As we ease into a long weekend, here’s a very healthy stack of new books and ARCs that might ring your bell. Call out the ones you’re interested in down in the comments!
As we ease into a long weekend, here’s a very healthy stack of new books and ARCs that might ring your bell. Call out the ones you’re interested in down in the comments!
Ben Carson, our HUD Secretary of somewhat dubious expertise, recently burbled on about how he thinks that “poverty, to a large extent, is a state of mind,” a statement which earned him some well-justified push-back and which prompted several people, knowing of my general thoughts about poverty, to wonder if I had any thoughts on the matter.
My thought on poverty in the United State being a “state of mind” is that what it really is, to a rather larger extent, is a lack of access — to money, to education, to opportunities, to adequate housing, to networks of expertise and help, among many other things, and most importantly (and as often a consequence of all the others noted and more) to the margin of safety that people who are not in poverty have when any individual thing knocks them off their stride.
It’s the last of these, in my opinion, that illustrates the gormlessness of Carson’s thoughts on poverty. You can have the most can-do spirit in the world, but your state of mind doesn’t mean jack when confronted with, say, a broken-down car you can’t afford to repair, which means that you can’t get to your job, which means that the job goes out the window, putting you at risk of not being able to pay the rent (or other bills), increasing the possibility of putting your family out on the street, making it more difficult for your kids to get and maintain an education. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to a worn-out timing belt or transmission. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the landlord who decides to raise a rent you can barely afford, because he knows he can get more from someone else. Your “can-do” spirit doesn’t mean shit to the ice outside your home you slip and fracture your arm on when you head off to your second job. Your state of mind is not telekinetic. It can’t fix things that are out of your control, and which by dint of poverty you have no immediate way of addressing. When you’re poor, so many things are out of your control.
Conversely, if you have margin, your “state of mind” matters even less — because you have the ability to address problems as they arise. It doesn’t matter what my state of mind is if my car stops working; I can afford to have it taken to the shop and fixed. My state of mind is not relevant when I crack my arm; I have good health insurance with a low deductible. My state of mind is neither here nor there to my housing situation; my mortgage is paid off. My margin is considerable and will be regardless of what state my mind is in.
Yes, you might say, but you, John Scalzi, have an industrious state of mind! Well, that’s debatable (more on that later), but even if it is true, is it more industrious than the person who works two shitty jobs because they have no other choice? Am I more industrious than, say, my mother, who cleaned people’s houses and worked on a telephone exchange while I was growing up, so that I could eat and have a roof over my head? My mother, who barely cracked a five-figure salary while I grew up, worked as hard as hell. Tell me her “state of mind” was less industrious than mine is now, and I’ll laugh my ass off at you. Tell me any number of people in the small, blue-collar town I live in, who make significantly less than I do, and who are one slip on the ice away from tumbling down the poverty hole, have a “state of mind” substantially less industrious than my own, and I’ll likely tell you to go fuck yourself.
I happen to be one of those people who went from poverty to wealth, and because I am, I can tell you where “state of mind” lies on the list of things that have mattered in getting me where I am. It is on the list, to be sure. But it’s not number one. Number one is access to opportunity, which I got when my mother — not me — decided to chance having me apply to Webb, a private boarding school that cost more than she made in a year (I was a scholarship kid), with immense resources that allowed me entree into a social stratum I might not have otherwise had access to.
Number two is a network of people — mostly teachers at first — who went out of their way to foster me and nurture my intellect and creativity when they saw it in me. Number three is luck: being in the right place at the right time more than once, whether I “deserved” the break I was getting or not. Number four is my creativity, my own innate talents, which I then had to cultivate. Number five are the breaks I got in our culture that other people, who are not me, might not have gotten. Number six would be Krissy, my wife and my partner in life, who has skills and abilities complementary to mine, which has made getting ahead easier and building out our family’s margins much simpler than if I had to do it on my own.
Number seven — not even in the top five! — I would say is my “state of mind,” my desire and determination to make something of myself. And let’s be clear: this “state of mind” has not been an “always on” thing. There have been lots of times I was perfectly happy to float, or fuck around, or be passive, because times and opportunities allowed me to be so. There have been times when I have been depressed or apathetic and not interested in doing anything, and I didn’t — but still got along just fine because of my margin of safety. There have been times I have been overwhelmed and barely able to make any decisions at all. “State of mind” is a changeable thing, and importantly can be deeply influenced by one’s own circumstances. It’s much easier to have a positive “state of mind” when you know that no one thing is likely to knock your entire life askew. It’s easier not to give in to fatalism when not everything has the potential to ruin everything else. It’s easier to not feel like nothing you do matters, when you have to ability to solve many of your problems with a simple application of money.
