Big Idea Status Post for February and March

Here’s the status:

February: All February slots are filled. I’m doing three a week for the first three weeks because during the fourth week I’ll be on a big ass boat in the Caribbean. If I have not already contacted you about February, assume I’ve passed on your Big Idea query.

March: Partially filled; I still have slots available the week of the 14th and 28th. If you have a new book coming out then, send a query but hurry as those slots are likely to go quickly.

April: Don’t query me yet. Wait until February, please.

And now we’re all caught up!

The Big Idea: Charlie Jane Anders

How many times have you heard a new book, or movie or TV show, described as “X meets Y” where the two variables are something super-popular, jammed into one? As Charlie Jane Anders discovered in thinking about her new and already widely-lauded debut novel All the Birds in the Sky, there are limits to all that jamming, especially when you want to make your own mark.

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS:

Genre mashups are everywhere in pop culture these days. Star Wars is a samurai Western in space, with wizards. Adventure Time is a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. And superheroes, of course, are every genre ever, all smushed together.

But I’m here to tell you, as someone who often gets accused of writing genre mashups, that you should avoid them at all costs. Don’t take two genres and smush them together. Instead, it’s way better to take whatever you need from different genres, and create your own brand new story.

At least, that’s what I decided while writing All the Birds in the Sky, my new book about a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence. At first, I was thinking of this book as very much a mashup: fantasy meets science fiction. But the deeper I got into the story and the characters, the less helpful it was to think of it in terms of genres.

Instead, I started thinking of it as a story about people from two different worlds, each of which I tried to make as real and grounded as I could.

I had already gotten a rep for smushing together different genres, before I finished All the Birds in the Sky. I wrote “As Good As New,” which was a post-apocalyptic story where a woman named Marisol finds a genie in a bottle. (Because of course a genie in a bottle would survive the apocalypse, and its hiding place would be reduced to rubble. It’s just logic, people.) And my story “Palm Strike’s Last Case” takes a dark, gritty urban superhero and sends him to another planet, where he deals with issues of food scarcity and sustainable farming.

So when I started to write a novel that had a fantasy hero and a science fiction hero, I got excited about including as many tropes from each of those two genres as I could think of. The witch can have runes, spellbooks, wands, dragons, elves, ancient curses, evil wizards, etc. The mad scientist gets aliens, robots, spaceships, rayguns, dinosaurs and so on.

But when you just smush a bunch of genre tropes together, you end up with something kind of spoofy. It starts to feel like you’re just making fun of the genres, instead of exploring what makes them powerful. And instead of bright vivid contrasts, you can easily end up with an indistinct mish-mosh. (Like, an elf is sort of an alien. A dragon is sort of a dinosaur. Unless you really work at developing the aspects that make them different.)

If you’re not careful, a genre mashup can very quickly become just kind of an exercise in meta, commenting on the genres instead of using them to their full potential. When you think of a mashup, what immediately comes to mind is the stereotypical Hollywood executive saying, “It’s Alien meets The Smurfs!” Or “It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Terminator!”

But what’s really interesting about bringing together characters who belong in different worlds—or different types of stories—is the different ways that they look at life.

And with both my witch and my mad scientist, what turned out to be interesting is what they can’t do. Instead of getting lost in all of the cool stuff that could be on their horizons—the starships and spellbooks—the most powerful stories came from their limitations. What can Patricia, the witch, do that Laurence, the mad scientist, can’t? And vice versa? And what’s the thing that’s beyond both of their capabilities? The more I thought of these characters in terms of their limits, the deeper I could get into the emotional core of the story.

And that’s the biggest thing that took me away from thinking of All the Birds in the Sky as some kind of genre chimera. I needed to feel something, to connect to these two main characters and their struggles in my gut as well as my heart. The bells and whistles risked pulling me away from the characters, instead of helping me connect to them.

And in the end, having an emotional core didn’t just mean focusing in on my two main characters and their emotional reality. It also meant recognizing that no matter how many genres I was drawing on, I still had only one story, with one single axis, and everything needed to be part of that.

And once I recognized that, I could focus on what those different genre elements meant to me, and what they represented in my story. I peeled back all of the extra clutter, until I was left with the things that I absolutely needed to make the story work—and then I had to figure out what those elements needed, in terms of worldbuilding, to make them feel real. Like, Patricia, the witch, needed a magic school to go to, that couldn’t just be a Hogwarts clone, and a world of magicians that felt lived-in. Stuff like that.

Once I stripped away all the excess clutter that I had put in when I thought this was a “mashup,” there were big holes in my novel. And those holes turned out to be the places where I was shortchanging my main characters and not giving them enough room to breathe and develop their relationship. When I let go of the idea that this was a book about genres, I was able to start thinking of it more as a book about people.

