What is the Great American Novel?

As part of my Los Angeles Times critic-at-large gig, I was asked — and answered — the perennial question: What is the Great American Novel? And not only did I answer this question, but so did eight other of the critics-at-large, in the process suggesting a number of books that make for an excellent reading list. You can check out all the books — and the reasons they were suggested — from here, or if you’re just interested in my piece, it’s here.

If you have a recommendation for the Great American Novel not suggested by us, feel free to put it into the comments.

Let’s Talk About July For Just a Second

And what I want to say about July is:

Hey, I’m still not done with the books, so I’m probably going to stick to the semi-hiatus schedule a little bit longer. It seems to be working reasonably well for me, and in particular trimming comment threads back to two days has made things substantially more manageable (it seems to keep in check the folks who like to draw out threads purely for argument’s sake). And the schedule hasn’t kept me from popping in and saying pointed things when I think they need to be said (see: political discussions over the last few weeks). So, in all, it’s been pretty congenial to my working life.

So: Let’s just assume that until further notice I’m going to keep this schedule. When will that further notice be? Well, the books have to be in by the end of August, so: Probably then. If they get done earlier, then earlier.

Thanks.

New Books and ARCs, 6/29/16

Hey, you like books? I like books. Here are some books and ARCs that recently came to the Scalzi Compound. Which of these is calling your name? Tell me in the comments!

The Big Idea: Bob Proehl

In today’s Big Idea, for the novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds, author Bob Proehl ponders not only the stories that we have to tell, but the stories we choose to tell — and why the difference between those two matters.

BOB PROEHL:

My book, A Hundred Thousand Worlds is about comic book conventions. It’s about a mother and son. It’s also about how stories work. The stories we tell about ourselves, and the stories we consume. What they reveal and what they hide.

For me, it was about explaining myself to my kids, and all the contradictions that implies. I was a fairly new step-dad when I started the book. My kid was eight, a smidge younger than Alex in the book. From the outset, there were things I couldn’t wait to share with him. It was as if I’d been building a library for a kid my whole life. All my comics, my sci fi novels, my records, had new reasons for being. It was only a matter of picking and choosing which ones and when.

Along with this, and less exciting, were decisions about what personal stories I’d share with him, and how, and when. Would I tell him about being an awkward kid who spent more time with books than with people? The bout of depression that stretched through pretty much all of grad school? Dear god, would I tell him how his mom and I actually met?

The stories I chose to tell him, and how I told them, would shape how he saw me, and inform how he saw himself. I could pick a list of my greatest hits, make myself out to be the conquering hero, or the cool step-dad. I could select moments where I struggled, so that when he struggled he’d know I’d been there too, and that it would pass. Ultimately, this is the meta-story we’re telling our kids when we talk about ourselves: this will pass. In telling him who I was and who I’d been, I’d be telling him something about who he was, and who he could be. This is where sharing difficult stories becomes important, if not imperative. Stories are armor, and armor has to be made of stern stuff.

In the book, these two ideas, sharing stories about ourselves and sharing made-up stories, fused together in the narratives Valerie, our other central character, tells her son, Alex. Valerie used to co-star on an X-Files-esque television show opposite Alex’s dad, and each night to help Alex gets to sleep, she recounts the plot of an episode for him. As the book moves forward, we begin to see what’s really going on. Valerie is carefully choosing the plots, tweaking and adapting them so they carry her own story as well, all of it building toward the reveal of the story she’s been holding back, handed over the moment she knows he needs it. The moment she has to send him out into the world armored in it.

Sharing the stories that were important to us as kids with our kids has that kind of intense biographical component, too. These stories become essential parts of ourselves, reverse-transcripted into our mental and emotional DNA. They’re also a direct line back to who we were then, when we needed these stories to get through being a kid. We can see the weird but familiar reflections of ourselves as kids still shimmering in them, and can show that reflection to our own kids.

When I read aloud to my kid (or try to) from young Wart’s learning troubles in The Once and Future King, or give him a stack of Superman comics, I’m telling him something important about myself. There was a time when I needed these, and I found them. Here they are, in case you need them.

—-

A Hundred Thousand Worlds: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Rob Boffard

In today’s Big Idea, author Rob Boffard explains how a quartet of animated Testudines inspired him for his novel Tracer. And what, pray tell, is a Testudinata? Just you wait.

ROB BOFFARD:

It all started with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

I’m thirty-one now, and for the past twenty-five years or so, the Turtles have been my heroes. Why wouldn’t they be? The world as I know it is confusing, exasperating and frequently ridiculous, but the Turtles are as straightforward as they come. Even now, when they’ve become an object of nostalgia under the withering gaze of Michael Bay, I still love them. Raphael, since you ask.

