided that Trump’s nonsense is not for them. I’m encouraged that a large number of the conservative people I know and/or respect have decided to stand for the rule of law rather than a rule of Trump.

And most of all, I’m encouraged by the millions of people from everywhere and all walks of life who went out into the streets in the last couple of weeks, and who called their elected representatives, and who donated money and time and expertise to protest against Trump and his people, and their plans, and their morality, or lack thereof. As many people have noted, the alt-right have called them “snowflakes” but you get enough snowflakes in one place and you get an avalanche. It’s heartening to see millions standing for a diverse and vibrant America, and not for a mean and racist one. I noted before that Trump is president and as such he and his crew got to make all the first moves, nor are they done making those moves. There’s more to come from them. But it’s clear they weren’t prepared for the pushback. Good.

10. I hate that we are where we are now, but it’s also not wrong to say that I feel weirdly optimistic. Trump is terrible, his administration incompetent, and we’re confronted with the fact that our nation’s bigotry and awfulness has its head right now. But what’s happening because of it is the exact opposite of a shrug and quiet acceptance. I didn’t want us to have to have this political moment — I would have been happy with a Clinton administration, honest! — but if we have to have this political moment, and we do, I am heartened by the response to it. Our country is going to suffer damage because of Trump. We won’t be the same nation we were before. But we get to find out whether at the end of it we become a better nation. I think we might! If we keep at it.

And that’s an encouraging thought. I plan to keep at it. I hope you will, too.

The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

Rules for clones? According to Mur Lafferty, you need to have them. But why do you need to have them? And what are the rules, as far as they apply to her new novel Six Wakes? She’s here to give you the details.

MUR LAFFERTY:

Cloning stories are hard to tell because they’re such a staple in SF history that it’s challenging to come up with a new twist. But I tried to do it with Six Wakes by combining a few different Big Ideas.

You know, there are some weird sex things in a lot of cloning stories.

It seems in classic SF, any man who clones himself will inevitably end up having sex with himself. (I am including stories where a character travels to the past and meets an earlier or later version of himself in this category.)

Having a bunch of clones running around willy-nilly, sexing the place up, messing with their children’s inheritance, and giving each other alibis when they commit crimes, seemed… irresponsible. Most religions also wouldn’t like it. Authorities would come down pretty hard on cloning once these things became possible to the populace at large.

Thus, I first thought about what kind of international rules involving cloning would have to be developed. They might include no multiplying yourself, sterilization, and no changing of the DNA matrix stored on the computer…. among other things. These are some of the basic rules governing cloning in Six Wakes.

Another key element of the story came to me when I was playing the game FTL, a space battle game where you manage the lives of your crew and the state of your ship. One of the technologies available to your ship in the game is a cloning bay to extend your life if you die. It’s not foolproof, though; if your cloning bay goes down during battle, and someone dies, they have to wait for someone to fix the system so they can be cloned again. But, I wondered, what would happen if the whole crew died at once?

Six Wakes is set on a generation ship. When I read books with similar settings, I thought it was sad that generations (hence the name) of people are born and live and die on a ship for the benefit of the future, knowing they will never set foot on the planet upon which their whole existence is built around. What if the ship had the same crew the whole time, cloned whenever they die, while the rest of the population slept?

My opening scene was the first one I thought of, with the crew all waking up in vats. Usually, in this world, when you wake up in a new cloned body, doctors and lab techs are there to help you out, help you acclimate, and get you clothes – and there certainly weren’t any dead bodies all around you. But our crew all wake up on their own, have to handle their own way out of their vats, and figure out what the hell is up with the gore floating around their heads. Someone has killed them, turned off the gravity drive, and damaged their AI. Time has passed and memories are missing, so each person doesn’t know which of the six was the murderer; they have to suspect even their former self.

So those were the building blocks. Murder clones in space. Or “Murder Clone Space Bastard,” as a friend calls it. I made it my working title.

I worked out the laws governing clones, and then of course looked to see how many of them my characters could break. You see, the crew are all criminals, promised a clean slate and a bit of land at the end of the road if they can get the ship to its destination. Rot as a clone in prison on Earth, or help humanity get to a new planet with a new life at the other end? Pretty clear decision. Worried about the implications of the nature of their crimes being known, the powers that be declared an absolute gag order regarding the clones’ past. Only the AI, the ultimate overseer in case the clones got out of hand, knows what everyone had done.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about the title. When beloved writer Jay Lake was in his last days, he threw himself a wake so that people could come and say good-bye. I loved the idea as a poignant way to celebrate someone’s life when they were still around to appreciate the party. The idea of the living wake stayed with me, and I thought if the clones woke up with their cloning technology smashed, they would fear death for the first time in their lives. It would still be forty to sixty years in the future, but they would have a clear death sentence after living for hundreds of years. The title of Six Wakes is a tribute to Jay’s memory.

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Six Wakes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 1/30/17

As the month of January draws to a close, there’s just enough time to get in one more stack of new books and ARCs! What here looks tempting to you? Tell us all in the comments!

This is My Life This Weekend

Signing signature sheets, drinking Coke Zero and watching Teen Titans Go.  Hope your weekend is similarly activity-filled.

Publishers Weekly Review of The Collapsing Empire

It’s out and it’s good, and that always makes me happy. Here’s what I imagine the pull quote will be:

“Scalzi (the Old Man’s War series) delivers a strong opener for his fast-paced new space opera series… Expect several future works set in this sprawling universe.”

Well, and in fact I am contracted for at least one more (although I suspect it might be two — we’ll see once I start writing the second book).

This is a pretty good way to end the week, I think.

I Was Going To Post a Roundup of All the Nonsense of Trump’s First Week as President, But Then I Decided You’d Probably Like These Pet Pictures Better

First off, here’s Zeus, winking saucily. Oh, Zeus! You Lothario!