I have seen people with what I’m sure Carson would describe as the correct “state of mind” fail over and over again because their legs are kicked out from them in one way or another, and who never seem to make it no matter how hard they try. I’ve seen people who definitely don’t have the right “state of mind” succeed and even thrive — have seen them fail upward — because on balance other things broke their way. “State of mind” as a predictive factor of economic mobility is, bluntly, anecdotal bullshit, something to pull out of your ass while ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that economic mobility in the United States is becoming more difficult to come by. It’s not “state of mind” that’s the issue. It’s long-term systematic inequality, inequality that’s getting worse as we go along. Ignoring or eliding the latter and pinning poverty “to a large extent” on the former means you’re giving everyone and everything else that contributes to poverty in the United States — from racism to inertia to greed — a free pass.
I’m well aware that Carson has his own anecdotal rags-to-riches story, as I do; we both even have mothers who sacrificed for us so we could succeed. Good for him! I applaud him and his effort to get where he is now. But this doesn’t make his story any more than what it is, or what mine is — a single story, not necessarily easily replicated at large. Certainly my story isn’t easily replicated; not every poor kid can be given a break by a private boarding school catering to the scions of wealth and privilege. I think it’s fine if Carson or anyone else wants to lecture or opine on the poverty “state of mind.” But until and unless our country makes an effort to address all the other long-term issues surrounding poverty, Carson’s opinion on the matter is bullshit.
Control for opportunity. Control for access. Control for margin. And then come back to me about “state of mind,” as it regards poverty. I’ll be waiting, Dr. Carson.
Suddenly, books! What in this particular stack is catching your interest? Let everyone know in the comments.
In my dream last night, I was annoyed at my cats for not sufficiently appreciating the in-ground pool I had installed specifically for them.
Can you blame me? I think not.
Travel expands the mind — or so they say. What would Dan Moren, author of The Caledonian Gambit, have to say about that particular truism? As it happens, he has a story on the topic, one that has bearing on the story he tells in his novel.
In January 2001, during my junior year of college, I got on a plane for Scotland. This was significant for a few reasons. For one thing, I’d never left the country before. For another, it was only the second plane flight I’d ever taken, and the previous one had been nearly a decade earlier. And even more to the point, I wasn’t just going for a week’s vacation—I was moving there for an entire semester.
I was terrified, and had a minor anxiety attack in the car on the way to the airport. But I got on that damn plane anyway.
Hours later, jet-lagged and haggard, I hopped into a cab in Edinburgh that would take me to my home for the next six months. I tried not to feel like too much of an idiot when my addled brain at first couldn’t parse the thick brogue of the driver, but I eventually realized he was asking where I was from. “America,” I replied, in a daze, only to have him fix with me a bit of a look and say, “Yes, I know that. Which part?”
Looking back on those months now, I tend to view them fondly. The years have dimmed the intense feelings of isolation and loneliness incurred by the several-hours time difference, not to mention the ocean, that separated me from my friends and family back home. My floormates were welcoming enough, but I was so overwhelmed with everything that was new and different that I retreated into myself, spending most of the time that I wasn’t in class exploring the city on my own.
From the vantage point of a decade and a half later, I still wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. For one thing, it gave me a real taste of leaving home. It made me more self-reliant and resilient, and taught me that I am capable of handling whatever life throws my way. I made friends with my floormates eventually, and I got to travel not only around Scotland and England, but also around a host of countries in Europe, an opportunity I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.
But for all of that, I have never been quite so glad to come home at the end of the semester. If I’d felt a little more assured about the cleanliness of the airport floor, I would have dropped to my knees and planted a big fat kiss on it.
It was only a year after my time in Scotland that I first started sketching out the idea for a big sprawling space opera—a series of books inspired by the likes of Timothy’s Thrawn trilogy and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. I wanted to create a universe that felt real, felt lived in, because that was what I loved about those stories.
But as I started writing the first draft of what would eventually, many years later, become The Caledonian Gambit, I realized that the story of a washed-up pilot and the squad of covert operatives with whom he teams up didn’t really feel like those stories. Instead it felt hollow—like it had no sense of place. Even set as it was against the backdrop of a galactic cold war between two human factions—the bellicose Illyrican Empire and the ad hoc Commonwealth assembled to oppose it—it needed a more concrete anchor, a sense of what these sides, and the characters that served them, were fighting for.
It wasn’t until several years afterward that I finally found the heart of the story, and it came from looking back at my time in Scotland. I realized that this wasn’t just a story about big galactic conflicts, but about the smaller challenges that we all face.