I love them because of what they represent. No matter how chaotic things are, no matter how many interdimensional hazards and weird mutations are thrown at them, they’re still a team. Four dudes, up against the world. They’ve each got their own personalities and quirks, but at the end of every episode, they put aside their differences and run a four-way beatdown on Shredder and whichever cackling co-conspirator he’s cooked up that week.

Of the twenty-five years that I’ve loved them, it took me a good twenty-three to work out why. I dug the turtles because I wanted to be a part of their team. I wanted to have my own weapons, my own catchphrases, my own martial arts style. More than anything, I wanted to fight alongside them at the end of each episode, then go back home to our secret base. Screw the fifth Beatle; I wanted to be the fifth Turtle.

Sadly, nobody has invented a radioactive mutagen to turn me into one, so I’m stuck being a regular, pink, squishy, bipedal hominid. But the more I thought about this, the more I realised that the stories I was drawn to my childhood all involved teams. G.I. Joe, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Runaways, Thundercats… Who wouldn’t want to be a part of all that?

When I started thinking about the world of Tracer, that idea was bubbling to the surface – even if I didn’t know yet. I already had my setting: a grimy, rusted, overcrowded, hundred year old space station holding the last of humanity. It was ripe with stories. I could have told the tale of anybody on board – a cop, a plumber, a ship pilot, a politician, hell, a tattoo artist. Any one of them would have had an interesting story to tell. But subconsciously, I gravitated towards that idea of a close-knit team.

It came about when I realised that public transport on my station would be shot to shit. There’s no way it’d still be working after a hundred years. And on a station that size, you’d need ways to get packages and messages around, right? You’d need couriers. Before I knew it, I was writing the story of one particular courier and her crew. If I couldn’t be part of a superhero team, I was going to write about one that was just as cool.

Riley’s our hero. She’s the fast one, the woman you go to when you need to get a package from A to B in a very short time. She’s tough, loyal and not afraid to get her hands dirty. Amira is the team’s leader: stoic, disciplined, deadly in a fight. There’s Carver, the team’s gadget guy, goggles plastered firmly on his forehead, bent over his workbench. Then there are The Twins: the wisecracking, pint-sized Yao Shen and her oversized, taciturn buddy Kevin O’Connell. If you’ve matched them to their total equivalence, you’re thinking like I was. (The Twins are Michelangelo, obviously, his wit and his strength parcelled out onto two people.) And of course, they’ve got a secret base – although this being a working space station, it’s nothing more than a tiny, cramped space between the levels.

The Turtles were the inspiration, but that’s where the similarities end. The story I wrote turned out to be nothing like the colourful, cartoony escapades of our heroes in a half shell. There was no villain of the week. My tracers didn’t get to go back home and share a pizza when the job was done. My space station, Outer Earth, turned out to be a very dangerous place, filled with very dangerous people and the story I wrote ended up being an insane, blisteringly-fast, cinematic action epic – more Mad Max than TMNT.

Tracer is just the first book. There are two more, coming in the next couple of months, continuing the sprawling story. I can’t promise that all the members of my team are going to be around at the end of it. But even now, I still think of them as my team, and I still imagine what it would be like to be a part of them. To run with them, and to know that they’ve got my back just like I’ve got theirs.

While I was writing the story, I kept a few scrawled notes and diagrams in a battered old notebook. At that time, I was doing some contract work at a recording studio in London. One day, I had my notebook open on my desk for some reason, and a colleague walked by and spotted it. In particular, he spotted the badly-drawn diagram of my space station, sketched out so I’d have an idea of where things happened. He didn’t know about my book. All he saw was a childish drawing.

“Is that your secret base, then?” He said, in that peculiarly dismissive tone that people have when their imagination has atrophied beyond repair.

Of course, I laughed along with him – he was responsible for my paycheque, after all – and quickly closed my notebook. But I couldn’t help myself from thinking: maybe it is.

—-

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

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

Sunset, 6/27/16

It’s a nice one.

In other news, I am back home — for three whole days! And then I’m off to Portland, Oregon, for Westercon 69. I think I’ll spend most of the next couple of days sleeping.

View From a Hotel Window, 6/25/16

I’m in Connecticut at the moment, for a wedding, and the view is leafy, and also, of my feet. Hope your weekend is fabulous, folks.

A Few Thoughts Post-Brexit

In no particular order, as I’m writing them off the top of my head:

1. So, the pound has crashed to a 30 year low, trading was halted on the Japanese stock market, other markets are plunging, David Cameron is resigning, Scotland wants another independence referendum, Sinn Fein is pushing for Irish reunification, Nigel Farage went on TV and said, basically, “Hey, remember when we said we were gonna put that EU money into our health service? We lied,” and the EU is saying to the UK, you want out, fine, but let’s make this quick. Yup, welcome to Brexit!

