The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

A World War II bomber gets sucked through time and space — and that’s the easy part of Fata Morgana. What was the harder part? As Steven R. Boyett explains, it’s everything else that he and co-writer Ken Mitchroney had to build up around that initial big idea.

(Disclosure: As you can see from the image, I blurbed this book.)

STEVEN R. BOYETT:

When one creative person and another creative person love each other very very much, sometimes they get together and make a Special Thing that’s a combination of both of them, but that’s also its own unique thing.

It’s an educational and wonderful thing to write a novel with someone you’ve been friends with for a very long time, especially when you are two very different people, with very different sensibilities, collaborating on a book whose core idea is essentially a fusion of those two sensibilities.

Our novel Fata Morgana is basically a mashup. It’s an intensively researched WWII historical novel about a B-17 Flying Fortress crew on a harrowing mission over Germany in 1943. It’s also a post-apocalyptic fish-out-of-water story, in the tradition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Time Machine. That fusion of sensibilities caused our agent to market it as “Band of Brothers meets Lost Horizon” — a bit marketspeak, but totally fair.

Ken is primarily a movie guy. He’s been a storyboarder, head of story departments, and director for Hollywood studios for decades. He’s a cartoonist and animator, published & illustrated comic books (Space Ark, Myth Conceptions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ren & Stimpy), raced NASCAR modified sportsman cars, and rebuilt and run locomotives. He pinstripes cars and did artwork with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of Rat Fink fame. The Baltimore Orioles wore his artwork. He’s the voice of Zurg on the Toy Story ride.

He’s also weirdly steeped in Forties American culture: swing music, movies, slang, fashion, cars – and B-17 bombers. Ken is an Old Soul. You talk to him and you realize he’s been around before. He’s the single funniest guy I’ve ever met.

I write fiction. I’ve published books almost literally since I was a kid. I’m a lifelong martial artist. I once made a living as a paper marbler. Through a fairly strange series of events, learning overtone singing led me to playing the didgeridoo, to recording electronic music, to being a club DJ with two very popular music podcasts (Podrunner and Groovelectric). As a DJ I’m enamored of the mashup, and as a writer I’m enamored of the idea of putting music into words. Music has had a huge influence on my writing – the rhythm of the prose, the symphonic structure of a larger work, sometimes the subject matter itself. My fiction is often steeped in postapocalyptic imagery, what Salvador Dalí and Tears for Fears called “the beauty of decay.” Road trips are a big theme with me. Imagine Jack Kerouac writing The Lord of the Rings.

(Oh, God. Now I really want to write that. So in the Shire when the sun goes down and I sit by the Water watching the long skies over Middle Earth, and that road going ever on and on, and in Gondor I know by now the children must be crying just before the night that blesses Mirkwood cups the Misty Mountains and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen besides the forlorn rags of Gandalf growing old, I think of Frodo Baggins, I even think of old Bilbo who in some way was the father of us all, but I think of Frodo Baggins.)

Unlike Ken, I am not an Old Soul. I’m a new soul. This is clearly my first time around; I’m still in my shrinkwrap. I have a naive idealist’s outrage at the ways that people and societies can behave toward one another, as if it’s a surprise every time.

So: Old friends. A witch’s caldron of sensibilities, talents, interests. Apply heat and stir. Does it blend, gel, combust? (The truth is, if you saw Toy Story 2, you probably already know what we’re like when we work together. Ken was Senior Story Artist on that movie, and I wrote the second draft of the screenplay. And at this point I won’t exactly be burning any bridges when I opine that most of what’s good about that movie is me and Ken.)

Ken had this mental image of two warring, Braveheart-ish factions about to collide when something stops them. A roaring from the sky. A B-17 bomber smoking in on failing Wright Cyclone engines, crashlanding out of frame. He’d encapsulated our different sensibilities in one image — I was so in.

The next four years came from that single image.