It was a story about going home.
Eli Brody, the protagonist of The Caledonian Gambit has been away from home a lot more than six months—try nearly ten years. He couldn’t leave his homeworld of Caledonia fast enough, even if escaping that dirtball meant joining up with the very forces that had invaded and occupied it. And he would have been plenty happy—or, at least, so he told himself—never to set foot on that planet again. Until covert operative Simon Kovalic shows up and asks him to do just that.
Kovalic’s a man without a home, too. He’s from Earth, which, like Caledonia, has been under the thumb of the Illyrican Empire for two decades. Unlike Eli, Kovalic’s dedicated his life to fighting back, trying to reclaim the home that he had to flee when the Imperium came.
In fact, everybody in The Caledonian Gambit is fighting for their home in one way or another. Both Eli and Kovalic’s homes exert a gravitational pull on them, as if keeping them in a long, irregular orbit. Ultimately, they’ll swing back around and have to come to terms with the homes that they left behind. And neither of their homecomings is likely to be as much of a relief as mine was.
As much anxiety as I had about moving to Scotland, the years have shown me that leaving home is an integral part of figuring out who we are. Even if we ultimately end up returning, well, you have to leave in order to come back. In stories, the hero’s journey is predicated on this idea, but it’s no less true for our own lives. Whether our home is as small as a patch of dirt, or as big as an entire planet, there is—as they say—no place like it.
The last couple of weeks have been genuinely and literally amazing as far as news goes — so much happened every day, of such importance to the nation, that it’s been hard to keep up or to process it all, or (and this is important) to get into a frame of mind to do a whole lot of work. The very last of these is not great for me, as I have a book due soon.
So this week I’ve decided to go on a news diet; basically, to not go out of my way to read news or to follow it on Twitter or other social media (I’ve also muted the word “Trump” on Twitter, to aid in this project). I’m sure some of it will leak in regardless; I’m just not going to go out of my way to find it. What I’m saying is, I’m going to go ahead and let everyone else be on top of things for a bit while I recalibrate and try to get my work/outrage balance back into whack.
This is, incidentally, something I suggest everyone does from time to time (I mean, if your job doesn’t actually involve writing about the news), especially these days when just the daily dose of news can be overwhelming. Pace yourself, folks. It’s going to be a long haul.
Because when we were on tour together, we went to Goodreads and talked! Here’s the interview.
(Interestingly but not entirely surprisingly, what they didn’t put in this interview transcript was the question where we were asked to offer our opinions on Amazon, which is the parent company of Goodreads. My answer to that was, basically, that Amazon had done some great things for my career and also had done some not so great things for my career, and that I don’t operate under the impression that Amazon cares about me more than it cares about itself. I suggested that other authors operate likewise.)
Heading into a very fine weekend, and what better way to do that then with some very fine books and ARCs? Tell us what in this stack is beckoning you to read it!
And she’s happy to see you. And a little squinty, as I took the picture in full daylight and she prefers her sunglasses for that. But, you know. Good squint, I’d say.
Creating alternate histories are no small matter, especially when your series of books features a different version of the Roman Empire landing in North America. Now in Eagle and Empire, the third book of his Clash of Eagles series, Alan Smale talks about the challenges of writing different past — and making more history as one goes along.
I’ve long had a fascination for books that tear up the world and patch it back together differently, for really large alternate histories; not picking my way gently forward as changes begin to ripple from a point of departure deep in the Napoleonic Wars, say, but witnessing the far-downstream effects of a giant splash. Those are the tides I’m riding with the Clash of Eagles trilogy, in which the Roman Empire survives in its more-or-less classical form through to the thirteenth century, and is now trying to open up Nova Hesperia – North America – with substantial assistance from the seafaring Norse who “discovered” it first.
The point of departure for my alternate timeline is way the heck back in 211 A.D., with Geta defeating his malevolent brother Caracalla after a decade-long firestorm of a civil war that nearly splits the Empire. As Emperor, Geta then ushers in extensive reforms. His actions unwittingly ward off the Crisis of the Third Century while strengthening the Empire against “barbarian” invasions, and, sure, I have Appendixes in the Clash of Eagles books laying out the details. But my characters don’t spend a whole lot of time rehashing the dusty events of a thousand years past – they’re much too busy running around and dodging pointy missiles and trying to stay alive.
So, let’s review: in Clash of Eagles, Gaius Marcellinus and his legion march in from the Chesapeake Bay and get their rear ends handed to them, first by the Iroquois, and then by the warriors of the great mound-builder city of Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi where St. Louis is now. For Book One, the Big Idea was: “Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height.” In the second book, Eagle in Exile, Marcellinus is – as you might guess – largely separated from Rome and from his new Cahokian home base. There’s a coup in Cahokia, and a vicious despot replaces the more measured and even-keel Great Sun Man who originally kept Marcellinus alive.