2. If you want an inside view of this mess, I suggest Charlie Stross’ take on it. His opening line is “Okay, so the idiots did it; they broke the UK,” which as far as I can see is entirely accurate.

3. From the outside, I wish I could say it looks totally unfathomable, but it doesn’t, because, hello, Donald Trump is the GOP nominee for president over here. The same bigoted, emotional, don’t-need-to-know-facts impulses that powered the Brexit vote to 52% put Trump into general presidential race. The irony is that some of these UK voters are apparently surprised that they carried the day. News folk over in the UK are now telling us that a fair number of people who voted “Leave” didn’t really think it was going to happen, so what was the harm in voting for it. Cornwall, which voted to leave, is now saying the UK government must replace its EU subsidies. Good luck with that, Cornwall. Maybe get in line behind the NHS for that money.

It should be noted that all the horrible things that are currently happening because of Brexit were called by the very experts that Michael Gove asserted, correctly, alas, that voters were tired of. This does seem to suggest that perhaps, for future reference, experts might be listened to from time to time. Also that a protest vote is still a vote, and as Nader voters learned (or, sadly, didn’t), you shouldn’t protest vote if you’re not willing to live with the implications of your protest, the implications, having been outlined to you by, you know, experts.

(This is where a few Nader voters spin up and whine that nuh-uh, they totally didn’t throw the election to Bush. Dudes, sit the fuck down, already.)

4. To make this about the US for a moment: Could the same bigoted, emotional, don’t-need-to-know-facts impulses that pulled Brexit over the line actually put Trump into the White House? They could, sure! It’s not likely, because a) the Democratic advantage in the Electoral College, b) Trump to date running the most incompetent general campaign in the modern history of US politics, but there still are relevant lessons to be learned from Brexit. First and foremost, that it won because the people who voted for it the most were exactly Trump’s demographic here in the US: Older white folks from economically shaky areas — and they turned out in force, voting in substantially higher numbers than, say, the younger UK voters, who were overwhelmingly for remaining, but who didn’t vote anywhere near the numbers of older voters.

Which is the second thing, of course: folks, when it comes to politics, if you don’t vote, what you think kinda means dick. Here in the US, the people who love Trump are gonna show up on election day. 100% sure of that prediction. We know they will because they already did. And you can say, yes, but there’s not enough of them overall, and I will say to you, fuck you and your complacent ass, I want him to lose in a goddamn landslide. I want him electorally nuked from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. Everyone needs to vote. It’s really that important.

With that said, it should be noted that Trump is currently blathering that he thinks that the Brexit, which is plunging the British economy into a trench and giving the global economy a haircut, is perfectly fabulous. He literally just said that he thinks Brexit is great because the pound dropping means more people will come to his golf course, which I think is the 21st century’s gold standard entry in the “fiddling while Rome burns” sweepstakes. So maybe, perhaps, the combination of economic implosion and Trump’s smug wanking about it will be the thing that convinces any fiscal conservative still holding out on Clinton to pinch their nose and vote for her in November, because she’s not in fact a raging cauldron of economic stupidity? Maybe? But probably not? We’ll see.

So yeah: Trump could take it. Brexit shows us how. Don’t get cocky. And vote, for fuck’s sake.

5. To get personal for a moment, over on Twitter I was asked whether or not, as an American, Brexit was actually going to have an impact on my life. Yes, it surely does! For one thing, I sell books in the UK, through my UK publishers (Gollancz and Tor UK), and I get paid in pound sterling, which is currently being punched in the throat, in terms of exchange rate. For another, the UK economy is likely to plunge into a recession, which will make it harder to sell books there, so that’s not great either. I also sell in other territories around the world, particularly in Europe, and Brexit is a destabilizing force there, which is likely not good for me. And of course the US economy is itself likely to get some buffeting from it, too.

But wait, there’s more! I like many Americans have retirement stock investments, which look to take a 2008-sized pummel. I should also note that 2008’s global recession was pretty terrible for publishing, the field I’m in, and writers in particular got it high and hard, so if things go south in general, that also makes things more difficult for folks in my field.

So, yes, directly and indirectly, Brexit is going to have an impact on my life, as an American and also as a working writer. Thanks, UK.

The good news for me, such as it is, is that last year I signed long-term publishing contracts with Tor (for printed/electronic books) and Audible (for audio). Those contracts basically act as an economic hedge for me, which is a thing I entirely intended them to be when I signed them — not against Brexit, to be clear, but against general instability in the publishing world. But they work for Brexit, too, as well as any knock-on economic fallout that might come from it. So, yay, go me and my fundamentally fiscally conservative nature.

6. But let’s be honest, if the world economy goes to shit, my contracts aren’t going to save me any more than they’re going to save anyone else, they’ll just slightly delay my fall into the abyss. The best case scenario at this point is merely that the UK is screwed for a while, and the rest of the global economy routes around it. The worst case scenario is, well, a bit grimmer, economically and otherwise. I’m hoping for the best case scenario (sorry, UK). I’ll be financially planning for other things.

