New Books and ARCs, 8/26/16

To send you off into the last weekend of August, here’s another very fine stack of books and ARCs. What looks good to you here? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

The Earth trembles as Beth Cato appears to talk about her new novel, Breath of Earth! No, seriously, it’s got earthquakes in it — and they’re a big part of the story.

BETH CATO:

As a native Californian, it’s only right that one of my earliest memories is of an earthquake.

I was three-years-old when a devastating earthquake struck Coalinga, about 45-minutes away from my home. As luck would have it, I was in the bathtub. I carry a profound memory of terror as water began to slosh sideways out of the tub without me even moving. I screamed. My mom scooped me up to save me.

A few days later, we drove out to Coalinga to view the destruction firsthand. We weren’t simply playing tourist; my mom used to live there, and my grandparents were driving away from a visit to the town when the quake struck. We saw street after street of buildings with walls sloughed away, exposing the interiors like dollhouses. It was horrible (especially for my mom), but I found it fascinating.

I grew up practicing earthquake drills in school. At home, I learned that if I suspected an earthquake was happening, I should look to the ceiling lamps to see if they swayed. That’s how my family verified that we felt an earthquake in October 1989. We soon found out that the epicenter was in San Francisco, a solid three-hour drive away.

Therefore, it only feels right that my first novel set in California is all about earthquakes. My heroine, Ingrid, is a secretary who is secretly a powerful geomancer. She lives in a world with a vastly different history than ours: the American Civil War ended early due to a Union partnership with the airship-powered might of Japan. They formed an alliance called the Unified Pacific, and as my book opens in April 1906, their combined forces are at war with China.

For Ingrid, earthquakes are not something to fear; they are something to harvest. Geomancers pull in the energy of the earth before it can damage buildings or people. They act as a buffer—but at a cost. Human bodies take in earth magic as heat, and in a major earthquake, the fever can overcome them in minutes. They stay alive by breaking contact with the ground or by immediately transferring the energy to a rare crystal called kermanite. Charged kermanite is what powers autocars, flashlights, even airships. Geomancers are the source of economic and military prosperity.

Women aren’t supposed to inherit geomancy, and Ingrid’s capacity to hold and wield energy is unlike that of anyone else. She is a woman of color, possessing a skill that she dare not reveal, and she bristles at her subservient place in society. She is privately delighted when earthquakes happen–those are brief moments when she knows she is her true, powerful self.

There is a lot of symbolism built into Ingrid and her relationship with both her own power and society at large, but for me there is some personal wish fulfillment there, too. Ingrid can stop earthquakes before damage occurs.

During my childhood in California, I didn’t live in terror of earthquakes as some people do, but I was keenly aware of their destructive might. I had seen it with my own eyes, at a very early age. I still pay attention to the occasional sensational headlines about when the next “Big One” will occur. I worry about my family in my hometown of Hanford, and friends who live across the state.

For all of our modern knowledge of earth science, earthquakes are still a mystical, wild force. For me, the desire to form a magic system, to make earthquakes a controllable entity, doesn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination. It’s something that I wish were real so that I could keep my own loved ones safe.

—-

Breath of Earth: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 8/24/16

Lots of new books in this week so we’ll have two stacks, one today and one Friday. See anything in this particular stack that trips your proverbial trigger? Let us know in the comments!

The Big Idea: Kate Milford

The War of 1812 is back! Sort of! In The Left-Handed Fate, author Kate Milford uses that little-remembered war as a backdrop for her story, and her musings on the nature of justice, particularly from the perspective of younger readers.

KATE MILFORD:

Writing about war for kids is difficult, and probably every book that attempts it is difficult in its own unique way. My newest book, The Left-Handed Fate, launches today. It’s a nautical fantasy set during the War of 1812, a time period I chose because it made sense for what I wanted to do (write a fantasy with ships in an era when kids in nautical families could go to sea and get up to adventures at very young ages), not because I was super-excited about writing a story about war. I knew that tackling the realities of children in wartime was going to be a challenge, but in the end it wasn’t a matter of the violence, or the convoluted economics and politics that kept Europe and the Americas at war for decades that made it so. It was the problem of treason and justice.

Kids have finely calibrated senses of justice. It’s one of the ways in which they make sense of the world, society, relationships, and basic interactions. Fairness is one of the laws of the universe–until, of course, they learn that it totally isn’t a law of anything. They also have sensitive rightness meters–another apparent law of the universe when you’re small is that in any altercation between two parties, there will be one party who’s right, and one party who’s wrong. These two beliefs–the belief that in most situations there’s a right side and a wrong side, and that fairness and justice should determine which side is which–persist to some degree or another throughout adolescence and sometimes deep into adulthood. And there’s a third thing that kids believe that sometimes they don’t grow out of quickly enough: the idea of being at the center of things. When you’re a kid, the most natural thing to assume is that that things are about you, or sometimes about things you identify with.

The biggest challenge of this book was to overturn those three basic, world-defining beliefs of childhood in a way that would still tell a satisfying story to a young reader. Because I have been in enough schools and discussed enough books with enough kids to have heard some variation of, “I understand why it had to be that way, but I didn’t like it” a million times. And in the end, while I think it’s nice to wind up with a book that has Something To Say To Young Audiences, mainly I want my readers to fall in love with the characters and their stories. I want them to love the story I tell. If it makes them think and challenges their worldviews, cool. But I want them to want to share it with their friends.

In LHF, I have three point-of-view characters: a British privateer and the also-British natural philosopher that hired her ship to help him build a weapon, and an American midshipman who’s made prize-captain when the privateer is captured. The entire story depends on the American kid deciding to help his enemies, who are mostly concerned with their ongoing war with the French and not about the conflict with America at all. This despite the fact that America was completely justified in declaring war in 1812. Our grievances were real. The American kid could be forgiven for feeling pretty confident that his side was right and Britain was wrong. And yet, I needed to have him come to the realization that the right choice was to side, for this particular adventure, with his enemies. To decide to risk court-martial and maybe death, but certainly to ruin his barely-begun career in the process.

