The Big Idea: Nisi Shawl

Nisi Shawl’s novel, Everfair, began as a bit of dare — a fine reason for a story to exist. But as Shawl details below, it’s not enough to write something for the challenge… because sooner or later, you’ll need people to want to read that story, too.

NISI SHAWL:

I want to subvert your mind. In a good way.

The impetus for writing Everfair came out of a 2009 World Fantasy Convention panel I was drafted onto. The topic was steampunk; the other participants were Liz Gorinsky, Ann VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, and Deborah Biancotti. What I didn’t understand going into the panel was why, with my love of Victorian literature and my self-admitted gear kink, I didn’t groove heavily on this genre? The answer I discovered and propounded to the audience: disgust caused by steampunk’s cozy relationship with colonialism. Enough with the be-goggled pith helmets and offscreen resource extraction already, I declared—I was going to write a steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo! Egged on by Swanwick’s shudders and eye-rolling I added:

“And I will make you beg to read it!”

Then I had to figure out how.

My first glimpse of a way forward came in the form of a reference to an abandoned “Utopia” in Brazil called Fordlandia. Fordlandia was Henry Ford’s capitalist experiment in community building. The US automaker wanted to monopolize Brazilian rubber production, and rubber was what drove King Leopold II of Belgium in his shameful tyrannizing over central Africa. So there was a very visible connection between the two men behind these different projects… but what if people who wanted to create a real Utopia had set one up too? Britain’s Fabian Socialists, with whom I was familiar due to my aforementioned fondness for all things Victorian, were likely candidates. What if they’d bought land from Leopold, feeding his greed with the funds that in actuality they used to found the London School of Economics? What if U.S. Civil War veteran George Washington Williams, author of the scathing “Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo,” had lived a long, activist life instead of dying soon after his investigatory visit to Boma?

As I wrote along the lines these inquiries suggested, I also paid attention to my usual favorites: sensory cues (What does a crashing dirigible sound like? How does a warehouse full of tea and bauxite smell?), characters’ voices (Who asks lots of questions? Who never hears anyone’s answers?), and complications (Would arranging for this one to get what they want mean that one’s dreams were indefinitely deferred?). Because I wanted people to immerse themselves fully in the possibilities of Everfair.

Though millions of people died during Leopold’s brutal reign, many of them horribly, I wanted readers to want to read what I was writing. I wanted to sneak past the defenses we all have in place against pain and suffering, even—or maybe especially—suffering perceived at third or fourth hand. One of my most trusted secret weapons in carrying out this infiltration was Lisette Toutournier.

The model for Lisette, arguably the book’s main character, is my favorite author, Colette. While Colette’s work often conveys the sensual pleasures of nature, I’ve endowed Lisette with my own gear kink. In her sections there are loving descriptions of train engines and steam bicycles and so forth. Lisette finds a tour of a ship’s coal hold a much more romantic gift than a lacy negligée. After indulging with her in the delights technology offers, my audience would be willing to thoughtfully consider the price we pay for those delights. I hoped. Feedback from early readers indicates this ploy is a success.

Now to try it on you.

—-

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

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

Spice Enjoys Her Labor Day

She’s clearly not laboring at the moment. Nor should she be! For not laboring is what Labor Day is about!

How’s your Labor Day coming along?

Sunset With Mercury and Duck, 9/3/16

How cool is this: For the second time in less than a month, I’ve captured a picture of Mercury, the most elusive of the classical planets. It’s the bright spot up and to the left of the setting sun. Mercury is hard to spot precisely because it’s so close to the sun, and it’s often covered up in the sun’s glare. And indeed, I didn’t see Mercury here with my own eyes — I snapped a picture of the setting sun and found it hanging out there. The camera’s sensor and lens have a much wider aperture than my own eyes and picked it up pretty easily. Also captured: A duck, to the far left. Truly, a fine sunset picture.

Kristine Blauser Scalzi, 9/3/16

Because I like taking pictures of my wife, that’s why.

Hope your Labor Day weekend is coming along nicely.

5 Writing the Other Fails And How To Avoid Them: A Guest Post

As we head off into Labor Day weekend, here’s some food for thought from K. Tempest Bradford and a number of other writers, all instructors of the Writing the Other series of online classes, developed to help writers do a better job at writing people whose experiences are not like theirs. In this piece, they’re looking at examples of how writing the other didn’t work, and what you can learn from those.

 

K. Tempest Bradford:

Writing the “Other” seems like a daunting task to many writers, especially writers who are white, or male, or able-bodied, or are in some other major way part of the mainstream, the majority, and who exist in some part of the “Unmarked State.” There are a ton of pits to fall into, and it feels like there’s always a group of people out there waiting to pounce if you get it wrong.

Is it even possible to get it right?

Yes. Because, as poet Kwame Dawes has said: “Racist writing is… a craft failure.” Any writing steeped in stereotype, prejudice, or bigotry (unintentional, unexamined or not) is a craft failure. And authors should always strive to improve their craft.

But before you can attempt to get it right and do better, it’s important to understand where writers and creators go wrong, as they so often go wrong in some of the exact same ways. To that end, I asked some of the smartest media critics I know to talk about particularly memorable fails around writing the “Other.” Not-coincidentally, these are also the people teaching a series of online seminars to help writers improve their craft in this area.

 

Debbie Reese on J. K. Rowling’s Magic in North America:

In March of 2016, J.K. Rowling released Magic In North America, which is a series of stories about a school of magic located in North America. Most of her fans were ecstatic. Her Native fans, however, were stunned. Many expressed a sense of betrayal that a much-loved writer had taken–and badly used–spiritual aspects of Native cultures. It was, in short, painful to see Rowling repeating the appropriations and misrepresentations that characterize depictions of Native peoples in children’s and young adult literature.

That body of misrepresentation is the norm in American and British society. In most people, it passes as “knowledge” of Native peoples. The thing is, it isn’t. Native people know it isn’t. But for most people, that “knowledge” of Native peoples is so ingrained in society that it didn’t occur to Rowling (obviously) or her editor (again, obviously), or to most readers (sadly) that what she did in Magic In North America is wrong.

Where, specifically, did she go wrong? We could start with her use of “the Native American community.” Written that way, it suggests there is one community of Native Americans. It may sound OK, but the fact that it sounds OK points to the first problem. There is not one Native American community. At present, there are over 500 federally recognized sovereign nations in the United States. Amongst them, as one might imagine, is tremendous diversity of language, spirituality, history, and material culture. By using the singular, Rowling sets readers up to accept and, indeed, embrace troubling stereotypes that are harmful to the well-being of Native youth and their sovereign nations.

Native spiritualities are not the stuff of folklore, though they’re presented as such. In fact, they deserve the respect accorded to stories rooted in Christianity. Most people recognize those stories as sacred. Ours are, too, but visit your local library. You’ll find Native creation stories shelved with folk and fairy tales. They ought to be shelved with World Religions.

Rowling is far from the only writer that has failed in depictions of Native peoples. Children’s and young adult books are cluttered with failures, and so is film and television! Society is inundated with problematic representations of Native peoples.