Before you know it, Marcellinus is cast out with a handful of friends, navigating the untamed Mizipi River on a Norse longship, fighting off threats from all sides. The Book Two Big Idea: “wild adventure in an ancient North America, in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear.” (Suffice to say that Marcellinus’s attempts to help always have unforeseen consequences, and also that his loyalty to Rome is not so easily tossed aside.)
Okay, so welcome to Book Three, Eagle and Empire. More legions have marched into Nova Hesperia by way of the Chesapeake and the Gulf of Mexico, commanded by the Emperor Hadrianus III himself. But meanwhile, meanwhile, the Mongol Horde is landing on the west coast and crossing the Rockies. Having had his plundering ambitions in Asia thwarted by the solid power of Rome, Genghis Khan has set his sights on the brave New World, and so one aspect of the Eagle and Empire Big Idea is “a titanic confrontation between the Mongol Horde and the legions of Rome on the Great Plains of North America,” a terrain which naturally benefits the nomad horsemen of the Khan.
Needless to say, the various nations and tribes who were already living on the Hesperian continent have their own very strong opinions about all this, and have continued to take independent action. Cahokia is now first among equals of a great Hesperian League, an alliance between disparate tribes that in the past sometimes made war with each other and sometimes simply ignored one another, but who are now forced to work together to resist the dual (and dueling) forces stomping all over their various territories. Other tribes cast their lot with Genghis, for various reasons, and so the stage is set for all manner of internecine carnage.
But now let’s home in on the human element, the soul of the story, behind all the cut and thrust and steel and shine.
Geopolitics aside, Marcellinus has a basic and central conflict between his old life as a Roman general , and his new life of family and community in Cahokia. He has friends and loved ones, duties and responsibilities, and many of these people and factors are at odds with one another. He has sworn several oaths he can never break, but even some of those oaths collide.
The three Cahokian children who were tasked with learning the outsider’s language back in Clash of Eagles have grown up to become influential in Cahokian society by the time Eagle and Empire begins. Tahtay is now War Chief of Cahokia, and a leading figure in the Hesperian League. Kimimela is a warrior and budding clan chief; she’s Marcellinus’s adopted daughter, but spends more time opposing him and working around him than chatting cheerfully with him by the camp fire. And then there’s young Enopay, not at all martial but empathic about people and an all-around smartypants: as a sometime-admirer and sometime-manipulator of key Romans, he also has his part to play in how this all resolves.
So another Biggish Idea that threads through Eagle and Empire is the complex interaction-space between all these different people (and peoples), their differing beliefs and motivations, and the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object nature of Marcellinus’s challenges as a somewhat loyal Roman and eventually-decent human being, deep in the midst of this continent-wide upheaval.
And if you do read the books, and we meet up in the bar at a con sometime, maybe we’ll talk about what the world of the Clash series might look like after another thousand years has gone by and the events of Eagle and Empire are, in their turn, buried in the distant past. I have a few ideas about that too, of course…
I’m not writing about Trump and his party pals as much as one suspects I might here, and honestly, here’s the reason for it: Everything is happening so damn fast these days. Hard as it may be to believe, if I’m going to write something more than a snarky tweet, I want to be able to actually think about the thing and frame it in my head, and every time I try to do that, by the time I’ve figured out what I want to say, that dense, angry Tribble-scalped bastard has done something else, and I have to rethink. I literally can’t keep up, especially because I’m trying to do other things, too, like write books.
It’s frustrating, because I have a lot I’d like to say. It’s just that by the time I would say it, it’s already three news cycles back, and all I’m left with is me howling SEE I TOLD YOU THIS SHIT WOULD HAPPEN, and really, now, how often can I say that before it gets boring.
So: Sorry, folks. I’m trying my best. But Trump watching isn’t actually my full-time gig. And it’s really hard to keep up.
Behold the Sketchers Men’s Diameter Slip-on, size 8.5, which just arrived here at the Scalzi Compound. This is the third pair of these that I’ve gotten, the first having been purchased more or less on a whim three years ago at Sears, back when you could still go into Sears without being crushingly depressed at how far the store had fallen. The shoes are super boring — there’s really nothing that calls your attention to them. I wear them because they’re cushioned and have arch support, and because they’re easy to take off and on at the airport. They are, in effect, designed to be worn by middle-aged men who value comfort over fashion, which is, basically, me.