All of this is a problem because it’s not fair, and because it’s hard to argue with the idea that, in this particular conflict, the American kid’s side is the right side. So my difficulty was how to get across to my readership of mostly elementary- and middle-school kids that frequently there’s more than one right side, that often “fair” is meaningless, and that sometimes even when you’re in the right and justice dictates that you should get your way, sometimes there’s a bigger picture that renders all of that irrelevant. That sometimes it’s not about you.

It was helpful that France at the time had some seriously bad stuff going on. It wasn’t hard to paint the Revolutionary generals and later Napoleon as monstrous and make France the greater evil to justify the American kid’s choices, and there’s some pretty dark moments as the privateer and the philosopher work to convince their captor that even though France is technically an American ally, defeating Napoleon should be everyone’s highest priority. (My editor really wanted me to keep the body count low until I wound up having a character talk about his time fighting in the Vendee during a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands even before the Reign of Terror. I think after that she sort of threw up her hands and gave up.)

But the thing that makes the era of constant warfare that includes both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars relevant today is, I think, the insane nationalism and xenophobia that characterized all sides of these conflicts. So although I needed Bonaparte to represent a kind of offstage megavillain, I really wanted to avoid any dangerous oversimplifications that involved painting the entire country as the enemy. There are too many adults today that can’t wrap their heads around the concept that it’s possible you can’t identify people as evil simply by virtue of nationality; I didn’t want to support the idea that geography makes enemies in a book aimed at kids.

Fortunately, kids can handle both darkness and complexity, which is good because the ultimate solutions to my story problems required both acknowledging the intricacies of the various wars at the time and acknowledging the sometimes very frightening events that made the stakes so high on all sides.

But the truth is, it’s hard to ruffle kids in my target age range. Generally, when I go into schools and talk about my work, neither the convoluted politics nor the occasional carnage shock them. What does throw them for a major loop is being told that the United States fought a war that wasn’t particularly important in the global scheme of things, which it didn’t technically win, and in which it got convincingly trounced by Canada. That messes with them.

The Left-Handed Fate: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Rest of MidAmeriCon II

Now that I’ve opined about the Hugos, how was the rest of my MidAmeriCon II?

I had fun! My schedule was relatively light: Two panels, a reading, a signing and a kaffeklatsch, which left a lot of time to do fun things with fun people. The panels — one on moderation (with Teresa Nielsen Hayden) and one on social media — went off without a hitch and with good crowds and questions. The reading went especially well; I read a chapter from The Collapsing Empire which was well received (the audience actually clapped at a moment of climactic action, which made me squee inside), and then after that the short story I read from Miniatures, my upcoming collection, was interpreted by an ASL speaker who did an amazing job keeping up with the made-up alien words in the story. She really took it over the top and I was delighted she was there.

Aside from that Krissy and I hung out with friends, ate a lot of barbeque, went to a ton of parties and then slept in the next day. It was everything I like about a Worldcon.

Also, it turns out that Kansas City is quite a congenial place to have a Worldcon-sized convention (which is one that’s about 4,000 – 5,000 members, usually). There are a number of really excellent restaurants, the square around the convention center is filled with hotels, and everything was walkable. A+++ two thumbs up, would Worldcon there again.

(Actually, this is the fourth time I’ve been to Kansas City for a convention and each previous time was also really excellent. Kansas City: A tragically underappreciated convention town.)

I also give MidAmeriCon II high marks as a Worldcon. As with any convention, I’m sure behind the scenes there were people running around with their hair on fire, but from my point of view everything worked like it should, which I think is the point. Also, MAC II did a fine job with harassment and consent policies and with the Incident Response Team tasked with taking reports — I know people who had to avail themselves of them (alas), and the IRT came away with high marks. This is important; until we’re at a point where harassment/consent policies aren’t need (which will be never), the next best thing is a responsive convention at that addresses problems quickly.

(I’m also aware of at least one person getting booted from the convention; the short version of that story as I understand it is that someone decided to be a raging dickhead in an overt and premeditated fashion, and as a result was invited to be a raging dickhead on his own time, elsewhere. Seems fair to me. If you want some details, here’s a more detailed write-up, and feel free to leave comments about it there, not here.)

The basic gist of this Worldcon is that I got to spend with people I really like, and had fun in a cool place. Thanks, MidAmeriCon II — you were just what I needed.

Gum on the Shoe of History, or, Why the Hugos Are Still Not Destroyed

Before I get into the post-mortem of 2016’s Hugo Awards that I promised, let me first say that the award that made me happiest was Naomi Kritzer winning the Best Short Story Hugo for “Cat Pictures Please.” Naomi and I go waaaaaaay back — if she was not actually the first person I knew in science fiction genre circles (and I think she was), then she’s certainly one of first three or four. She’s always been one of the best of people, to me and to others in the field, and a consistently wonderful writer. We came up in the field together, and to see her work get recognition makes me immensely happy, and even more happy for her. As you can see, she looks pretty pleased herself. And, well. She deserves to be. Good story, great person.

Now, for some other stuff about the Hugos, and this year’s set of nonsense.

As you may recall, once again this year Theodore Beale (aka “Vox Day”), in his guise as the ringleader of the Rabid Puppies, tried to hijack the Hugo Awards via slates dictated by him, nominated by minions. Last year Beale, along with Brad Torgersen, who administered the Sad Puppy variant of this nonsense, engaged in simple cronyism and/or favor-currying, with a couple of unwitting human shields thrown into the mix. That didn’t work out so great for them, so this year Beale asked himself “what would Xanatos do” and came up with a three-prong strategy:

a) Put people and works that were already popular on his slate so he could claim credit for their success when they won, regardless of the fact those people/works would likely be on the ballot anyway;

b) Comb through the Locus recommended reading list for the year and nominate people Beale suspected the people he hates would want to vote for, i.e., more human shields, just a slightly different strategy;

c) The usual cronyism of pals and/or work and people he published through his personal micro-press.