And here’s Daisy, appearing to be having a bit of an existential crisis, with luggage. She’s not really having an existential crisis, by the way. She just has Resting Existential Crisis Face.

There, I think this was a much better choice! For each of us and for the nation!

The Big Idea: Charles Stross

Hey! It’s Charles Stross! One of my favorite writers! And he has a new book! Empire Games! And it’s cool! And he’s here to talk to you about it! Yeah, and that’s my intro today. Take it away, Charlie.

CHARLES STROSS:

Take one science fiction series setting with parallel universes where history has proceeded along divergent tracks. Add people with an inheritable ability to move between time lines — precise mechanism unclear, but research hints that it’s the product of a long-forgotten and disturbingly high technology paratime civilization — and allow information leakage. What are the political, military, and economic effects of inter-time line cultural contamination?

If you think that’s a big idea — too big to tackle in a single novel — you’d be right: it’s the premise of my Merchant Princes series, originally published from 2003 to 2009, and set in multiple parallel versions of 2001-2003. And in Empire Games I’m returning for a look at how those worlds have changed by 2020 – and a creepy surveillance state espionage thriller, because First Contact between time lines ended really badly in the first series, for Doctor Strangelove values of “bad”.

(But there were enough survivors for a sequel: and so …)

One of the themes I dug deep into in the first series was the question of why some cultures fail to develop a modern economy. The usual narrative about colonialism is only part of the explanation: while it’s indisputable that nations that fall under the boot-heel of an imperial power are exploited as sources of raw materials and captive markets, some other nations with access to huge amounts of wealth — the Middle East OPEC members spring to mind — are, if anything, too rich to develop: the rulers can buy anything they want from elsewhere, including enough guys with guns to keep the lower classes in their place.

In the first series, the Clan — a group of six extended families of world-walkers originating in a technologically backwards time line (of approximately mediaeval levels of development) — became wealthy in the United States because they could shift high value freight (like cocaine) across borders without fear of interception. In their own time line they became politically powerful, as the only people with a communications network that could get messages anywhere along the settled eastern coastline of North America in hours rather than weeks. But their very wealth proved problematic, because they could import any luxuries they wanted from the United States … at least, until the DEA caught on to them. They were caught in what economists call a development trap, a culture unable to progress because development would actually reduce the Clan members’ status relative to the other nobility in their own culture. (And they ultimately weren’t able to adapt and survive in the USA because they were descendants of an hereditary aristocracy — a social structure that isn’t terribly compatible with rapidly accelerating change.)

But Empire Games is set seventeen years after Clan conservatives inadvisably assassinated President Bush in the White House using a nuke stolen from the US inactive inventory: seventeen years after the news about parallel universes got out (leading to a brief Indo-Pakistani nuclear war and various geopolitical excitement that puts our just-past 2016 in the shade), and seventeen years after the USAF was ordered to send paratime-capable B-52s to nuke the Gruinmarkt — home of the Clan — until it glowed in the dark.

I mentioned survivors and development traps, didn’t I?

In the universe of Empire Games, the survivors of the Clan, led by Miriam Beckstein, went into exile in yet another time line — one in which the 18th century Enlightenment and the age of revolutions and democracy had stalled, leading to a world dominated by two superpowers: the New British Empire (capital: New London, on Manhattan Island) and the French Empire (capital: St Petersburg, in the French Russian Territories). The New British Empire has just lost a non-nuclear world war and experienced the sort of revolution that gives rise to the curse, “may you live in interesting times”, and Miriam, who is an inveterate meddler, is in deep with the leadership of the Radical Party in the newly-coalescing New American Commonwealth. Miriam has seen the development trap that the Gruinmarkt drove into up close and personal; she also knows that the US government have world-walking tech (extracted from the pureed brains of captured Clan members) and is going to stumble across them eventually.

With the rallying call, “The United States is Coming”, she convinces the revolutionary government to put her in charge of a Ministry of Intertemporal Technological Intelligence, with a remit to conduct industrial espionage on a scale not seen since the hey-day of the Soviet Union. Because, although the Commonwealth is relatively backward (not Victorian-age backward, as Miriam thought when she first discovered them, for the future is already here, just unevenly distributed: more 1940s-backward), its leaders understand the benefits of modernization and know they need it, to survive the inevitable oncoming clash of civilizations with the Ancien Regime over the water.

So in this new trilogy I get to ask, “given perfect foreknowledge of the next sixty years of technological development, a government on an emergency footing, and a budget, just how fast can you play catch-up?”

(Here’s a big clue: when the first US paratime reconnaisance drones arrive in Commonwealth skies, they get a series of very nasty surprises.)

If this trilogy was about nothing but economics you could be forgiven for yawning and saying “next”. But the dismal science is only part of the process. The post-paratime USA is a deeply traumatized place — imagine the psychological shock of 9/11 squared, then turn the dial up to 12 and break it off the control panel — and has gone deep into spooky surveillance state territory. The Department of Homeland Security is tasked with protecting the USA from all possible attacks from elsewhere in the multiverse, a new high water mark for agency mission creep. There are CCTV surveillance cameras on every city block, a national DNA database with random checkpoints testing swabs from anyone who can’t show biometric ID, cash is on the way out, and the act of taking your battery out of your smartphone is a suspicious act that justifies activating the bug built into the battery. On the other hand, monster trucks are in: with access to all the oil under all the uninhabited parallel universe versions of Pennsylvania and California, never mind Texas, and parallels just waiting to receive all the toxic waste and captured CO2, this isn’t a Solar City world.