I came to these shoes reluctantly, I’ll note. I was a devotee of Vans slip-ons for years but a few years ago had to come to terms that Vans slip-ons are not actually designed with the “increasingly middle-aged” demographic in mind, since they have zero arch support, and wearing mine to conventions or anywhere else that required lots of walking meant having feet that felt like they were being stabbed by the end of the day. I still love Vans and have a couple of pairs, but I save them for short trips and lazy days. For other every purposes: Super boring, cushy Sketchers above.
(I suppose I could find prettier shoes with equal arch support, but, meh. These work well enough, and they’re relatively inexpensive. I have dress shoes when I need dress shoes.)
The funny thing is that when I wear these shoes, every once in a while another middle-aged dude will compliment me on them, and I’ll look down and see him wearing the same shoes. Because he’s a middle-aged dude and he knows. Arch support, man. It’s a thing.
Physics happens — today and every day. But how much do you think about the physics of your ordinary day? James Kakalios thinks about it a lot, and after this Big Idea piece for his latest book The Physics of Everyday Things, you might think about it more often, too.
My motivation to write The Physics of Everyday Things derived from comments from people like my cab driver father, who would ask me, back when I was a physics major in college and would describe to him some recent discovery in particle physics or astrophysics: “That’s nice – but how does this change my life?” Breakthroughs such as the discovery of the Higgs Boson or ripples in spacetime (gravity waves) generated by the collision of two super-massive black holes warrant all the attention (and Nobel Prizes) they receive.
But equally deserving of notice is research on the human scale, the domain of solid-state physics and materials science, which is my particular field of study. More physicists work in these fields than in any other. They address fundamental problems involving the quantum nature of matter—that might sound abstract, but those questions can often lead to practical applications, such as the transistor and the laser. From high energy-storage batteries that power hybrid and all-electric cars, to the EZ-Pass device that lets us zip through toll booths, to the self-parking feature we might use to maneuver into a tight spot, my father, if he were still with us, would likely agree that scientists and engineers have certainly changed automobiles—and thus, would have changed his life.
All of our lives have indeed been changed thanks to scientific research (and much of it supported by the federal government, so to all you taxpayers reading this, take a bow). The technology we take for granted, from the smartphones in our pockets, to touch screens to MRI’s, can sometimes seem like magic. As a physics professor, I feel it is very important that I emphasize to the general public that these devices really are magic!
Of course, I don’t mean anything mystical or supernatural like you’d find in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, but rather the magic in a Penn and Teller show in Las Vegas. In the latter, physics principles are not violated but are exploited in order to create dazzling effects. Similarly, the amazing and indispensable devices that we use every day are only possible due to our understanding, gained over the past hundred and fifty years, of the rules by which the natural world operates. While professional magicians are bound to not divulge their secrets, in The Physics of Everyday Things I reveal how the “magic” of the technology we routinely employ is accomplished.
However, I did not want this book to be simply an encyclopedia of technology, with listings from alarm clocks and batteries to x-rays. How to tell a story that also explained the physics underlying the devices that surround us? My first (unsuccessful) attempt used the history of technology to introduce the concepts that underlie modern devices. This draft sucked. For those interested in the history of science, there wasn’t enough of it, and readers who didn’t care about history had to slog through too much of it before they got to the parts they wanted.
The Big Idea for the book came from my editor at Crown (the talented Domenica Alioto) who suggested that we drop the history, and begin the story by examining the devices people employ at the start of the day. I instantly realized that this would be structure of the book (which would turn out to be the subtitle): the extraordinary science of an ordinary day. The book would follow “you” through a busy day, from moments before you awake to when you drift off to sleep at night. You start your day, drive into the city, go to a doctor’s appointment, then on to the airport. Passing through the TSA checkpoint, you take a flight to another city, where you give a business presentation, and finally check into a hotel.
Whenever you interact or employ modern technology—from your toaster while making breakfast, to withdrawing money from an ATM, to making a photocopy, to watching the flat-screen television in your hotel room—I would interrupt the story and explain the physics principles underlying these devices. Domenica’s suggestion of a “narrative physics” was the Big Idea the book needed. This way we would get straight to the good stuff, and in describing the story of your day, I could write a popular science book in the second person singular.
While writing this book, I found myself observing my day with fresh eyes, noticing technology that I previously took for granted. For example, I paid attention when the motion sensors turned on the lights as I walked down a darkened hotel hallway. This gave me an excuse to research how these sensors worked. I previously had assumed that they all operated as a version of “radar,” where a signal was sent out and the device noted if a moving object interfered with the reflected wave. While some motion sensors do indeed use this “active process,” many lower power sensors are “passive” and instead use pyroelectric detectors to register the infra-red radiation you emit. I was excited to learn this because (a) I did not know this and thought it was cool; (b) it would give me a reason to explain what a pyroelectric material is; and (c) I could then show the connection between these materials and piezoelectrics such as quartz crystals used to keep time in your smartphone and computer.
