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.

—-

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

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

A Boy and His Hat

It is a good hat, I think. 

(But not really mine. I borrowed it from my pal Jess for the photo. That said, it really doesn’t look bad, all things considered.)

How’s your weekend so far?

View From a Hotel Window, 1/12/17: Boston

The first one of the year. No parking lot, but there is a street with parking on it, so I have that going for me, which is nice.

I’m here in Boston visiting friends, with no scheduled public events. Sorry. However, next weekend I will be at the Confusion convention in the Detroit area, and I’ll be doing a reading and signing there. Just in case you were planning to be in the neighborhood.

So I Spent My Entire Day Dealing With a Recalcitrant iPhone Upgrade and the Result is I Want to Murder Everything and Everyone, and Am Thus Not Fit Company For Other Humans, So Here, Have a Picture of a Cat

As for me, fuck it, I’m having ice cream for dinner.

The Big Idea: Nick Cutter

Author Nick Cutter has an obsession, and it’s in his latest novel, Little Heaven. It’s an obsession with an aspect of human nature that involves spirituality, and possibly, gullibility. It’s an obsession he’s here to explain to you now.

NICK CUTTER:

You write enough, you likely reach a point of familiarity with your obsessions. Those bugaboos that seem to crop up your books. The things that vex or intrigue or drive you. Now sometimes they creep in insidiously—often, in my case, against my best efforts to keep them at bay. Other times they mosey on in bold as a bull, just kinda squatting in the middle of your narrative and taking up space. You might try to shoo them away, or ignore them, or write around them—sometimes you even succeed—but often they’re there, they’re loud, proud, and most fundamentally, they’re you. That’s the nature of obsessions.

Sometimes these obsessions don’t fully reveal themselves until you find them cropping up over and over again in your work. People will tell me, “Craig (or Nick, as may happen), you are clearly consumed by the concept of time” or memory, or pancakes or sloths or whatever they see cropping up over and over in my books. Sometimes I’m aware of those things, whereas other times I’m like, “What? Really?” And that person says, “Really!” and points those instances out to me. Sometimes they’re right, and I’m gobsmacked. Other times they’re kind of seeing things they want to see in the text (which is totally their right as readers) moreso than that which might actually exist on the page.

But one thing that I know to be a personal obsession, and which drove the conception and plot of Little Heaven, is religion. Or maybe more fanaticism.

Or maybe to distill it to its core: False prophets. Profiteering prophets.

This is too big a topic to plumb in depth—and the word limit of this column is clearly stated—so I won’t say much beyond: I don’t trust prophets. Of any stripe. Whether they preach from a pulpit or a boardroom or a Dianetics center or barstool or a milk crate in the town square. At no point and in no place would I believe or (as I like to assume, perhaps only because I haven’t sampled every moral poison on offer) would I follow someone whose agenda, to me, always seems pretty plain. That is, to assemble a flock in order to shear them down the road. All the Popes and Timothy Ferris’s and Napoleon Hills and Benny Hinns and John Edwards and Tony Robbins of this world—fah! To the devil with them all. They’re all snake oil peddlers; their tonics might be differently-flavored and brightly-and-bouncily colored, but they all taste the same: the sour, gamey funk of subservience and obediency.

Call me a cynic. Lord knows I am. But everywhere I look, whenever I set my gaze on these fellows (and they’re almost always fellows, with the odd Rhonda Byrne or Long Island Medium melted into the fetid stew) I see shysters. People who have happened upon some universal infirmity or fear that’s knitted tight to the human condition, and instead of helping, really helping, they prey on that infirmity under the guise of guru-ism or religious subservience.

It makes me sick, it really does. But it also obsesses me.

That’s the way it is with a lot of obsessions. They repulse and fascinate in equal measure.