Much of this can be interrupted if writers would, for starters, see us and our cultures as we are–in the depth and breadth of our existence–past and present. It may require that you erase what you think you know about us. If you’ve got Native peoples on a pedestal for their noble way of life or some idea that we revere the earth? You need to get rid of that pedestal.

Debbie Reese, founder of American Indians in Children’s Literature, is an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo Tribe and holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Illinois.

 

Ashley Lauren Rogers on (Re)Assignment, directed by Walter Hill

It was announced recently that Michelle Rodriguez (Fast and Furious franchise) would be playing a male hitman “who is tricked into undergoing gender reassignment surgery by a “rogue doctor” (Sigourney Weaver) who turns him into a woman. After the apparently violent surgery, the newly female Kitchen goes on a hunt for revenge.” This is the type of story which stigmatizes body confirmation procedures and the people who receive them. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were an Adam Sandler flick starring Nicholas Cage, but everyone involved are folks who take their craft seriously.

Let’s start by saying trans people should be playing trans rolls, especially in the case of Rodriguez who has tweeted transphobic crap in the past (Come to think of it, it makes sense Rodriguez is doing this movie…) but from a writing perspective we’ve heard this story before. “Mad scientists,” or “Rogue,” doctors in this case, forcing genital modifications on people that don’t want them because we all know that’s what they mean when they say “turns him into a woman.” This doctor didn’t go rogue to file an official change on Kitchen’s birth certificates. This also frames Rodriguez’s character and their sense of being around their genitalia. Which is a huge misstep when it comes to writing about the trans experience, and in this case the “Body horror, forced feminization,” narrative that this movie is actually peddling.

All of this could have been avoided if, legit, they asked any trans person. If this piece wasn’t focused on “The Surgery,” and was focused on anything else all of this could have been avoided. If it were portrayed by a trans person… it’d still be problematic as hell but, if they also hired the trans person as consultant, they might have found ways to suggest changes that weren’t so “Body horror revenge,” and more “Revenge.” I would have rather heard Laverne Cox was playing a detective who’s partner (Romantic or detective-wise) was murdered while she was recovering from some surgery since it takes some time to do. Admittedly that still frames the plot around the trans woman’s body but it puts the control in her hands and allows for her to have one of those “I can’t blame myself for what I had to do…  But I can get my revenge,” type moments.

Ashley Lauren Rogers is an actress and playwright with a Bachelors of English Literature and Theatre degree from Fitchburg State College.

 

Lauren Jankowski on Sirens, USA Network

Whenever someone thinks of a failure of the portrayal of asexuality, most times they’re expecting to hear about the now notorious episode of House, which will probably go down in history as the most offensive and damaging portrayal of asexuality ever committed to celluloid. However, it was so genuinely terrible that it’s just a little too easy to point at it and declare, “But at least I didn’t do that!”

No, no, no, let’s try something a little more tricky to spot: Sirens, the short-lived USA series that featured a supposedly openly asexual character who went by the nickname Voodoo. I write supposedly because the only thing that distinguished this character as asexual was that she referred to herself as such. Even when on screen, she was basically just another love interest.

Putting aside the fact that Voodoo was a traditionally attractive cis white woman (which the media seems convinced is the only sort of asexual out there), Voodoo was never shown with her friends. The only relationships in her life that were shown on screen were her romantic ones, always with men. Her asexual identity was played up as a joke among the other characters or as an obstacle that Brian, a heterosexual cis-man coworker who was in love with her, needed to overcome. Voodoo basically existed almost solely to show what a great guy Brian was.

All of this could have been avoided if there had actually been an openly asexual writer in the writers room. Or at least someone who knew what the heck asexuality actually is. There is nothing wrong with portraying an asexual person in a romantic relationship, but when it’s written as the only or most important relationship in his/her/their life, then it becomes a huge problem. Voodoo must have had some friends, some platonic relationships in her life–why didn’t they write her having a girls night out? It would have been amazing to show an asexual woman with strong platonic relationships that were just as important as the on-off romantic relationship she had. Instead, Voodoo was a flat one-dimensional character who could have been replaced with a sexy lamp.

This show made no attempt to humanize Voodoo. Instead, it put her through the “how asexual is she” test, including an episode where Brian asks where whether or not she masturbated. Hey, allos, don’t freaking do that! It’s super gross. If you’re putting a character through a “okay, he/she/they say they’re [X], but really, how [X] are they?” test, you’re doing a really poor job of writing.

Lauren Jankowski is an author, the founder of Asexual Artists and co-founder of Pack of Aces . She holds a B.A. in Women and Gender Studies from Beloit College.

 

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry on Daredevil, Netflix

In multiple episodes of the television show Daredevil, Matt Murdock is seen flinging his white cane – an important tool for blind people – away from himself so that he can go fight. The writers don’t use the cane as a weapon (which it can be adapted into), and they don’t bring his adaptive tech into the 21st century. The whole series relies on the idea that Daredevil’s powers basically make him not really blind, even while pretending to be. Blindness becomes the Clark Kent glasses of Matthew Murdock, and that’s not acceptable. It gets so bad that fans of the show will tell blind people that he isn’t “really blind” in defense of the show.

All of this could have been avoided if the writers treated disability as part of a person, and not as a personality quirk or a costume people can take off.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry is a half-blind, half-deaf, half-Scandinavian horror & SFF writer, editor, historian and theatre professional with a BA in Theater & History and an MA in Women’s History from Sarah Lawrence College.

 

Cynthia Ward on Bones, FOX Network

I have seen so few specifically identified-as-atheist (as opposed to coded-atheist or generically secular) characters that the fail is more in our absence than in our misrepresentation. I’ve only seen a few episodes of House, whom I gather is our Poster Boy, and Bones, which I guess has our Poster Girl. However, in the episode of Bones I saw I did note one of the common tropes associated with atheists and skeptics.

The episode, “Harbingers in a Fountain,” shows a skeptical scientist and self-proclaimed atheist developing a credulity-snappingly quick acceptance of purported psychic powers on remarkably thin evidence.  While not all atheists would be familiar with probability or science, a skeptical atheist scientist would be familiar with how common “unlikely” coincidences are (cf. Littlewood’s Law, not to mention be familiar with reproducibility and the rest of the scientific method. Given she’s a skeptical atheist scientist (forensic anthropologist and kinesiologist), Temperance “Bones” Brennan is neither a likely nor a believable atheist character in this episode.

To my experience, when an explicitly atheist or skeptic character turns up in fantasy literature, it’s in a story where the atheist/skeptic discovers s/he’s wrong, the end.

I would guess that a non-religious publisher presenting stories in which a Christian or Jewish character discovers s/he’s wrong, the end, would receive a lot of flak (and deserve it), but do this to an atheist or skeptic character and it usually goes not only uncriticized, but unremarked.

I’m not saying no one should ever write such fiction about atheists or skeptics – I have, myself.  I’m saying such an experience for an atheist or skeptic isn’t the end of the story.  It’s the beginning.