Writing this book led to a new appreciation of how only a handful of physics principles are necessary to understand the broad array of technology that has changed our lives. This is, in fact, not just a Big Idea but the Giant Idea of the book. The universality of physics means that insights into nature that enable infra-red light emitting diodes and photoreceptors (the basic elements of a television remote control) also apply to pyroelectric-based motion sensors and account for the heat trapping properties of greenhouse gases. The physics is the physics. By the end of this short book, I hope the reader will develop a “physicist’s intuition” (“I totally knew it was going to be capacitors!”) and can anticipate the explanations of how everyday things work.
Sometimes the Big Ideas for books have their origin in other books, and how those books inspire us when we write our own. For her new book Thick as Thieves, Megan Whalen Turner reaches back to a favorite author and how that writer’s big idea laid the groundwork for hers.
MEGAN WHALEN TURNER:
Back in the last century, authors only knew what their readers were thinking if their readers sent them fan mail—written on the bodies of dead trees—or if their readers were reviewers for print outlets like the New York Times or Kirkus. And then, around the time my first novel, The Thief, was published, Amazon introduced online reviews and bloggers started putting up posts about what they were reading. Suddenly ordinary people had a voice in a much larger conversation about books.
As a newbie author, I was self-Googling like mad and just before The King of Attolia was published. I found a livejournal site dedicated to my books. I lurked. I did tell them I was lurking, but I knew right from the start that having authors around is a great, wonderful, exciting thing—right up until they make it impossible to have an honest conversation about their books, so I was careful not too lurk too often. In return, I got to watch these smart, funny people pick through everything I’d written and I became more and more convinced that they didn’t need my input, anyway. Everything in my books that I hoped they’d see, they were pointing out to one another. Watching them, I decided I should probably probably keep my mouth shut and leave readers to figure things out for themselves. That’s why when they got around to sending me a community fan letter, I’m afraid that my answer to most of their questions was, “I’m not telling.” Over the years, it’s hardened into a pretty firm policy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t talk about the books, about writing, about what’s hard or easy, or about where my inspiration comes from. I just try not to add information about the stories that’s not already on the page or offer my opinion on what anything in particular means. Sometimes I blow it, because I like to talk too much, but I try not to. Making up your own mind about a story, or sharing stuff with other readers, is the part of the fun of reading. I never want anything I say to short circuit that process.
This does make writing a Big Idea piece tricky.
Fortunately, our host has a pretty wide definition of what constitutes a Big Idea and even whose Big Idea we need to talk about anyway. So, instead of starting with my book, I’d first like to talk about The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff was a British author. She suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and she wrote the kind of books that she wanted to read during the long hospital stays of her youth. Back then, the boys’ ward had the “boy” books and the girls’ ward had the “girl” books and Sutcliff had to rely on sympathetic nurses to sneak the boys’ books over to her.
In The Eagle of the Ninth, a new centurion comes to Britain with big plans: serve the empire, get his veteran’s pension, and buy back his family’s farm. And then, in his first battle, all his plans go up in smoke. His leg is broken and he has to face the fact that he might walk, but he will never fight again. Seeking some new purpose for his life, in a journey both physical and psychological, he travels north of Hadrian’s Wall to retrieve the lost Eagle of the Ninth Roman Legion. His new slave, Esca, goes with him and, of course, they both come back free men.
Sometimes when a light bulb comes on in our head, it’s not because we had a Big Idea, it’s because someone else reached in and flipped a switch. When I was about fifteen, Rosemary Sutcliff did that for me. The term “plot armor” hadn’t been invented when I watched Sutcliff destroy a writing convention in her very first chapter. Serious injuries and death were only supposed to happened to red shirts. The Eagle of the Ninth made me wonder for the first time, just who gets to be the main character in stories of heroism and adventure.
I knew that when I wrote Thick as Thieves, I wanted to revisit Sutcliff’s story, and I knew that I wanted to focus on Kamet, the enslaved secretary to Nahuseresh, a prince of the Mede Empire. Kamet is educated, he’s entrusted with the management of his master’s entire household, and he’s ambitious. He may not see freedom in his future, but he sees power. When an Attolian soldier first offers to help him escape from his master, he laughs it off—until a friend warns him that his master has been poisoned and Kamet will be blamed for the murder.