Plus there was homoerotic writer Chuck Tingle, whom Beale slated for the lulz.

(The Sad Puppies, the originators of the nonsense Beale sucked himself onto like a tick, were largely a non-factor this year, which is probably better for them in the long run. They’re now all in for the brand-new Dragon Awards, administered by DragonCon, and you know what? Good for them. I wish the Dragon Awards every possible success, and independent of that, if the Sad Puppies want to focus on them instead of the Hugos, I wish them absolute joy in the work.)

So, how did this particular strategy work for Beale? Well, of course, poorly. The stuff that was obvious cronyism mostly ended up below “No Award” in just about every category, again, for the third year running. In the cases of the human shields and the already popular nominees, Hugo voters simply ignored the fact Beale slated them. In the case of the latter, no one sensible believes that folks like Neil Gaiman, Andy Weir or Neal Stephenson would willingly associate themselves with a minor racist shit-stirrer, and in the case of the former, Beale’s obvious assumption that the people he classifies as SJWs would explode with cognitive dissonance when he put people/work on his slate that they’d otherwise want to vote for (“I want to vote for it! But I can’t now because it’s on a slate! Nooooooooo!”) is predicated on the idea that these folks are the strawmen he’s created in what passes for his mind. They’re not; they knew what was up, and they largely decided to ignore his master strategy.

And then there was Chuck Tingle, who, when he found out what was going on, trolled Beale so long and so hard and with such obvious glee that it became an enduring thing of joy. Rather than being appalled that Tingle had been nominated, the Worldcon community largely embraced him (or whoever Tingle is; no one is really sure). Here was someone who was nominated by a bigot to antagonize other people, who instead allied himself with those folks and was appreciated by them in return.

Did stuff on the slates win? Yup: The stuff that could have won anyway, and the stuff that had merit despite Beale’s cynical attempt to make other people run away from it. Nothing that won, won because it was on his slate. At best (for Beale) it won despite being on his slate, an assertion we can infer from the performance of everything on the slate that fit into category c); again, nearly every crony nomination finished below “No Award” in the voting. An active association with Beale is, bluntly, death for your Hugo award chances. I mean, it takes a lot for someone as esteemed in the field as Jerry Pournelle to finish below “No Award” in Hugo voting, and yet, there he is, sixth in a field of five in the category of Best Editor, Short Form.

But that’s a sign of bias! It most certainly is. For three years Beale, with or without assistance, has been placing mediocre to awful work on the Hugo ballots; for much longer than that Beale has been a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. The Beale brand, earned through time and repetition, is “graspingly untalented bigot.” And of course Beale knows this, the poor bastard, which is why he tried to drag down actually talented people and their good work by attempting to associate his brand with them. That didn’t work (because again people aren’t stupid), but if you actually intentionally attach yourself to the Beale brand? Then, yes, “associates with a graspingly untalented bigot” is now part of your brand, too. If it’s powerful enough to drag down Jerry Pournelle, a man of no uncertain talent and accomplishment who does in fact deserve better than to finish below “No Award,” think what it’ll do to you.

Beale has stated, in a pathetically grandiose fashion that belies the limit of his actual ability to affect the world at large, that his intention is to “destroy the Hugos.” He’s failed spectacularly three years running. In the years of his effort the Hugos winners have, in point of fact and entirely independent of his efforts, highlighted the immense diversity of talent currently operating in the field. Beale publicly flatters himself, as he publicly flatters himself in all things, as somehow being a prime mover in these events. What Beale is really doing at this point is trying to mitigate his own inability to have the status and influence he assumed would be his, by pathetically attempting to shoehorn himself into the history of others who have done more, and better, than he has. If he can’t be the hero, and at this point it’s become clear he can’t, then he’ll settle for being the footnote — the gum on the shoe of someone else’s long walk to esteem.

Here’s the thing about that. See my friend Naomi up there? She was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award along with the Hugo. At no point does the story of Naomi Kritzer — her talent, her ability, her recognition for her work — rely on Beale in any way. If he didn’t exist, she’d have been on the ballot anyway. At no point does the story of Nnedi Okorafor, who won the novella Hugo, rely on him either. Or Andy Weir’s. Or Neil Gaiman’s. Or Ellen Datlow’s or Shelia Gilbert’s or N.K. Jemisin’s — Jemisin, who Beale has repeatedly targeted for blatant overt hatred because of who she is, and who has accomplished so many things he hasn’t and is likely never to — all without reference to him. Nora, her talent, her work and her recognition, exist without him, thrive without him, impress without his approval, don’t need him and never will.

Five years from now, few people will remember, and even fewer will care, about the nonsense Beale and his pals kicked up; hell, last year, the crest of the Puppy nonsense, is already mostly remembered with rolled eyes and a “well, that happened” mutter. Ten years from now, only academics and true Worldcon nerds will think about it at all. But Naomi and Nora and Nnedi and Neil and everyone else who won a Hugo this weekend will still have had their moment of deserved recognition, and god willing will still be at it, making work and finding their audiences. They will continue to create and build and make science fiction and fantasy a genre worth reading and thinking about, and will probably do so for decades.

And none of it will be about Beale at all.

View From a Hotel Window, Kansas City Edition + Look! I’m in Rolling Stone!

Kansas City yesterday as we got into town. Today is overcast, so you’re getting the better picture, even if it’s slightly tardy. Today at MidAmeriCon, at 1pm, I’m doing a reading, where I will be reading two (2) pieces no one has ever heard me read before. If you’re at the convention, don’t miss it.

Also, look at this, I’m in Rolling Stone! I’m writing about the new video game, No Man’s Sky. This is my first Rolling Stone byline. I’m a little geeked about it.

 

New Book and ARCs, 8/17/16

Feast your eyes on these new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the last couple of weeks. Anything here you’d like to dig into? Tell us in the comments.