It’s also not the only role or plot available to the overtly atheist character.  Atheists have full lives, we have families, friends, morals, ethics, loves, hates, hopes, dreams, fears, and everything else other humans have.  We can fill every character role available to the believer and to the agnostic.  And if you’re thinking “Well, except for man/woman of God,” can I introduce you to my partner, the atheist minister?

Cynthia Ward [http://www.cynthiaward.com/] is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and, with author Nisi Shawl, developed and has taught the Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction seminar for over fifteen years.

 

K. Tempest Bradford:

Want to avoid falling in the many Failholes outlined above? Want some specific help learning how to do that? Then you’re in luck, because this is happening:

Writing Deaf and Blind Characters with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry – September 10th, 2016

Writing the Other: Comics and Graphic Novels with Sara Ryan – September 10th, 2016

More than Eunuchs and Extraterrestrials: Writing Positive Portrayals of Asexual Characters with Lauren Jankowski – September 11th

Writing for Trans and Non-Binary Narratives with Ashley Lauren Rogers – September 11th

Beyond Belief: Writing Plausible Atheist and Religious Characters with Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward – September 27th

Writing Native American Characters: How Not To Do A Rowling taught by Debbie Reese (this seminar already happened, but the video and resources will be available to purchase soon).

All the classes but one still have spaces available right this second. You’ll not only get a chance to learn more about what not to do and what you should do, instead, but you also get to ask each of these smart, talented people specific questions. You then improve your craft, get better at writing, and create art that doesn’t contribute to cultural toxicity. Isn’t that worth striving for? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)

The Big Idea: Adam Heine

For the first Big Idea of September, author Adam Heine talks about Izanami’s Choice, and how, while “cool” is cool, ultimately it’s not quite enough for a great story.

ADAM HEINE:

Samurai vs. robots. It sounds like the Rule of Cool gone bad, right? For instant awesome, add disgruntled ronin, droid assassins, and folding swords.

Oh, I had other ideas I wanted to explore in this story – free will, messing with Three Laws tropes, fear and its role in the greater good – but the truth is that this story started out as “What if Meiji Era Japan had androids instead of guns and there were robots fighting samurai and also a detective and a murder mystery and wouldn’t that be so cool!”

But as much as I swear by the Rule of Cool, relying on that by itself would lead to a weak world, a dull plot, and – if I wasn’t careful – the appropriation and disrespect of an entire culture. I… don’t enjoy writing stories like that.

In order to make this work, I needed artificial intelligence in the 19th century. Gibson and Sterling provided a template for that in The Difference Engine, in which Babbage had succeeded in creating his difference engine, inventing computers a good century before we did. I took that even further. What if Babbage kept improving upon it? What if he collaborated with Darwin on ideas of evolutionary computation? What if logicians of the time codified reasoning as mathematical deduction, and formalized concepts we know under the Church-Turing Thesis? What if – by evaluating competing programs and designs against each other, by revising them at an accelerated rate with advanced analytical engines – 20th-century technologies and even artificial intelligence were invented before their time?

And what if someone created a machine intelligent enough to evaluate and revise its own designs? You’d have the beginnings of a robotic singularity.

Meanwhile (and true to actual history), Commodore Perry shows up in Edo Bay, forcing an end to Japan’s isolationism and catalyzing the events that would lead to the Fall of Edo, the end of the samurai class, and the rise of the Meiji Restoration. But in this world, instead of sparking an industrial revolution, imported Western technology sparks a cybernetic one.

I had a world. Now what about the story? I figured, since I had a nation in love with robots, I should focus on someone who despised them. Shimada Itaru is a former samurai who grew up when the shogunate fell, who was a skilled swordsman when the government made it illegal to carry swords (androids made weaponized humans obsolete, after all), who fought against the androids – and lost everything – in the failed Satsuma Rebellion.

When the Satsuma samurai fell, Itaru didn’t surrender or commit seppuku like most of his kin. He ran. He hid. He forged a new life for himself, despising the droids who’d stripped his sword, his honor, and his country from him. When his son was later killed as the result of an android malfunction, Itaru’s enmity turned into outright loathing.

I put Itaru in a situation where he had to work alongside an android in order to get his life back, and bam. Story.

How to respect history and culture? That will always be an ongoing process, one in which I’m sure I will make mistakes (and God-willing, learn from them). But the main thing I know is this: damn well get it right. I spent a crapload of time – more time than I spent actually writing the book, I think – studying Meiji Era Japan, reading Mikiso Hane and James Clavell, researching historical Tokyo wards, scrolling through hundreds and hundreds of pictures circa 1900, and more. Any mistakes in the book are a result of my humanity, not carelessness.

I still worked in a folding sword, though. Physics shmysics, man, those things are cool.

—-

Izanami’s Choice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

And Now To Close Out August 2016, Please Accept These Pictures of Two Delightful Hummingbirds

So long, August. See you in a year, more or less.

Zachary Quinto to Narrate “The Dispatcher,” To Be Released by Audible October 4

And Entertainment Weekly has the scoop! So go there for details, including a link to pre-order. Note the cost. It’s not a typo.

EW has the scoop, but I will now add a few answers to additional questions I think you might have.

Is there going to be a print edition? Yes, there will be, from Subterranean Press, which includes some amazing artwork. Audible has the novella as an exclusive for a certain amount of time, but SubPress will have it after that window expires. Expect it in 2017. More details when I can give them to you.

Does this mean you’re not working with Wil Wheaton in audio anymore? No, it just means we went with someone else for this particular project. If I have my druthers, Wil and I will be collaborating again, and often. But, you know. I already work with other narrators (including William Dufris, Tavia Gilbert and Amber Benson), and Wil of course works with other authors, including Ernie Cline. We have an open relationship, as it were.

Whoa, Zachary Quinto is cool. That’s not a question, but I agree. And I think he’s going to be just about perfect for The Dispatcher. I can’t wait for you all to hear this one. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s pretty good.

Any additional questions? Drop them into the comments.

First Day of School, 2016

And Athena is ready for it!

This is Athena’s senior year, and this year she’s doing something a little different; basically, having exhausted the possibilities of her lovely but very small local rural high school, this year Athena is taking classes at the local community college. She’ll be getting credit toward her high school graduation and also, as I understand it, getting transferable credits for whatever four year college she attends next year. Or something, I’m honestly not 100% clear on this. But, the point is: She’s a senior, she’s off to her first day of classes today. Thus begins another school year. Indeed, her final school year before college.

I’ve been doing these “first day of school” pictures since Athena’s first day of school in the first grade (see below), with a couple of years missed when I was off on a tour (we also missed the first day picture for Athena’s second grade year, on account she was at Disneyland that day; I think it’s a good excuse). It’s a little odd to think that this is the last one I’m likely to do — I’m very unlikely to be there on her first day of classes for college, and I think we all agree this is probably a good thing. I wouldn’t call the moment bittersweet, since time passing is a thing and that’s all right. But it is a reminder that time does pass, and that just as there is a first time for everything, there is also a last. One chapter of Athena’s life, and ours, is coming to an end this school year. Time to get ready for the next chapters. I think they’ll read just as well. I’m excited to get to them.