I’m a firm believer in a fantasy or SF novel’s feet being planted on real ground, and I did a ton of research on bombers (including buzzing my neighborhood in one, woo hoo!), the US wartime economy, the European theater, the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and self-sustaining ecologies in general). Ken loves ensemble movies & shows, from Jack Benny to Frazier, and put our bomber crew together. We logicked the living crap out of the storyline. It has a ton of twists and surprises, and judging from the responses so far, they seem to have worked. It has sections written in bullet time and dialogue you’d expect to hear on a Philco Cathedral radio.

The surprising thing was how seriously we began to take the whole endeavor. We’d started out wanting a rollercoaster ride, a summer tentpole movie. But in the wake of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan it seems a disservice now to look back on that war as an excuse to tell a Ripping Adventure Story. What those frighteningly young men went through was simply unbelievable, and the more we learned and the more the book took shape, the more we felt the awful weight of duty thrust upon an entire generation. Such that the book became about the price of duty over desire.

I think no matter what you write about it’s good to take your subject matter seriously. I think it makes you go the extra mile, do your due diligence to your characters and your world. It was just as true for the post-apocalyptic aspects of the novel: They went from plot device to holy crap, this is what it’d be like to live like this.

I jokingly describe Fata Morgana as a novel about a WWII bomber crew who fly into another novel. But we didn’t treat it as a joke at all.

And when all is said and done we have before this creature that combines our creative DNA to become its own unique self. Ken and I have done our best to comb its hair and make it overall presentable, and now we’ve sent it out into the world all on its own. We hope you’ll find it a valuable member of the good society it has entered, and that it does us proud. They grow so quickly, you know.

—-

Fata Morgana: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit Boyett’s site. Visit Mitchroney’s site.

New Books and ARCs, 6/12/17

Hey, do you like books? 

(This is a rhetorical question. If you are at this particular site and don’t like books, I really don’t know what to say to you.)

Here are some new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the very recent past. See anything you’d want to add to your TBR pile? Tell us in the comments!

Comey at the Senate

Hey, Scalzi! It’s me, your fictional interlocutor!

Oh, God, you again.

You know why I’m here!

This is about the James Comey testimony yesterday, isn’t it?

Correct! 

*sighs*

Fine, let’s do this.

James Comey testimony! Your thoughts!

Well, assuming Comey was truthful and reasonably accurate in his testimony, and to be clear I suspect he was, then it basically tells us what we already knew, which is that Donald Trump is a lying liar who lies, and that he rather stupidly tried to intervene in the Michael Flynn/Russia investigation, and in a way that’s very probably actual obstruction of justice. And he implied another thing I suspect most of us already knew, which is that the Russians have their hands up the asses of a whole lot of people in the Trump administration, including very likely Jeff Sessions. So, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised by anything Comey said, but it’s gratifying to have it in the congressional record.

Do you still think James Comey wasn’t very good at his job?

Kind of? I think what his testimony solidified for me is that James Comey was probably pretty good at the day to day minutiae of his former gig, and also that within the context of that gig he was pretty ethical. But I also think he made some high-profile bad calls, and that very same desire for ethical action caused him to exacerbate rather than mitigate some of those bad calls.

At this point I’ve gotten used to thinking of Comey as something of a tragic figure, whose greatest virtue — a desire to act ethically and above the usual boundaries of politics in the execution of his duties — ended up precipitating a national and global crisis. Because make no mistake that we have a President Trump in large part because of him. I suspect that eats at him even if he believes all his actions during 2016 were ultimately correct and appropriate, as the head of the FBI.

(This is not to say a President Hillary Clinton would not have had her challenges. But only a fool or a committed partisan (and there’s some considerable overlap there) at this point believes a Clinton administration would have been the gross and obvious ethical Superfund site the Trump administration has been from day one.)

Let me put it this way: I think Comey could have made better decisions in his role as FBI director. I also think his testimony was probably, pun intended, unimpeachable.

But Trump says Comey’s testimony vindicated him!