(However, people in the US, etc — please do not panic about your retirement accounts just yet, unless you are, in fact, just about to retire. The whole point of retirement accounts is you sock money away in them and then let them do their thing. There will be ups and downs. This is a down. There will, hopefully, be more ups to come.)

To my friends in the UK who have to deal with this directly: My sympathies. May the pain be relatively brief. You can come camp out on my lawn if you need to. To my friends in the US: Fucking vote in November, already.

Samsung S7 Edge First Impressions

On Monday my old phone, a Droid Turbo, met up with an accident, and it became incumbent upon me to replace it. Fortunately, life had prepared me for this because I spend a lot of time looking at reviews of new phones just in case my current phone should be carelessly dropped, or hurled, or whatever, so when I walked into my local store to get another I had a pretty good idea of what my top candidates were. For the past few phones I’d been using the Motorola Droid line, and if the new Droid Z had been available yet, there’s a pretty good chance I’d’ve picked it up.

But it’s not, so instead I decided to pick up a Samsung S7 Edge, which aside from various good reviews, also came with a deal that threw in one of their VR goggle sets (I have to mail away for it, so I don’t have it yet). So I figured, what the heck. I’ve had it now for four days, which is enough time for some first impressions.

Briefly: So far, so good. There’s no doubt that it is the prettiest cell phone I’ve ever owned, although I will be first to note this is not a difficult competition to win — I’ve been going with the Droids these many years for their massive batteries and Motorola’s better-than-any-other-manufacturer take on Android skinning, not their esthetics, which can be summed up as “look chunky and don’t give a shit about it.” The S7 Edge, on the other hand, has a gorgeous, curving screen that falls away in a lovely fashion, and feels (especially coming from the Droids) deceptively thin and light. It’s a phone that you can pet and call your precious, basically.

But the good news, for me, anyway, is that there is more there than just the pretty screen — notably the 3,600 mAh battery, which means that like the Droids this is a phone that can actually go an entire day without needing to be recharged (this is where iPhones, also pettable, fall down in my opinion), which for someone like me who travels a stupid amount, is actually a critical thing. It’s also got the other hardware bells and whistles — better than retina-level screen, decent camera, fast processor and ample RAM — which make me happy. So it’s pretty and practical, which is nice. The phone also allows for expandable storage, which is great.

With that said, there are a couple of things anyone thinking of picking it up should know about. Specifically, if you pick up the “Edge” iteration of the S7, you should be aware that the fact the (yes) edges of the phone are now touch-sensitive may require you to retrain yourself in terms of how you hold the thing, lest your beefy mitts cause your phone to register touches where you do not intend, just by how you hold the thing. I’ve had this happen to me more than a few times already. It’s a small annoyance and definitely not a deal-breaker, but it’s something to be aware of. Also annoying and possibly more so: the positioning of the speaker at the bottom of the phone is in a place where it gets covered a lot by my hand, which means that as I’m listening to things, the sound would seemingly drop out for several seconds, just because I moved the phone in my hand. This is not pleasing to me.

My other complaints (mostly about the layout of buttons, both physical and capacitive) are less about Samsung’s choices and more about the fact that they’re not laid out like Motorola’s Droid phones, which were my last several phones, and thus are not where my memory tells me they are. This is a personal issue, and I suspect I will get over it.

So overall I’m happy with my purchase, although I am still getting used to Samsung’s interface not being Motorola’s. For anyone looking at the Edge as a possible next phone, be aware the edge aspect, while cool-looking, also requires getting used to. But if you can do that, it’s a lovely phone so far.

The Big Idea: Christopher Husberg

Don’t let Christopher Husberg near a wood chipper. Or, as he explains regarding his novel Duskfall, maybe… do?

CHRISTOPHER HUSBERG:

In some ways, I’ve been writing Duskfall my entire life.

Wait, that sounds too grandiose. It’s not like Duskfall is my darling or anything.

…okay, it is in a way, but more like a Frankenstein-y conglomeration of a bunch of little darlings I’ve killed, put through a wood chipper, and stitched back together. Gruesome, but true.

That fact has actually made it tough for me to choose a “big idea” to talk about. I’ve thrown dozens of them into Duskfall over the years, and the book itself seems to outgrow each one as I’ve revised and edited the thing. One idea does stand out, though, and that’s the magic system of Duskfall: psimancy.

There’s a lot to talk about in regards to psimancy—like the fact that it is psionic in nature, has three distinct branches (a telekinetic branch, a telepathic branch, and a prescient branch), and the roots of the magic system are actually based in Quantum Electrodynamics. But the big idea behind the magic system that I’ll focus on today is a bit more personal in nature.