The University of Chicago, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces

Last week the University of Chicago caused a bit of an uproar by sending out a letter to incoming students telling them not to expect intellectual safe spaces or trigger warnings when it came to critical inquiry. This caused celebration in some quarters and consternation in others, in both cases in no small part to the use of the phrases “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” which are apprehended in different ways by different general audiences, cutting roughly but not exclusively along US liberal/conservative lines.

I am a University of Chicago graduate, and having come out of its classically liberal educational ethos, I have some thoughts on the letter, and on the general matter of intellectual inquiry, and on safe spaces and trigger warnings and so on and so forth. Note that a lot of this follows on (and may repeat) what I’ve written about free speech and other related topics before, so some of this may seem familiar to you.

1. In a very general sense, as a graduate, what I understood the University of Chicago letter to mean is this: “When you get here, your previous notions are going to be confronted and challenged and sometimes this process might be deeply uncomfortable for you. We find this to be a feature, not a bug.” Which I find to be a largely unobjectionable sentiment, when it comes to education and the development of the individual. You have to be confronted, you have to be challenged, and you have to learn the skills that allow you to robustly defend your point of view and to abandon that point of view when it is not tenable, and come to a new understanding through the process. This is all very Hegelian — thesis, antithesis, synthesis — which means it’s very Chicago, where Hegel might as well be the school mascot.

2. I thought the Dean of Students did a less than 100% excellent job in conveying this particular point, choosing to spice up his letter to the kids with lingo to show how he’s hip and with it, or something, in the process letting shouty people drag the letter out and wave it about for their own purposes. So, yeah, well done, there, dean. Additionally, I’m not entirely sure that that message in that particular letter was necessary. This is the University of Chicago, guys. Is anyone who actually intends to attend unaware that the university prides itself on rigorous examination, discussion and debate? Basically, I found the letter a bit silly. If I were an instructor (or an editor), I would have sent it back with the instruction to tone down the posturing and just get to the meat of the letter sooner.

3. I think it’s good and fine and necessary that an education requires confronting one’s own thoughts and beliefs, subjecting them to the crucible of inquiry and discussion, and thus tempering the quality of one’s own beliefs as a result. What is equally important — and what in my experience Chicago was good at, and a thing not conveyed very well by the letter — is that those leading these excursions, the professors and other instructors, work the room. Which means not only leading discussion but also focusing and shaping it and creating an environment in which every student can be a component of the discussion. Which can mean anything from making sure a couple of egotistical loudmouths don’t just drone on every goddamn class session, to drawing out those students who might otherwise feel like there’s no percentage in making their own points. You can only robustly interrogate beliefs and assumptions when everyone who is there to learn knows they can speak. That’s on the instructors, and professors, and on the University as a whole. I believe Chicago does that — or did, when I was there — and that’s something I wish was better articulated.

4. Likewise, the educational process is more (and better) than some sort of Intellectual Thunderdome where the validity of a point of view is decided solely through trial by combat. Robust interrogation of one’s point of view by others is a thing, and a necessary thing, but is not the only thing. There are all sorts of ways to learn, to acquire knowledge, assess and reassess one’s ground assumptions, and come to a better understanding of the world therein. My Chicago experience had a lot of me squaring off against some other student — or a professor! Screw you, Dr. Whoever! I have points I’m gonna make and I will fight you on them — but just as much if not more of my education was spent doing other things, from quiet reading to co-operative participation to just shutting up and letting someone more knowledgeable and experienced than I was show me something I didn’t already know.

5. Over on Twitter the other day I noted the following:

Which made a lot of conservatives on Twitter really rather foamy, bloviating about how they never ask for safe spaces, harupmh harumph, gwaaaaaaaar. Which I found pretty funny. First because I found it non-responsive to the point that Chicago’s policy means that all points of view will be open to interrogation, which will include conservative points of view that new students might bring in. Having seen more than a couple of young conservatives at Chicago walk into a moving fan blade of people as smart as they were, with better command of facts and rhetoric, and coming out rather upset and angry with the experience, I’m not at all convinced every young conservative is ready to have their own baseline assumptions challenged. I expect some will assume Chicago is an implictly “safe space” for them, like, as it happens, most of the rest of their world. Which of course is the point: when (some) conservatives like to brag that they never ask for safe spaces, that’s very much like a fish bragging that it never asks for water.

Let me suggest a radical idea (which is to say, it’s not really radical at all), which is that the ability to take a challenge to one’s fundamental precepts of the world, and the enthusiasm to engage with those who oppose those precepts, is largely orthogonal to one’s political views. There are liberal-minded folks who love to walk into a room full of people ready to hate them and bellow, bring it, suckas; there are conservatives who are the most special of special snowflakes who ever wafted down, weeping precious and icy tears. And vice-versa, and the same no matter where one plots one’s self on a multi-dimensional political chart.

I might suggest a salient difference between liberal and conservatives in this regard is that many of the groups that traditionally comprise the liberal coalition — minorities, women, LGBTQ+ — don’t have the baseline assumption of safety in the world that generally white, generally straight conservatives do. This makes it easier for (some) conservatives to pretend that don’t in fact expect to have their worldview coddled and allowed for every bit as much as they accuse liberals of doing. And when they run into a buzzsaw that shreds their worldview — as they will at Chicago, almost guaranteed — their perhaps previously unrealized assumption that Chicago was “safe” for them, intellectually, is going into the hopper.

6. With respect to the University of Chicago specifically, it’s been suggested that one reason for the letter is a bit of institutional territory marking (see this Vox article) basically telling the kids that the sort of protesting that works at other schools isn’t going to fly at Chicago, so don’t even bother. While I’m not at all convinced that this is really what the letter was about, it is absolutely true that institutionally speaking the University of Chicago doesn’t take kindly to protesting. When I attended Chicago, I wrote an in-depth series of articles about when, in the 1960s, Chicago students, like other students at elite universities, took over the administration building as a protest (in the case of Chicago, for a popular teacher being dropped). Chicago’s response, basically, was to wait out the protesters, discipline a stack of the students for being a nuisance, and then never speak about it again (the teacher was not rehired, either). This last year, the president of the student government at Chicago barely escaped with his degree after he allowed students into the administration building for a different protest (seriously, don’t screw with the administration building. They get annoyed and they will punish you).

But again, I don’t think the letter was a warning so much as a poorly expressed declaration of intellectual intent. Yes, the school and/or students will occasionally bring in people to speak whom you hate. No, your protests won’t stop it. Deal. Which again is a very Chicago thing to do.

7. How do I personally feel about safe spaces and trigger warnings in a general sense? With regard to the latter, I think they’re fine, and often courteous. I think the world has come to place where we understand people have their various sensitivities, and if it would be a kindness to give people a heads up that something involves violence or racism or whatever, sure, why not? It’s not censorship to make people aware they should prepare (which ironically, means you could say that silly letter was a trigger warning letting students know about their future lack at the school — in which case, very sneaky, Chicago).