Also, starting tomorrow I’ll be at MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon. Here’s my schedule there. If you’ll be there, come see me! If you’re not there, I probably won’t update here until Monday, although I am likely to be on Twitter off and on over the next several days. Either way, have a fabulous second half of your week. Catch you later!

The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

What’s in a place? For The Returned, and its author Bishop O’Connell, quite a lot, indeed.

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

Location as a character.

I travel a lot for my day job and because the jobs tend to be longer term, I get a chance to explore new towns all over the country. There’s something special about that moment when you’re no longer a tourist—though not really a local—and you get to see the real magic of a place. You learn the history, get to know the people, and really, truly get to experience the city. The city, while maybe not “your” city, becomes something more; it almost becomes a person. You see the city for all it is, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But hopefully, it’s a place where the complexity and contradictions add to the beauty of it. This is something I worked hard to include in all the books of my American Faerie Tale series. The location of every book wasn’t just randomly chosen. Each was a place I felt I knew well enough to bring it to life on the page and give readers a sense of its complicated beauty.

The Stolen was set in and around Boston. Yes, the book is heavy on Irish myth and legend, which made Boston a perfect choice, but I wanted more than that. The city is old, and has a long history, on both sides of the Revolutionary war. Moreover, the layout of the city hasn’t changed much in that time, which I’m told is one of the reasons traffic is so bad in the city. And it is bad. Really bad. So bad in fact that I invented a magical means of travel to deal with it. For the book I mean, not in real life…or do I?

The second book, The Forgotten, takes places mostly in Seattle. One of the main characters in the book is a homeless teen, and Seattle, unfortunately, has more than its share. However, and to its credit, it’s also one of the better cities helping their homeless kids. I love that it’s called The Emerald City—because of the greenery—but I like to imagine maybe it’s a destination for the hopeful trying to find home. The underground (the original ground floor of the city before it sank) plays an important part in the story, as does one of my favorite fixtures in the city: The Freemont Troll. The troll is a massive concrete sculpture under a bridge, but I write faerie tales, so he’s a real troll in my book. Three Promises, book three (I call it book 2.5) is a short story collection and has pieces in both Seattle and Boston.

For The Returned, I knew the city I wanted to use even before I started writing: New Orleans. I love New Orleans, as long as it isn’t August. Or July. Or, well, summer. The city has a long and storied history. It’s seen oppression, tragedy, violence, disasters (natural and man-made), poverty, injustice, pain, and grief. But the city has a visceral joy to it, a love of life you don’t see in many other places. Maybe all the tragedy has taught New Orleanians (Yats) to appreciate life, or maybe they live so fully to spite all the pain and heartache. I don’t know, and I imagine you’ll get different answers if you ask. Everyone knows about the amazing food and drink you’ll find, but there is so much more. The French Quarter is a tourist haven—locals go to Frenchman Street for live music—but because of the tourists, the street performers gather there, and they are impressive. You’ll find magicians, jugglers, performance artists of all sorts, and musicians. The musicians are incredible. The music you hear for free as you walk the quarter is often better than you’ll pay to listen to in other cities. New Orleans has passion, and life.

Which is what makes their strong connection to death so ironic. New Orleans funerals are a thing to see. The procession to the cemetery is a somber dirge, expressing the grief of the family. But once people have said their goodbyes, the music changes tempo. The belief being that the happiness and joy will release the spirit of the deceased to move on. Then of course there are zombies. No, these aren’t the shuffling, moaning corpses with a penchant for brains that have become so popular. This is the original mythology, imported from Haiti. Zombies have been done to death (ba-dum, ching) in their current pop culture form, so what better place than New Orleans to resurrect (last one, I promise) the old stories? There’s also voodoo/vodun, which just about everyone knows about (albeit a TV/Movie version). But not many people know that New Orleans (and Louisiana) has stories of rougarou, the Acadian version of the French loupgarou, as in werewolves.

Excellent food, a love of drink (the Irish in me approves), great music everywhere you turn (including funerals), plus zombies, voodoo, and werewolves? AND you get all the people of the city, a huge cast of potential characters to choose from. How do you not write a story set here?

Sure, the location can provide ambiance, and potential characters, but it also gives my characters a new way to shine. Like any good character should, the location pushes my existing characters. It drops them in new and unfamiliar situations, forcing them to grow and learn, to find the familiar and build on that, or fail miserably (which they sometimes do). Perhaps most importantly though, I find that using locations as characters shows the inherent connection between us all; Red Sox and Yankees fans notwithstanding. It gives the reader another way to connect with the story, another way in.

—-

The Returned: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Caroline M. Yoachim

In the writing and collecting of the stories which comprise Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World, author Caroline M. Yoachim discovered the thread that runs through them. What’s the thread and how does it weave into each of the tales? Yoachim is here to explain.

CAROLINE M. YOACHIM:

When I was putting together Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, I noticed something about my short fiction: I write a lot of stories about brains. Not so much the neurons inside our skulls (although there’s certainly some of that), but an examination of what our brains do–the nuances of consciousness, the nature of the human mind.

In Philosophy there’s a thought experiment called Theseus’ paradox that asks: If you replace the boards of a ship one at a time until every board has been replaced, is it still the same ship? It’s a fascinating question because it gets at the nature of identity. What makes something the same ship–are the individual boards important? Does the rate at which boards are replaced matter?

It’s a fun problem to think about in the context of ships, but where it gets really interesting for me is when the thought experiment is applied to people. If a person replaces their body bit by bit, until every cell has been replaced, are they still the same person?

I love writing short stories because you can explore an idea from lots of different angles. What is the nature of human identity? There’s no simple answer to that, so my goal has been to revisit the question in a variety of ways. With science fiction I can deal explicitly with Theseus’ paradox. Several of my stories involve characters whose bodies are replaced, either entirely or only partially. In other stories, my characters abandon their biological bodies entirely or merge their minds into a collective consciousness. At what point do we draw the line and say ‘this is no longer the same person’ or even ‘this is no longer a human at all’?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my academic background in Developmental Psychology. Infants and young children change rapidly as they learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around them. I don’t have much in common with my 3-year-old self–the way I think about the world is different, I’m a different size, a different shape. Over the years, most of my cells have been replaced. But despite all that there is a continuity to my existence: all these changes have been gradual, so from one day to the next I am the largely the same person. Three-year-old me was similar to 4-year-old me, 4-year-old me was similar to 5-year-old me, and so on for over three decades…a continuous chain leading up to the version of me that is writing this essay–an essay that my 3-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to read or understand.

