You know, just in case you’re curious. Here’s the link.
It was a good day. And a good life since.
Every year we have fireflies in our yard, and every year I intend to go out with a camera and take a picture of them, and then I always forget. Not this year! Last night and went and made a first attempt. It turned out… adequate! I need to take a longer exposure, I think, and put the camera on a tripod. But as a proof of concept, this will do for now. Also, now I know how to take a long exposure on my camera. Go me.
Here you go. After this week, you deserve a good one. Have a great weekend, everybody.
Just in time for the weekend, this collection of very excellent new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound. Let us know which of these trigger your “I gotta have that” reflex, down in the comments.
Coincidence: Random events that merely give the appearance of being connected, or… something more? Not so coincidentially, Nicky Drayden is thinking about coincidence, and how it plays into her debut novel The Prey of Gods. What are the odds that she will tell you about it here? Pretty good!
Have you ever been out running errands about town, start thinking about a friend, only to look up and see them standing right in front of you? Is it coincidence, or is there something greater at play? Fate? A master weaver, tangling and entwining our lives together? Maybe there’s someone who’s watching me from above, saying “Hey, Nicky’s been laying on the couch watching Netflix Originals for six hours straight. Clearly, she needs a few threads crossed…”
I often feel like a pawn in my own life. When I was a kid, my parents took me and my brother to the Houston Zoo. We both got silver helium balloons, and my little brother let go of his and cried as it floated away. Later that day, back at home (exactly 26 miles away, I just checked) we’re playing outside in a neighbor’s yard, and I look up and see a balloon floating high over our house. I am not lying when I say that balloon came directly down towards me, right to where I was standing, and all I had to do was reach up and grab it. A silver Mylar balloon with “Houston Zoo” written on it in colorful block lettering. Of course, I kept it rather than giving it back to my brother, since I was kind of a jerky big sis, but still. It happened.
Coincidence? Fate? Maybe it wasn’t even the same balloon, but does that make it less weird, or weirder? This kind of thing happens to me practically every other week, but unfortunately, writing fiction, you can’t rely on coincidence too many times before a reader throws your book across the room. After all, real life doesn’t have to make sense. Fiction kinda does.
So enter the master weaver—me, your mostly humble debut author–here to regale you with my Big Idea, the story behind the threads that make up the tapestry that is The Prey of Gods. When I set about writing this novel, all I had were six random character sketches, most of whom have nothing to do with one another, and a setting, South Africa, because during a college summer break I’d traveled there as a peer counselor for a group of teenagers, and I thought it’d be cool to see how the experiences I had there would translate into a work of speculative fiction set 50 years into the future.
There are of course, the big, bold threads that tie the six point-of-view characters together, moving them all towards the epic battle scenes involving giant robots and angry demigoddesses. (Fun fact, easiest way to upset a demigoddess, have someone show up to the world’s destruction in the same exact dress she’s wearing.) But the true joy of character weaving is tying the tiny, nearly microscopic threads together, and having the characters cross paths in ways they might not even notice.
For example, Riya Natrajan, the sultry pop diva in the book, has attitude for days, and finds herself stuck sharing a robot taxi with a business exec who’s late to a meeting. She’s trying to be incognito, but the guy is onto her—suspecting she’s a celebrity lookalike, but maybe…just maybe it’s really her. Riya denies it of course, but now the guy is jabbering on, practically beside himself with excitement. She commands the robot taxi to play some music for a distraction, and as the master weaver would have it, one of the tracks from her latest album blasts over the speakers.
Small coincidences like this work fine, and even add a little comic relief to tense situations, because the plot isn’t hinging on such minor occurrences. But then the guy tells Riya that he’d just bought tickets to her concert for his brother-in-law, and the careful reader will realize that he’s related to Muzi, the slightly wayward teen, who after a trippy afternoon dabbling with a new hallucinogenic drug, discovers he’s able to control people’s minds. Muzi inadvertently (maybe) uses his new powers to make his best friend Elkin forget the most intimate moment of both their lives. Oh, and Elkin’s drug dealing cousin, the one who bullied them into this whole mess, is in a secret relationship with pop star super sensation Riya Natrajan. Bigger coincidences, threads are crossing, and the weaving is just getting started.
These little knots gain significance as the story moves on, putting more and more tension upon already taut threads. Do the threads pop, or do they hold? Are these chance encounters unrealistic? That’s ultimately up to the reader to decide, but maybe we enjoy these twists of fate in fiction so much because they give us a mechanism to process the absurd coincidences in our own lives.
I owe a lot of people credit for the development of this book, but first and foremost, there is Dr. Joshua Hill to thank, the director of the Renewable Energy and Environmental Protection program who organized and lead our trip to South Africa. Many (many) summers ago, I left my college home of Austin, Texas, leaving my country for the first time as well. I worked nearly all of my amazing experiences I had abroad into the novel, like the mouthwatering beer bread, the intricately carved wood sculptures, and of course the plague of dik-diks.