As for safe spaces, my own understanding is that it’s also generally fine and courteous to give people space to despressurize and relax and be themselves, often without me around (or at least, if I am around, with me following rules others set). This is, I will be the first to admit, a very simplistic approach to what the concept of a safe space is. But it’s the foundation on which I build out complexity regarding the subject.

Also, you know. I don’t feel obliged to pretend “trigger warnings” are a liberal phenomenon; when they’re basically conservative, they’re usually called “ratings.” Movie, TV and video game ratings, content advisory notes on music, etc — none of which in the US are currently dictated by the government, incidentally — they’re pretty much so people don’t get triggered (or get triggered by their children seeing something inconvenient for them as parents). I don’t really have an opposition to ratings either. I mean, hell, back at the turn of the century I ran a video game site specifically calling out game elements ranging from violence to drug use to racism to nudity so people could decide whether or not to get a game, or get it for their kids, or be prepared for that content when it happened (here’s one of the reviews). You know, kind of like trigger warnings. Conservative folks loved the site. But that’s different! Well, no. It’s really not.

Likewise I can think of several places online and off which qualify as “safe spaces” for non-liberals, where like-minded people go to rest and relax and not have to feel like they always have to be looking over their shoulder for the politically correct thought police, etc and so on, places that have rules that you have to follow, set by moderators or owners or whomever, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Whether they’re called “safe spaces” or not is neither here nor there. Apply the duck test to it.

And that’s fine too — with safe spaces and trigger warnings, however you choose to label them, everyone needs their gathering holes and has their sensitivities and desires companionship with others whose journey is similar to theirs. Sometimes you need a respite from the world, because very often the world is work. It’s courteous to let others have them, and if necessary, to offer them. It would be lovely if people stopped pretending they don’t exist all across the human experience, including across the political spectrum.

8. I don’t believe the Chicago approach, or that silly letter, means fewer liberals (or conservatives! Or any other political orientation!) are going to come out of the school, a belief buttressed by looking at the rather wide cross-section of political positions and opinions that its alumni espouse. A school that counts both Saul Alinsky and Milton Friedman among its graduates can encompass a wide scope of thought; the alumni issuing forth from it since the heady days of the tenure of Alinsky and Friedman appear similarly varied in their politics. This is good for the school and it’s good for the people who attend it today — they are going to meet up with people not like them, and argue with them, and hopefully come away with a better understanding of opposing positions, and their own. And who knows? Maybe they’ll even become and remain friends with people who don’t think in lockstep with them. It happens. It happened to me. And that is a definite positive of a Chicago education.

New Books and ARCs, 8/26/16

To send you off into the last weekend of August, here’s another very fine stack of books and ARCs. What looks good to you here? Tell us in the comments!

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

The Earth trembles as Beth Cato appears to talk about her new novel, Breath of Earth! No, seriously, it’s got earthquakes in it — and they’re a big part of the story.

BETH CATO:

As a native Californian, it’s only right that one of my earliest memories is of an earthquake.

I was three-years-old when a devastating earthquake struck Coalinga, about 45-minutes away from my home. As luck would have it, I was in the bathtub. I carry a profound memory of terror as water began to slosh sideways out of the tub without me even moving. I screamed. My mom scooped me up to save me.

A few days later, we drove out to Coalinga to view the destruction firsthand. We weren’t simply playing tourist; my mom used to live there, and my grandparents were driving away from a visit to the town when the quake struck. We saw street after street of buildings with walls sloughed away, exposing the interiors like dollhouses. It was horrible (especially for my mom), but I found it fascinating.

I grew up practicing earthquake drills in school. At home, I learned that if I suspected an earthquake was happening, I should look to the ceiling lamps to see if they swayed. That’s how my family verified that we felt an earthquake in October 1989. We soon found out that the epicenter was in San Francisco, a solid three-hour drive away.

Therefore, it only feels right that my first novel set in California is all about earthquakes. My heroine, Ingrid, is a secretary who is secretly a powerful geomancer. She lives in a world with a vastly different history than ours: the American Civil War ended early due to a Union partnership with the airship-powered might of Japan. They formed an alliance called the Unified Pacific, and as my book opens in April 1906, their combined forces are at war with China.

For Ingrid, earthquakes are not something to fear; they are something to harvest. Geomancers pull in the energy of the earth before it can damage buildings or people. They act as a buffer—but at a cost. Human bodies take in earth magic as heat, and in a major earthquake, the fever can overcome them in minutes. They stay alive by breaking contact with the ground or by immediately transferring the energy to a rare crystal called kermanite. Charged kermanite is what powers autocars, flashlights, even airships. Geomancers are the source of economic and military prosperity.

Women aren’t supposed to inherit geomancy, and Ingrid’s capacity to hold and wield energy is unlike that of anyone else. She is a woman of color, possessing a skill that she dare not reveal, and she bristles at her subservient place in society. She is privately delighted when earthquakes happen–those are brief moments when she knows she is her true, powerful self.

There is a lot of symbolism built into Ingrid and her relationship with both her own power and society at large, but for me there is some personal wish fulfillment there, too. Ingrid can stop earthquakes before damage occurs.

During my childhood in California, I didn’t live in terror of earthquakes as some people do, but I was keenly aware of their destructive might. I had seen it with my own eyes, at a very early age. I still pay attention to the occasional sensational headlines about when the next “Big One” will occur. I worry about my family in my hometown of Hanford, and friends who live across the state.

For all of our modern knowledge of earth science, earthquakes are still a mystical, wild force. For me, the desire to form a magic system, to make earthquakes a controllable entity, doesn’t feel like a stretch of the imagination. It’s something that I wish were real so that I could keep my own loved ones safe.

—-

Breath of Earth: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

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

New Books and ARCs, 8/24/16

Lots of new books in this week so we’ll have two stacks, one today and one Friday. See anything in this particular stack that trips your proverbial trigger? Let us know in the comments!

The Big Idea: Kate Milford

The War of 1812 is back! Sort of! In The Left-Handed Fate, author Kate Milford uses that little-remembered war as a backdrop for her story, and her musings on the nature of justice, particularly from the perspective of younger readers.

KATE MILFORD:

Writing about war for kids is difficult, and probably every book that attempts it is difficult in its own unique way. My newest book, The Left-Handed Fate, launches today. It’s a nautical fantasy set during the War of 1812, a time period I chose because it made sense for what I wanted to do (write a fantasy with ships in an era when kids in nautical families could go to sea and get up to adventures at very young ages), not because I was super-excited about writing a story about war. I knew that tackling the realities of children in wartime was going to be a challenge, but in the end it wasn’t a matter of the violence, or the convoluted economics and politics that kept Europe and the Americas at war for decades that made it so. It was the problem of treason and justice.

Kids have finely calibrated senses of justice. It’s one of the ways in which they make sense of the world, society, relationships, and basic interactions. Fairness is one of the laws of the universe–until, of course, they learn that it totally isn’t a law of anything. They also have sensitive rightness meters–another apparent law of the universe when you’re small is that in any altercation between two parties, there will be one party who’s right, and one party who’s wrong. These two beliefs–the belief that in most situations there’s a right side and a wrong side, and that fairness and justice should determine which side is which–persist to some degree or another throughout adolescence and sometimes deep into adulthood. And there’s a third thing that kids believe that sometimes they don’t grow out of quickly enough: the idea of being at the center of things. When you’re a kid, the most natural thing to assume is that that things are about you, or sometimes about things you identify with.