In my short stories I try to capture this interplay between continuity and change. When I’m writing fantasy, I often make my characters undergo drastic transformations–a girl made of bamboo rebuilds herself with driftwood, a sugar clown is dissolved in a cauldron and regrown from a seed crystal, a Lovecraftian fish-frog mermaid becomes a beautiful human. Writing about these kinds of transformations has been another way for me to explore what is (and isn’t) important to who we are.

The nature of identity is something that’s important to me on a personal level, too. I’m mixed race, and that’s an aspect of my identity that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Being half Japanese and half white I don’t feel like I fully belong to either group. There’s a degree to which I’m constantly reconstructing my identity, like a chameleon trying to blend in with its surroundings. I wrote a fantasy novelette, original to the collection, that tries to capture my longing to find the place where I fit. “On the Pages of a Sketchbook Universe” is set in a fantasy world where some people are made of watercolor paint and others are made out of pencils. I wanted to write a story that examines what happens when someone falls between those two categories, a character who is a blend of both pencils and paint.

I didn’t initially set out to write a themed collection, but the nature of identity is an idea that I return to again and again, often with more questions than answers: What makes us who we are? Is there some essential core that defines us as individuals? How much of ourselves can we replace before we become something entirely new?

 

—-

Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Brooke Johnson

To finish up your week, here’s Brooke Johnson to tell you about her new novel The Guild Conspiracy, and how, sometimes, you have to fall to rise again.

BROOKE JOHNSON:

When I was writing the first draft of The Brass Giant back in 2011, I thought it was going to be a standalone novel, a nice and neat, one and done foray into the steampunk genre, and then I’d move on to other things. It wasn’t until I got about three-quarters of the way through my outline before I realized that the story I was writing was much bigger than one single book could tell. For the story to be over, my main character would have to emerge victorious against a villain she didn’t yet know existed, against a plot far more sinister than she yet realized. The closer I got to the end, I had to start asking myself the hard questions: How could a naïve teenage girl topple a conspiracy she hadn’t yet discovered? How could she emerge victorious?

The simplest answer? She couldn’t.

So, at the end of The Brass Giant, Petra fails. Horribly.

The trick then was to figure out what happened next. What happens when the hero fails? What happens when it’s the villain who wins? Where does the story go from there?

That was the story I wanted to explore. I just never realized how deeply personal it would become.

Failure is not something we accept easily—especially those of us who do creative work. To fail at something we poured our souls into… it’s scary.

I tried several times to write this book over the last five years, but I never made it more than halfway through a first draft. I was terrified of getting it wrong, of writing something unworthy of the hypothetical paper it might be printed on. I was afraid that whatever meager talent I had poured into the first book was spent and I’d never write another book for the rest of my life. I wondered if I was wasting my time trying. And then other things came up in my life that forced me to stop working on it—an excuse to never discover if my fears were warranted or not, a streak of bad timing that I started to call a curse. I wanted to write this book—I really did—but I was afraid of it. I was afraid of failure. So I abandoned it, hoping I might one day have the courage to try again.

Fast forward to early 2015, months away from The Brass Giant’s traditional debut, and that fear of failure manifested all over again. But not about the impending book release. I was nervous, sure, but I was confident in what I had done with The Brass Giant under the tutelage of Harper Voyager’s editing team, and I was fairly optimistic about how the book would be received.

What scared me was the fact that my contract with Harper Voyager wasn’t for just one book. It was for three. Which meant that I needed to write the sequel. For real, this time.

So I did what any sane person would do: I took my fear of failure and poured it into the book. If  I could write a character moving past her own failures, then maybe I could get over the fear of mine.

So The Guild Conspiracy is about overcoming that failure, with the main character at her worst, a victim of her own hubris, her own naivety. It’s about starting the fight all over again, striking out on an uphill battle despite every last odd being pitted against her. It’s about mistakes and bad choices and trying desperately to make things right, about recognizing when she’s wrong, recognizing her own weaknesses, and trying to do better.

That all came from a place of personal truth, a place of fear and uncertainty in my own career. But like Petra, I was able to face my fears and forge a path ahead, despite not knowing where the journey would take me. Sometimes, that’s all we can do.

—-

The Guild Conspiracy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | KoboHarperCollins

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

Midnight Star: Renegade is Out!

Hey! I’m tremendously excited to announce that Midnight Star: Renegade, the mobile first person shooter that I’ve been working on with Industrial Toys, is now out and ready for you to play on iOS devices. It’s the sequel to last year’s Midnight Star game and features many of the same bad guys, kicked up with new gameplay and and a fast-paced setup that lets you get in, blast the crap out of some aliens, and get back out again. It’s the perfect shooter to play out in the world.

Let me quote the press release here:

Renegade is the culmination of decades of shooter development, completely re-imagined from the ground up for mobile. The game features a control system built around native touch, tap and swipe inputs to allow gamers to run, dodge, chase, fly, shoot, blast and destroy like a boss. The game has 150 campaign levels, daily and weekly multiplayer events and enough gear to build 1000s of customized rifles, pistols and grenades.

Renegade is a fast-paced, arena-style shooter combined with a deep RPG. Players build their characters from humble recruits to elite Renegade operatives. Weapon crafting allows players to construct everything from Auto Fire Electro-Shock rifles to dual-wielding Pure-Ice Rocket Pistols. Combined with custom skinning, players make characters that are truly their own. Renegade raises the bar for gameplay and graphics by leveraging the latest mobile GPUs and Unreal Engine 4 to achieve state of the art effects such as HDR lighting, full screen render effects and real-time shadows.