—-

All The Birds in the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Scamperbeasts Get Mail

And it’s from Time Warner Cable, offering them business class Internet. Damn it, Time Warner! You never offered me business class Internet!

It’s a lie anyway, as TWC doesn’t string out cable to where we are, otherwise I would have it and be rid of my appallingly slow 5mbps DSL from CenturyLink, which is indeed linked to a century, that century being the 20th.

Don’t get me started about rural Internet. We will be here all day. Literally, as it would take that long for the rant to load.

AND ANOTHER THI–

[connection lost]

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

It’s been a long day.

In other news, Krissy and I are back from ConFusion, the science fiction convention in the Detroit area that we attend annually. We had a fabulous time, as we usually do, hanging out with friends and fans. We’re probably going to crash early, because we’ve been up late all weekend. And then, back to the work week. Wheee!

How was your weekend?

View From a Hotel Window, 1/21/16: Novi, MI

Look! Air conditioning units and a parking lot! This view has all the classics.

I’m here for the ConFusion convention, my “home” convention, which promises to be a blast as always. If you’re in the area and have the weekend free, then, hey, come on down. We’re fun.

Clinton and Sanders and Me

Question in email:

A couple months back you posted about the GOP presidential candidates but you haven’t said anything about the Democratic candidates. Any thoughts? 

My thoughts are thus:

I suspect that despite people getting hopped up about Bernie Sanders that the nomination is still going to go to Clinton in the end, and I’m fine with that. But if it goes to Sanders instead, I’m fine with that too. And if both Sanders and Clinton are suddenly trampled to death in a freak spontaneous elk stampede and Martin O’Malley is the only Democratic candidate left standing, I’m fine with that, as well.

I recognize that there are material differences in the personalities and policies of each of the Democratic candidates, and that these differences are not insignificant. But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

Note well that this does not mean that in any election year, any Democratic nominee would get my vote; if the Democratic field in another year were as pathetically mashed-potato-brained as the current GOP field, it’s entirely possible I’d kiss off the lot of them, too. As a matter of political honesty I admit it would take more for that to happen, as there are consequences to a GOP president that I wouldn’t like (see: Supreme Court as the obvious example), and that’s not insignificant. But it’s possible. However, this year I judge all three Democratic nominees competent enough that this isn’t a problem.

As I don’t really have a problem with any of the Democratic candidates from a competence perspective, I’ve been largely unengaged regarding the current tsuris brewing between Clinton and Sanders (O’Malley has no chance and is in this for a cabinet position or maybe a Vice President slot). Again, in the end I think Clinton’s going to pull it out and I suspect in the long run that’s better for the Democrats because she and her machine are likely to be better engaged in the downmarket congressional races, but if she doesn’t? Well, fine, Sanders it is, and he’ll have fun with his veto stamp.

I recognize there are a lot of people who feel very passionate about Bernie or Hillary, in what to me feels like a “Kirk or Picard” sort of way. That’s nice for them, but I find the spitty sort of rage they appear to feel about their less-favored Democratic candidate kind of stupid. I do hope people realize that after the primaries are done there is still the general election, and the GOP standard bearer will be delighted if a large portion of the potential Democratic electorate has ragequit in a fit of pique because they didn’t get exactly the presidential candidate they want. This is how you end up with a President Trump, or President Cruz, people. So suck it up, be an adult and vote for either Clinton or Sanders, even if you wanted the other one instead.

(But — third party candidate! Oh, my sweet summer child. You’re adorable. I mean, if you were always going to vote Libertarian or Green or whatever, or were otherwise honestly up in the air, then don’t let me stop you. Groovy by me. But if you were going to vote Democratic but then didn’t get your way in the primaries, so screw it, then yeah. Maybe think beyond your own fit of foot-stomping pique. I suppose this also holds true for you potential GOP voters who might ragequit if Trump/Cruz/whomever doesn’t get the nomination, but my point of view, since that field is filled with people I wouldn’t vote for even if you promised me all the ice cream I ever wanted for the rest of my life, delivered by a unicorn that farts gold coins and diamonds, I’m less concerned if you do it.)

From my own point of view this year I think it’s important to recognize that this GOP field is easily the worst in any election cycle I can remember, and in particular its top candidates — Trump and Cruz — are just appalling. I was not going to vote for McCain or for Romney in the last two elections, but in both cases I could see the valid argument for them (and for keeping them alive so their respective vice-presidential picks never took up residence at the White House). I didn’t think they might actually offer lasting damage to the office. I don’t feel the same way this year. Barring the sudden ascendancy of Kasich, or the now-increasingly-unlikely chance of Rubio finally finding his ass with a flashlight, the GOP standard bearer this year will either be a populist racist or a preening, deservedly-disliked tub of self-regard, neither of whom I want anywhere near the levers of executive power.