It’s in this world that we meet Rita Douglas, an interracial child adopted by expat East Germans. She’s struggling to make a career as an actor, all other avenues having been inexplicably blocked (scholarships turned down, student loans unavailable): but despite her low profile, Rita is about to come to the attention of very important people. Because what they know (and she doesn’t) is that her birth mother was one Miriam Beckstein, the big government research labs have finally cracked the problem of how to activate the world-walking ability in someone who is an inactive carrier, and DHS has a perceived need for human field agents able to infiltrate hostile civilizations and report back …

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Empire Games: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 1/24/17

You look like you could use an interesting stack of books and ARCs to peruse! Fortunately, I happen to have one right here for you. See anything in this stack that calls to you? Let us all know in the comments!

2017 First Pass Oscar Predictions

It’s that time of year again where I dust off my “film writer” hat and make guesses on what and who are going to win Oscars in the six major categories (Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actress and Supporting Actor). I usually end up getting five out of six correct! So I’ve got that going to for me, which is nice.

As always, these represents my “first blush” guesses — I’ll likely check in closer to the show date to see if anything’s changed. Note also that these predictions are as much about what’s won before (and why) and Hollywood politics as it is about the objective quality of the work under consideration, because, hey, when Al Pacino won a Best Actor Oscar for Scent of a Woman (or heck, when Leonardo diCaprio won for The Revenant), it wasn’t because they actually had the best male film performances of the year. Right? Okay, then. Let’s get to it.

(Also, if you want to see the full list of nominees, here you go.)

 

BEST PICTURE:

Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester By the Sea
Moonlight

The Academy allows for up to ten films to be nominated for best picture and this year we have nine, but usually if the film’s director isn’t nominated, a film doesn’t have much of a shot. There are exceptions — see Argo — but they’re just that: Exceptions. This year none of the Picture nominees without a directing nod has someone egregiously missing from that slate, so, I think it’s fair to say that Fences, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures and Lion are just along for the ride this year. This is not to say they’re not worthy, just not likely to win (that said, Lion is probably there mostly as a testament to Harvey Weinstein browbeating Academy voters into a nod).

Of the remaining five: I loved Arrival but the Academy has a bias against science fiction films; it’s only recently started nominating them for Best Picture on a semi-regular basis, so expecting it to pick one is optimistic, especially when there are other things on the slate that better conform to its overall preferences (also, Amy Adams didn’t get an Actress nod — what the hell? — which doesn’t help its overall argument). Likewise, Hacksaw Ridge seems unlikely to me; its selection reads more like the Academy welcoming director Mel Gibson back in from the cold than anything else (more on that later). Of three remaining, the next off the Oscar train for me would be Manchester by the Sea, which I suspect will be honored in other categories.

So I suspect it will come down to either Moonlight or La La Land. On one hand Moonlight would be the very woke choice for the Academy, and who knows? Maybe the Academy wants to feel what it’s like to be woke. But on the other hand La La Land is about Los Angeles and the industry and has pretty people dancing around and it’s 2017 and the world is shit and maybe we just want a goddamn musical and to smile okay? So I suspect it’s probably gonna be La La Land, what with its 13 other nominations and all.

Should Win: Arrival THERE I SAID IT (Note: I am biased as I know the guy whose story it’s based on)
Will Win: La La Land

 

BEST DIRECTOR:

Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

So, essentially, here’s the deal Mel Gibson got from Hollywood: Don’t be a public drunken racist and anti-Semite for ten years or so, and we’ll let you back into the club. Hey, that’s a pretty great deal! I don’t know Mel Gibson and can’t speak to whether in his heart he’s stopped being an awful, damaged person (He’s stopped drinking, as I understand it, which I think is entirely laudable), but he’s lived up to his end of the bargain, and so here he is, back again. It doesn’t mean he’ll win. But again, that’s not what I think this nomination is for. You can decide for yourself whether this is a heartwarming story of redemption or just cynicism on the part of the Academy.

Aside from Gibson, this is actually a pretty competitive field! The Academy has traditionally liked to pair Best Director and Best Picture but in recent years especially has been more prone to split those votes — three times in the last four years, in fact. So I think it’s possible any of the remaining four have a chance. Of the four, I judge Villeneuve as the least likely (I think, alas, that Arrival is destined to be a runner-up in a lot of things), but I don’t want to write him off completely.

As for the remaining three, Chazelle, Jenkins and Lonergan, here’s a tell as to who might win Director: If any of them wins an Oscar in the Screenwriting categories — Jenkins is up for Adapted, and Chazelle and Lonergan are up in Original — they’re more likely not to win Director. Screenplay Oscars are often “consolation” Oscars for directors — see Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion about this — so a win in this category in my opinion boosts the chances of the other guys.

My guess is that Lonergan and Jenkins have very good chances to win in their respective screenwriting categories, and are they going to complain if they do? No, they just won a damn Oscar! They’ll be fine. Which means I suspect Chazelle will walk with this one.

Should Win: Jenkins
Will Win: Chazelle

 

BEST ACTRESS:

Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Dear Academy: You don’t have to nominate Meryl Streep for every goddamned thing. Honestly, the fact she’s here for Florence while Amy Adams or Taraji P. Henson aren’t (for Arrival and Hidden Figures, respectively) is positively embarrassing. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. I mean, I get it. I love Streep too. But just give her a damn Lifetime Achievement award already.

I think it’s great Ruth Negga has a nomination and I hope she enjoys it, and I hope she’ll be here again some other time; I don’t see much of a chance for her here. Likewise, Portman has won recently enough that there’s no great need to give her another one now. I suspect it’s going to come down to Huppert and Stone and a lot will depend honestly on how La La Land is doing otherwise. It’s got 14 nominations, so if it starts clearing the decks early, Stone has a very good chance; otherwise Huppert, who won a Golden Globe against some of the rest of the field, might find herself with a nice career capstone.