The biggest challenge of this book was to overturn those three basic, world-defining beliefs of childhood in a way that would still tell a satisfying story to a young reader. Because I have been in enough schools and discussed enough books with enough kids to have heard some variation of, “I understand why it had to be that way, but I didn’t like it” a million times. And in the end, while I think it’s nice to wind up with a book that has Something To Say To Young Audiences, mainly I want my readers to fall in love with the characters and their stories. I want them to love the story I tell. If it makes them think and challenges their worldviews, cool. But I want them to want to share it with their friends.

In LHF, I have three point-of-view characters: a British privateer and the also-British natural philosopher that hired her ship to help him build a weapon, and an American midshipman who’s made prize-captain when the privateer is captured. The entire story depends on the American kid deciding to help his enemies, who are mostly concerned with their ongoing war with the French and not about the conflict with America at all. This despite the fact that America was completely justified in declaring war in 1812. Our grievances were real. The American kid could be forgiven for feeling pretty confident that his side was right and Britain was wrong. And yet, I needed to have him come to the realization that the right choice was to side, for this particular adventure, with his enemies. To decide to risk court-martial and maybe death, but certainly to ruin his barely-begun career in the process.

All of this is a problem because it’s not fair, and because it’s hard to argue with the idea that, in this particular conflict, the American kid’s side is the right side. So my difficulty was how to get across to my readership of mostly elementary- and middle-school kids that frequently there’s more than one right side, that often “fair” is meaningless, and that sometimes even when you’re in the right and justice dictates that you should get your way, sometimes there’s a bigger picture that renders all of that irrelevant. That sometimes it’s not about you.

It was helpful that France at the time had some seriously bad stuff going on. It wasn’t hard to paint the Revolutionary generals and later Napoleon as monstrous and make France the greater evil to justify the American kid’s choices, and there’s some pretty dark moments as the privateer and the philosopher work to convince their captor that even though France is technically an American ally, defeating Napoleon should be everyone’s highest priority. (My editor really wanted me to keep the body count low until I wound up having a character talk about his time fighting in the Vendee during a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands even before the Reign of Terror. I think after that she sort of threw up her hands and gave up.)

But the thing that makes the era of constant warfare that includes both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars relevant today is, I think, the insane nationalism and xenophobia that characterized all sides of these conflicts. So although I needed Bonaparte to represent a kind of offstage megavillain, I really wanted to avoid any dangerous oversimplifications that involved painting the entire country as the enemy. There are too many adults today that can’t wrap their heads around the concept that it’s possible you can’t identify people as evil simply by virtue of nationality; I didn’t want to support the idea that geography makes enemies in a book aimed at kids.

Fortunately, kids can handle both darkness and complexity, which is good because the ultimate solutions to my story problems required both acknowledging the intricacies of the various wars at the time and acknowledging the sometimes very frightening events that made the stakes so high on all sides.

But the truth is, it’s hard to ruffle kids in my target age range. Generally, when I go into schools and talk about my work, neither the convoluted politics nor the occasional carnage shock them. What does throw them for a major loop is being told that the United States fought a war that wasn’t particularly important in the global scheme of things, which it didn’t technically win, and in which it got convincingly trounced by Canada. That messes with them.

The Left-Handed Fate: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Rest of MidAmeriCon II

Now that I’ve opined about the Hugos, how was the rest of my MidAmeriCon II?

I had fun! My schedule was relatively light: Two panels, a reading, a signing and a kaffeklatsch, which left a lot of time to do fun things with fun people. The panels — one on moderation (with Teresa Nielsen Hayden) and one on social media — went off without a hitch and with good crowds and questions. The reading went especially well; I read a chapter from The Collapsing Empire which was well received (the audience actually clapped at a moment of climactic action, which made me squee inside), and then after that the short story I read from Miniatures, my upcoming collection, was interpreted by an ASL speaker who did an amazing job keeping up with the made-up alien words in the story. She really took it over the top and I was delighted she was there.

Aside from that Krissy and I hung out with friends, ate a lot of barbeque, went to a ton of parties and then slept in the next day. It was everything I like about a Worldcon.

Also, it turns out that Kansas City is quite a congenial place to have a Worldcon-sized convention (which is one that’s about 4,000 – 5,000 members, usually). There are a number of really excellent restaurants, the square around the convention center is filled with hotels, and everything was walkable. A+++ two thumbs up, would Worldcon there again.

(Actually, this is the fourth time I’ve been to Kansas City for a convention and each previous time was also really excellent. Kansas City: A tragically underappreciated convention town.)

I also give MidAmeriCon II high marks as a Worldcon. As with any convention, I’m sure behind the scenes there were people running around with their hair on fire, but from my point of view everything worked like it should, which I think is the point. Also, MAC II did a fine job with harassment and consent policies and with the Incident Response Team tasked with taking reports — I know people who had to avail themselves of them (alas), and the IRT came away with high marks. This is important; until we’re at a point where harassment/consent policies aren’t need (which will be never), the next best thing is a responsive convention at that addresses problems quickly.

(I’m also aware of at least one person getting booted from the convention; the short version of that story as I understand it is that someone decided to be a raging dickhead in an overt and premeditated fashion, and as a result was invited to be a raging dickhead on his own time, elsewhere. Seems fair to me. If you want some details, here’s a more detailed write-up, and feel free to leave comments about it there, not here.)

The basic gist of this Worldcon is that I got to spend with people I really like, and had fun in a cool place. Thanks, MidAmeriCon II — you were just what I needed.

Gum on the Shoe of History, or, Why the Hugos Are Still Not Destroyed

Before I get into the post-mortem of 2016’s Hugo Awards that I promised, let me first say that the award that made me happiest was Naomi Kritzer winning the Best Short Story Hugo for “Cat Pictures Please.” Naomi and I go waaaaaaay back — if she was not actually the first person I knew in science fiction genre circles (and I think she was), then she’s certainly one of first three or four. She’s always been one of the best of people, to me and to others in the field, and a consistently wonderful writer. We came up in the field together, and to see her work get recognition makes me immensely happy, and even more happy for her. As you can see, she looks pretty pleased herself. And, well. She deserves to be. Good story, great person.

Now, for some other stuff about the Hugos, and this year’s set of nonsense.

As you may recall, once again this year Theodore Beale (aka “Vox Day”), in his guise as the ringleader of the Rabid Puppies, tried to hijack the Hugo Awards via slates dictated by him, nominated by minions. Last year Beale, along with Brad Torgersen, who administered the Sad Puppy variant of this nonsense, engaged in simple cronyism and/or favor-currying, with a couple of unwitting human shields thrown into the mix. That didn’t work out so great for them, so this year Beale asked himself “what would Xanatos do” and came up with a three-prong strategy:

a) Put people and works that were already popular on his slate so he could claim credit for their success when they won, regardless of the fact those people/works would likely be on the ballot anyway;

b) Comb through the Locus recommended reading list for the year and nominate people Beale suspected the people he hates would want to vote for, i.e., more human shields, just a slightly different strategy;

c) The usual cronyism of pals and/or work and people he published through his personal micro-press.

