Wonder Woman: A Smash, Possibly in Different Ways Than You Think

This next weekend Wonder Woman is very likely to crack the $400 million mark at the  domestic box office, which in itself is a significant feat (only 26 other films in the history of cinema have managed it) but is particular good news for the Warner Bros. studio and its DC universe of films, after the critical failures of the two most recent DC films, Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, both of which Wonder Woman has now outgrossed…

… Well, sort of. Wonder Woman is the undisputed champ of the three films in the domestic box office arena, but in the global arena, right now (and, given the late date of Wonder Woman’s theatrical run at this point, probably ultimately), Wonder Woman’s overall box office performance is right in line with BvS and Suicide Squad, and both of those films have outperformed WW’s box office in key areas. BvS has a larger global gross ($873 million to $790 million), and Suicide Squad has a larger foreign box office ($420 million to $393 million). At this point, two months since release, it’s possible but unlikely WW might catch up with those numbers (it’ll be easier for the film to pass Suicide’s foreign BO than BvS‘ global). But when all the theatrical grosses are tallied, again, Wonder Woman’s box office performance is likely to be right in line with its DC siblings’ performance.

Given that Wonder Woman’s box office overall is not substantially different than that of BvS or Suicide Squad, why is it being hailed as the savior of the DC universe film franchise? There are a few reasons. One, both BvS and Suicide were critical (if not financial) flops, dark and gritty and depressing slogs that no one really seemed to like all that much, even if the films did in fact pack people into theaters — $330 million and $325 million in domestic grosses are excellent returns. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, was a critical success — which was useful for itself but also deemed important for the future of the DC franchise as a whole. Three critical flops would (presumably) have made it difficult to sell the Avengers-like Justice League film that’s next on the slate.

Two, despite global box office being the primary engine for Hollywood these days, domestic (i.e., US and Canada) box office is still hugely influential in terms of perception. As an example, this summer’s The Mummy is widely considered to be a flop despite the fact that worldwide it’s grossed $400 million to date. Had The Mummy done $200 million domestically and $200 million foreign, it wouldn’t be seen as a flop; if it had done $300 million domestically and $100 million in foreign sales, it’d be one of the summer’s winners. Wonder Woman outgrossed its DC siblings here at home, and “here at home” optics still matter.

Three, the financials of Wonder Woman are probably more advantageous to Warner Bros than BvS or Suicide. First, it was a cheaper film to produce: $125 million, where BvS was twice that, and Suicide was $150 million. Second, Warner (generally) gets to keep more of the money a film grosses domestically than internationally, where the grosses have to be shared with distributing partners and are otherwise divvied up in less advantageous ways.

Finally, because Wonder Woman is a woman-centered superhero film with a woman director, and the common wisdom was that the film outperformed financial expectations. Why this bias persists is a long discussion for another time (it’s worth noting that only one other film has outgrossed Wonder Woman domestically so far this year, and that’s Beauty and the Beast, another woman-focused film, and the one film remaining on the theatrical schedule this year that will outgross it will be The Last Jedi, which also has a woman as the protagonist), but it’s there.

It’s worth pointing out that of the four reasons I’ve given here, three of them are explicitly perceptual, rather than about the financial bottom line, and the one that’s about the financial bottom line is probably the one least publically discussed out of all of them. The perceptual issues aren’t fake issues (I’ll explain why further down) but I think it’s worth pointing out that, perception aside, Warner Bros’ DC universe films from BvS onward are doing just fine financially, with an average box office of $802 million globally between them, and an average domestic gross of $350 million. Which, incidentally, is higher than the average domestic and worldwide gross of the (to date) 16 Marvel cinematic universe movies, which are $306 million and $776 million, respectively.

Which leads me to think a couple of things. The first is that generally film quality doesn’t mean all that much for a superhero film’s box office as long as it has a) brand name recognition and b) some really excellent marketing behind it. Two thirds of the DC films get knocked for being crap, but those two films also outgrossed ten of the sixteen Marvel films both domestically and worldwide, all of which have better critical reputations than BvS or Suicide.

Next up, even if Wonder Woman had been a critical flop, I think it’s an open question as to whether that would have had a major negative impact on the financial performance of Justice League, the next DC film in the release barrel. To be clear, I think Wonder Woman’s critical and perceptual superiority to BvS and Suicide is beneficial — it now means JL is likely to get to or even surpass $1 billion in worldwide grosses (and get more than $400 million domestically). But I suspect that had Wonder Woman not been a perceptual and critical smash, JL would still end up in the same $750 million-to-$850 million range the other DC films have managed to this point. These are essentially fool-proof movies, which all things considered, has been a very good thing for Warners, indeed.