Sure, but Trump says a lot of stupid things, doesn’t he? If by “vindicated” he means “established him as a liar and obstructor of justice,” then yes, he’s entirely vindicated. Otherwise it’s just Trump lying as fast as he can, which pretty much goes to Comey’s point directly, doesn’t it.

Trump’s lawyer says he going to file a complaint against Comey for leaking. Thoughts?

I mean, okay, but so what? First: Comey, then a private citizen, giving a friend a non-classified memo recounting a conversation he had with the president, and encouraging the friend to share it? That’s not actually a leak, now, is it? Comey was already out of a job. Also, filing a complaint will do what, precisely? Is the Department of Justice going to fire him again? A double-secret firing? It doesn’t appear that Comey did anything illegal, and complaining to the Department of Justice about it seems likely to result in exactly one thing: The lawyer complaining to the Department of Justice about it. Like many things Trump does, this is a lot of noise and movement but no actual result.

And I suspect the Trump people know that’s all that’s going to come out of it, which is why Trump and his party pals, like Corey Lewandowski, are mostly resorting to asserting that if Comey were a real man, he would have talked to the press himself rather than having a pal do it, harumph, harumph. Which leads me to two thoughts. One, I’m sure James Comey is gonna stay up nights worrying what an asshole like Corey Lewandowski thinks about him, vis a vis manhood or anything else. Two, this is (one reason) why the Trump people are stupid: They’ve confused successfully executing on a strategy with weakness. It doesn’t matter whether Lewandowski thinks Comey is “man enough,” because no matter what he or Trump think about Comey’s manhood, Comey’s actions resulted in Robert Mueller appointed as a special investigator. Which is to say Comey was man enough to dunk on Trump.

Thoughts on the senators who questioned Comey?

I felt sad about John McCain, who was clearly not all there. Otherwise I think the GOP senators spent a lot of time trying to convince themselves and others that Trump saying “I hope” didn’t mean he was really trying to obstruct the investigation, and to blame Comey for not forcefully telling Trump “No, what you’re asking for is totally illegal” in the moment. On the former, Comey pretty much demolished the “I hope” argument by quoting Henry II with regard to Thomas a Becket, thus sending a thrill through the hearts of history nerds everywhere, and on the latter, here, read this by Ana Marie Cox, which is entirely on point. The Democratic senators were more on message, as is to be expected.

What about Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton? The GOP senators seemed very interested in that.

Sure, anything to take the conversation away from Trump and obstruction of justice. I get why the GOP senators wanted to talk about that, even aside using it as a way to run down the clock on Comey’s testimony. But here’s a thing, which is that Hillary Clinton’s not the president, whereas Trump is. So I think most people are a smidgen more interested in what he’s up to, than a woman who is no longer Attorney General talking to the husband of a woman who is not sitting behind the Resolute desk in the White House. Maybe that’s just me.

So do you think this is finally it? The thing that gets Trump impeached?

Trump’s not getting impeached.

But… obstruction of justice! 

The House is as likely to vote to impeach Trump on this or indeed any other illegal/unethical thing he’s actually currently doing as I am to sprout a peach tree out of my tailbone. This is your occasional reminder that today’s GOP has no moral or ethical center, and apparently works under the belief that the entire point to the life of the average American citizen is to fork over their progressively declining wages to large companies to make the very rich that much richer. Trump’s helping with that goal, so why would they get in the way with that? Trump could tromp into the White House rose garden, club Sean Spicer to death live on Fox and Friends, and then skull-fuck the bloody corpse, chortling about his electoral college victory all the while, and all you would get out of the GOP is Paul Ryan’s patented little grimace, and the general argument that it’s the president’s prerogative to skull-fuck the corpse of any of his staff, so why is the mainstream media making such a big deal about it.

So, yeah. Don’t pick out your glittery impeachment pants just yet. You’re gonna have to wait for 2019 at the earliest for that.