Initially reluctant, Kamet takes up the Attolian’s offer and flees the Empire. For the soldier, this story is a quest. He’s been given a task by his king and he means to carry it out. For Kamet, the trip is a means to an end, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the Attolian king. He has his own agenda and this is his story.
As Alexis de Tocqueville once observed, “The evil one suffered patiently as inevitable seems intolerable as soon as one conceives the idea of escaping from it.”
Saga Press today announced a new anthology called Robots vs. Fairies, in which, as you might expect, there are stories about robots, and stories about fairies, and perhaps a few with robots and fairies. The anthology includes a story by me, entitled “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind From the Human Era for the First Time,” which, well. The title pretty much spells it out.
The author line-up for the book, as well as the story of the really very cool cover, is available here on the Barnes & Noble blog; the book itself will be out in January 2018. Something to look forward to in the coming year.
This is my Wonder Woman.
To mothers and the people who love them, have a fantastic day.
Sure you do! Here you go. This is from when Cory and I did a stop together at Google during our book tours.
So, I’ve been following this thing that’s been happening in Canada, where (briefly), Hal Niedviecki, a white editor of a literary magazine, in an edition of the magazine focusing on the indigenous writers of Canada, wrote an editorial in which he encouraged white writers to include characters who weren’t like them, saying “I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”
This outraged a bunch of folks, and Niedviecki ended up apologizing and resigning, which in turn outraged a bunch of other (mostly white) literary and journalistic folks, some of whom briefly started going about on social media about actually trying to fund an “Appropriation Prize” before at least a few of them realized that maybe they shouldn’t be doing that and started backtracking as fast as they could.
As I’ve been reading this, I think I have a reasonably good idea of what was going on in the mind of Niedzviecki. I suspect it was something along the line of, “Hey, in this special edition of this magazine featuring voices my magazine’s reading audience of mostly white writers doesn’t see enough of, I want to encourage the writing of a diversity of characters even among my readership of mostly white writers, and I want to say it in a clever, punchy way that will really drive the message home.”
Which seems laudable enough! And indeed, in and of itself, encouraging white, middle-class writers out of their comfort zones in terms of writing characters different from them and their lived experience is a perfectly fine goal. I encourage it. Other people I know encourage it. There’s more to life than middle-class white people, and writing can and should reflect that.
But it wasn’t “in and of itself,” and here’s where Niedviecki screwed up, as far as I can see:
1. In an edition of his magazine about indigenous writing in Canada, his essay pulled focus away from indigenous writers to focus on white, middle-class writers, (probably unintentionally) signaling who was really more important here.
2. He tried to be clever about it, too, and the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.” Specifically, the crack about the “Appropriation Prize,” which probably sounded great in his head, and by all indications sounded pretty great to a bunch of other mostly white Canadian authors and journalists.
3. Which is a point in itself, i.e., the easy conflation of “diversity of characters” with “appropriation.” Very basically, the former says “I as a writer acknowledge there’s more to the world than me and people like me and I will strive to represent that as best I can,” and the latter says “The imaginary version of people I’m not like, that I have created in my head, is as valid as the lived experience of the actual people I claim to represent in my writing.” And, yeah. Maybe these two should not be conflated, even if it makes for a punchy, memorable line in an essay. Also, if you genuinely can’t tell the difference between these two states, you might have work to do.
(This is why the white Canadian authors/journalists yakking about funding an Appropriation Prize are particularly clueless; they’re essentially saying “Hey! Let’s give money to white writers for the best fake version of people they’re not!” Which is not a good look, folks, really. Words do mean things, and “appropriation” doesn’t mean a good thing in this context.)
This whole event really appears to fall into the category of “Well-meaning person does something they thought would help and instead makes things worse.” Niedzviecki thought he was championing diversity in Canadian writing — because (I have no doubt) he actually does wish to champion diversity in Canadian writing — and instead blundered into controversy because lack of understanding about what he was doing, or at least, lack of understanding of how what he was doing would look outside of his own circle of experience. He meant well! But he showed his ass anyway.
And, well. Join the party, Mr. Niedzviecki! There are many of us here in the “We Showed Our Ass” club. And judging from the response to the piece, and Mr. Niedzviecki’s decision to resign his post, more are joining as we speak. “Cultural Appropriation: Why Can’t We Debate It?” asks one Canadian newspaper column headline, from another white writer who clearly doesn’t understand what “cultural appropriation” actually means and seems confused why other people are upset by it. Niedzviecki, to his credit, seems to have picked up the clue. Some others seem determined not to. And, look. We all show our ass. The question is whether we then try to pull our pants back up, or keep scrunching them down to our ankles, and then poop all over them and ourselves.