This means I also suspect that even if Wonder Woman had not been a critical success, it still would have done reasonably well at the box office: In the $250 million-to-$300 million range domestically and double that globally. And again that’s down to familiarity and marketing and the long pent-up desire to have a woman superhero head up a movie, and especially Wonder Woman, the best-known woman superhero. The critical/perceptual box office premium here is significant — roughly 25% of the box office gross — and nothing to discount. But recent box office successes in the form of Beauty and the Beast, The Force Awakens and Rogue One shows us that established franchises (Star Wars and Disney live action remakes, respectively) don’t automatically take a financial penalty for having women in the lead role (I’m not even bringing up Twilight or Hunger Games here, which established themselves in the lit world before jumping over to film). Wonder Woman, I think, would have been perfectly financially successful even if it had only been critically received only marginally better than BvS or Suicide Squad.

The real issue here, to my mind, is how there’s still any hesitancy to front women characters in franchises, superhero or otherwise. There’s pretty clearly no significant financial penalty for doing so if your franchise is already up and running and your marketing is focused; honestly, at this point there’s only upside, if you manage to make the film better than its male-focused franchise siblings. That upside is perceptual in the short run, as it largely was here with Wonder Woman. But in the long run it’s likely going to add to your franchise financial bottom line. In this case, Justice League will almost benefit from Wonder Woman’s perceptual halo.

And further out than that — well. It will be interesting to see which film will have the bigger opening weekend: The next Batman, or the next Wonder Woman. I do know which one I am more interested in seeing right now.

Another ARC Contest for Don’t Live For Your Obituary

This time from the publisher, Subterranean Press:

Follow that link to SubPress’s Facebook page to enter. Put your contest entry there, not here, in order to be eligible. If you post it here it won’t count. Good luck!

In Which I Finally Derive Streaming Income From My Album of Music

In October of 2015 I took Music For Headphones, an album of electronic music I put together, onto various streaming services via CD Baby (CD Baby did all the work; I just gave them money to do it). I also set it up for CD Baby to collect my income from streaming on the various music services and send it to me when the amount reached a certain threshold. This morning, after 21 months, the threshold was achieved, and CD Baby sent me the cash, minus their own small cut:

$23.38.

(CD Baby’s cut, in case you were curious: $2, which means the album earned $25.38, which makes sense because I asked CD Baby to send along money once it reached the $25 mark.)

You might think this is where I would gripe about the shockingly low amount of money one receives from streaming one’s work on the various music services, and if I were an actual working musician, I might do. But really I’m just sort of mildly amazed that I’m getting any money at all out of Spotify, et al. Music is, shall we say, not even a side gig for me. That people are listening to this album at all is kind of nifty. Clearly, not many are. But at least a couple.

So, yeah. I won’t be giving up my day job. But it’s fun to know my music will buy me a pizza, every couple of years.

The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson

Think the idea of robots is a relatively new one? It doesn’t have to be, and in The Clockwork Dynasty, author Daniel H. Wilson gives some thought to the idea of what it would be like if the idea were something other than on the cutting edge of modern civilization.

DANIEL H. WILSON:

In 1928, a box of old junk arrived at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Really old. Rumored to be the remains of an incredible device, the loose pieces of brass machinery were unassembled, many of them twisted and singed by fire. A decade passed before an engineer could piece together the device into its true form—a little boy at a desk, holding a quill pen poised in his fingers.

Wound up and set loose, the primitive robot began to draw elaborate sketches and poems. And at the end of the final poem, written in French, it signed off with a flourish: “Written by the automaton of Maillardet.” Just like that, after over a century, the device revealed its provenance in a surprisingly simple manner—by writing it down on a piece of paper.

I remember being inspired by the story of Maillardet’s draughtsman; it left me thinking that although we live in a modern civilization, our ancestors had their triumphs, too.

And so, as these things go, a scene began to creep into my mind. I imagined walking, talking automatons, sent like messages from our ancestors in the distant past, created before written history and wandering here to our present through the long dark ages of humankind. Thus began the adventure of June Stefanov, a young anthropologist specializing in the study of court automatons—starting with the moment she discovers a hidden message in the writings of a revived automaton much like Maillardet’s:

“All who breathe do not live; all who touch do not feel; and all who see do not judge. Behold the avtomat.”

The Clockwork Dynasty imagines the avtomat (a Russian word that means “machine”), a race of humanlike machines built in prehistory by a fallen civilization. Concealing themselves among humanity for centuries, they have quietly served the great empires of antiquity and steered nations around the globe toward our familiar technological future. In the present day, they are running out of power and praying that civilization will soon be advanced enough to understand and repair their inscrutably complex bodies.

The central paradox is of course that our “primitive” ancestors reached technological heights we’ve never seen. The fruit of their labor still walks among us, each avtomat symbolic of some virtue prized by our lost forbearers. Though these robots are superior to humans, they are built in our image and carry our principles. And they are depending on us to save them from oblivion.

So, what the heck was I thinking? Normally, I write about shiny, new robots. These creatures (at least initially) are made of ceramic and brass; wood, leather and whalebone. Their story isn’t set “five years in the future”—it begins in an age passed out of all memory, a time of legends and myth.

In this way, The Clockwork Dynasty has something in common with some of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi worlds. In places like Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Dune, the older a technology is, the more powerful it is.

It’s an idea I find refreshing. Maybe it’s just fatigue. I’m the robot guy, you know? My flap cover story is that I earned a PhD in robotics and now I write (relentlessly) about the cutting edge of technology. Want to know what’s coming next? Ask the robot guy!