Neither Clinton or Sanders is perfect — Clinton in particular comes with a healthy load of baggage — but the qualitative difference between the two of them as presidential candidates, and Trump and Cruz, is the starkest contrast between the two major parties in my political lifetime. This isn’t even a contest. Or shouldn’t be. I’m embarrassed for the country that it actually is.

So, yeah: Democrats, pick Clinton, pick Sanders, hell, pick O’Malley. From my point of view, given the competition, they’re all equally likely to get my presidential vote. I mean, I’d like to have the luxury of actually caring about the policy differences between the Democratic candidates. But this election year, it just doesn’t matter. Democratic positions are generally closer to my own, but this year, I’m mostly voting against the GOP valorizing the horrible people it’s made as its choices for front runners, and, likely, for whichever of those horrible people it will choose as its candidate.

David Hartwell

Me, Robert Charles Wilson and David Hartwell with our respective awards at LACon IV, 2006. Photo: Kathryn Cramer

Very bad news about David Hartwell, one of most important editors of science fiction and fantasy: According to Kathryn Cramer, David has had a massive bleed in his brain and is not expected to recover. Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who has known and worked with David for decades, has further thoughts and information.

I’ve also known David for a number of years; his knowledge of and passion for science fiction and fantasy literature is beyond contestation. My thoughts are now to Kathryn, their children and family, and all who know David, personally and professionally. This is a significant loss for the field.

Edit, 8pm: Kathryn Cramer reports via a Facebook comment to Neil Gaiman that David has indeed passed away. May his memory be a blessing to all who knew him.

In Which the 18-Year Old John Scalzi Tackles “The Great Questions”

My high school alumni office sent me an interesting email — the last essay assignment I wrote for one of my classes in my senior year of high school, in which I was asked, essentially, to write about what it meant to be human. It was for my AP Modern European History class, and the teacher was Roy Bergeson. His plan at the time was to collect the essays from his students and then send them to us when we graduated from college. What actually happened was that the essays were packed away for years and Mr. Bergeson only found them this year, and sent them to the school to forward on. So technically, he did send them to us when we graduated, just 25 years later than expected.

I read the essay when it arrived, and found it an interesting glimpse at the past me. I only vaguely remember writing this essay, but there is no doubt in my mind it is me who wrote it — it has all the hallmarks of who I was at that stage of my life. I’m posting both it and the original assignment (forwarded by Mr. Bergeson) here both for your edification — as a glimpse into the mind of teenage John Scalzi — and for my own archival purposes.

I’ll note I have edited the piece to make it more readable (I chopped up run-on sentences and added paragraphs), but have otherwise not edited for content. What you’re reading is pure teenage Scalzi, for better or worse. I’ll add my own thoughts about it as the first post in the comment thread.

With that said, first, the actual assignment, from Mr. Bergeson:

The Last Hurrah

We have spent a good deal of time in this course reading and discussing different responses to three fundamental questions. While those questions have not all been framed in the same way, the questions have essentially been:

What is the nature of a human being?
What is the nature of the world?
How should a human being interact with that world?

The medieval scholastics were quite confident in their answers. A person’s place in the City of Man and the City of God were clearly defined. The only real issue was obedience to authority. Humanism, new methods of attaining knowledge, scientific discovery, world-wide exploration, doubt, and cataclysmic events have changed that secure, holistic view of St Thomas Aquinas.

You are about to graduate from high school (hopefully!). This time marks one of the most significant “passages“ in your life. On such an occasion it is good to stop, think, recollect, and write down where you are. Therefore, in accordance with a longstanding APMEH tradition, I would like you to consider and then answer those three fundamental questions posed above. I will send you copies of what you write in four years when you graduate from college. I hope that this will be a significant exercise for you, and that this marking of the end of high school will be interesting to you in the many years ahead.

And here is what I wrote:

The human being is perhaps the most unfortunate animal on the earth. Possessed of a brain that has too many connections, the human being is not merely self-aware – that is, concerned only with what is near to him and happens to be occupying his time – but he is also aware in a wider sense: aware of more than what is in front of his face. The human being is aware of his past, aware of his future, aware of hopes, dreams, fears, fantasies, and not just aware of them in a sense of a momentary awareness, such as an animal has when it hopes for a piece of meat from its master or when it is afraid of the thunder.