Should Win: Huppert
Will Win: Stone

 

BEST ACTOR:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Denzel Washington is in my opinion America’s greatest living actor and if you disagree, well, I mean, you’re wrong, aren’t you? And I would never count him out of anything, because again, America’s greatest living actor. But I don’t think it’s his year (or Fences‘ year, although come on, getting a whole stack of nominations is no small thing). Likewise Mortensen, who is the sort of actor I think Academy members find easier to admire (and occasionally nominate) than to actually give an Oscar to. I mean, surprise me, Oscar voters! Give it to Mortensen! I’ll be happy to be wrong! I’ll gladly be wrong! (I’m probably not wrong.) As for Garfield — he’s moved away from Spider-Man at a nice clip, hasn’t he? Good for him.

I suspect this category will come down to Affleck and Gosling, but in my opinion it’s probably actually down to Affleck and whether enough Academy voters are squicked about his allegedly assaulting and harassing behavior to women co-workers on previous films (Spoiler: I don’t think it will matter). It also depends on whether (again) La La Land is running the board; if it is, then heck, why not throw this in, too? But at the end of the day I suspect it will be Affleck, who is allegedly awful and also gave a very fine dramatic performance.

Should Win: Washington
Will Win: Affleck

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

For my money the best acting category in the awards this year, as long as you don’t count Nicole Kidman, whose presence here is an enduring testament to the power of Harvey Weinstein to get his films jammed into award consideration. I mean, Kidman’s fine! But among many other things, she’s already got an Oscar, and that in the lead category, so, meh.

Octavia Spencer also has an Oscar (in this category) and fairly recently too, so despite her very fine work in Hidden Figures, I suspect this will not be her year. Likewise I suspect Naomie Harris, a first time Academy nominee, is going to have to get in line behind Davis and Williams, who have been nominated before. And between Williams and Davis, I think it’s pretty much a coin flip, although I favor Viola Davis, because she won the Golden Globe and because damn it, it’s time.

Should Win: Davis
Will Win: Davis

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

I have a pretty strong feeling this is the category I totally whiff this year, because, honestly, look at this thing. First off, Dev Patel is kind of the star of Lion, isn’t he? Doesn’t this seem like a bit of a cheat to anyone else? (I’m going pause a moment to note that it seems like I’m being unduly harsh to Lion, which may be possibly unfair to the film, which is perfectly competent tear-jerking Oscar bait. Sorry, Lion fans!) I think it’s possible Patel gets a nod here, but if he does, I think it’s because of a cynical move on the part of his film company.

After that: Well, you got me. The only one I’m comfortable suggesting is not in contention is Hedges, but then again, if he does win, you can expect a reasonably good night for Manchester. I don’t think Jeff Bridges really cares if he wins another Oscar, but he might anyway, just because he’s Jeff Bridges. I like both Shannon and Ali and I couldn’t tell you which will win, but maybe Ali, if for no other reason than Moonlight is multiply-nominated and Animals isn’t. Also, Ali’s was 2016’s Hardest Working Man in Show Business, between Moonlight and Hidden Figures and Luke Cage, so maybe that will pay off.

Should Win: Ali
Will Win: Ali

 

Other stuff: I’m rooting for Arrival to win Best Adapted Screenplay (congrats, Eric Heisserer!) but it’s a really tough field this year, not in the least because Moonlight’s script is in there and that may be Berry Jenkins’ compensatory Oscar (see above). I’m likewise thrilled the deeply weird script for The Lobster got an Oscar nod in Original Screenplay, but it has the same problem as Arrival has: tough field, packed with directors. Still, two SF/F screenplays in the same year — not bad, says this science fiction author. On the animated movie front, I’ll be interested to see whether Moana or Zootopia gets it; I suspect Moana (if Kubo and the Two Strings gets it, I will be shocked but delighted). Likewise, although this year is a bad year to against La La Land in Original Song, I think the temptation to give Lin-Manuel Miranda his EGOT (actually a PEGOT, because he’s got a Pulitzer, too) will be really strong and anyway it’s not like La La Land won’t win Original Score. Finally, I suspect Ava DuVernay is going to get her Oscar in the Documentary category for 13th.

Your thoughts on this year’s nominations (and my predictions)? Leave them in the comments.

 

The Big Idea: Lawrence Millman

A horrific event took place decades ago — but could the key to explaining it exist in the modern day? Author Lawrence Millman asked himself that question as he undertook the writing of At the End of the World, and the answer to it surprised even him.

LAWRENCE MILLMAN:

Here are the bare bones of the book’s story: One man declares himself God, another man declares himself Jesus, and any person who doesn’t believe in them is Satan.  How do you deal with Satan or, indeed, a plethora of Satans? You dis-pose of them, of course.  And so there were 9 deaths in a relatively short period of time.

What I’ve just described is not an attempt by rabid Christians to emulate ISIS terrorists or perhaps a previously undocumented episode from the Spanish Inquisition.  Rather, the murders occurred in 1941 in the Belcher Islands, a remote archipelago in Canada’s Hudson Bay.  So remote were these islands that their Inuit inhabitants experienced First Contact with qallunaat (white people) only 25 years earlier.

During my visit to the Belcher Islands in 2001, Inuit elders talked to me about the 1941 tragedy.  Talked to me, I should say, with some difficulty, for their memories of the events were quite painful. Yet the book I expected to write about this virtually unknown tragedy refused to be written.  One year passed, then another year, and — nothing.  It was as if the story was downright hostile to the idea of being put down onto paper.

In 2013, I was in Tasiilak, East Greenland, researching another obscure story, one that concerned a cannibalistic monster called a tupilak attacking a village, when I heard about the following incident: A local teenager was so busy texting that she didn’t see the polar bear that was approaching her. At the last minute, however, she saw it and screamed, whereupon the bear loped away.