Now, related but slightly set apart (which is why I’ve separated this part off with asterisks), let me address this issue of diversity of characters in writing, using myself as an example, and moving on from there.
I’m a white male writer of North American middle-class sensibility, and I try from time to time to write characters that are not like me, because it reflects the reality of the world to do so, and because in science fiction I believe we write the futures we want to see, and I want to see diversity. How do I do, writing these characters who are not like me? Well, that’s for other people to decide. But here is my thought on doing it, which I take from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s essays here on the subject:
a) I should write diverse characters.
b) I’ll screw up sometimes, and when I do people with the lived experience I’m trying to represent will let me know.
c) I’ll learn and when I write diverse characters again, I’ll try to do better. If I make mistakes again, they’ll be new ones, not the same ones over again.
d) Repeat until dead (or I quit writing, which I suspect will happen simultaneously).
With that said, while I think it’s useful for me to have diverse characters in my writing, I also think it’s even more useful for publishing to have diverse writers. This is not just because of some box checking sensibility but because other writers tell stories, create characters and interrogate writing in ways I would never think to. I’m a pretty good storyteller, folks. But my way of storytelling isn’t the only way it gets done. As a reader I like what I like, but I also like finding out about what I didn’t know I’d like, and I even occasionally like reading something and going “wow, that was so not for me but I get that it’s for someone.”
This is relevant because even when I write diverse characters, they get filtered through me, and while that’s fine and I think necessary, in a larger sense it’s not sufficient. I’m not running me down here. I give good character. But as a writer I know where my weaknesses are. Some characters I will likely never explore as deeply as they could be explored by other writers, because I am not able to write those characters as well as others could. I strive for diversity in my writing. But my writing won’t ever reflect the diversity that literature in general should be capable of. You need writers whose lives are not like mine for that.
White writers adding a diversity of characters into their work is one thing. Publishers seeking out and publishing a diversity of writers is another. A fall down happens when people — writers, editors, and publishers — appear to think having the former is somehow equivalent to the latter, or that having the former is sufficient, so that the latter is optional, if the former is present. It’s not. The former can be laudable (if it doesn’t fall over into appropriation, which it can, and when it does is its own bag of issues), but it’s not and never is sufficient. A field of literature that comes only from one direction is bad literature because it’s incomplete literature. There’s more to it and it’s being missed out on. And that’s a much larger issue.
So, yes. Good on me and any white writer for having diverse characters. Go us! But if your argument about diversity in writing and publishing is centered on that, and not on an actual diversity of writers, you’re missing the point in an obvious way. Everyone who isn’t a white writer is going to notice.
I tried writing about the James Comey firing earlier in the week and got mostly a lot of GRWARRRRGHNNNNGHFFFFFK out of it, so I decided to let it be, and anyway, at this point there’s very little to add to it that hasn’t already been said elsewhere, mostly relating to Trump being incompetent, possibly criminal, and in all cases a schmuck.
That said, I think it’s reasonable to address a point that both Trump and his various apparatchiks have been petulant about, namely that no one on the left liked James Comey and many people thought he should have been booted from the job, and yet when Trump booted him, they freaked out. Isn’t this what they wanted? I mean, hell, just before he got punted, I wrote this tweet about him:
So you would think I would be among the ones cheering the punting. As much as I roll my eyes at the Trumpkins, I think it’s reasonably fair for them to be confused about this.
Well, here’s an answer:
Let’s say there’s this guy who is an enormous asshole and everybody hates him and wishes that he’d get, like, hit by a bus or something. Then one day, a bus indeed comes up on the curb, smacks into him and basically turns him into paste. Does everyone then pin a medal on the bus driver? Well, no, the bus driver just killed someone. Now we look into why the bus went up on the curb. And if in this particular case the bus driver just happened to be someone the enormous asshole was investigating for possible criminal activity (because the enormous asshole was maybe a cop or a private investigator), well. There might be cause for concern. Especially if the bus driver then says “I was driving around looking for him in order to hit him with a bus!” to Lester Holt in a televised interview.
An even shorter, analogy-free version is: It’s allowed to both believe Comey wasn’t very good at his job and that Trump fired him in order to impede the FBI’s investigation into his, his campaign’s and now his administration’s ties to Russia. And while the first is a problem, the second is stuff impeachments are made of.
That Trump appeared to think that the annoyance of the first would make people brush aside the potential criminality of the second is yet another reason why he’s not actually very good at his job. So there’s irony there, at least.
Hey, look! More books and ARCs! Who’d’ve thought? If you see something here you have an interest in, tell us all in the comments. We want to know.