For a human, the hopes are always there, embedded into the bedrock of the consciousness, buried under other, more pressing considerations, but always there, to be taken out and cherished in the time a person has to himself. This awareness has its foundations in the ability of the human mind to grasp long-range occurrences, and its ability for complex, intuitive thought. These two factors have a synergistic affect upon each other, creating within the human mind a vast arena for information and data, internal and external, to combine and melt and become thought with far more facility and ease than can be found anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

The end result of this is that the human being tends to think too much. And not merely think too much: we talk too much, know too much, fight too much, dream too much, hate too much, and love too much. The human being has always enjoyed living on the extremes; we do not tell our children bedtime stories about certified public accountants. And humans crave the intense experiences: having a good laugh, falling deeply in love, shaking in a religious ecstasy all mean more to us for the instant they exist than do all the long hours of just living.

These two forces, thinking too much and craving the intense experience, have combined several times in the course of our human history, and when they collide, the great philosophical questions have arisen: who are we? What is our place? Is there a higher power, and if so, why did He create us? Where are we going, and how do we get there? Who am I? What comes afterwards?

These are the Great Questions, those questions by which we define ourselves and our existence.

Confronting the Great Questions separates the human race into two broad categories: Those who choose to deal with the questions, and those who choose to avoid them. The number of people in the latter group far exceeds the number in the former and while this is unfortunate, it is not too surprising; to confront these sorts of question and to deal with them fairly calls upon a great amount of (if you will) spiritual strength, of which most people, it seems from observation, either don’t have to begin with, or if they do have it, it isn’t used often enough to strengthen it to what it needs to be to deal with these questions.

These people either fall back on someone else’s answers to the questions, thus depriving themselves of the real knowledge of experience, or dismiss these Great Questions as unimportant to their life. Both of these methods leave these people mentally impotent and spiritually vacant, and these people will pass through this world largely unnoticed and after they have gone, will soon be forgotten.

This does not mean this group of people are all bad; there are many fine and good people, who are respectable and deserve to be respected and loved. But they are incomplete; a person who does not grapple with the Great Questions seriously cannot know himself intimately, and while he may feel great rushes of emotion or some sense of spiritual longing, these will flow through the person undefined, for lack of anything to define against, and these surges of true nobility, of humanity, will leave the person too soon, for lack of anything to anchor onto.

This essential, what makes a person a human being, is denied to those who deny the Great Questions, leaving only base and unsatisfying imitations of emotion and spirit, and these will leave the person possessing them, in the end, alone, scared, their lives wasted, their thoughts misunderstood, and their dreams shattered. The cruelest thing of denying these Questions is that in the end, they leave you a stranger to yourself, and because of that, to all others. A man who does not know himself cannot know others, cannot love others… and cannot leave in this world anything of note; a man, in denying these questions, he has already condemned his life to failure.

It is from that group of human beings who struggle with the Great Questions that all of what is humanity is comes from. This group encompasses the high and lows of history and human experience; Hitler belongs in this group just as surely as does Jesus, Stalin as much as Gandhi. These members of the human race did not back away from the Questions: they fought with them and tried to answer them to their own personal satisfaction; in doing so they unlocked the door to themselves became what they were down their soul; in struggling with these questions, they became all that was human in them. They quite literally ate from the tree of knowledge and were confronted with themselves, in all its dizzying heights and terrifying lows.

The members of this group are truly human; they have taken the time to know themselves. They did not all answer the Questions, to be sure; and of those who did answer the questions, some of the answers were twisted and garbled. But the fact remains that they possessed the strength to attempt an answer; and if one does not try, one cannot succeed.

I have tried, in my life, not to shy away from these Great Questions. I cannot say that I have succeed in answering all the questions; I don’t even know if I know what all the questions are. But I do know that I would rather face these questions and attempt to know myself than to go through my life with blinders on. It is not a question of what one should do and what one should not do; if one does not want to know themselves, that is their business. I find the whole idea of people having a purpose for being born distasteful; one should decide for oneself what one’s duties are.

But I find over the course of time that those people I admire and respect (and love) above all others have taken some time to know themselves; I find that those who are remembered in our histories are those who take time to know themselves; I find that all the great achievements of the human race were accomplished by those who knew themselves; therefore I conclude that to be fully human, and to achieve some sort of satisfaction in my life, I must attempt the Great Questions for myself and learn who I am.

I want to be able to love. I want to be remembered after I am dead as a man who contributed something to the world I lived in. I want to be worth remembering. And it seems the way to do this is to know myself first and foremost. I don’t believe in purposes; but if I did, I would believe that God gave man the brain he did in order to allow man to, if he wished, know himself, and through that, come closer to God. The purpose of man would be to know himself.

I want to know myself, the good as well as the bad in me. I know no real purpose in this; materialistically speaking, there is not outright reward. But there is a reward that comes from the awareness knowing oneself gives; I can feel it now, however dimly, and it both scares me and makes me feel joyful. I believe it makes me feel human. I believe it makes me alive.