Set 130 years into our future, Renegade sets players on an adventure to unravel the secrets of an alien civilization that disappeared 22,000 years ago. When we discover we are not alone in our search, an epic war erupts for the future of the galaxy.

Yeah, you know you want to play it. There’s already a community built around the game, with challenges and events and people to set yourself against. It’s the most fun you’ll have with your phone.

Here’s the cool thing: As with Midnight Star last year, Renegade is free to download and start playing.

(Android folks? I’ve played the beta. Don’t worry, we’re on it.)

Naturally I’ve been playing builds of Renegade as it’s been coming along, and while I’m biased — I did help create the world of Midnight Star and Renegade — as a fan of first-person shooters, I kinda love this one. It nails what I love about first person shooters (mainly, cathartically blasting away at evil aliens), while building the controls out intelligently for mobile, and improving on the control scheme from Midnight Star, to give players even more control and mobility. Plus it’s fun to build the perfect weapons to blast the aliens to bits. It’s big fun in an easy-to-take-with-you package.

Try it out. I think you’ll have as much fun with it as I’m having. Maybe more. You’re probably a better shot than I am. Seriously, I need to play more.

Declining My Dragon Award Nomination

Earlier in the year DragonCon announced they would inaugurate the Dragon Awards, a fan-voted award covering science fiction and fantasy literature, games and media. Last night, the list of nominees was sent out to people who had signed up to nominate and vote for the awards (you can see the full list here) and it turns out that The End of All Things is a nominee in the category of Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel.

I have two thoughts on that:

1. Awesome! I’m thrilled to be nominated and happy enough fans liked the book enough to make it a finalist in this, the inaugural year of the award. That’s very cool, and I am, of course, deeply honored.

2. I have emailed the folks at the Dragon Awards via their Web site requesting to decline the nomination, because as I said in November, I’ve decided to withdraw my 2015 work from award consideration, and The End of All Things was originally published in 2015.

As the Dragon Awards are a new award, I don’t know what their policies are for withdrawing a finalist work; it may be that it’s not possible. If that turns out to be the case, this is me saying I hope those of you who vote for the Dragon Award in that category will consider the other eminently worthy finalist works and authors. There’s good stuff to choose from.

I want to stress that this request for withdrawal should not be construed as an intended slight toward the Dragon Awards — I made my policy about my 2015 works before the Dragon Awards even formally existed. In another year, with another work, I’d be happy to be nominated again for this award. I hope the Dragon Awards are successful this year and enjoy a long run highlighting excellent works in the genre.

To all the other people and works on the finalist lists: Congratulations and the best of luck to you! And to fans: If you’d like to vote for the other finalists for the Dragon Awards, in any category, here’s the link to the award’s home page, where you can sign up to vote. Enjoy!

Trump, and His Jokes, and You

I write funny things professionally, and have done for years. I’ve made a fair amount of money and even won some awards for funny things I’ve written. So as a professional writer of funny things I have thoughts on Donald Trump’s oblique joke yesterday about how great it would be if a gun nut assassinated Hillary Clinton and/or some of the judges she might appoint. As with many examinations of humor, this will not be particularly funny. You have been warned.

1. Of course Trump’s comment was a joke, and as someone who has told more than his share of inappropriate jokes to his later regret, I’m pretty sure I can model Trump’s brain process to getting there. He’s up on stage, he’s pissed off that he’s losing, he’s with a sympathetic crowd that wants him to say something punchy, and he has no goddamn filter at all, because why would he, his brand is “I say what I think” and his brand has gotten him this far. So out of the woodwork of his brain comes the clever observation that well, actually, some jackass with a gun could offer up a lead veto to Clinton and/or her judges, and out it went through his teeth. Trump didn’t give it any more thought than that: pop! into his head, push! out of his mouth. Maybe three tenths of a second from conception to utterance, if that. This is was not a statement he’d been consciously planning months to say.

Was it a joke? Sure. Was it funny? Like most jokes, it depends on whether you’re the audience for it. It didn’t work for me. Should Trump have said it? Immaterial, since it was said.

Should it be excused as “just a joke”?

Well, but, see. Here’s the thing about that: There’s no such thing as “just a joke,” and Trump of all people knows that.

2. The first problem with saying “it’s just a joke” is that people very often use that phrase to mean “I get to say/enjoy a horrible thing without penalty.” Well, as a professional writer of funny things, I feel perfectly within my rights to call bullshit on that. Jokes don’t come out of nowhere. They are the product of a presumably thinking brain just like any other speech, and like any other speech they are susceptible to the same scrutiny and criticism. Just like any other speech the context of the joke is useful, too.

So here’s the context of that joke: Donald Trump is a man who has pursued the presidency through racism and white nationalism and by insinuating criminal activity on the part of his opponents (or their families), who has encouraged foreign agents to subvert the US election process (another “joke”) and who is actively training his base of support — angry and scared white people, many of whom have a nearly-fanatical attachment to their firearms — to consider the election process rigged if it does not produce the result they want. Then, at a political rally, as the GOP candidate for president, while speaking about the 2nd Amendment and arguing how his opponent Hillary Clinton wants to get rid of it — to get rid of his angry white supporter’s firearms! — he drops a little joke about how, well, actually, they could oppose her, nod nod, wink wink.

Trump wasn’t making a private joke with friends in the comfort of his own ridiculously baroque home. He wasn’t writing satire (which is often not funny) or black humor in the pages of, say, the New Yorker. He wasn’t on the stage of a comedy club trying out five minutes of edgy new material in front of a half-drunk midnight crowd who are there to see someone else anyway. He wasn’t putting it in the comments of his liberal friend’s Facebook post about gun control. He wasn’t doing any of those things — although even if he were, he could still be held accountable for his words. Rather, he was, as the GOP candidate for president, at a rally of his supporters, in a race he is currently far behind in, joking about someone killing off Hillary Clinton, or whomever she appoints as a judge. He wasn’t there to make comedy. He was there, quite literally, as a political statement. That’s the context.