Many of the characters who use psimancy in the Chaos Queen ‘verse require the ingestion of a narcotic to access that power. The narcotic is highly addictive—one of the major costs of using psimancy. The central character of Duskfall, a young woman named Winter, discovers she can access psimancy through the drug. A large part of the plot then revolves around her attempting—and usually failing—to deal with the addiction that threatens to destroy her and her connection to reality. As is the case with just about every addiction, I try to show how Winter’s dependency on faltira not only destroys herself, but her relationships with all of the people she cares about as well.

I’ll get back to the addiction stuff momentarily, but let me switch gears for a sec. There’s a saying in writerdom to “write what you know.” As someone who writes speculative fiction, I’ve always taken this advice with a grain of salt. It can certainly be helpful, and potentially very powerful, to draw from personal experience and emotion when writing, but I also don’t think it’s entirely necessary. And the strange truth is, it seems readers often connect with the things I simply research or conjure out of my own imagination far more than the things I’ve actually experienced.

Being honest, I didn’t even know I was writing a story about addiction until I was partway through the novel. It was one of those things that crept subconsciously into the storytelling, and into Winter’s character in particular. I realized some time later how much all of the addiction stuff I was trying to express in the novel reflected what I and some people very close to me have experienced. Addiction and its consequences have threatened to destroy my own life as well as the lives of a number of loved ones and close friends, and once I realized how much it affected my writing, addiction seemed almost an inevitable, and certainly an integral, part of Duskfall.

You can imagine my surprise when my agent’s first notes about Duskfall focused heavily on how the addiction sequences in the novel didn’t feel genuine or real at all!

I was shocked and a bit bewildered at first, but listening to how my agent described things, I knew he was right. The addiction sequences weren’t working. They were disjointed and shallow. I’d let my subconscious include them without thinking deeply about how they should all work together in the story, and that was a mistake. So, I went to work.

One of the most difficult aspects to handle was the resolution of Winter’s addiction storyline at the end of the novel. It was problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted some kind of denouement for Duskfall while at the same time leaving the addiction storyline some room to expand into later books—quite a bit of room, actually. But the more immediate problem was how I wanted Winter to feel about choosing to take the drug to access psimancy—given the choice between the immense power she could access in taking the drug, and keeping her relationships with her loved ones and her grip on reality intact, what would she choose? Could she find a balance? And what if choosing the drug was the only way to protect those close to her, but made her lose them in the process?

I won’t spoil it, of course, but I think I found a satisfying conclusion.

Writing about personal experiences—especially difficult, profound, and/or emotional ones—is one of the bigger challenges I’ve faced as a writer. Taking specific, personal experiences, and trying to tell them in such a way that they can be universally applied while still feeling uniquely personal…that’s a tough balancing act, but when it works out, the results are pretty incredible.

So I actually do stand by what I said in the beginning. I’ve been writing DF my entire life— but I think that’s pretty normal. The stories we tell, the things we write for others to read and hear, incubate inside us for a lot longer than perhaps we realize. I think that’s really what all stories are, anyway—conglomerations of emotions, experiences, knowledge, imagination, and little darlings we’ve thrown in the wood chipper.

—-

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

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

Hey Scalzi, Do You Have an Opinion on Brexit?

Why, yes! Yes, I do!

Bear in mind that the United Kingdom is not my state, and there may be some subtleties to the arguments for and against the UK leaving the European Union that I don’t get. Nevertheless I’ve been following the back and forth for a few months, not only out of my own interest, but because a great number of my friends are British and it’s of interest to them as well — not to mention the UK moving out of the EU would have repercussions that would would likely reach to the US, primarily economically. So, just as UK folks might have an opinion on the US presidential race, so too do I have an opinion on Brexit.

And it is: Were I voting in tomorrow’s referendum, I would vote for the UK to remain in the EU.

Much of that vote, I would note, is based on negatives out of the leave camp, more than a great affinity for the EU. One, the leave camp seems to be playing rather fast and loose with facts, regarding the benefits of leaving, and it’s the sort of obvious lying and exaggerating that doesn’t even allow one to admire the craftsmanship of the effort. I dislike this both as someone who likes his facts truthful, or at least with effort put into their spin.

Two, while not everyone who might vote “Leave” is an appalling racist and/or low-information nationalist, it’s pretty clear that nearly every appalling racist/low-info nationalist is voting “Leave,” and that the people engineering the Leave vote are perfectly happy to leverage those folks to get what they want. If you find yourself on the same side as appalling racists/ignorant “patriots”, you might ask yourself why, and additionally whether you might be more appalling and/or ignorant than you’d like to admit.