Not this time. There is hubris in assuming that our civilization is the latest and the greatest. It’s an assumption The Clockwork Dynasty does not make.

Homo sapiens has been roaming this planet for over a hundred thousand years. We’ve got just five thousand years of written history. A lot of smart people have been born and died in our uncharted past. Who knows what marvels they produced?

Another refreshing tidbit—I’m not destroying the world this time.

In novels like Robopocalypse and Amped, I’ve relished watching technology tear society (and let’s face it, people) apart. But the robots in The Clockwork Dynasty are pushing humanity toward a high-tech future. It’s a reverse apocalypse, and a theme much more in line with how I feel about robots and technology.

Looking back on it, I feel this novel is testament to the symbolic power of the robot in storytelling. We humans are obsessed with ourselves and our place in the universe. Our robotic creations hold up a distorted mirror to humanity, challenge our primacy and uniqueness, and force us to rethink our most basic assumptions.

And what amazes me most is that robots and automatons have been challenging us this way for millennia, and they will continue to do so for years to come…

Right up until the Robopocalypse. ;)

—-

The Clockwork Dynasty: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “read an excerpt” button on the linked page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Sugar Wishes to Inform You That All the August Big Idea Slots Have Been Scheduled

I thought a cat picture would spice up an otherwise fairly pedestrian announcement.

In any event: If you’ve not yet heard back from me re: an August Big Idea slot, they’re all filled up. Sorry.

On to September!

Kicked Out of My Office

Once again I have lost control of my office in terms of clutter, and once again Krissy has kicked me out of the office so she can set a flame thrower to it go through and declutter for me because my own personal definition of “declutter” is “shove things toward walls and then add more stuff.” I’m currently downstairs in the front room on one of the laptops; upstairs there is thumping as things get shoved into boxes.

I’m presenting this humorously, because it is kind of funny, but I should also note how genuinely grateful I am that Krissy is willing to do this stuff for me on occasion, because I am legitimately terrible at it. And in point of fact over time the clutter in my office has a detrimental effect on my ability to work. I feel cramped and crabby. This is no good when, for example, I am on a book deadline. That I can go to Krissy and say “Heeeeeeeelp meeeeeeeee” and then she goes in and does is one reason you all get books on a reasonable schedule.

So all hail Krissy, Slayer of Unmanageable Offices. For this among so many other reasons, I would not be where I am without her.

New Books and ARCs, 7/28/17

For your delight, this last weekend of July: A stack of new books and ARCs. Is there anything here that would make it to your own “must read” stack? Tell us in the comments!

So, Healthcare, 7/28/17

Some various thoughts on where things are today:

1. Hooray for senators Murkowski and Collins and McCain, and also every single Democratic senator for knocking back this bullshit that was so egregious that they literally had to take the vote in the middle of the night because it couldn’t stand up to scrutiny in the light of day. The fact that 49 GOP senators voted for a bill that they knew was trash is depressing, but, horseshoes and handgrenades.

And yes, I know that there’s a good chance that some of them voted “yes” because they were confident that an 80-year-old man with cancer not long for his job would give them cover against frothy primary voters back home, but there’s only so far that sort of thing goes. Rob Portman, the Republican senator from Ohio, isn’t up for re-election until 2022. “Primary cover” isn’t a thing he needs at the moment.

(His excuse: He wanted it to go into committee with the House GOP. Uh-huh. This would be the same House GOP that passed a bill so awful that the Senate wouldn’t touch it. This is the group they were hoping to punt to, in order to come up with something better. Yeah, okay.)

2. I’m especially pleased that this is an only-barely-metaphorical kick in the nuts to Mitch McConnell, who basically flouted every lawmaking convention the Senate has in order to present a series of top-down, heartless “let’s repeal Obamacare because fuck that dude” bills, only to have them stuffed back in his face with every vote. In his rush to eradicate the major policy achievement of a black man, McConnell did appear to forget that the ACA does, in fact, help millions of Americans, including Republicans, have insurance, and helps the rest of us with that whole “no more of that pre-existing conditions or payment caps bullshit” thing it has going. McConnell didn’t give a shit about his constituents, or Americans in general with this. He just wanted the win, to have a win and to kick at a man who isn’t in politics anymore. He got what he deserved with this monumental and serial defeat.

(“But how is what McConnell did any different than how the ACA was passed in the first place?” Well, for starters, there’s a difference between an entire political party actively deciding not to participate in the crafting of legislation, as is what basically happened with the ACA, and the senate GOP deciding not to involve the Democrats, or indeed, most of the members of its own caucus, as happened with the Senate repeal bills. There’s more, but let’s move on, shall we.)