Also, for the record: I do not endorse anyone, including but not limited to the President of the United States, doing anything to Sean Spicer to bring about his death or even his mild physical discomfort, in the White House rose garden or indeed anywhere else, much less then skull-fucking his corpse, bloody or otherwise, on live or recorded television, streaming on the internet or even in private. Please do not kill Sean Spicer, ever. He’s already dead inside. That should be enough for anybody.

So what do we get out of the Comey hearing?

You get the satisfaction out of confirming that Donald Trump is a real piece of shit both as a human being and as a president. Congratulations!

Late breaking news! Trump calls Comey a liar!

This is a surprise?

He says he’ll testify under oath about what Comey said!

Who said that?

Someone on Twitter!

Oh, okay, then.

You seem skeptical.

Even if Trump did promise testify under oath (which, if his personal lawyers are competent — big if — they would never in a second advise he ever do ever in the history of ever, ps: never ever ever), and he somehow didn’t back out of it (which if his lawyers are competent they would try to get him to do), the chances he wouldn’t lie his ass off even under oath is pretty slim, because he’s Donald Trump, and what he does is lie his ass right off. Because he’s always done it and it’s worked so far, up to and including getting him into the White House, so why change strategies?

Look: No one — no one — believes Trump more than they believe Comey. The best you can say is his partisans either don’t think it’s important that Trump lies out of his ass all the time, or they’re confident he’ll just keep getting away with it. So, sure: Get Trump under oath. He’ll lie. And when he lies, because why shouldn’t he, it’s always worked before, let’s see what happens then. Let’s see what the GOP says about it then.

Uh… that seems to be ending on a down note, there.

You’re the one asking questions, man.

But, fine. Look: Scamperbeasts!

Thank you. I needed that.

I know. We all did.

Is This the End of Our Hero, Coke Zero?!??!!??!?

Someone just tweeted me, “What do you think of them axing Coke Zero?”, which was not the first thing I wanted to read when I woke up this morning. But rather than panic and set fire to everything in my house at the thought of only having vile Diet Coke to drink when I crave brown, flavored carbonic acid, I went looking for reputable news sources for information. And indeed, it looks like plans are under foot Down Under:

Coca-Cola is getting rid of Coke Zero, starting in Australia.

The U.S.-based soft drink giant is retiring its zero calorie drink and launched a new “no-sugar” variant down under called Coca-Cola No Sugar. AdNews reports the soda will replace Coke Zero and the company claims it tastes even more like original Coke.

The “best tasting no sugar Coca-Cola we’ve ever made” will officially launch in Australia next week with a black color design similar to Coke Zero, which will be gradually phased out. A website already features the new tagline “Say Yes to No Sugar.”

I read several other news reports on this as well, and the upshot of this is, a) they’re road-testing a new version of no-calorie Coke in Australia and New Zealand, b) it’s supposed to taste more like original Coke than even Coke Zero, which is made using the original Coke formula (Diet Coke is the New Coke formula), c) it will co-exist with Coke Zero and Diet Coke for a while in the market, d) and if successful will replace Coke Zero, because apparently half of consumers had no idea Coke Zero had no sugar.

It’s that “no sugar” part that’s apparently important, because these days, or so the news reports suggest to me, sugar is in bad odor as being the worst possible thing you can put in your body short of heroin, a proposition I’m not convinced of, but then I’m kind of a sugar fiend, so I may be biased. By calling the new product Coke No Sugar, Coke is making it clear there’s, uh, no sugar in it. So, good for hyper-literal branding, I guess. I think “Coke No Sugar” is kind of terrible as a brand name, and suspect that if consumers didn’t know Coke Zero had, you know, zero sugar in it, the problem was marketing, and not the branding per se. Mind you, if memory serves, the whole point of Coke Zero marketing in the early days was to hide from dudes with fragile masculinity the fact that they were drinking a diet beverage, which is why the word “diet” was never put anywhere near the product dress. So again, I’m not sure consumers are 100% to blame here if they didn’t catch on about the zero sugar thing.