Into the World of Travel Once More Plus a Question to Keep You Occupied

Athena and I have had a delightful time at Arisia, but now it’s time to hop on a plane and head back to Ohio. We’ll be in transit all day. In the meantime a question for you to ponder:

What’s your favorite obscure soda flavor? “Obscure” in this case can mean a) not always available at your local store, b) usually (but not always!) not distributed by Coca-Cola/PepsiCo, c) one you liked but no longer exists, by any maker. International sodas unavailable in the US are groovy. If you think Dr Pepper is an obscure soda, you might be doing this one wrong.

My obscure soda: Aspen soda, which was an apple-flavored soda available for a couple of years in the late 70s-early80s. I really enjoyed it when I was a kid and am a little sad that apple generally is not a widely available soda flavor.

You?

Glenn Frey

Damn, it’s January 18th, and it’s already been a hell of a year for musician deaths. If you’re a musician who was even marginally popular in the 70s, please keep an eye on yourself, okay? In the meantime, as we’re thinking of Glenn Frey passing along to the great gig in the sky, enjoy this most Glenn Freyish of Eagles songs.

Early Oscar Predictions, 2016

As most of you know, my first gig out of college was as a film critic, and since then I keep up with the field. So every year when the Oscar nominations come out I go ahead and make an early guess as to what’s the frontrunner for the statuette that year. It’s 2016, the Oscar nominations are out, let’s stop the filly-faddle and get to it.

BEST PICTURE

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

As a general rule (Argo being a recent and notable exception), you can toss out the Best Picture nominees that don’t have an accompanying Best Director nomination, and this year I would definitely say that means so long to Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies. I’m hesitant to just chuck out The Martian, however. To be clear I think it’s a dark horse, but I’d be interested to see there’s any sort of groundswell of feeling for Ridley Scott. His movies are often nominated for (and even win) Best Picture, but he gets nominated for Best Director rather less so. If there’s a sense this year he needs to be recognized, it’s possible this movie has a chance, as he’s a nominated producer this year. See, again, Argo, and Ben Affleck. But again: Probably a dark horse.

(Note to the Academy: Give Scott an honorary Oscar, already. You can’t say he hasn’t earned it at this point.)

Of the remainder I think The Big Short is probably out first as the comedy (comedies tend not to do well in Oscar races), probably Mad Max next, although it’s my favorite, and then at this point it’s three-way between Spotlight, Room and The Revenant, with the twist being last year’s Best Picture and Best Director win were for Birdman and Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and it would be very unusual for the Academy to award a Best Picture to the same director back-to-back. Not impossible but unusual.

Put a gun to my head and at this moment I would nudge toward Spotlight, because it’s weighty, historical and has a great ensemble cast. But this is one of those times where I think you have to wait to see how things shake out.

My Bet: Spotlight
My Choice: Mad Max: Fury Road

 

BEST DIRECTOR

The Big Short, Adam McKay  
Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller
The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu  
Room, Lenny Abrahamson  
Spotlight, Tom McCarthy

See above. Generally — but not always, and less in recent years — the Director nod is paired with the Picture nod, so depending on how things sort out, Iñárritu, Abrahamson and McCarthy are all in the running. Plus there’s a wrinkle, as I see it: As noted, the Academy is less fussy in recent years about pairing Director and Picture, and I think there’s some high regard for George Miller out there. He’s had a film nominated before as a producer (Babe, if you can believe it), won for an animated film (Happy Feet(!)) and otherwise had a career that’s best described as delightfully eclectic. Even though I think Mad Max is not a likely winner, it’s possible Miller sneaks in, and reasonably so, because Max is a hell of an impressive directorial effort.

Otherwise, you got me. The only one I’m certain is in the “just happy to be here” boat is Adam McKay; otherwise it’s up in the air for now. Right now, my very super mega tenuous nod is to McCarthy, but I’m not putting any money on it. We’ll have to see.

My Bet: McCarthy
My Choice: Miller

 

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, Carol  
Brie Larson, Room  
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy  
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years  
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Saorise Ronan’s well-regarded and I see more opportunities in the future for her, but I’m not entirely sure Brooklyn is the right vehicle for Oscar gold. Charlotte Rampling must have been delighted to hear the news and it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility that she’s a winner, but she’s been out of Hollywood in any significant way for a while now. Cate Blanchett is becoming the new Meryl Streep and won very recently. Jennifer Lawrence will take up the Meryl Streep role should Blanchett falter.

Meanwhile there’s been a whole lot of love (not to mention a Golden Globe win) for Larson in Room, and the thought is that the Oscars is hers to lose this year. I’m inclined to agree; there’s also the wrinkle that it’s possible this will be Room’s Oscar, i.e., the one given to the film so the Academy voters feel fine about skipping over it in other categories. Which is good for Spotlight and The Revenant.