3. And no, I don’t expect this to be the end of it. On a practical level, the GOP wanted to gut the ACA because it would make it easier to get its upcoming budget deal done. On the impractical level, Trump loathes Obama and anything to do with him, not only because Trump’s a bigot but because every day he’s in office makes it clearer how much better a president Obama was than he is. McConnell also hates Obama for being Obama, and Paul Ryan just wants to destroy the social net for the old and sick because he’s an awful inhuman bucket of turds. They’re going to find their way back to the ACA even if the vast majority of Americans want them to leave it alone or — heck! — maybe even make it work better. They can’t leave it alone. They are constitutionally unable to. I’m happy this round of nonsense has been beaten back, but I’m not under the illusion they won’t try again. They will try again.

4. All of this nonsense does again bring to the fore a thing we already knew about the current GOP, which is that it isn’t for anything, other than shoving as much of America’s wealth as it can into the hands of the very rich. For the last eight years, its major policy theme was “whatever Obama wants, we’re against,” and now that it is in power, its major policy theme is “Whatever Obama did, we’ll repeal.” The problem they’re running into, as this dundersplat of a vote shows us, is that Obama’s policies did actually make people’s lives better, and also that sooner or later “not that” has to be replaced by something.

There was no there to the GOP’s proposals — nothing that would do what Trump and they promised, which was to make health care better. There wasn’t a single proposal the GOP offered that didn’t involve millions of people losing insurance, Medicaid being slashed and costs climbing for everyone else, and all but the “skinny repeal” basically were stalking horses for wealth transfer and setting the social net on fire. It’s not in the least surprising that at the end of the day, the excuses the Senate GOP gave for fronting these atrocious bills were “Look, we said we were going to repeal it” and “We know we’re going to pass a horrible shit bill but maybe the House GOP will save us from ourselves.”

I’m not going to say that there’s nothing in the GOP and/or Trump administration’s policy portfolio that isn’t explicitly about making the rich richer or just rolling back Obama policies without regard to the sensibility of those policies, but I have to admit right off the top of my head I can’t think of all that many, and even the ones that I theoretically would be before (infrastructure, rural broadband) I simply don’t trust Trump or the GOP to do without basically devolving them into a crony feed.

5. On a personal note, here’s a true fact, which is that the last week has been shit for my productivity because I’ve been waiting for the Senate to basically take health care away from a whole bunch of my friends, who as creative people buy their insurance policies on the individual market and who would (depending on which version of this bullshit passed) been priced out of insurance, would have had to deal with pre-existing conditions or policy caps coming up again, or would have found it impossible to find an insurer. And not only creative people, I will add. I live in an area where a number of my neighbors are farmers or independent contractors (truck drivers, etc). They would go onto the repeal trash pile as well. It’s hard to focus on writing when your friends are talking about how losing their insurance, or, having pre-existing conditions or caps reintroduced, might kill them.

“Oh, well, that’s melodramatic.” Fuck you, it’s not. Not having the “right” job (i.e., a job with a company large enough to have a decent-sized risk pool), or losing a job, should not come with the increased risk of death or incapacitation or bankruptcy due to medical needs our fucked-up system has decided to price out of range of normal humans’ ability to pay. The only reason I wouldn’t be in the same boat as my other creative, self-employed friends had the ACA cratered is my wife’s 9-to-5, benefits-paying job — and even then ditching the ACA would have still had an impact on us due to caps and pre-existing conditions.

6. Here’s something that is possibly melodramatic, also involving me: If any of these bullshit senate health care bills had passed, it might have made a difference regarding whether you’d get my next book on time. Not just because I’d be worrying about health care for all my pals (and my family, to a lesser but real extent). It would also be because Mitch McConnell would have learned that creating bills in a back room, filling them with completely punitive bullshit and not showing them to anyone yet still expecting his caucus to vote straight-line for them is a thing that works. I mean, shit. It came within one vote of working this time; had McCain not decided to do his maverick shtick one more time for shits and giggles, McConnell would right this moment be planning to do up his tax bill entirely in a back room with him and maybe five or six special friends. We already have an executive branch with an alignment of “chaotic authoritarian”; the last thing we need is a functionally authoritarian branch of government to go with the incompetent authoritarian branch we already have.

I’m less than 100% inclined to give McCain too much credit for his downvote — he could have nipped all this shit in the bud earlier in the week, and in any event his modus operandi to date has been “talk like a maverick, vote the party line,” and I think there was more than a whiff of personal aggrandizement going on. Depending on his cancer treatment, McCain may not ever come back to the Senate, and McCain wanted a dramatic moment for the movie of his life, when Tom Cruise finally wins the Oscar on the strength of his portrayal of McCain’s “thumbs down” moment. But to the extent that he excoriated McConnell’s bullshit process to produce these bills and then voted down the bills produced by this bullshit process, good on him. That may have been even more important in the long run than the particular vote, and the particular vote was extraordinarily important.

If McConnell’s authoritarian gambit had worked, he would have known he could continue to get away with it for everything — and he would have kept at it. And that’s not something I could have just tuned out. I’ve been having a hard enough time concentrating as it is. It’s hard to write about the future when the present is on fire. If I can get a nice stretch of time where I’m not worrying about a non-trivial percentage of the people I know freaking out about whether lack of insurance is going to kill them or a family member, I can focus on, you know. Actual work.