Be that as it may, as a devoted fan of Coke Zero, how do I feel about the possible rise of Coke No Sugar and the commensurate possible fall of Coke Zero? Bluntly, as long as my no-calorie Coke options are not limited to Diet Coke, which tastes like scorched battery acid and regret, I think I’ll be fine. I didn’t become a fan of Coke Zero because I was beguiled by its manly, diet-obfuscating branding; I became a fan of it because it’s derived from the taste profile of original Coca-Cola, which is what I wanted and wasn’t getting with New Coke-derived Diet Coke. So: Coke No Sugar apparently tastes closer to the original formula than Coke Zero? Groovy, I’ll give it a shot.

However, I’m not going to worry about Coke Zero vaporizing just yet. Coca-Cola does a whole lot of brand tweaking around the world to figure out what it wants to do; see this from last year in the UK, in which Coke Zero became Coke Zero Sugar, again, one assumes, to accentuate the “no sugar” association, a branding initiative which never made over to this aide of the Atlantic. Australia and New Zealand are the test markets for Coke No Sugar, in other words; if it’s wildly successful then they might transplant it to the US as well. If it’s not, well, then it’ll join Raspberry Coke and C2 in the sloshy Coke trashbin of failed Coke products (note, however, you can get raspberry-flavored Coke from the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, i.e., the most miraculous machines that humanity has yet invented and which verily I want in my own home. Also, I guess you could replicate C2 if you wanted by mixing one half original Coke and one half Coke Zero, but why would you).

In short, it doesn’t look like Coke Zero is dead quite yet. And if it eventually dies because its replacement tastes more like original formula Coke than it does, then I feel it will have completed its mission with honor and can rest well. Until that nebulous, unspecified future, however, I’ll keep sucking it down.

New Books and ARCs, 6/8/17

You look like you might be interested in a big stack of books and ARCs, so, hey, here’s a stack matching that very description. What moves you in this stack? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente is one of the most interesting writers in speculative fiction today, not in the least because when she gets worked up about something, she doesn’t just yell about it — she creates art about it. This explains her latest, The Refrigerator Monologues, and now Cat is here to explain it to you.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

Hello, my name is Cat Valente. You may remember me from such things as: fairy tales, girl stuff, books with too many fancy words in them, books with too many fancy feelings in them, and titles that are way too long and/or unpronounceable.

Well…I’ll be honest, I’m still doing several of those things. But now with LOTS more punching and swearing and yelling!

My latest book is called The Refrigerator Monologues and you can see its big red and blue mug right up there. It’s more or less The Vagina Monologues for superheroes’ girlfriends. If you’re familiar with the phrase “girls in refrigerators,”coined by the amazing Gail Simone in the mid 90s, that elevator pitch/title will make instant sense. If not, come with me on a journey through time, space, and feminist theory: named for the fate of one of Green Lantern’s poor girlfriends who ended her run dismembered and stuffed into an actual refrigerator, it refers to a long-term trend in superhero comics in which women (not just girlfriends and wives, female heroes, too) are variously murdered, raped, mutilated, driven crazy, had their powers, both super and otherwise, taken away, and other sundry completely horrific ways to spend a Saturday night, not because those things featured heavily in their own stories, but simply to further the male hero’s narrative, give him something to shake his fist at the villain about, eventually avenge, or grit his teeth over.

I wanted to write about these women, give them the microphone, re-center the superhero tale on the characters that are so often used up and tossed aside by it, and give them a chance to get in some primal scream therapy. It all takes place in Deadtown, an underworld where it’s always autumn, always dusk, you can only eat extinct plants and animals and read remaindered books and listen to the house band of late, great rockers and hope someone up in the world of the living decides to bring you back with a revivification ray so you can see the end of your own story. And in Deadtown, the refrigerated girls get together every night to get mad, get drunk, and get their own back.