So. The preacher character in my book Little Heaven. It won’t take a scholar or historian to see who he’s loosely based on. The mirrored Aviator shades. The greasy duck’s ass hairstyle. Yup. Ole Jim Jones. A lot of people followed Jimmy, too. Followed him out into the middle of the jungle. Followed him right down to the bottom of those Kool Aid pitchers. And that horrifies me. The power the man had over his flock (and that’s really the right word, isn’t it? A flock. And too often those flocks have a sociopath as a shepherd—perhaps it’s that sociopathy that made them want to be shepherds in the first place, and maybe it’s that fundamental distance from true human emotion that allowed them to be so good at their chosen path)—anyway, that power astonishes and terrifies me.

And that was the Big Idea that propelled and directed a large part of the novel’s narrative. That Idea’s done the same work in other books and stories of mine. Which is how I know it’s one dilly of an obsession.

I could point towards certain recent political events, too, that illustrate the toxic power of demagoguery of the sort Jim Jones practiced . . .

But anyway. That’s a story for another day.

—-

Little Heaven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

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

Reminder to Authors: Route Blurb Requests Through Editors/Publicists

Dear authors:

A reminder: Per my blurb policy, which I’ve had on this site for years, and for which a link is prominently featured on the sidebar that appears on every page of the blog, please do not send requests for book blurbs directly to me. I will reject the request. Have them come through your editors or publicists or agents or publishers instead.

Why? Bluntly, because I am very selective about the books I blurb and most books I’m asked to blurb I don’t. Often that’s because I run out of time in terms of when the blurb needs to be in, but sometimes it’s because I’m not in love with the book. I have to be in love with the book to blurb it. A blurb is explicitly an endorsement; it’s me saying “I love this and you should try it.” My name is attached to the book, and that matters to me.

(If I don’t blurb a book, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t good, I should note; just that I didn’t love it. I can think of a couple of books I was asked to blurb that I chose not to that went on to be bestsellers and/or award winners and/or critical favorites; conversely I remember a couple I did blurb which then sank beneath the waves and were never heard from again. My taste is my own and my endorsement does not guarantee sales. Fair warning.)

It’s really awkward to have an author — a peer — directly ask you to blurb their book and then have to come back to them after reading and say “I can’t”; it’s a little like someone asking you if you think their kid is smart, when you saw the kid shoving crayons up their nostrils five minutes beforehand and saying the cat is made of ham. There’s not a good way out of it — or at least there’s not a good way out of it for me.

Which is why I’ve made it a requirement for all blurb requests to come through editors/publicists/agents/publishers — that way, at least, there’s an intermediary, and it’s an intermediary who won’t take it personally if I have to pass on the book, for whatever reason (time, too many books of the same sort coming to me, less than complete love for the book, etc), and who can help manage the expectations of an author in terms of blurbs in general.

“But I would never hold it against you if you didn’t like the book!” I hear you, a completely rational, grown-up and understanding author, say. And I want to believe you! Alas, experience tells me that some authors who believe they would totally be okay with me not endorsing their book get a little salty when I say “I can’t.” Which totally makes sense! These books are our brain babies. We want people to like them. It’s one thing to say we’d be fine with someone turning down our book for an endorsement. It’s another when it happens. Some authors can handle it just fine; some can’t. How can you tell which is which? Well, you can’t, until it happens. To be fair, often they don’t know, until it happens. Which is why I route blurb requests through others.

“But we’re friends!” Dude, I need this policy especially for friends.

(For those of you wondering: I myself do not ask people for book blurbs, nor have I ever. My editor or publicist handles that end of things. Honestly, I don’t even know if my books go out for blurbs, or to whom, unless and until I see the book has blurbs somewhere on the cover. When they do, it’s a pleasant surprise. I don’t ever know who said “no” to blurbing it; I don’t ask, and no one ever tells me.)

I should note that there are some authors who have asked for blurbs who I have pointed in the direction of my blurb policy explaining why I pre-emptively turn down direct author blurb requests, who have then gotten pissy and annoyed with it, and with me. That I can handle, one, because the policy isn’t about the specific book or author, it applies to everyone; and two, because, again, the policy has been up and easily findable for literally years on my site, and I make occasional reminders (like this one!) that it exists. It’s not entirely unreasonable to have the expectation that people know about the blurb policy — or at least, understand why I have it and apply it. If they’re still unhappy about it, that’s fine.