Yes, in fact, that’s the secret to getting work out of me: A functioning, democratic government that isn’t actively trying to screw over a whole bunch of people I know and care about. Who knew?

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Congratulations! Your book was a success! Now do that trick a second time! In discussing Killing is My Business, author Adam Christopher talks about doing the thing that you did so well all over again — but different this time.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

You know how it goes, the difficult second album: a band spends years meticulously crafting a collection of songs, polishing them through endless live sets until they shine, and these songs form their incandescent debut album.

Then they need to produce the follow-up and essentially come up with an entirely new repertoire on demand. That second album can be a difficult one indeed.

Now, I didn’t spend years crafting the Ray Electromatic Mysteries – Made to Kill, the first full-length novel after the Tor.com novelette Brisk Money, came out in 2015 and was something like my seventh published novel – but somehow the series has a certain kind of weight, just like that debut album of your favourite band. I think it’s because that original big idea was very big indeed – I was writing Raymond Chandler’s lost science fiction epics, a series about a robot assassin working in Chandler’s near-future Hollywood of 1965. That idea sprang from Chandler’s own letter to his agent in 1953, in which he complained about sci-fi, saying “people pay brisk money for this crap?” Clearly, this was a front, the famed hardboiled author conducting a fishing expedition, seeing if his agent would bite.

Sixty years later, I wrote a story named for Chandler’s letter – Brisk Money. The idea was everything – a whole world was open to me, enough not just for a novelette but for a trilogy of hardboiled novels and another in-between novella, Standard Hollywood Depravity – the title, again, taken from Chandler’s letters.

So far, so good. Made to Kill was a blast to write.

And then came book two.

I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump. Far from it. The three novels were pitched together, right from the start, so I knew what I was doing and where the books were going. But there was one thing in back of my mind while I was working on what became the second novel, Killing Is My Business.

What would Raymond Chandler do?

That mantra, in essence, became the big idea of the book.

The concept of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries is simple: the robot revolution came and went in the 1950s, and Ray is the last robot left in the world, designed to be a private eye working in Hollywood. The only snag to this is that his supercomputer boss, Ada, was programmed to make a profit – and she quickly figured out you could make more money by killing people than finding them. A little tinkering with Ray’s CPU and Ada turns him into an accomplished hit-robot.

Simple enough, and, importantly, an open-ended concept. You could write a hundred stories about a hitman.

Which was actually the problem – because while I could easily write endless hardboiled, noir-ish stories set in Chandler’s seedy LA underbelly, a world full of wiseguys and dames and crooked cops and the mob, that’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before a thousand times. Hell, that’s basically Chandler’s oeuvre and people have been calling him a genius or a hack for the last seventy-plus years.

No, what I had to do was to write science fiction. There was no point in Ray being a robot if that wasn’t vital to the story. Ray had to be the central player in the trilogy – he’s unique, literally, and that has to drive the story arc that stretches across all three books.

So: what would Raymond Chandler do?

More specifically, what would Raymond Chandler do… with a robot?

In Killing Is My Business, Ray’s unique character is used to rather unsubtle effect when he uses his virtually indestructible chassis to protect a mob boss from a drive-by shooting, literally placing himself between the crime lord and his would-be executioners. This is something that only Ray could do. It’s a key scene, the first piece of the story that I had thought of.

And it was also a scene that I knew had to happen – if Ray is a robot then being a robot is the story. With that thought foremost in mind, I could write book two and I could make sure the series as a whole is more than just a set of pastiche crime novels, it was something original.  

Now, if he only Ray Electromatic knew what I torment I had in store for him in book three…

—-

Killing is My Business: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

A Note on Trump’s Proposed Ban of Transgender People in the Military

Leaving aside everything else that is wrong and immoral about this proposed ban, at the moment there are something like 11,000 trans people currently serving openly in the US services and reserves. They are there legally, and it is currently their right to serve openly. Trump’s ban, at first glance, appears to take away their right to serve their country, and takes away their jobs, their incomes, their benefits for themselves and their families — for no other reason than something which yesterday was not illegal nor an impediment to serving their country with passion and distinction.

Make no mistake: Trump is affirmatively and explicitly taking away a right from American citizens, a right they already had and enjoyed. This is a big right: The right to serve in one’s military openly, without fear of punishment for who you are.

If Trump will take away one right from Americans, he’s not going to have a problem taking away other rights as well. Why would he? Trump is the living embodiment of “If you give a mouse a cookie” — if he gets away with one thing, he’ll go ahead and try to get away with something else. He’s already trying, of course.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that I support the right of transgender people to serve openly in the military, a thing they already have done, any more than it will come as a surprise that I support the rights of transgender people generally. But as important as it is for me to explicitly say I support transgender rights, I think it’s also worth asking people who oppose these rights, or other rights enjoyed by people not exactly like them, whether they are comfortable taking away fundamental rights these American citizens already have — and if so, what leads them to believe that their own rights, rights they already enjoy, are not also placed in jeopardy by that precedent.