My Bet: Larson
My Choice: Larson

 

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo  
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Redmayne won last year and Tom Hanks aside, I suspect the Academy is not keen on back-to-back awards in this category. Fassbender’s problem is his film was a flop. Damon I suspect will have to be happy with a Golden Globe. For my money it’s down to Cranston and DiCaprio, and who will win will depend on whether voters want to rub out the stain of the Blacklist from its history by celebrating by proxy its most famous victim (and, to be sure, Cranston’s fine performance), or give DiCaprio the Al Pacino Memorial Academy Award for Being Nominated a Lot So Fine, Here You Go Already. My money is on DiCaprio — hell, I want him to win myself! — but don’t count Cranston out.

My Bet: DiCaprio
My Choice: DiCaprio

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol  
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight  
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Alicia Vikander is have a very nice year between The Danish Girl and Ex Machina (let’s quickly slide by The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and I think the nomination itself is the topping on this particular cake. Likewise a very nice career bump for McAdams, who is moving to more Oscar-friendly roles in her career. Winslet has the same problem to a win that Fassbender has. For my money the race is between Leigh and Mara and which film the Academy decides it wants to honor more. I’d vote for Leigh, personally; I suspect the Academy might go the other way. Which is fine!

Also note: This is the category I historically have the worst luck in guessing, so maybe you should ignore me here.

My Bet: Mara
My Choice: Leigh

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight  
Mark Rylance, Bridge Of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Look, I’m just going to toss everyone else off the side and say that I will be stunned as fuck if this doesn’t go to Stallone. At this point, it’s the “I Survived Everything And Am Still Around And You Just Have To Honor That” award, and why not. Also, you know. Rocky Balboa. And Creed was otherwise generally stiffed, so this will be a fine tip of the hat to that film.

And yes, we can have the discussion of why only Stallone is nominated in Creed, particularly in a year where there are very few people of color in major award categories (and none in the acting categories) — and should, because damn, Oscar, you really kind of showed your cranky whiteness this year. In this particular case, however, it’s worth nothing that there is literally no path to Creed without Rocky Balboa, and Stallone. While not disagreeing with the general side-eye being given to the Oscars this year at all, I think the Stallone nomination stands on its own merits. He should win this, period.

My Bet: Stallone
My Choice: Stallone

Thoughts in other categories: There’s no way Inside Out doesn’t win Best Animated, and delighted to see it get an Original Screenplay nod as well. On the topic of screenplays, if Spotlight wins the Original Screenplay award, that may be director Tom McCarthy’s Compensatory Oscar, given to directors who don’t get the Director award (see: Tarantino, Welles, Jane Campion, etc). Don’t feel too bad for him; an Oscar’s an Oscar. Suspect The Hateful Eight might win cinematography, not only for its own merits but also for Robert Richardson working with lenses they literally had to dust off to use. Finally, I don’t think I’ll be wrong in thinking that the Academy will find the combination of Diane Warren and Lady Gaga too tempting to resist for Best Original Song (“Til it Happens to You”).

Those are my first-pass guesses. As always, I’ll check in closer to the actual ceremony date with updates. In the meantime, head to the comments to tell me how wrong I am.

View From the Hotel Window, 1/14/16: Boston

Not a bad view of Boston’s downtown, either.

In other news, hello, I am in Boston now, for Arisia. See you there.

Oh, and Alan Rickman

Like most Americans, my first cognizance of him was in Die Hard, which he could have stolen away from Bruce Willis if he’d wanted to, but gracefully didn’t, merely choosing almost to do so (he even let Willis’ character win in the end, which was nice of him). He did steal away Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and a damn good thing, too. And of course as Snape in the Harry Potter films he was simply definitive — a tragic bad guy who ended up not bad, but complicated, and still tragic.

But my favorite Rickman performances were not him in villain mode. I loved him in Galaxy Quest as the actor who knew he had slummed but found out just how much his performance meant to people (and one alien in particular), in Sense and Sensibility as a man whose kindness and longing was hidden behind reserve and regret, and in Truly Madly Deeply as a man who loved so much he came back from the other side of death, only to learn that he still had to let go. Rickman was a great villain. He was even better playing away from that.

What a lovely actor. I’m glad I got to see his work. I’m sorry to see him go.

Off to Boston

Here at the Dayton airport for my first trip, and first convention, of the 2016: Off to Boston for Arisia, where I’m the author Guest of Honor. If you missed it earlier, here’s my schedule when I’m at the convention. If you’re in the Boston area, it’s not too late to get membership and hang out with a bunch of nerd. Come on, it’ll be fun.