Suddenly I had my first Big Idea — screens can deprive us of our lives, just as the would-be deities deprived the Inuit in the Belcher Islands of their lives…

Head upon heels with this realization came my second Big Idea — namely, that I couldn’t write about the past (i.e., the Belcher Island murders) without also writing about the present. Denizens of the present age have exchanged their human selves for screened selves, their actual faces for a Facebook profile, and real weather for weather on a screen. An example of this last exchange: a woman avidly fingering her iDevice smashed into me on a Boston street, then said, “Sorry, but I was just trying to find out the weather…”

So we have murder in the name of God in a remote part of the Arctic and perhaps murderous obsession with what might be called iGods — each represents a particular world coming to an end. Taken together, these two themes danced a sort of pas de deux in my mind. The book now demanded to be written, and my pen went flying across the page, sometimes bearing my own words, sometimes the words of the Inuit elders I talked to about the murders. Sometimes, too, my pen would fly into a rant, as when it wrote: “Better tango rhythms than algorithms!”

At the End of the World concludes with the present, with one of the Belcher Island elders — once upon a time a highly traditional hunter-gatherer — e-mailing the following note to me: “Everyone here…they’re all going digital now, and they look at nothing else. Me, too! I am how you say it screened in…”

—-

At The End of the World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

RIP, Larry Smith

I learned on Friday that bookseller Larry Smith had passed away and it’s fair to say I was more than a little shocked by the news. I’d seen him and Sally less than a week before at Arisia and had conversation with both. It’s fair to say that Larry and Sally were two of my favorite convention booksellers, not only because they always stocked lots of my books, but because they always stocked lots of everyone’s books — there was always something good to read when you browsed Larry’s shelves. He was also the bookseller I always made sure to sign stock at, since I knew he traveled far and wide and would take my books places I might not otherwise get to. He was cantankerous and opinionated and I always enjoyed talking to him. It’s still hard to believe he’s gone.

My thoughts now are with Sally and his numerous friends, who will all miss him deeply. As for me, many of the books on my shelves were originally on his. I think I’ll take one down tonight and read it in his memory, and with thanks.

Kirkus Review of The Collapsing Empire

It’s here, it’s positive, and it’s at the Kirkus site. Here’s the link.

My favorite line is the last: “Scalzi continues to be almost insufferably good at his brand of fun but think-y sci-fi adventure.”

“Almost insufferably good.” I love this sooooooo much.

ConFusion 2017 in Photos

I got sick the last day of ConFusion and have thus spent yesterday and today in a state of minimal brain activity, but it turns out I had just enough brain power to curate and post a bunch of pictures I took at the convention. You’ll find the Flicker set of those photos here. The photos were mostly taken in the hotel bar, the signing session, and as part of Diana Rowland’s annual one-mile run/walk/crawl/etc (the photo above is the crew about to embark on said run). They’re pretty good photos of some really lovely people. Enjoy.

What I Did With My Weekend

This was at ConFusion, just before Joe and I did our respective readings. Because who doesn’t want to see a pillow fight between two best-selling authors?

How was your weekend?

The Big Idea: Tim Lees

For today’s Big Idea, author Tim Lees thinks on the interactions of gods and humans, what the gods represent, and what it all means for his new novel, Steal the Lightning.

TIM LEES:

So, in my last couple of books, I solved the energy crisis. No big deal; you just dig up a few ancient gods, extract the power from them, and run it through the electricity grid. Except, as readers of The God Hunter and Devil in the Wires will know, it’s never quite that simple, or that safe. The gods are alive. They have an undefined yet powerful influence on us poor humans, and – inevitably – things go wrong.

That’s where Chris Copeland, professional god hunter, gets called in. He’s something of a reluctant hero, and experience has made him a little too aware of the dangers in the job. But every now and then, something happens to get him personally involved, and that’s when his flare for the work really shows.

In the new book, Steal the Lightning (HarperVoyager), I wanted to take a closer look at the relationship between gods and men. Now, the book itself is a thriller – there’s mystery and double-dealing and some big action sequences, plus a fair amount of humor, too. But I hope that there’s another layer, one the reader might consider once they’ve reached the story’s end, and which was there, in the back of my mind, while I was writing it. This isn’t allegory – the gods don’t actually stand for a specific thing – but they belong to a class of phenomena that exists here, in the real world, and which has a huge and complex influence upon our lives. I’m talking about any powerful force that affects how people think and act and interpret reality; a force which, in this case, is not of itself allied to any particular cultural, political or ethical notion; that is, as it stands, neither good nor evil, but reflects the values placed upon it by its adherents.

To take the obvious first, I might say the way I use the gods in the book reflects my own feelings about religion. I realize this may be a hot button for some of you, but if you think of all the things done in the name of religion, you’ll maybe see what I’m getting at when I say this covers everything from alms-giving to terrorism. It inspires the most generous of acts and also the most hateful. I’m not religious myself, but I’ve known a lot of people who are, some of whom I’ve admired greatly, and others, I’ve thought were pretty despicable. My conclusion, as an outsider, is generally that, whatever you are, religion is likely to make you more so. If you’re a self-righteous prick, it gives you permission to be an even bigger self-righteous prick. If you’re a person who tries to do good, it can focus you and make you resolute in your aims. I’ve seen both. And, while I say again, the gods don’t represent religion per se, some of my feeling about that went into their depiction in the book, and into the motives and responses of the various human characters with whom they interact.

Then again, maybe they represent drugs – medical or recreational, all with the ability to change people both physically and mentally – yet frequently, with a whole bunch of unwanted side effects, as well.

Or they reflect technological and social forces. The mass media, perhaps – a great source of information and entertainment, but, likewise, a distorting lens through which we view the world, and the promoter of a vacuous celebrity culture that these days dominates everything from sport to politics.

Or, to take a direct analogy, drawn in the earlier books, they’re on a level with other sources of power – coal, oil, nuclear. Electricity’s a wonderful thing – you wouldn’t be reading this without it – but its production still holds risks for someone, somewhere, whether it’s nuclear meltdown or a mining disaster. Nothing is ever truly safe.