If the answer boils down to “well, that will never happen to me,” as it inevitably will, it’s worth examining why they think they will forever be immune. The answer will be instructive for everyone.

And also, they’re wrong. If you can take away an existing right of an American simply because of who they are, then you can take away a right of any American simply because of who they are — or what they are, or where their ancestors came from, or what they believe, and so on.

I said on Twitter this morning, “Today, as has almost every day in this administration, offers each us of a chance to understand the dimensions our own moral character.” And so it does. And so it will, every day, I expect, until it is done.

Is This The End of Our Hero, Coke Zero, Part II: The Zeroening

Coke announced today that it’s rebranding Coke Zero to “Coke Zero Sugar”:

Coca-Cola Zero Sugar is the new and improved Coke Zero. We’ve made the great taste of Coke Zero even better by optimizing the unique blend of flavors that gave Coke Zero its real Coca-Cola taste. Coca-Cola Zero Sugar is our best-tasting zero-sugar Coca-Cola yet, and it will be available across America in August.

Basically, it’s the same new formula it’s been introducing in foreign markets as “Coke No Sugar” but Coke is keeping the “Zero” branding here because it’s been successful and they don’t want to confuse us poor Americans any more than we already are in these trying times. Or something.

As I noted previously (see the second link, there), I am perfectly fine with Coke attempting this revamp — by all reviews I’ve seen the “Zero Sugar” version tastes more like standard Coke than Coke Zero, and since “actually tasting like regular Coke” is why I drink Coke Zero in the first place (Diet Coke shares its flavor profile with the late, unlamented New Coke), I’ll willing to give this new version a shot. If it turns out I hate it, well. I guess then that August 2017 will be a fine time for me to drastically cut down my soda drinking. I suspect I’ll probably continue calling the new stuff “Coke Zero” rather than “Coke Zero Sugar,” because it’s two fewer syllables and I’m all about efficiency.

So in effect, I think that this is less like Coke Zero dying than it is Coke Zero regenerating, timelord-like, into its next iteration. And I suspect I will remain its constant companion.

The Big Idea: Vivian Shaw

Monsters are monsters, but do they always have to be so… monstrous? Vivian Shaw considers the fundamental nature of these terrible creatures in Strange Practice, and how she came to look at them from another angle entirely.

VIVIAN SHAW:

What’s my big idea?

The facile answer is, of course, sensible monsters. An idea which doesn’t seem to have found a great deal of traction thus far in any genre, classic or contemporary, and so offers a wide-open opportunity to play with readers’ expectations — but the real underlying answer goes back a lot further than that. It has to do with the contrast between ordinary and extraordinary, and what that means in terms of storytelling.

I’ve been writing novellas and novels of varying quality since I was about ten or eleven, but I did National Novel Writing Month for the first time in 2004, right after spending a lot of time on urbex websites, and the big idea behind that first NaNo was how many characters from classic vampire lit can I get into one story while exploring the weird and wonderful subterranean world of London? The answer turned out to be between five and eight. That first draft featured not only Lord Ruthven and Sir Francis Varney, but also Dracula and Carmilla (only spelling herself Mircalla, because vampires and spelling are such a thing). On the human side I had Greta, descended from Van Helsing, and August Cranswell, descended from the family that put paid to the vampire of Croglin Grange.

I decided to put vampires in the NaNo novel because I’ve always been fond of them — even as a kid I loved reading the classics, even if I had to stop every now and then to look up the words. The way in which the Western vampire mythos evolved from age to age, gathering often-contradictory detail with each well-known story added to its canon, fascinated me. But in all the stories, all the retellings, I couldn’t get away from the fact that most of the vampires did really stupid things. Their behavior was practically designed to attract the attention of the pitchfork-and-flaming-torch brigade, and just for once I wanted to read about vampires who just got on with it — vampires who were monsters, yes, but also people. Vampires who didn’t have to have geographically unplaceable accents and go swanning around in evening dress all the time for no reason. Vampires who didn’t need to be hypersexualized edgelords in leather trousers, or spend all their time moping about their cursed eternal fate, woe. Vampires who’d rather write nasty letters to the Times than tear throats out (unless the latter was really necessary), and who used their powers to watch over the city and stop other monsters ruining everything. Vampires who were sensible.

And because I wanted to read it, I had to write it first.

That book was called The Underglow, and it sat around on various hard drives for a decade while I borrowed characters from it and played with them, letting them evolve into much more nuanced and interesting individuals. In 2014 I dusted the book off again, looked at it properly, and determined it would need to be stripped to the skeleton and rewritten almost from scratch.

And this time the big idea wasn’t about cramming in as many recognizable characters as I could shoehorn into a plot, nor was it limited to vampires alone. This time it was about the individuals themselves — a more diverse cast, given more opportunity to shine — and what it actually meant to them to be what they were, extraordinary creatures in an ordinary world. I didn’t just have sensible vampires. I had sensible were-creatures, and mummies, and ghouls, banshees, bogeymen, a whole spectrum of monsters to play with, a richer world to explore.