Tangentially, today the Oscar nominations have come out. I usually do a writeup of my first pass predictions when that happens, but I’m travelling today so that will be delayed. Look for it either later today or tomorrow.

Duuuuuh Brain

Progress on the new novel has been pretty good — 20k words so far, which is where I want to be prior to being at Arisia, which will trim back my writing speed at bit — but one consequence of this is that when I’m done, and have done some other necessary work for the day (email, etc), when I come to the blog to write something, my brain is all eeeeeeeeeegh yeah no. Whether this is a side effect of getting back to novel writing after a pause, or because I’m getting older and only have so much brainpower per day, or because it’s the dead of winter which makes me feel sleepy at  6pm anyway — or some combination of all three and/or other factors — it’s hard to say. But it has made the blog a little, uh, less sparkly than usual, I suppose. I mean, unless you like kitten pictures, in which case it’s been awesome. And most of you like kitten pictures, so.

Along this same line: I’ll put up the Award recommendation posts next week, so be looking for those then.

In short: Look, here’s Zeus.

In Case You Were Wondering How Close You Can Get to a Sleeping Kitten With a Full-Sized DSL Camera Before She Wakes Up

The answer is:

Pretty close.

The Big Idea: Jake Kerr

Is being the chosen one all it’s cracked up to be? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and in this Big Idea for Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, author Jake Kerr has choice thoughts on being “chosen” and the choices the chosen ones (and their authors) might have.

JAKE KERR:

When you are writing a four book series, there is a lot of room to pursue ideas, both big and small, and in my Tommy Black series I’m taking full advantage of that. There are subtle things like all of the accurate historical elements I weave into the background, the fact that there is really no real bad guy in book one, and the morally complex role of magic. However, my biggest idea has to be that I’m doing my best to destroy the traditional “chosen one” coming-of-age genre trope. The consequences of that lead to a lot of interesting and fun things.

We’re all familiar with the chosen one—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and a wide range of heroes going back to the roots of the genre—the young boy who is given a special power or responsibility, and it his his destiny to use it for good. At the beginning of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light, that’s exactly what happens—Tommy is given his grandfather’s magical staff, told that it is his family’s legacy and that he must somehow learn its power to follow in his famous grandfather’s footsteps.

In the process of going down that path, however, Tommy is confronted with several aspects of his legacy that he finds wrong and unacceptable. He decides to re-define it into him working against much of what his family had done in the past. He still has powerful magic, and he is still the chosen one. He has just decided to abandon the legacy part.

That’s all well and good and not entirely groundbreaking, but the events in book two, Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility, lead Tommy down a challenging new path—his power starts to become unstable with the unearthing of other magical artifacts and other “chosen ones” wielding them. The result is that his role as hero changes, as do the roles of his friends.

This was actually quite challenging to write. We want our heroes to be heroes, and when they are confronted with challenges, it is disappointing to have someone else save them. Creating a narrative where Tommy fails and yet isn’t a failure made me reconsider how I approach conflict within a novel. For example: Could I take away Tommy’s powers and still give him a chance to shine? How would I do that?

One strategy for dealing with that is to have another character that everyone is rooting for. Luckily for me, I have Naomi. She is Tommy Black’s best friend, and, like Hermione Granger, she is a hard-working and astonishingly skilled magician. Unlike Hermione, however, Naomi is all forward momentum, and as Tommy struggles with the unreliability of his powers, Naomi jumps in and saves the day on a number of occasions.

Cover artist M.S. Corley handled this dynamic perfectly. We have ominous Nazi magicians arrayed against Tommy and Naomi, but the one in front is Naomi. (Corley’s a master, by the way. I highly recommend you check out his work here.)

One of the recurring comments I’ve heard from young readers of Tommy Black and the Staff of Light has been, “I want to see more of Naomi” or “Please have Naomi do more with her magic.” It was as if there was this untapped desire by readers to give the sidekick or the young girl a turn in the spotlight. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

In my case, it is by design, and Naomi is the perfect character to fill that role. She loves magic so much and works so hard at it that she trusts it implicitly. As a result, she barrels ahead with utter faith in her abilities, overwhelming warships at sea, German army units with guns and mortars, and an elite squad of Nazi magicians. Of course that confidence is also a flaw, and that’s part of the fun—watching how the changing power dynamic between Tommy and Naomi is grounded in a foundation of mutual support and friendship. They help each other with their weaknesses.

As the series progresses, that’s really the big idea I am excited about pursuing—Tommy the Chosen One struggling with the knowledge that his true path may be to go back to being the normal boy he was when he started, and the girl whose life he saved growing into the role she has built for herself: a young woman with great power taking over as the true savior of the world. In fact, the fourth book of the Tommy Black series won’t have his name on the cover. It will have Naomi’s.