It was soon apparent that I’d have to explore these issues from a variety of angles, and with a variety of different characters. And the best way to do that –

Cue: road trip! I’m a Brit, and I love traveling in the US. There are a million places I could have taken in – Arizona, or the Pacific North-West – unique landscapes with truly iconic scenery and extraordinary histories. But I had to limit myself, and let myself be driven by character, rather than scenery. The big question was this: what sort of people would want their own, personal god? And what effect would it have on them?

You see, this isn’t so much about the gods, as what human beings want from them. You take this immensely powerful, unpredictable force, and drop it in the laps of people who are desperate, or greedy, or lost, or disturbed – and then what happens?

So we meet a woman trying to extend her life, unaware she’s picked the worst possible way of doing it. A preacher, bringing false hope to the rust-belt with his very own performing deity. A multi-billionaire with an eye on the presidency, and a conviction that the country took a wrong turn in the Civil War…

Then there’s Chris’s partner, Angel. When she was young, she dreamed of writing music. A close encounter with a god sets all those dreams whirling through her head again, but now she can hear the music – she just can’t remember it afterwards.

I wanted to watch the chemistry when gods and humans interact. When individuals acquire a power they can’t control – but think they can – and certainly don’t understand. Because to some extent, we’re all in that situation, at one time or another. How we deal with it – selfishly or generously, foolishly or wisely – is a measure of the kind of people that we are.

—-

Steal the Lightning: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s page. Follow him on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 1/18/17

Here’s a fine-looking stack of new books and ARCs for your delight. See anything that particularly appeals to you? Tell me in the comments!

The Beginning of the Trump Years

And for this one I’ll use the Q&A format I’d used in some earlier pieces about the incoming Trump administration.

I knew you’d be back!

Yes, fine. Let’s get to it.

How do you feel about Trump taking office on Friday?

I’m sort of relieved.

Bwuh?

Look, we’ve known this day was coming for two and a half months and in all the time people have maintained a certain level of freakout I’ve ultimately found wearying. I’m pretty much like: He’s going to be president? Fine, let’s get to it, because this waiting shit is boring the fuck out of me. I mean, we’re gonna fight, yeah? Then let’s fight, already.

What do you think will happen?

To the extent that the Trump administration has a strategy at all, which is honestly an open question, I think it will be a hundred-day dash to gut the infrastructure of government in the hopes of overwhelming everyone who would complain — a sort of Gish Gallop of bad governance, if you will.

Will it work?

It might! I think a lot of people opposed to the Trump administration are still in oh shit oh shit oh shit mode, as opposed to fuck you, let’s do this thing mode. Trump and his agglomerated assemblage of assholes are hoping the left (which in this case would include large swaths of the middle) are still shell-shocked and/or content to be a circular firing squad rather than focusing fire on them. On the other hand, those marches on Saturday are a very nice declaration of intent, and people certainly seem to be burning up their congresspeople’s phones. So we’ll see.

Be that as it may, Trump will be president and his administration will basically get to make all the opening moves. That’s what happens when you win the presidency. No matter what, some damage will be done. People are going to have to push back against that damage, not move forward with other things.

And how do you feel about that?

I mean, it is what it is. Trump won the presidency. He’s an incompetent. There’s nothing to be done about that now, so we have to get on with keeping the damage to a bare minimum. I don’t feel good about that, but I don’t feel bad about making the decision that for the next few years, some portion of my life will be spent loudly opposing bad governance and pissant authoritarianism. In fact, I feel just fine about that. I would be ashamed to do otherwise.

What would you say to the people who are still in oh shit oh shit oh shit mode? 

Leaving aside the folks who are genuinely depressed and focusing on the ones who are just merely wringing their hands at this point: Time to get over that shit now. I think there’s still a bit of a “somebody do something” mentality, in which the hand-wringers are somewhat passively hoping someone else will solve this problem.

Thing is: There is no someone else. No one is coming to save us from Trump and his merry band of egregious nincompoops. If there is saving to be done, it comes from us, or not at all. Be the “someone else” you want to see in this world. Because otherwise you’re leaving it to the horde of racists and bigots following in Trump’s wake. And that’s not acceptable.

At the very least, if you can’t get out of oh shit oh shit oh shit mode, then make goddamn sure you’re not making things harder for the people who are stepping up. I think it’s time to realize that we’re in a “perfect is the enemy of good” situation.

What do you mean?

Well, for example, right about now there are a lot of politically and socially conservative folks who are aghast at the fact of a Trump presidency and who recognize that he represents a clear danger to the Republic. What do I think about these conservatives, who I might otherwise have almost no political overlap with? I think: Hello, ally. In this fight and in this moment they and I have a common goal — making sure our system of governance isn’t completely tubed by an insecure vulgarian — and I’m okay with focusing on that goal right now. After that’s done, then we can get back to yelling at each other on every other topic. Heck, we can yell at each other while we focus on our common goal! They are important topics. But holding the line against Trump is more important.

Hello I am a Trump supporter!

Yes?

Isn’t it possible that Trump could be a good president and bring back jobs and make people happy and be popular?

Sure, although bluntly there’s nothing he’s done since the election that indicates that. Yelling at businesses on Twitter isn’t ultimately likely to be a viable domestic strategy, and so far his foreign strategy is to goatse himself so that Vladimir Putin can slide his arm up to the pits and operate Trump’s mouth with his hand. Likewise his cabinet choices don’t inspire confidence; they largely either don’t seem to understand what job they’re up for, or they seem to approach the positions like they were corporate raiders, or both. Meanwhile, the GOP congress is beavering away at their plan to punt millions off of medical insurance immediately, and make it more difficult for everyone else to keep the insurance they have.

But, hey, as a member of the 1% at least I will get a big fat tax cut! Thanks, guys!