Three, it seems to me that near the heart of the Leave vote is an internecine struggle for the soul of the UK’s Conservative party, which, while probably important to David Cameron and a few other folks, is also almost certainly not important enough to have created this particular referendum. The Brexit vote solidifies my opinion that Cameron is not especially canny as a politician; he’s likely to have to resign as Prime Minister if the “leave” vote succeeds, and it’s not entirely out of the question he could be made to resign even if “remain” wins, but only by a small margin.

Fourth, and most significantly, it does seem that even if the UK wants to extricate itself from the EU, it will still have to deal with the EU and conform to EU standards and practices if it wants to trade with the EU, which it will, because the EU is one of the largest single markets on the planet. So essentially the UK gains nothing with respect to the EU, and the EU still gets to dictate to the UK, with the only difference being the UK no longer gets a hand in making the EU policy.

There are other things to think about as well (the possibility of the UK breaking up as Scotland decides to stay in the EU, the Brexit encouraging other EU defections, possibly destabilizing Europe, what happens to the millions of UK citizens living in Spain, France, etc), but the sum up is: Leave seems dishonest, courts bigotry, and doesn’t actually appear to have any real benefit to anyone whose name is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. The fact that the latest polls show the UK population evenly split on it is a little frightening.

That said, Donald Trump is the presumed nominee for president for the Republican Party, so far be it from me to cast any stones.

And of course, both Trump and the “Leave” initiative seem to be two strains of the same virus, i.e., a few massively entitled folks harnessing for their own benefit the furious yawp of a group of people for whom things are not currently going well, who want to find someone to blame, and who just want things to go back to a time when they are certain things were better — if not in general, then at least for them. In both cases this larger group is very unlikely to get what they want, even if they get their way at the ballot box.

In any event: Remain would be my vote, if I got a vote, which I do not. Hopefully enough folks in the UK will vote that direction anyway.

The Big Idea: E. Catherine Tobler

Family. Most of us have them, does that mean we do well with them? Sometimes we don’t — and as E. Catherine Tobler explains in this Big Idea for The Kraken Sea, that can offer an interesting area to explore in writing.

E. CATHERINE TOBLER:

I’ve never been good at family.

My parents divorced when I was three and when I was older, joint custody meant summers spent with my father and his new family—including a brother I saw no need for. Who was this person? These visits were like marches through enemy territory; I never knew exactly where I was, and never managed to make a reliable map. Likewise, my brother thought I was there to capture his space and his father, who I still thought of as my father. Of course he was—even if he never felt like that, because we remained strangers to each other. Family gatherings contained a plethora of cousins who always knew their place and who they were to each other. I was someone from far away, someone from a branch of the family tree that had been severed.

When I started writing The Kraken Sea, it wasn’t my intent to explore family, though I quickly realized I had been doing that from the start with my circus stories (the first of which appeared in Sci Fiction, in 2005).

Still, I’d never told the story of the man who started the circus, the enigmatic and strange Jackson. He’s in the business for the profit, but beneath the greedy exterior, there’s a curious kindness that he won’t readily explain. His story has been glimpsed on a smaller scale in every short circus story I’ve written, but The Kraken Sea is the first place I actually take it apart and explore. The more I look at it, the more I see pieces of my own childhood.

Maybe it’s something a lot of people do—waiting for your proper family to show up and carry you away. Maybe plenty of people feel like aliens within their own family and think well this is a mistake, my people will be here for me soon. Maybe it’s something speculative fiction writers do more than most.

I’ve always known Jackson was separated from his birth family, having been left on the steps of an orphanage as an infant. The priests and nuns did not hesitate to take him in, despite all evidence that he was Not Quite Right. The priests were certain with the right guidance, Jackson would grow up proper and not at all bizarre. Or evil. Sister Jerome Grace takes a special and specific interest in Jackson: she knows what he cannot, that he is destined for inexplicable things, but that he will also come to make his own family, just as he makes his own fate.

Jackson’s never been very good at family, either. The priests were never fathers to him, and Sister Jerome Grace was never quite a mother. The orphans always maintained an Other quality to them, though for them, Jackson was the outsider. Jackson never wanted to invest in anyone—he likes penny dreadfuls and his personal space because these are both easily defined within the world of the orphanage. Outside those walls, he’s staggered when the whistle of the orphan train feels the same way. Books and my room did the same for me; they gave me a guaranteed place where I knew I could escape, safely.

The Kraken Sea is less about a person finding their place, and more about a person making their place. Of course, this place is never completed, but remains in a constant state of being created. Everywhere Jackson arrives, amid a flurry of new people, there’s a mental map to assemble; there’s territory to navigate and treaties to negotiate. How does he fit, given all he’s stuffed deep under his skin? Metaphorically and not.

How do we fit into the spaces we visit? How do we fit with our families and peers? Are we forever Outsiders, or do we find ways of fitting into circles and society, no matter our perceived strangeness? Or are we forever the child waiting to fly away into lands unknown where our own brother thinks we mean to conquer his people?