SOUNDS LIKE A ROLLICKING ROMP THROUGH UPLIFTING AND HILARIOUS ADVENTURES, RIGHT?

Except it kind of is. The Refrigerator Monologues is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve written, and it’s not even all gallows humor! It’s a very new voice for me—a lot less of that elegant stuff I’m known for, and a lot more raw, stripped-down, punch-to-the-gut, straight-forward truth-bombs. And f-bombs. And actual bombs. This is a story with a lot of heroes and villains and battles and blown-up cities and blown-up people, after all.

Which leads to the catch. Because of course, I don’t have, and will never be given, the rights to Gwen Stacy and Karen Page and Alexandra DeWitt and all the others, all those refrigerated girls of the long four-color history of the world. When I first had the idea for this book, borne of white-hot blinding rage at Gwen Stacy’s final words in the last Amazing Spiderman movie having “Nobody makes my decisions for me, nobody! This is my choice!” before flouncing off to get her neck promptly snapped by the entire concept of having an ounce of agency, this presented a problem. For about five minutes.

Because the truth is, I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years. I just usually do it with Snow White and Gretel and Rapunzel and Marya Morevna and Red Riding Hood. I know how to dance this dance. I know how to strip an archetype down for parts and build up something strange and new. And I am also a glutton for punishment who has put off buying a lawnmower for literally a decade because it’s too much effort but thinks nothing of uttering the phrase “Oh, I’ll just create a complete, analogous, Marvel/DC crossover-style, cohesive, referential yet original superhero universe. For a novella. It’s fine. By the way, these mai tais are amazing where is the waiter?”

Which is what I did. I’m not being coy about anything—if you know your superhero comics, you’ll be able to name my tune in six notes. If you don’t, it might just seem like a familiar little earworm you can groove to on its own merits. It’s not even about avoiding copyright. I wanted to do it this way. I wanted to fashion this universe out of the starstuff our culture has become so obsessed with over the last 15 or 20 years. These women aren’t meant to be X-Men with the VIN numbers filed off. They’re meant to be their own complicated, gnarly, beautiful, angry people with the kind of familiarity and resonance all archetypes have. I wanted to do what I’ve done with folklore and fairy tales my whole career, only this time, I never reached for Grimm. I examined each of the stories that pissed me off the most, drew out what I felt were the core, defining, archetypical elements of each character, threw the rest away, and banged up a brand new cast of thousands, with new adventures, new twists on the old tales, new costumes, new powers, new obsessions, new endings. Think of it as a chop shop for mythology—hot new body, same classic engine.

Because superhero stories have become for us what fairy tales were for the pre-industrial world. They’re morality plays we encourage children to devour by the fistful—but they’re not really for children. They’re so much darker and stranger and sexier and more political than almost anything else we’d give to a child. Comics and fairy tales are short, but put together create a long tradition with some continuity issues. They light up the brain with epic battles and romances and bright costumes and magic while communicating the truth about the universe as told by the dominant culture. They’re focused on heroes going out into the wild and struggling against the unknown for the sake of the village. It’s just that now the unknown is the fringes of science, while then it was what to do if you meet someone in the forest who doesn’t live like you do. Though maybe it’s still that too, a little. There’s not so much difference, in the end, between “happily ever after” and “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” There’s not so much difference between writing Snow White set in the old west and writing that awful refrigerator waiting at the end of too many stories like a spindle in a tower.

I’m terribly proud of The Refrigerator Monologues in an entirely uncool way—you’re not supposed to like your own books this much, I know. But I spent a long time living with my girls, and I love them all so much. I hope you love them a little, too. In some ways, I suppose you could think of this as my Pulp Fiction—violent, funny, weird, loud stories that seem unconnected at first but are totally entangled, jam packed with pop culture references, homages, pastiches, and mysterious unexplained lights. Only mine come from doomsday devices and mutant powers.

And old refrigerators left open just a little too wide in a big, dark room.