Now, Trump does seem to have a rudimentary jobs plan, which calls for building out the country’s infrastructure, and you know what? I think creating jobs by fixing our crumbling roads and bridges and such is a very fine idea, in principle. I don’t suspect that Trump’s version of it at the moment is that great — by all indications it’s mostly a call to the trough for corporations — but I will allow that a massive jobs bill, suitably tuned, could put him in good stead with the average voter.

Will this make him a good president? Not likely, unless other aspects of his administration (and his personality) changed greatly. But I’m not going to deny there are ways he can be popular, which for him might be enough.

So do you really think Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin?

No, if we’re talking like a Russian version of a Manchurian Candidate, or a captive of salacious pee videos. But do I think Russia (under Putin’s orders) went all in to attempt to influence the election, and Putin, who is manifestly smarter and more manipulative than Trump, is happy to flatter the incoming president and maneuver him in such away that Trump’s own predilections, in terms of personality and temperament, serve his needs. Trump is being used by Putin, certainly. And I also think it’s likely that Trump’s own self-interest, which includes lots of Russian money flowing through his properties and accounts, is inclining him toward Russia and Putin.

Note well this is bad enough — in my opinion we have an incoming president who seems prepared to severely hobble our alliances because of his own personal financial interests, and has picked for his cabinet several people with similar issues. The technical term for such a situation is “a real shitshow.”

Is it treason? Meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeh, I don’t think so? But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if eventually it becomes the core of an impeachment proceeding.

(Update: And then there’s this, which if anything comes of it, does not look great for Trump.)

Hello I am not a Trump supporter!

Yes?

How do I oppose him? 

That’s up to you. For myself, I’m planning to give a whole lot of money (possibly from that tax cut I will now almost certainly get) to organizations that will gum up the works for the Trump administration and/or help to protect people who his administration will put at risk (pretty much anyone who is not a well-off straight white person), and do a lot of writing, because rumor is, I have an audience. There are other things I’m considering as well.

For other folks, aside from giving money, calling representatives and protesting and volunteering and voting for fuck’s sake and making sure everyone you know is registered and votes too all help. One suggestion I’d offer people is not to spread yourself too thin — per above I think the Trump administration is going to make pushes into all sorts of areas: Free speech, women’s health, public education, minority voting, LGBT+ rights and so on. They want you to be dazed and thinking there’s too much to focus on. Pick one as your main focus and drill down on it, hard. Others will take up the other categories. Help them when you can but push hard on the one area you know and care most about. If enough people do that, everything will get covered and energy won’t dissipate. It’s going to be a long four years. Best to keep focus.

Okay, seriously, what do you think is going to happen in the next four years?

I have no idea. But I know a couple of things. One, where I stand, and with whom. It’s not with racists and bigots and the people who would hurt the lives of others just for a goddamned tax cut. I don’t believe every Trump voter intended to enable racists and bigots and the greedy (even if that’s what they ended up doing), and I think in time some of them will regret their vote. At this point, I’ll take regret over a double-down, and welcome them when and if that happens. And in the meantime, I’m happy with where I’m standing.

Two, you know what, if I’m going to resist for the next four years, I’m gonna have fun doing it. I mean, come on: Thumping on racists and bigots and greedy assholes, and shoving sticks into the spokes of their shitty little plans? That’s holy work, that is, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. Opposing Trump and his pals is serious business, but I think if you can approach the work with some joy, it will help. I’m going to take pleasure in sticking up for my country. I hope you will, too.

So let’s get to it.

(P.S.: Today I’ve also written about the end of the Obama years, here.)

The End of the Obama Years

I was asked in e-mail if I had any particular thoughts about the end of Obama years. I have quite a few, some of them complicated, but the short version is that I’ll be sad to see Barack Obama go. He was arguably the smartest president of the nine whose administrations I’ve lived through, and one of the most decent in his personal life. These two qualities don’t guarantee one is a great president — Jimmy Carter was both smart and decent, and it didn’t do him a great deal of good in his four years — but in this case it didn’t hurt and probably helped. He wasn’t perfect, but I don’t grade on perfect. Given what he had to work with, namely, the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression and GOP opposition and obstructionism that was historically cynical, Obama did very well indeed.

The Trump administration is already historically unpopular and it’s not even in power yet, and when it is in power we are likely to find out what incompetent authoritarianism looks and acts like. So I strongly suspect that in very short order that the Obama years are going to be looked on fondly and wistfully, and not just by liberals. I’m sure there will be a mountain of Twitter sockpuppets that will work overtime to deny this, but Twitter is not the real world — a thing which I believe Trump is on the verge of discovering — and at the end of the day what will matter is how people feel their lives are going. I don’t believe Trump, his administration, or the GOP majorities in Congress are going to do a good job making most people’s lives better. But we will see.

On a personal note, the Obama years were certainly good for me — I started them with a book deal going south in part because of the economic collapse, and ended them in a very different state indeed. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that my current good fortune is in no small part due to the Obama administration’s handling of the economy, since massive economic recessions that threaten entire sectors of industry are no good for selling books or making long, secure writing contracts. Given what I expect out of the Trump economy, I am delighted that I have said long-term, secure writing contract to get me through the next few years. I do hope people will still be able to afford books.

I suspect I and others will miss many things about the Obama years, but what I imagine I will miss the most is the idea that my president, for whatever flaws he might have, is ultimately a good and honorable person, someone with dignity, gravity and thoughtfulness. We as a country did well first to imagine him our president, and then to make him so. I liked him being my president. I am glad I voted for him. It is hard to imagine him ever not having my respect. I think he made the world better. Whether that lasts or not, it still existed, and I won’t forget it that it did.

(P.S.: Today, I’ve also written about the beginning of the Trump years, here.)