It’s no wonder I keep writing circus stories.

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The Kraken Sea: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBook|Nook

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

Brazilian OMW Swag

Old Man’s War recently came out in Brazil as Guerra Do Velho, and is apparently doing pretty well there, I suspect in no small part thanks to the efforts of publisher Editora Aleph, who made some nice swag for it, as you can see here along with the books itself. I especially like the poster.

Fun fact: The artist for Guerra Do Velho is Sparth — who you may recall is also doing the art for this book of mine. This is pretty nifty. Also, if you want to see the full cover artwork, here you go.

The Big Idea: Curtis C. Chen

Hey! Curtis C. Chen is a former student of mine! And now he has his debut novel, Waypoint Kangaroo! Naturally I take all credit for his success. Now, pay attention while Curtis tells you about his book.

CURTIS C. CHEN:

My debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo exists because of a robot cat from the future. Lemme ‘splain.

Though I grew up in the United States, I was born in Taiwan, and my late paternal grandfather owned a bookshop, so as a young child I had access to a variety of reading materials. One of the book series I discovered and fell in love with as a child was Doraemon, a popular Japanese manga that had been translated into Chinese. It was probably also my first contact with science fiction in book form, and it influenced me pretty deeply.

Oddly enough, Doraemon is still virtually unknown in the Western hemisphere, despite enjoying immense popularity all across Asia since his introduction in 1969–he’s even been called “the Mickey Mouse of Japan.” The good news is, US residents can now watch episodes of the 2005 Doraemon anime on the cable channel Disney XD, where he’s billed as a “Gadget Cat from the Future.”

I won’t get into Doraemon’s backstory here (you can read about that at doraemon.com). The important thing is that Doraemon keeps all his futuristic gadgets in a “4th Dimensional Secret Gadget Pocket,” a pouch built into his belly–and that was the inspiration for my character Kangaroo’s superpower, which he simply calls “the pocket.”

However, since my goal was to write a spy novel for grown-ups, not a comic strip targeted at pre-teen children, I wanted to be more rigorous in terms of how Kangaroo’s pocket works and what its limitations are. I wanted his superpower to be internally consistent and to generally adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them today.

I also didn’t want the pocket to be useful in every situation, which meant coming up with very clear rules for when and how Kangaroo could use it. My friends and fellow writers helped me think through those issues by asking many questions of the “Can he do X? What if he does Y? Why wouldn’t he do Z?” variety.

Here are the basics of what I came up with:

  • Kangaroo can open portals to an empty “pocket universe” which is apparently infinite, making it the perfect place to hide just about anything.
  • But that other universe looks like deep space–no air, no light, no heat–so Kangaroo usually opens the pocket with an optional force-field barrier over the portal, to keep the atmosphere from our universe from escaping into the other one. (The barrier is permeable enough that he can push his arm through to deposit or withdraw items.)
  • Kangaroo can only open the pocket in midair, not inside solid objects or liquids, and therefore the portal can only ever be as large as the empty space around him.
  • The portal must always face toward Kangaroo. He can rotate the portal around the object inside, but only by exactly 180 degrees. (This one is a bit tricky to describe; there’s a longer explanation of “Project Backdoor” early in the novel.)
  • Once a portal is open, it’s locked to Kangaroo’s position in space–i.e., if he turns his head, it moves with him.
  • Last but not least, using the pocket gives Kangaroo a “pocket hangover” roughly proportional to how many portals he’s pulled recently and how large each one has been.

Once I had a general idea of what Kangaroo could and couldn’t do with the pocket, I started thinking about “edge cases.” How do I set up situations where the pocket is the only or best way to solve a certain problem, but it’s going to be a challenge for Kangaro to use it in that particular way? And given that he’s not so great at all the other spy stuff–his bosses really only want to use him as a courier–what does he do when things go sideways in the field, and he can’t use the pocket at all for some reason?

I hope you have as much fun reading about Kangaroo’s adventures as I did making them up. And if you don’t see your favorite “stupid pocket trick” in Waypoint Kangaroo, don’t panic–book two is coming soon!

—-

Waypoint Kangaroo: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Whoops

Someone’s phone met with a bad end today. Guess whose!

Spoiler: It was mine.

And now I am the owner of a band new phone, specifically the Samsung S7 Edge, which is a very nice phone although it will take me a bit to get used to it since I’ve been on Motorola phones (specifically the Droids) for the last five years or so. I’m now doing all the update-y things you need to do when you get a new phone. Whee!

How was your day?

New Books and ARCs, 6/17/16

Just in time for the weekend, another fine stack of new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Which of these books call to you? Tell me in the comments!