3. What, politicians can’t make jokes? Well, speaking professionally, it’s usually better when they don’t. They can’t all be Ann Richards. Every time Hillary Clinton attempts humor my desire to vote for her goes down a tenth of a percent. I don’t want or need my politicians to be funny. I need them to wonk out on unsexy topics like water rights and trade deals, and represent the interests of their constituencies. That’s the gig, not killing it for ten minutes at The Comedy Store.

That said, sure, if politicians can make jokes, why not? Yuk away. But again, jokes aren’t Get Out of Jail Free cards for saying horrible things. And when the jokes are, in fact, saying horrible things, like when the GOP candidate for president pops one off about maybe someone assassinating the Democratic candidate for president because of her alleged position on the 2nd Amendment, it’s all right to haul the joke out into the light and begin the utterly unfunny process of picking it apart to see what’s really going on there.

Why can’t you just let a joke be a joke? Because, to repeat, and as others have noted, it’s never just a joke. Jokes mean things, just like any other kind of speech. In fact, jokes often have greater impact, because jokes aim for the pleasure centers of our brain, not the analytical centers. The information of a joke hits in a place where you have fewer defenses against it, and fewer walls barring it from sinking into your overall worldview. This is why, among other things, you probably laugh at things you know you shouldn’t laugh at. It’s also why you’re probably quicker to excuse the content of a joke — it’s just a joke! — or to minimize the importance of what’s being said within one. How bad can it be if it made me laugh? And also, if the joke is saying something horrible, what does it say about me? You have a vested interest either way in explaining away your reaction.

Trump is not a great politician — indeed, if this election cycle has done anything, it has reminded us that the oft-derided skills of being a great politician are in fact useful and needed — but he is a marvelous bully, and like any gifted bully, he’s aware of how to use humor for its manipulative qualities. This is why he mocks his opponents and gives them silly names, why he says outrageous things, planned or unprompted and then immediately wraps them in the rhetoric of humor, and why all his defenders are instructed and prompted to explain away the jokes. He’s not the problem, you’re the problem if you can’t take a joke. No one wants to be accused of not being able to take a joke.

4. This is where once again I put on my hat as a writer of funny things to tell you the following:

  • It’s okay not to be able to take a joke.
  • It’s okay to think a joke is not funny.
  • It’s okay to focus more on the content of a joke than the delivery.
  • It’s okay to hold a joke to the same standard as any other speech, and to pay attention to the context in which it is delivered.
  • It’s okay to be scared of a joke and the joke-teller. Sometimes that’s the right thing to be.

Finally and perhaps most importantly:

  • Always question the motives of the person who is telling you “it’s just a joke.”

Why? Because, well, why are they saying that? Sometimes it’s because the person is a comedian, trying to convince you they’re funny (pro tip: if you have to convince someone you’re funny, you’re probably not funny to them). Sometimes the person who told the joke realizes they just stepped in it, and is trying to backtrack without making themselves look too much like an asshole. Sometimes the person is gaslighting you, trying to make you doubt yourself, for their own purposes. And sometimes that person is trying to normalize hateful rhetoric — or keep hateful rhetoric normalized — and is trying to make you defensive about seeing it clearly as what it is: hateful.

A person saying “it’s just a joke” isn’t always an asshole. But assholes are almost always happy to say “it’s just a joke” to make it look like the problem here is you. So when someone says “it’s just a joke” to you, that’s your cue for skepticism. Jokes mean things. Anyone who tells you otherwise either doesn’t understand the uses of humor, or is hoping that you don’t.

5. You are not automatically a bad person if you laugh at horrible things or find funny a joke whose content, on reflection, is not funny at all. You are a human being, and a skilled communicator — and Trump, for one, is a very skilled communicator — is going to play the changes on you. You might laugh because of the delivery. You might laugh because as a human you like the pleasure of laughing. You might laugh because of the context of the joke, or because it’s subversive, or because the butt of the joke is someone you dislike. You might laugh because the person telling you the joke is someone you admire. You might laugh because it’s expected. You might laugh because not laughing might be noticed. You might laugh because honestly you don’t know what else to do. You might laugh because it’s not safe to do anything else.

Laughing at a horrible joke is not the problem. Excusing that hateful and horrible joke as “just a joke” is the problem. The pleasure of humor don’t mitigate the damage it can do when the hate it offers slips into someone’s worldview, or simply reconfirms the hate they already hold. You’re not automatically a bad person if you laugh along with hate. You’re a bad person if you walk along with it. Humor makes it easy to take that walk. It’s up to you to resist moving your feet. The more you resist, the more you’ll recognize that hate actually isn’t all that funny.

6. Trump made a joke about someone assassinating his political opponent, or the judges she might appoint. Trump’s minions and enablers have been scurrying around trying to spin it, or mitigate it, or accuse people of misunderstanding it and anyway it was just a throwaway line, it was just a joke. But context matters and who is making the joke matters. Trump is a bigot and he’s ignorant and he is a buffoon and he has no filter but he is not stupid. He knows when he puts things out into the air that they are heard and that they are taken seriously. Even the jokes. Especially the jokes.

Trump wished out loud that someone would assassinate Hillary Clinton because inside, the screaming tantrum-throwing infant that Trump is wants her out of the way, and so does the slightly more grown-up version of him whose business model includes cheating contractors and workers out of their contractually-obliged fees and wages, and so does the 70-year-old version who has spent decades getting his way, who wiped the floor with the laughable opposition he had in the GOP primaries and sees no reason why he should do anything different than before, and is possibly confused as to why it’s not working any more, so just try harder. Does Trump actively want Clinton dead? No. But out of the way covers a whole lot of ground. Trump is a bully and he knows how to phrase a wish. So when that wish came howling out of his id up there on stage yesterday, he wrapped it into a joke and sent it on its way.

Trump made the joke because he knows, better than almost anyone, that there is no such thing as “just a joke.” He knows it, and the fact he knows it, and made the joke anyway, should scare the shit out of you.