The Big Idea: Veronica Roth

It’s no surprise that fantasy and science fiction authors do a lot of worldbuilding for their novels, but it’s one thing to say “worldbuilding” and another thing to offer a glimpse of what the work of worldbuilding entails. The good news is, bestselling author Veronica Roth is here you to offer that very same glimpse, getting into the nitty gritty of what she had to do to build up the universe of her latest novel Carve the Mark. Ready to dig in?

VERONICA ROTH:

A lot of ideas led me to Carve the Mark. Too many, probably! But the basic plot– that of a young man who is kidnapped by the leader of an enemy country– has been with me for years. I kept thinking about how that would change a person, for better or worse. At first, he sees them all as enemies, but once you’ve lived among people and experienced their culture, is it possible to maintain that kind of unambiguous hatred? (Personally, I don’t think so.) And what if, in some ways, he understood those people better than his own? Would that make him feel guilty? Would he open himself up to friendship? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

In thinking about all these things, I had to create a world around him that felt complicated and real to me. I decided to use a highly sophisticated approach I call the “follow your gut” method of world-building. Okay, it’s actually not sophisticated at all– all it means is, I pay attention to what I find interesting, and I trust my curiosity to take me wherever it wants me to go. And here are some of the places I went while writing this book:

Politics: the thing about world-building is, even if you think you’re making it all up, you can’t really do that if you don’t know how things work, or have worked, in our world up until this point. Which meant, if I wanted to build a dictatorship that felt real, I needed to research dictatorships. I had lived in Romania for five months as a freshly married person on an adventure, and it’s a place that wears the scars of Ceausescu Communism everywhere (most apparently, in the Communist Bloc housing that towers over certain parts of Cluj-Napoca, where I lived). I had heard stories from the older people we knew there, and I had watched a fascinating documentary (The Lost World of Communism: Socialism In One Family (BBC Documentary Series, Part 3). Rather than dig in deeper to Ceausescu, I opted for a little more breadth– I turned, instead, to a different dictatorship that we frequently joke about here in the States, but is nonetheless horrifying: North Korea.

The interesting thing about researching North Korea is that you very quickly run out of new information about North Korea. (Book recs: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The Impossible State by Victor Cha, Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim.) We just don’t know a lot of the things that are going on there. One thing that came up that I found darkly fascinating was that the power of Kim Il Song, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un’s regimes comes in large part from their limiting information. The Internet there reportedly looks more like a card catalogue of resources the government has deemed acceptable. Visitors from outside the country stay at a hotel in Pyongyang that is literally on an island, separated from North Koreans who are not pre-approved. It’s easy to understand how a person might believe the misinformation provided by the government when that is the only information available. Knowledge, as we say, is power– and so is withholding knowledge. This is something North Korea has in common with Ceausescu’s Romania, the wielding of knowledge like a weapon against one’s own people.

I have no interest in directly adapting a country’s tragedies, whether it is Romania or North Korea, to flesh out my own work, but I decided to implement this basic principle– that power can be maintained by limiting information– in my work. So, in Carve the Mark, the Shotet dictator, Ryzek Noavek, maintains his power in no small part by outlawing the learning of any language aside from Shotet, which means the Shotet people have to rely on translations to understand the news. Translations that are obviously full of propaganda and lies.

Language: I wanted the language in Carve the Mark— down to the names– to feel new to me, a subtle way of forcing myself to question my own assumptions about what these people were like. That meant I didn’t want to base it on any existing languages, which meant I would have to…make one up.

And this was before David Peterson’s The Art of Language Invention came out, God help me.

But as it turns out, there are whole communities of con lang (read: constructed language) people out there, people who just make up languages for fun. They have helpful guides. And word generators. Observe:

David Peterson’s big list o’ conlang links – http://dedalvs.conlang.org/links.html

Awkwords – http://akana.conlang.org/tools/awkwords/

Conlang word generator 2.0 – http://klh.karinoyo.com/generate/words/

Scratch – https://scratch.mit.edu/projects/109739636/

I wanted the Shotet language to be a little like German or Hungarian– harsh-sounding to those who don’t speak it, but oddly beautiful when you get to know it. My husband and I went to a Hungarian Reformed Church while we lived in Cluj, and let me tell you, there is nothing cooler than being surrounded by people singing somewhat dirge-like Christmas songs in Hungarian while a huge organ plays in the background. It made a language that otherwise made no sense to my ears into something haunting and beautiful.

So because I’m That Sort of Person, I made up a few simple rules for how I wanted the language to sound. Shotet’s language rules are: hard sounds instead of their softer counterparts– K instead of C, Y instead of I– few “th” or “sh” sounds, and long “o”s and “a”s, among others. I used the sounds in Hungarian as a jumping off point, though the result bears little to no resemblance to it. The result are names that sound unfamiliar to me, and, unfortunately, are difficult to pronounce, something I…didn’t quite consider at the time. Whoops.

Ritual: I fell about a credit short of a religious studies major in college (damn you, capstone class!), and I’ve always been fascinated by rituals. They are a way of understanding a person’s priorities and something of their inner life–and they don’t have to be religious, either. I find them to be a powerful way of building a fictional culture.

The most significant ritual I devised for this story was the sojourn– a rite in which the Shotet pile into a giant spaceship and cruise around the galaxy for awhile, to honor their history, then descend on a planet (a different planet each year) to scavenge from it. The scavenge is poorly understood by outsiders, who look down on people rifling through garbage, as it were, but to the Shotet it’s a way of recognizing the strengths of other cultures, of repurposing the things they discard that still have value and giving them new life. As the wife of a man who is constantly pointing out objects that other people neglect or turn their noses up at– Dacia cars from the 90s, red enamel radiator knobs, and blazers with GIANT SHOULDER PADS come to mind– this felt like an oddly endearing practice, something that Akos could initially scorn but come to appreciate as he learns that his enemies are not mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes, but real, complicated…and, indeed, not all enemies, period.

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Carve the Mark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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