By the way, “big idea” sounds kind of deep and philosophical. That’s not bad, of course, but don’t forget that this is a fantasy action/adventure series set during World War 2. I have Nazi magicians for goodness’ sake. I want the Tommy Black books to be just as fun as the Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien books I read when I was twelve. If readers don’t walk away with a smile on their face, I’ve failed.

With that in mind, here is an excerpt from chapter twelve, where we see the above big idea happening, while the scene itself is exciting and fun.

In the end, I want Tommy to be a hero that readers cheer and root for, but not because he was chosen or because he received some magical legacy. I want him to be a hero because he’s a good person. And I want Naomi to be cheered as a hero, too, because she works harder than everyone else, and it has made her truly amazing.

—-

Tommy Black and the Staff of Light/Tommy Black and the Coat of Invincibility: Amazon |Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo|Google|Apple|

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

My Arisia Schedule

My first science fiction convention of the year is this weekend: Arisia, at which I am the author Guest of Honor. Wheee! Here are the panels I’ll be on and the events I’ll be doing.

Friday: 

8:30pm: The Future of Mars – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Faneuil (3W)

We grew up reading about Barsoom and the Mars of Wells and Bradbury. Today, we’re finally exploring the reality of the red planet. Where does our fictional treatment of Mars go from here? Do we concentrate on the real possibilities opening up? Or are there exciting and odd treatments we can imagine?

Panelists: Ken Schneyer (m), Morgan Crooks, Jeff Hecht, Nalin Ratnayake, John Scalzi

 

Saturday:

1:00pm: Cinematic Writing and SF/F – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E)

SF/F literature gets a lot of its fans from other media, especially visual media like TV and film. How has it affected the writing of spec fic? Can writing be truly cinematic? What does cinematic literature look like? What techniques in SF/F point back toward more visual techniques in other media?

Panelists: James Macdonald (m), Marlin May, John Scalzi, Sarah Smith, Ian Randal Strock

4:00pm: John Scalzi Reading – GOH, Reading – 1hr 15min – Grand CD (1W)

Our Author Guest of Honor reads from one of his selected works and may take questions from the audience.

Panelist: John Scalzi

5:30pm: Cultural Assumptions in SF/F – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E)

Recent novels such as The Three Body Problem, The Grace of Kings, and Throne of the Crescent Moon join other works that challenge the cultural assumptions behind mainstream (American and English) science fiction and fantasy. How are these genres being reimagined beyond just making the space cowboys swear in Mandarin?

Panelists: John Chu (m), Max Gladstone, Crystal Huff, Kiini Ibura Salaam, John Scalzi

 

Sunday:

1:00pm: Addressing Sexual Harassment in Our Communities – Communities, Panel – 1hr 15min – Marina 1 (2E)

Harassment and safety at conventions is not a new topic, but it has been very much in the spotlight for the past couple of years. Many conventions, including Arisia, are taking steps to prioritize safety. What are the best ways to make convention attendees safer? Should we be looking at convention polices and enforcement, reporting procedures, or social change on what fans tolerate as acceptable behavior? How do our current strategies work, how could they work better, and who is doing it well?

Panelists: Kris “Nchanter” Snyder (m), Inanna Arthen, Jet Levy, John Scalzi, Isabel Schechter, Hannah Simpson

4:00pm: John Scalzi Book Signing – GOH, Signing – 1hr 15min – Grand Prefunction (1W)

Come get your book or other (reasonable) John Scalzi related paraphernalia signed by our Author Guest of Honor!

Panelist: John Scalzi

 

Monday:

11:30am: Humor in Writing – Writing, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E)

As the saying goes, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Why is writing humor so difficult? How much is too much or too little? How are different styles of humor conveyed through the writing?

Panelists: Daniel M Kimmel (m), Diane Kenealy, John Scalzi

 

The complete schedule of events (everyone’s, not just mine) is here.

So that’s my official schedule. I’ll also be popping into various other things while at the convention, and of course just hanging about chatting with people. Do come by and say hello if you see me. And also, of course, if you’re in or near the Boston area and have nothing planned for your weekend, well, here’s something you can do.

See you there!

Well, Look Who Just Showed Up For Work

Oh, hello, Winter. Nice you could make it. And only —

(glances at watch)

— three weeks late! Huh.

What? Something something El Nino something? Sure. Whatever. Look, if you won’t want the job, both Autumn and Spring are more than happy to pick up some extra shifts. They’re good workers. Happy to be here. You just let me know and I’ll go ahead and pencil them in.

No? Well, then. Maybe you’ll show up on time from now on. Okay? Good. Now get to work on the back. I can still see some green out there.