Plus there was homoerotic writer Chuck Tingle, whom Beale slated for the lulz.

(The Sad Puppies, the originators of the nonsense Beale sucked himself onto like a tick, were largely a non-factor this year, which is probably better for them in the long run. They’re now all in for the brand-new Dragon Awards, administered by DragonCon, and you know what? Good for them. I wish the Dragon Awards every possible success, and independent of that, if the Sad Puppies want to focus on them instead of the Hugos, I wish them absolute joy in the work.)

So, how did this particular strategy work for Beale? Well, of course, poorly. The stuff that was obvious cronyism mostly ended up below “No Award” in just about every category, again, for the third year running. In the cases of the human shields and the already popular nominees, Hugo voters simply ignored the fact Beale slated them. In the case of the latter, no one sensible believes that folks like Neil Gaiman, Andy Weir or Neal Stephenson would willingly associate themselves with a minor racist shit-stirrer, and in the case of the former, Beale’s obvious assumption that the people he classifies as SJWs would explode with cognitive dissonance when he put people/work on his slate that they’d otherwise want to vote for (“I want to vote for it! But I can’t now because it’s on a slate! Nooooooooo!”) is predicated on the idea that these folks are the strawmen he’s created in what passes for his mind. They’re not; they knew what was up, and they largely decided to ignore his master strategy.

And then there was Chuck Tingle, who, when he found out what was going on, trolled Beale so long and so hard and with such obvious glee that it became an enduring thing of joy. Rather than being appalled that Tingle had been nominated, the Worldcon community largely embraced him (or whoever Tingle is; no one is really sure). Here was someone who was nominated by a bigot to antagonize other people, who instead allied himself with those folks and was appreciated by them in return.

Did stuff on the slates win? Yup: The stuff that could have won anyway, and the stuff that had merit despite Beale’s cynical attempt to make other people run away from it. Nothing that won, won because it was on his slate. At best (for Beale) it won despite being on his slate, an assertion we can infer from the performance of everything on the slate that fit into category c); again, nearly every crony nomination finished below “No Award” in the voting. An active association with Beale is, bluntly, death for your Hugo award chances. I mean, it takes a lot for someone as esteemed in the field as Jerry Pournelle to finish below “No Award” in Hugo voting, and yet, there he is, sixth in a field of five in the category of Best Editor, Short Form.

But that’s a sign of bias! It most certainly is. For three years Beale, with or without assistance, has been placing mediocre to awful work on the Hugo ballots; for much longer than that Beale has been a racist, a sexist, and a homophobe. The Beale brand, earned through time and repetition, is “graspingly untalented bigot.” And of course Beale knows this, the poor bastard, which is why he tried to drag down actually talented people and their good work by attempting to associate his brand with them. That didn’t work (because again people aren’t stupid), but if you actually intentionally attach yourself to the Beale brand? Then, yes, “associates with a graspingly untalented bigot” is now part of your brand, too. If it’s powerful enough to drag down Jerry Pournelle, a man of no uncertain talent and accomplishment who does in fact deserve better than to finish below “No Award,” think what it’ll do to you.

Beale has stated, in a pathetically grandiose fashion that belies the limit of his actual ability to affect the world at large, that his intention is to “destroy the Hugos.” He’s failed spectacularly three years running. In the years of his effort the Hugos winners have, in point of fact and entirely independent of his efforts, highlighted the immense diversity of talent currently operating in the field. Beale publicly flatters himself, as he publicly flatters himself in all things, as somehow being a prime mover in these events. What Beale is really doing at this point is trying to mitigate his own inability to have the status and influence he assumed would be his, by pathetically attempting to shoehorn himself into the history of others who have done more, and better, than he has. If he can’t be the hero, and at this point it’s become clear he can’t, then he’ll settle for being the footnote — the gum on the shoe of someone else’s long walk to esteem.

Here’s the thing about that. See my friend Naomi up there? She was nominated for the Nebula Award and the Locus Award along with the Hugo. At no point does the story of Naomi Kritzer — her talent, her ability, her recognition for her work — rely on Beale in any way. If he didn’t exist, she’d have been on the ballot anyway. At no point does the story of Nnedi Okorafor, who won the novella Hugo, rely on him either. Or Andy Weir’s. Or Neil Gaiman’s. Or Ellen Datlow’s or Shelia Gilbert’s or N.K. Jemisin’s — Jemisin, who Beale has repeatedly targeted for blatant overt hatred because of who she is, and who has accomplished so many things he hasn’t and is likely never to — all without reference to him. Nora, her talent, her work and her recognition, exist without him, thrive without him, impress without his approval, don’t need him and never will.

Five years from now, few people will remember, and even fewer will care, about the nonsense Beale and his pals kicked up; hell, last year, the crest of the Puppy nonsense, is already mostly remembered with rolled eyes and a “well, that happened” mutter. Ten years from now, only academics and true Worldcon nerds will think about it at all. But Naomi and Nora and Nnedi and Neil and everyone else who won a Hugo this weekend will still have had their moment of deserved recognition, and god willing will still be at it, making work and finding their audiences. They will continue to create and build and make science fiction and fantasy a genre worth reading and thinking about, and will probably do so for decades.

And none of it will be about Beale at all.

View From a Hotel Window, Kansas City Edition + Look! I’m in Rolling Stone!

Kansas City yesterday as we got into town. Today is overcast, so you’re getting the better picture, even if it’s slightly tardy. Today at MidAmeriCon, at 1pm, I’m doing a reading, where I will be reading two (2) pieces no one has ever heard me read before. If you’re at the convention, don’t miss it.

Also, look at this, I’m in Rolling Stone! I’m writing about the new video game, No Man’s Sky. This is my first Rolling Stone byline. I’m a little geeked about it.

 

New Book and ARCs, 8/17/16

Feast your eyes on these new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the last couple of weeks. Anything here you’d like to dig into? Tell us in the comments.

Also, starting tomorrow I’ll be at MidAmeriCon II, this year’s Worldcon. Here’s my schedule there. If you’ll be there, come see me! If you’re not there, I probably won’t update here until Monday, although I am likely to be on Twitter off and on over the next several days. Either way, have a fabulous second half of your week. Catch you later!

The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

What’s in a place? For The Returned, and its author Bishop O’Connell, quite a lot, indeed.

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

Location as a character.

I travel a lot for my day job and because the jobs tend to be longer term, I get a chance to explore new towns all over the country. There’s something special about that moment when you’re no longer a tourist—though not really a local—and you get to see the real magic of a place. You learn the history, get to know the people, and really, truly get to experience the city. The city, while maybe not “your” city, becomes something more; it almost becomes a person. You see the city for all it is, the good, the bad, and the ugly. But hopefully, it’s a place where the complexity and contradictions add to the beauty of it. This is something I worked hard to include in all the books of my American Faerie Tale series. The location of every book wasn’t just randomly chosen. Each was a place I felt I knew well enough to bring it to life on the page and give readers a sense of its complicated beauty.