—-

The Refrigerator Monologues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

This is a Terrible Pun and I’m Ashamed of Myself for Thinking of It

But not so ashamed that I won’t share it. And so timely:

You’re welcome.

The Big Idea: A. J. Hartley

In today’s Big Idea for Firebrand, author A. J. Hartley explains that when it comes to worldbuilding, like Ringo in the Beatles, he gets by with a little help from his friends.

A. J. HARTLEY:

The core of the Steeplejack series, the idea at its heart, came out of the collision of two smaller ideas that I had assumed would be separate books. One was a fantasy adventure set in a world which looked like Africa. The other was a Victorian steam punk mystery centering on a character who worked on the city’s tall factory chimneys. When I realized that the two stories might be combined, creating a unique, 19th-century metropolis within an African context, the series came together. The result was not just a world that had all the smoggy trappings of a Sherlock Holmes mystery surrounded by a wilderness full of strange and potentially dangerous creatures, the story was also necessarily defined by the racial dynamics of the population.

Bar-Selehm, the city which is the home for the books, is based very loosely on Durban in South Africa, a city with a substantial Indian population in addition to the minority white and indigenous blacks. Since I imagined a conquest of the region which took place several centuries earlier than did the British subjugation of South Africa, however, the imaginary city is a steam-driven industrial power house living according to a political system resembling apartheid.

The protagonist of the series is Anglet Sutonga, a brown skinned Lani steeplejack who, in book one was recruited by a powerful local politician to investigate the events surrounding the murder of her apprentice. In book 2, Firebrand, she has acquired greater autonomy and agency, and is now attempting to unravel the theft of some secret government plans against a backdrop of rising political tension. This latter is driven by the rise of a right wing populist politician who is seeking to return the city to older ideas of racial segregation in response to the recent immigration of foreign refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.

I should say here that I’m a white guy, and that with the best will in the world, there are certain things I’m never going to be able to evoke as well as a someone who has actually lived the experience. That’s worrying for a writer. We’re told to write what we know, and limited though that injunction might be, it’s solid advice if only because when readers can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re screwed. At best they are momentarily knocked out of the story. At worst you lose them completely and you look like an imposter.

That said, the world is full of books about white people and I didn’t want to merely add to the pile. I’ll go further and say that I think I have a moral obligation to at least try to write stories which reflect the diversity I see around me.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s not enough to mean well. Now, I’m on safer ground with fantasy. The world of the Steeplejack books is made up. It’s a place and time that has never existed, so I’m as well qualified to write it as anyone else, but to do it well requires me to draw on other people’s experience. I’ve been to places, for instance, where I knew I could not trust the police, that if anything happened to me—or even if it didn’t—they would be as likely to treat me criminally as they were to help. But I haven’t lived the bulk of my life in such a condition, so to imagine it I needed to listen to those who had. I shared my work as it developed with friends of color and asked them to flag any moment, any idea, any assumption which felt wrong, off, or stereotypical.

Because one of the hardest things about writing people who aren’t you is the tendency—usually one you can’t see—to rely on what you think you know but which is actually coming from impressions shaped by your own difference. This is especially true when you are representing minorities who, perhaps, you don’t have much close personal contact with, so that your impressions of them are absorbed largely through, say, TV and film.

Writers live by their voice; the sound they make in a reader’s head through the arrangement of words. I like words and I like to use them to build stories. What I learned from this series, however, was that I was likely to be most successful if I shut up and listened. I’m not talking about writing dialect (a nightmarish trap for white people trying to write people of color), I’m talking about story. I’m talking about events and situations and how characters other than me might perceive them. And it’s hard, because you really do have to pay attention when people call you out for an assumption or something that looks prejudicial. You can’t say ‘But that’s not what I meant!’ Intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. So for all my writerly scribbling there comes a point (or points, plural) where I have to share my stuff and ask other people how it reads to them.