So, again, authors: If you want me to consider your book for a blurb, don’t ask me directly. Tell your editor/publicist/agent/publisher that I’m one of the people you want them to consider asking for a blurb. And then let them handle it from there. Thanks.

New LA Times Article, Plus Thoughts on Essays

First, and in case you missed me talking about it on Twitter yesterday, I have a piece up at the LA Times site (a version of it is also in the Sunday newspaper) about getting creative work done in the Trump years — some advice about how to keep focus when it’s likely to be a challenging time for the creative class. Note that this advice generally probably also works for people working in professions generally considered “non-creative” as well, but I’m working with what I know here. Also, of course, if you’re neutral or positive on the idea of the incoming Trump administration, then this particular piece is probably unnecessary for you. Carry on, then.

Second, when I had the idea I originally thought to post it here, but then remembered a) that the LA Times books section has a freelance deal for me to be a “critic-at-large,” an appellation with actually a fairly wide remit, under which an article like this would probably fall, b) The LA Times has a pretty wide reach and the piece would probably be seen by more people there than here, both online and in print, c) also I could get paid, which is always nice. So I queried, and it was accepted, and it went there.

This reminded me that one of the things I did want to do this year is to place more essays/columns in newspapers and magazines and online sites, partly to purely strategic reasons — like, getting my name out to people who might not have otherwise heard of me, and to keep a healthy sideline in a form that I was writing in long before I became a novelist — and also for the fact that I like seeing my byline in lots of places. Once you’ve been a jobbing freelancer I don’t think this impulse ever leaves you.

So basically here is a thing this means: When I think of something I want to write about in essay form, I’ll probably ask myself the following questions:

  1. Is it something I could actually sell to someone else?
  2. Do I want it out immediately, or can I wait?
  3. How lazy am I feeling?

If the answers are “yes,” “I can wait” and “I’m feeling reasonably industrious, actually,” then it’s possible I’ll try to place it elsewhere. Because that would be neat!

That said, knowing me like I do, the answers to the latter two questions are generally “I want it out immediately” and “I’m feeling lazy as hell,” so I don’t know if there’s actually going to be any impact to what gets put up here. Plus, you know. I like writing here. So there’s that, too.

I guess basically what I’m saying is perhaps I’ll be writing even more this year! I mean, aside from two novels, one non-fiction book, a video game, occasional LAT columns and of course what I put up here (oh, and Twitter, let’s not forget Twitter). The funny thing is I consider myself a very lazy person.

Anyway, enjoy the LA Times piece. I think it’s pretty good, and useful.

The Big Idea: Rusty Coats

I’ve known Rusty Coats since he and I were twenty-something newspaper columnists geeking out over Coen Brothers films together, so it’s no surprise to find him today with a novel, Avalon, full of noir and speculative elements. Today in 2017’s first Big Idea essay, he’s talking about how to build a virtual city, meant to be a haven, but ending up as something else entirely.

RUSTY COATS:
The Big Idea behind Avalon is a dystopian future where a virtual reality city, once built as a beacon of hope for a world that has fallen down, has become a hedonistic destination full of brothels and bloodsport. Basically, VR meets Prohibition, with a conspiracy to seize control of the city – and humanity itself.

Avalon is told in the first person by Jack Denys, whose parents were part of the global project to build the virtual city. Jack had grown up on Campus, believing in the promise of a city that would unite a world scarred by nuclear exchanges, pandemic and economic collapse. But his encryption program was deemed an act of treason, and Jack, the last privacy hack, was sent to prison.

Now it’s eight years later. Still incomplete, Avalon was outlawed after a mysterious “programmer’s disease” killed thousands and left millions hopelessly addicted. The United Nations tried to destroy the metropolis but failed when a new mafia called the Digerati seized control. In an age of Prohibition, the Digerati have retooled the City of Light into an online Babylon. And Jack, who has vowed never to return to Avalon, has been hired by one of them for a job that turns out not be so simple.