As should this: When Donald Trump is president, he won’t have to make jokes anymore.

The Big Idea: Jay Kristoff

If Jay Kristoff had managed nothing else with this Big Idea piece for his new novel Nevernight, he would have had arguably one of the most grabbing first sentences in the history of the feature. But there’s more to it than the first sentence, promise.

JAY KRISTOFF:

Nevernight started with an argument about vaginas.

More accurately, an argument between two of my lady friends about a particular curse word we use for vaginas. Friend A asserted that the C-bomb was the most offensive curse word in the English language. Friend B’s thesis was that, unless you’re an idiot, vaginas aren’t any more offensive than any other body part, so curse words denoting them shouldn’t be, either.

It was New Year’s Eve. Everyone was quite soused. Friend B won the argument.

. . . Okay, let me back the truck up. Because you might not have even had your morning coffee yet and you probably wandered in here looking for an article on fantasy books, and hey, surprise vaginas.

At this point in the article, I’m supposed to be talking about the big idea behind my new novel, Nevernight. I could talk about the fact that it’s an epic fantasy set in a trinary star system, meaning the world only gets two weeks of night-time every two and half years, and that makes it really hard to construct a narrative starring an anti-hero/rogue archetype, because typically they get up to all their roguery and anti-heroics when it’s dark, and hey, surprise run-on sentence.

I could talk about flipping the switch on the light vs dark trope, and building a world where the folks in white hats aren’t necessarily the good guys. Or I could talk about the big idea behind Nevernight’s setting, which is kinda like Hogwarts, if Hogwarts was a school where, instead of learning magic and the true value of friendship and painfully British stiff-upperlippedness, you learn to murder the shit out of people instead. Writing a school full of neophyte assassins is actually a real pain in the nethers. It’s difficult to keep your characters sympathetic when they’re all training to become the sort of bastards who murder people for money.

But honestly, the big idea in Nevernight is the heroine, Mia. She’s the beating, bleeding heart of the entire book. After the Great 2013 NYE Vajayjay Debate, I went home and wrote a scene about a boy and girl. The boy tried to convince the girl that the C-bomb was the Worst Word Ever, and the girl smoked a cigarette and explained to him why it wasn’t. At the end of that scene, I was fascinated with this girl. I had no idea who she was or what she wanted, and so I built her a world to find out.

It is a world of perpetual sunlight, where Mia’s ability to manipulate darkness isn’t all that useful. It’s a world where Light conquered Dark, a world that illustrates how badly it can turn out when the good guys get what they want. It’s a world of assassins and cats made out of shadowstuff, murder and betrayal and a bit of smut. But ultimately, a fantasy world is just a stage for a story. And this is a story about a girl and her vengeance, and whether the price she pays for the revenge she craves will be worth it in the end.

Mia is the big idea at the heart of Nevernight.

I hope you find her as intriguing as I did.

—-

Nevernight: Amazon/Barnes&Noble/Indiebound/Powells/Book Depository

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

The Yellowing of the Scalzi Compound

We have a five acre lawn, and occasionally people from generally drier climes who think upon the lawn ask, aghastedly, how we water the thing — I think they imagine a complex set of sprinklers that suck the water table dry bringing us all that much closer to the water apocalypse. The answer to “how does it get watered” question, however, is “from the sky,” meaning that during those times when rain is not forthcoming, the grass goes dormant until it is. We’re in one of those times at the moment; there’s been rain in the last few weeks, but not a lot of it, so the lawn has gone yellow.

Which is fine. I like having a large lawn, but not so much that I’m going to be a control freak about it. When it doesn’t rain, you get a yellow lawn. It’s water math. This is not unusual for August around here anyway; typically more rain will come in September and October and it will get green again before it gets covered in snow. We’ve been here 15 years, we know the drill by now.

That said, the forecast is for thunderstorms, starting tomorrow and lasting literally all the next week. It might get greener sooner than later. We’ll see.

New Books and ARCs, 8/5/16

A super-sized stack of books and ARCs has come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What here lends itself to your particular reading tastes? Tell us in the comments!

The Moon and Mercury, 8/4/16

Mercury being that bright speck in the upper right.

This is the first time that I’ve either seen or photographed Mercury in the evening sky. For an astronomy buff like me, that’s a pretty big deal. Mercury is a tough one to capture.

Hope you’re all having a fine evening.

My MidAmeriCon II Schedule

I’ll be attending MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon, although only for a couple of days because of schedules and deadlines. But on those two days (Friday, August 19 and Saturday, August 20) I have a pretty busy schedule. Here’s what I’m doing, and where:

Friday Aug 19, 2016

1:00 PM Reading: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center 2203: This reading will mark the debut of material from my 2017 novel The Collapsing Empire, so this will be your chance to hear it first, literally before any other people, ever. I will also be reading from my upcoming collection Miniatures, and depending on time, doing a little Q&A.

3:00 PM Moderation and Online Community Management — Kansas City Convention Center – 3501D: This will be me and Guest of Honor Teresa Nielsen Hayden talking with each other about what it takes to keep an online community humming along.

Saturday Aug 20, 2016

1:00 PM Social Media, or, Why I Haven’t Finished My Novel — Kansas City Convention Center – 2206: In which I and other panelists will talk about the pleasures and perils of social media when you have deadlines. Other panel members are Melissa Olson, Mur Lafferty, Jack Campbell, Jr. and J.R. Johansson.

3:00 PM Kaffeeklatsch: John Scalzi — Kansas City Convention Center – 2211: I sit at a table with ten other people and they ask me questions. You have to sign up for this if you want to attend.

5:00 PM Autographing: Sarah Beth Durst, Arnie Fenner, Jerry Pournelle, Cerece Rennie Murphy, John Scalzi, Ferrett Steinmetz, Michelle (Sagara) West — Kansas City Convention Center – Autographing Space: I and these other fine people will be signing books and probably whatever else you want.

And there you have it. See you there!