The Stolen was set in and around Boston. Yes, the book is heavy on Irish myth and legend, which made Boston a perfect choice, but I wanted more than that. The city is old, and has a long history, on both sides of the Revolutionary war. Moreover, the layout of the city hasn’t changed much in that time, which I’m told is one of the reasons traffic is so bad in the city. And it is bad. Really bad. So bad in fact that I invented a magical means of travel to deal with it. For the book I mean, not in real life…or do I?

The second book, The Forgotten, takes places mostly in Seattle. One of the main characters in the book is a homeless teen, and Seattle, unfortunately, has more than its share. However, and to its credit, it’s also one of the better cities helping their homeless kids. I love that it’s called The Emerald City—because of the greenery—but I like to imagine maybe it’s a destination for the hopeful trying to find home. The underground (the original ground floor of the city before it sank) plays an important part in the story, as does one of my favorite fixtures in the city: The Freemont Troll. The troll is a massive concrete sculpture under a bridge, but I write faerie tales, so he’s a real troll in my book. Three Promises, book three (I call it book 2.5) is a short story collection and has pieces in both Seattle and Boston.

For The Returned, I knew the city I wanted to use even before I started writing: New Orleans. I love New Orleans, as long as it isn’t August. Or July. Or, well, summer. The city has a long and storied history. It’s seen oppression, tragedy, violence, disasters (natural and man-made), poverty, injustice, pain, and grief. But the city has a visceral joy to it, a love of life you don’t see in many other places. Maybe all the tragedy has taught New Orleanians (Yats) to appreciate life, or maybe they live so fully to spite all the pain and heartache. I don’t know, and I imagine you’ll get different answers if you ask. Everyone knows about the amazing food and drink you’ll find, but there is so much more. The French Quarter is a tourist haven—locals go to Frenchman Street for live music—but because of the tourists, the street performers gather there, and they are impressive. You’ll find magicians, jugglers, performance artists of all sorts, and musicians. The musicians are incredible. The music you hear for free as you walk the quarter is often better than you’ll pay to listen to in other cities. New Orleans has passion, and life.

Which is what makes their strong connection to death so ironic. New Orleans funerals are a thing to see. The procession to the cemetery is a somber dirge, expressing the grief of the family. But once people have said their goodbyes, the music changes tempo. The belief being that the happiness and joy will release the spirit of the deceased to move on. Then of course there are zombies. No, these aren’t the shuffling, moaning corpses with a penchant for brains that have become so popular. This is the original mythology, imported from Haiti. Zombies have been done to death (ba-dum, ching) in their current pop culture form, so what better place than New Orleans to resurrect (last one, I promise) the old stories? There’s also voodoo/vodun, which just about everyone knows about (albeit a TV/Movie version). But not many people know that New Orleans (and Louisiana) has stories of rougarou, the Acadian version of the French loupgarou, as in werewolves.

Excellent food, a love of drink (the Irish in me approves), great music everywhere you turn (including funerals), plus zombies, voodoo, and werewolves? AND you get all the people of the city, a huge cast of potential characters to choose from. How do you not write a story set here?

Sure, the location can provide ambiance, and potential characters, but it also gives my characters a new way to shine. Like any good character should, the location pushes my existing characters. It drops them in new and unfamiliar situations, forcing them to grow and learn, to find the familiar and build on that, or fail miserably (which they sometimes do). Perhaps most importantly though, I find that using locations as characters shows the inherent connection between us all; Red Sox and Yankees fans notwithstanding. It gives the reader another way to connect with the story, another way in.

—-

The Returned: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Caroline M. Yoachim

In the writing and collecting of the stories which comprise Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World, author Caroline M. Yoachim discovered the thread that runs through them. What’s the thread and how does it weave into each of the tales? Yoachim is here to explain.

CAROLINE M. YOACHIM:

When I was putting together Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories, I noticed something about my short fiction: I write a lot of stories about brains. Not so much the neurons inside our skulls (although there’s certainly some of that), but an examination of what our brains do–the nuances of consciousness, the nature of the human mind.

In Philosophy there’s a thought experiment called Theseus’ paradox that asks: If you replace the boards of a ship one at a time until every board has been replaced, is it still the same ship? It’s a fascinating question because it gets at the nature of identity. What makes something the same ship–are the individual boards important? Does the rate at which boards are replaced matter?

It’s a fun problem to think about in the context of ships, but where it gets really interesting for me is when the thought experiment is applied to people. If a person replaces their body bit by bit, until every cell has been replaced, are they still the same person?

I love writing short stories because you can explore an idea from lots of different angles. What is the nature of human identity? There’s no simple answer to that, so my goal has been to revisit the question in a variety of ways. With science fiction I can deal explicitly with Theseus’ paradox. Several of my stories involve characters whose bodies are replaced, either entirely or only partially. In other stories, my characters abandon their biological bodies entirely or merge their minds into a collective consciousness. At what point do we draw the line and say ‘this is no longer the same person’ or even ‘this is no longer a human at all’?

I draw a lot of inspiration from my academic background in Developmental Psychology. Infants and young children change rapidly as they learn new skills and gain a better understanding of the world around them. I don’t have much in common with my 3-year-old self–the way I think about the world is different, I’m a different size, a different shape. Over the years, most of my cells have been replaced. But despite all that there is a continuity to my existence: all these changes have been gradual, so from one day to the next I am the largely the same person. Three-year-old me was similar to 4-year-old me, 4-year-old me was similar to 5-year-old me, and so on for over three decades…a continuous chain leading up to the version of me that is writing this essay–an essay that my 3-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to read or understand.

In my short stories I try to capture this interplay between continuity and change. When I’m writing fantasy, I often make my characters undergo drastic transformations–a girl made of bamboo rebuilds herself with driftwood, a sugar clown is dissolved in a cauldron and regrown from a seed crystal, a Lovecraftian fish-frog mermaid becomes a beautiful human. Writing about these kinds of transformations has been another way for me to explore what is (and isn’t) important to who we are.

The nature of identity is something that’s important to me on a personal level, too. I’m mixed race, and that’s an aspect of my identity that I’ve struggled with for a long time. Being half Japanese and half white I don’t feel like I fully belong to either group. There’s a degree to which I’m constantly reconstructing my identity, like a chameleon trying to blend in with its surroundings. I wrote a fantasy novelette, original to the collection, that tries to capture my longing to find the place where I fit. “On the Pages of a Sketchbook Universe” is set in a fantasy world where some people are made of watercolor paint and others are made out of pencils. I wanted to write a story that examines what happens when someone falls between those two categories, a character who is a blend of both pencils and paint.

I didn’t initially set out to write a themed collection, but the nature of identity is an idea that I return to again and again, often with more questions than answers: What makes us who we are? Is there some essential core that defines us as individuals? How much of ourselves can we replace before we become something entirely new?

 

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