It was this second iteration of the book that would end up becoming a series starring Greta as the central character, set in this peculiarly overlapping supernatural-adjacent world. With my editor’s help, I continued to refine the text into something that explored that particular aspect of storytelling: both the contrast between the ancient monsters and the modern day, and the fascinating difficulties encountered by people who necessarily spent their time in the liminal space of that boundary between natural and supernatural. What their experience would be, as creatures who had to coexist either covertly or overtly with ordinary humans, keeping their natures as quiet as possible — and what it might be like as a human to witness that experience, and to take on the responsibility of offering care across species boundaries. What kind of person would you have to be, to do a job like that?

Without really intending to, all those years ago in the throes of NaNo, I’d done myself an extraordinary favor in inventing the character of Greta Helsing. In the previous version, Greta was much less important a character; in this one, I could take much more advantage of her highly specialized role to portray those monsters as her patients, people she cared for, whatever sort of creature they might be, and what that meant to her. As a human physician to the supernatural, she necessarily encounters an enormous variety of complaints, and so I get to write about so many fascinating problems seen both from the human and the clinical standpoint. It gives me endless pleasure to apply scientific protocol to the realms of the unreal — there’s the contrast thing again, ordinary and extraordinary balancing each other — and I love writing about listserv arguments over the relative merits of different embalming fluids in zombie tissue stabilization, or the practice of creating perfect bone replacements for mummies via 3-D printing from a laser scan.

So it’s contrast, and it’s the experience of that contrast, of being a stranger in a strange land, that really drives the book (and, in fact, the series). The concept of found family echoes throughout, as well — it’s a natural consequence of the transposition of individual and environment, and one of my favorites.

But if, in the end, all you take away from Strange Practice is sensible monsters…I’m gonna be well-pleased with the work of my hands.

—-

Strange Practice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The UK Cover to Head On

It’s pretty. My luck in excellent covers continues.

And you’ll get the book in April!

The Big Idea: Tal M. Klein

Teleportation: A great idea, but with some practical… problems. It’s a physics thing. In this Big Idea for The Punch Escrow, author Tal M. Klein wonders, what if you could solve those problems, not with physics, but with another branch of human intellectual endeavor entirely?

TAL M. KLEIN:

F#*%ing transporters, how do they work?

It was the Ides of March of 2012. I had just started a new job and was chatting with a co-worker about lens flare. Specifically, I was ranting about J.J. Abrams’ penchant for gratuitous lens flare, using the Star Trek reboot as an example, when all of a sudden the conversation was interrupted by our CEO.

“It’s bullshit!” he shouted.

(He wasn’t talking about the lens flare.)

Our CEO wielded a PhD in Computer Science and was using it to fight with Star Trek, or more specifically its transporters. He went on to monologue about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, explaining that the position and the velocity of an object couldn’t both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory, and in the highly improbable likelihood that somehow someone did manage to circumvent the uncertainty principle, they’d still have to contend with the no-cloning theorem, which stated that it was impossible to create an identical copy of any unknown quantum state.

Here is what I heard: “Teleportation is impossible because physics.”

Now let’s be clear, I’m not a scientist. What I am is a product man. I build and market technology products for a living. Having bet my career on startups, my brain senses opportunity where others see impossibility. In fact, whenever anyone tells me I can’t do something, my mind automatically appends a “yet” to the end of their statement.

My favorite author growing up was Larry Niven. This fact is germane here because the first thing that came to mind during the CEO’s aforementioned monologue was a Niven essay entitled Exercise in Speculation: The Theory and Practice of Teleportation, part of a collection called All The Myriad Ways. Niven’s spiel on teleportation explored the pros and cons of the myriad ways (see what I did there) we might achieve commercialized human teleportation. The science was interesting, but what I remembered latching on to as a kid was his take on the anthropological impact of teleportation.

Niven’s itch was akin to what angered my CEO: If we discount for Star Trek’s technobabble and defer to actual physics, then every time Scotty teleported Captain Kirk he was actually killing him in one place and “printing him out” somewhere else.

This destructive teleportation variant of the twin maker trope has been explored almost ad nauseum. Though there are several good stories and movies that address the existential problems teleportation could introduce should it ever become a viable transportation mechanism, none have adequately presented a marketable solution to that problem — at least none that might pass muster with an anthropologist.

How come nobody ever discussed how society might come to adopt teleportation in the first place, I wondered. Science fiction seemed to lack a scientifically plausible teleportation mechanism that could be deemed safe enough to commercialize in the near future.

So, I decided to solve the teleportation problem — with marketing!

In my day job as a chief marketing officer, when I’m asked to play out this kind of go-to-market strategy problem, I use a game theory methodology known as Wardley mapping; an augmentation of value chain mapping. The “product” came in the form of the Punch Escrow. It’s the MacGuffin that makes teleportation safe and thus both scientifically and anthropologically plausible. The value of mapping in predicting the future is based in pragmatism. If we can assess what components of tech will become commoditized in society, we can envision innovations that build on those commodities in alignment with basic needs, making their commercialization more plausible.