The Big Idea: Yoon Ha Lee

Within the novel Ninefox Gambit is a battle of wits between two very accomplished characters — and making that struggle work was no small task for author Yoon Ha Lee. What’s the secret? Read on!

YOON HA LEE:

Once upon a time, as a young, impressionable Yoon, my boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to BattleTech. One of the parts that fascinated me about BattleTech’s backstory was the bit where the well-respected Genereal Aleksandr Kerensky was so disgusted with his regime that he and six million followers abandoned the Star League to found their own nation. I was impressed by how charismatic Kerensky would have had to be to pull this off.

Fast forward some years, after I’d decided to write a space opera, as one does. I’d been nosing about the TV Tropes website, specifically my favorite pages, Moral Event Horizon, Chessmaster, and Magnificent Bastard. What if I ran Kerensky backwards, I wondered? Take a charismatic, brilliant general–and instead of him being so well-respected that he could secede from an interstellar nation and take six million people with him, make him feared and reviled. Say that he massacred a million people at his last battle: civilians, the enemy army, and his *own* army.  (How’s that for a Moral Event Horizon?) He’s been preserved as an undead tactician for four centuries because he was just that good, and because they think they’ve tamed him–even though no one *still* knows why he did what he did, or if he just went mad and might do so again.

Ta-da! I had my antagonist, General Shuos Jedao.

And then imagine an infantry captain in her mid-twenties with Jedao as her advisor, trying to make use of him in a hardfought space siege while ensuring that he doesn’t betray her and everything she stands for. My protagonist, Kel Cheris, is smart–even brilliant in her own way–but Jedao may be deadlier than all the enemy soldiers she faces.

Sure, I was going to have battle scenes and bloodthirsty science fantasy weapons and so on, but I knew the most important thing would be selling the tense relationship between Jedao and Cheris. From the beginning I constructed them as complements. Jedao is extroverted, persuasive, intuitive, devious.  So Cheris is introverted, self-contained, calculating, honest.  So far, so good?

Not so fast. Both of them were also supposed to be geniuses: Jedao at tactics and psychological warfare, Cheris at math. It’s possible that writing geniuses is easy when one is a genius oneself; I wouldn’t know, because I’m definitely not a genius. (I have since sworn that maybe the next thing I should do is write slapstick comedy about stupid-ass generals, not brilliant tacticians.)

So I cheated.  A lot. One of the first things I did was to reread James Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi’s Victory and Deceit: Dirty Tricks at War. I wrote down all the stratagems I liked, then tried to shove all of them into the rough draft. (And then there was too much plot so I had to take some of them out.)  And of course, their opponent also had to be smart. I’d learned this from reading Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a novel I found infuriating because the “tactical genius” mainly geniused by virtue of the opponent being stupid, which I’m sure happens all the time in real life but makes for unsatisfying narrative. Besides all the military reading I did, I also hit up social engineering and security engineering.

But I still wasn’t done. I had to sell Cheris and Jedao as characters. Characterization has always been the part of writing that I find the most difficult. I also had to portray both characters in such a way that Cheris, while outmatched, wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. I wanted her to be the underdog, but not to have no chance whatsoever! So part of writing her involved setting up her arc so that she grew into a true ally/opponent.

The other thing that gave me difficulty when writing Cheris is that she’s a woman, and I had to be in her head for large chunks of the novel. I’m trans, identifying as male, and while I try to make a point of writing female POVs in my short fiction, it’s not without its cost. Growing up, I got caught writing trans protagonists in my fiction in middle school, and my teacher notified my mother. This was before I had any vocabulary for this stuff, but when my mother made a concerted effort to shove me into skirts and dresses and get me to behave in more conventionally “feminine” ways, I had a hard time dealing. It wasn’t until much later that I felt comfortable coming out even to people very close to me. Even today, spending extended periods of time writing a female POV is painful not because women are evil–I have a twelve-year-old daughter and I would very much like for her to grow up in a world where she has all sorts of great female role models, fictional and real–but because of my own baggage. Writing male POVs is the only place in my life where I get to “be” male, and it’s hard to give that up. So part of writing Cheris involved working through that.

Jedao was a challenge for a different reason. He’s undead, and part of the complication is that he has no body; he pretty much exists as a disembodied voice. So (with a few exceptions) I couldn’t rely on body language, or facial expressions, or any of that. Everything had to come through on the strength of the dialogue. The good part was that Jedao was an astonishingly cooperative, talkative character and I got a clear sense of his personality pretty quickly. The scary part was that once he got going he wouldn’t shut up. And as Cheris discovers, Jedao may be a mass murderer, but that doesn’t automatically mean that his critiques of their government are automatically wrong.

I don’t know if I succeeded in writing a chessmaster (or two, or three), let alone a Magnificent Bastard, but at least the attempt was fun! You’ll have to let me know how I did.

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Ninefox Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBook|Rebellion Store

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