I had been on a noir kick, reading a lot of Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, while talking a lot with a friend who was launching a virtual reality company to document big-building construction. (Bonus: You can see through walls.) Throw in my love of Depression Modern design, an infatuation with FDR’s Works Progress Administration and a love of all forms of encryption and you get the major ingredients. I wanted to blend the language and style of Depression-era and noir fiction with an alternate future where VR is simultaneously a source of hope and despair, told through the flawed voice of an antihero.

To design the virtual-reality city, I turned to Norman Bel Geddes, the early 20th Century designer responsible for the iconic designs of the 1939 World’s Fair. Since Depression and Prohibition historically breed fanatics, I added an agrarian/Luddite sect called the Sons of David – a blend of my former work as a reporter covering Amish and Northern Californian off-the-grid communities. And, since everyone likes a good global conspiracy, I created technocratic cult, the Neuromantics, which promotes itself as benevolent caretakers of a wounded populace but, well, we’ve all seen how that usually turns out.

The Big Idea, then, is an amalgamation, and a bit of an homage. My grandfather worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of FDR’s New Deal, and it was the first step in moving my family out of poverty in Southern Indiana. The designs of Bel Geddes and others were symbols of hope – that a streamlined, futuristic design could accelerate the country out of the Depression. And, as someone who has worked in media for 25 years, I’ve seen how every digital development – from AOL chat rooms to virtual reality immersions – are met with equal parts ecstasy and dread.

And we all need a little privacy in the promised land.

—-

Avalon: AmazonBarnes & NobleInk n Beans Press

Read an excerpt.

I Completely Lost Track of Time Today and This Evening’s Sunset is a Total Bust, So Here, Have Yesterday’s Sunset Instead

It was pretty, I think. Unlike today, which is just low clouds with sullen spats of snow. Winter, it is here, and it’s moody.

The 2017 Awards Consideration Post

Do I have work for you to consider for this year’s awards? I do! Here they are:

Best Novella:

The Dispatcher (10/16, Audible)

Best Collection:

Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (12/16, Subterranean Press)

Aaaaaand that’s it, I think. There are individual short stories I’ve written that are eligible, including in Miniatures, but I think it hangs together best as a collection, so that’s what I’m asking people to consider it for.

Note with The Dispatcher its eligibility will be dependent on whether the awarding group considers audiobook publication the same as print publication for the purposes of their awards (I know it is for the Hugos; I have a query in about it for the Nebulas). If it’s not eligible as an audiobook, well, the print version comes out in May, so I might end up listing it next year, too. Awards! They’re wacky. Also note that in the places where it might matter, I consider The Dispatcher to be fantasy, rather than science fiction.

Thanks!

Miniatures Audiobook is Out

As most of you know, the print and ebook editions of Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi came out on December 31 (here’s the Amazon link); now, today, the audio version of Miniatures is also available for your listening delight, available through Audible.

I just listened to it myself, and while I should be considered biased, for obvious reasons, here’s a couple of reasons why I think Audible did a very fine job with it:

a) They used multiple narrators, which is good because it changes up voices between stories and makes the “interview” stories — which are basically dialogues between two characters — a whole lot more enjoyable and easier to follow;

b) With the “interview” stories, they dispensed with the “Q & A” dialogue tags entirely, which makes the audio versions basically humorous radio skits. Which is exactly as they should have done, and means they’re pretty delightful to listen to.

So basically the audio version is less like a traditional audiobook and more like a comedy album with a really skilled company of actors. All of which makes me want to do this book with performers in front of an audience. Hmmmm. Maybe on the boat!

Also, it’s $7. Cheap! Get it and the eBook, which at $6, is also cheap! (But if you want the signed, limited edition, there are also a couple of those left through Subterranean Press.)

Really, I just continue to be thrilled with Miniatures. Subterranean Press did a terrific job with it, and now so has Audible. I literally could not be happier with how this collection has turned out.

Mark It

Monday, January 2, 2017, 9am-ish: Work officially begun on Head On, the sequel to Lock In.

Wish me luck!

Sunset, 1/1/17

Today I went on a date with my wife, wrote something I liked, and got a pretty sunset out of the day. 2017, you’re off to a decent start. Keep it up!