Consulting with a real life quantum physicist, I used the Wardley mapping approach to understand the teleportation problem and then solve for it: When someone teleports, the Punch Escrow is a chamber in which the they are held — in escrow — until they safely arrive at their final destination. That way if anything goes wrong during teleportation, the “conductor” could just cancel the trip and the traveler would safely walk out at the point of origin as if nothing happened.

But how does one market this scenario given the very obvious twin maker issue?

A capitalist society will always want to get from point A to point B faster and on-demand. I don’t think anyone would argue that safe teleportation is a highly desirable mode of transport. The Punch Escrow makes it possible, and International Transport (the company behind commercial teleportation in the 22nd century) effectively brands it as “safe.” To wit, critics of early steam locomotives avowed that the human body was not meant to move faster than fifty miles an hour. Intelligent people with impeccable credentials worried that female passengers’ uteruses might be ejected from their bodies as trains accelerated! Others suspected that a human body might simply melt at such speeds. You know what? It didn’t matter. People wanted to get from point A to point B faster, train tycoons marketed to that desire with implied underpinnings of safety, and trains took off.

Just as locomotives didn’t transform our world into a dystopia, it stands to reason teleportation won’t either. Yes, people die in train accidents (not because their organs fly out of their orifices, I should add), but the benefit is anthropologically perceived as greater than the risk. Same goes with commercial flight. Of course you’ve heard the axiom, “If God had meant man to fly…” — that didn’t seem to stop droves of us from squeezing into small flying metal tubes in the sky. Today, we face similar fears with autonomous vehicles, but I’m certain that the marketers will calm our nerves. I believe within a generation the notion of manual driving will seem as esoteric a means of getting around as a horse and carriage. Maybe the same will be said of teleportation a century from now?

—-

The Punch Escrow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

My Morning in My Bedroom With Strange Men, a Tale From Twitter

It begins thusly:

The new bed:

Which you may think looks quite a lot like the old bed, and you wouldn’t be wrong, in the sense that we did not swap out the headboard or bed frame. But those of you who are sharply observant and/or are creepy creepers might note the mattress is taller than it used to be. That’s because instead of a box spring underneath we now have a frame that raises and lowers the head and foot of the mattress when desired. That’s right, no longer do we have to sit up in bed on our own! Our bed can do it for us! Surely we live in miraculous times.

It was time to get a new mattress in any event. The last time we purchased one for this bed was 11 years ago, and it had gotten to the point where the “memory foam” had lost its memory entirely and both Krissy and I were getting backaches out of it. Once at the store and finding a mattress we liked, we decided to splurge a bit and get the motorized frame. If nothing else it will make everything weird for the cats. Which is its own benefit. Also, if it turns out that elevating the head of the mattress makes it easier to type, I may finally go full Grandpa Joe and never leave the bed at all. Note to self: Check Amazon for bedpans.

(Additional note to self: Really, don’t.)

And I got some saucy tweets out of it! Which, you know. Is its own reward.

The Winner of the “Obit” ARC Contest

First: Which Beatles song was I thinking of? If you want to hear me sing it, here it is:

If you’d rather hear the Beatles sing it (which, to be fair, is probably the better choice) it’s here:

And for those of you who don’t wish to hear either version (or can’t, for whatever reason): It’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”

There were three of you who correctly picked the tune I was thinking of, and of the three, my random number generator (“Alexa, pick a number between one and three”) picked “one” and so the winner is Maudie, who was the first to suggest it. Congratulations, Maudie!

Remember that the signed limited hardcover of Don’t Live For Your Obituary is now available for pre-order from Subterranean Press. There will also be an eBook edition, but it’s not available for pre-order yet.

Thank you to everyone who entered! This was a fun one.

A Very Noisy Cover of Here Comes the Rain Again

As part of my continuing effort to justify the Adobe Creative Cloud subscription I have, I’ve been playing with my Audition audio software and learning how to use it. Today I learned how to make a multitrack file! Go me. I also played with the various filters in the software to distort and shape sounds.

All of which is to say I recorded a song today and it is very very noisy indeed. It’s “Here Comes the Rain Again,” which is my favorite song from the Eurythmics. Here it is (and no, it’s not actually nine minutes long, I don’t know why the media player says that. It’s, like, five):

Yes, that’s me singing. No, Annie Lennox doesn’t have a thing to worry about.

In case you’re curious, every noise on that track either comes out of me, or out of an acoustic tenor guitar. Audio filters are fun! Let’s just say I let my Thurston out to play, and if you get that reference, congratulations, you’re old too.

No, I’m not giving up my day job. Relax. But I do enjoy playing with sounds. This is fun for me.

In any event: Enjoy the noise.

Blacklight Sunset

Because sometimes it’s fun to play with Photoshop’s sliders and see what you come up with. This is what happens (in part) when you push the “dehaze” slider all the way to the right. The real sunset didn’t look like this (it looked like this), but I think it might be cool to live on a planet where the sunset did look like that, every once in a while.

Enjoy the weekend, folks.

New Books and ARCs, 7/21/17

As we ease on into another summer weekend, here are the new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound this week. What do you like here? Share your feelings in the comments!