Does it work? I’m not certain. The result is better than me working alone, that’s for sure, and I think there’s value in any good faith attempt to talk across racial lines because we, as a culture, seem to be so bad at it. I know I can’t please everyone—from either end of the political spectrum—but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do everything in my power to get it as close to right as I can.

It’s probably self-evident that I wanted to use the fantasy frame to explore current social and political issues, mixing adventure, mystery and wonder with some fairly hard truths from our own world, but I don’t think I had realized just how topical it would feel. The novel was completed long before the last presidential election, and though there are flashes of campaign rhetoric in the mouth of Anglet’s principal political antagonist, Nathan Richter, the extent to which the book now seems to reflect our own country is a little unnerving.

In fact, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the world and its occasional deviations from conventional reality, it barely feels to me like fantasy at all. All of which makes me wonder if the real ‘big idea’ has to do with the book’s generic hybridity; it’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a kind of alternate history with an edge of social commentary. I like to think that it’s both fun and serious, both a diversion from reality, and a story about political resistance in a world which seems rather more familiar than I would like.

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Firebrand: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Dispatcher Wins the Audie Award for Best Original Work

Breaking my week-long hiatus here, but I think this is a pretty good reason: The Dispatcher won an Audie Award! It won in the category of Best Original Work, one of the three categories it was nominated in (the other two categories were Science Fiction and Excellence in Marketing). The “Original Work” category is for works that were created as “audio first,” as The Dispatcher was, so I’m especially delighted that The Dispatcher won in this category; it means it worked in its intended medium.

I’m thrilled that it nabbed the Audie and and to say thank you to people who helped get this story to where it is today. First off, to Steve Feldberg and his entire crew at Audible Studios; Steve asked for an audio original from me just as I was thinking of writing up this particular story, so well-timed on his part, and otherwise the folks at Audible simply knocked it out of the park in terms of production and marketing. Thanks also to Ethan Ellenberg, my agent, for guiding the deal to its fruition. And of course, thanks to Zachary Quinto for his profoundly good narration, which I am very sure was the element here that clinched this Audie win.

Here’s a link to the now award-winning audio version; there’s also a print/ebook version if you prefer.

Also, if you’re curious, here’s the complete list of 2017 Audie Award winners, which includes my friends Kameron Hurley (winning for Excellence in Design) and Tavia Gilbert (Best Female Narration). Congratulations to everyone who won!

Okay, resuming the hiatus. See you all again on Tuesday.

One Week Break

Hey there, folks — I’m going to take off until next Tuesday on account of work and travel. Yes, travel, again, to BookCon in New York, and also to the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley. I’ll be on one coast one day and the other the next. And they say the age of the jet setter is behind us. It’s not! It’s just the jet setter will be smooshed into an economy seat. Ah, the romance of air travel.

In any event, see you next Tuesday. Be decent with each other until then, okay? Thanks.

Sugar and Daisy Pause and Contemplate the True Meaning of Memorial Day

And hope you will too, between the relaxing and grilling and enjoying the of the traditional start of the American summer.

Athena’s Graduation, in Pictures

Yup, she did it, and here is the photographic proofa photo set with her (and Hunter, her boyfriend) before, during and after the graduation ceremony. Enjoy it as if you were there your very own self!

(And for those wondering, it was a fine ceremony, and very quick, since Athena had a graduating class of 32. Small rural schools, man. But it was enough time to get all misty-eyed.)

We’re the Ones Who Wrote the End

Athena’s high school graduation ceremony is today and this is the song running around in my head about it.

Big day, folks. Pictures later, perhaps.

New Books and ARCs, 5/26/17

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!

The Poverty “State of Mind”

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 the 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 under 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.

New Books and ARCs, 5/24/17

Suddenly, books! What in this particular stack is catching your interest? Let everyone know in the comments.

And Now, a Trenchant Glimpse Into My Dream Life

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.

The Big Idea: Dan Moren

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.

DAN MOREN:

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.

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The Caledonian Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBooks

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