While in South Africa, I received a letter from my college boyfriend, informing me that he’d had lunch with a random guy up at his summer internship in Virginia, who knew someone who went to the University of Texas (a school of 50,000 students, mind you.) The guy asked my boyfriend if he knew a girl named Nicky. My boyfriend said that he was dating a girl named Nicky, and from a short exchange, they concluded that I was in fact that same Nicky. A coincidence in itself, but the guy who my boyfriend was having lunch with—Dr. Joshua Hill’s son.
Master Weaver, I see you up there. You’re doing a bang-up job. Keep those threads crossing.
Just join the Tor.com eBook of the Month Club! It’s that simple.
You ask: “But how do I join the Tor.com eBook of the Month Club?” Well, here’s a link! (Note: After June 21st 2017, you can still sign up for the club, but Old Man’s War will no longer be on offer. Sorry.)
You also ask: “But why only the US and Canada?” The answer here is: That’s where Tor has the rights! Other publishers have the rights elsewhere. And they’re not part of Tor.com’s eBook of the Month Club.
You also also ask: “But I already own Old Man’s War and have incorporated all its teachings into my personal worldview. What now?” I say: Then let your friends who have not read the book and might be interested in it know that it’s available for free for the next few days. That’s right, share the joy of John Perry, Jane Sagan and the Colonial Union! I mean, I’m not saying go door to door asking people if they’ve heard the good news about the Colonial Defense Forces. But, if someone says “I don’t know what to read next,” this is a good thing to slip into conversation.
You also also also ask: “But, Scalzi, you’re giving away your classic of modern science fiction for free — how will you feed your adorable family and pets?” Well, you know. I’ll find some way. Selling blood plasma, perhaps. And anyway, Old Man’s War has done well by me for the last dozen years. I can occasionally let it go as a freebie for a couple of days to bring in new readers. If they like what they read, I have 11 other novels (including five more in the OMW series) they might be willing to pay for after that. It’s worked that way before, anyway.
So, go on — enjoy! And tell a friend or two.
What does it take for a civilization to be “too big to fail” — and can any civilization in fact make it to that particular point? In writing his novel Soleri, author Michael Johnston had reason to consider this particular question, and came to a civilization near the Nile River for inspiration.
I got my big idea for my novel, Soleri, back when I was an undergraduate, sitting in an art history class. The professor was talking about ancient Egypt and how the people of the New Kingdom visited the pyramids, which were constructed during the Old Kingdom (thousands of years earlier) as tourists. Those giant pyramids in the sand carried as much mystery and wonder for the Egyptians of 10 BCE as they do for any tourist today.
Egyptian society was ancient in a way that we can’t even imagine. For roughly three thousand years they built a civilization in and around the Nile river. Academics theorize that the Egyptians could not imagine the possibility of their civilization ever coming to an end. The Persians had come and gone and when the Greeks appeared, they simply integrated themselves into the fabric of Egypt. Cleopatra was of Greek origin. There was something potent about Egypt. It simply could not be dominated. Of course Julius Caesar put an end to that notion, but it had a good run. Three thousand years is nothing to sneeze at! So I think it’s worth standing back and considering the idea of a civilization that had always existed and believes that it always will. That idea stuck with me.
In fact, it stuck with me for fifteen years. I grew up in rural Ohio and was a constant reader of science fiction and history, and I loved architecture as well. I never thought I could be an author, so I went with the practical choice and studied architecture. I’ve taught architecture and practiced in New York and Los Angeles. I did a lot things between that art history lecture and the time when I started writing speculative fiction.
But I wouldn’t call it a break. Soleri is as much about history as it is about architecture (although I did have to tone down the descriptions of ancient buildings. They went on for pages in the early drafts). See, my big idea was to take what I knew about architecture and history and to meld it with everything I loved about speculative fiction. To do that, I went back to that idea about ancient Egypt. Suddenly that old idea had a fresh meaning, I saw it as the bridge between my old profession and my new one.
Skeptical? Hold on for a moment. Here’s how it worked.
I wanted to write about architecture and history, but I didn’t want to write non-fiction. I wanted to use my imagination and besides, there are already many wonderful histories of Egypt and Rome on the shelves. So I decided to look at ancient Egypt as a concept, a speculation, and not a place in history. Egypt represented the eternal civilization. Even the Roman Empire was short by comparison. So I decided to write about a civilization that was so ancient, that every part of its history had been obscured by time, that its origin had been written and rewritten so many times that the truth behind it had been lost a hundred times over.
My novel is about a civilization ruled by a family of gods, but no one has seen these gods, the Soleri, in centuries. They are shrouded like their history–the wall they live behind is even called the Shroud Wall. In Soleri, the empire is so old that its people have stopped questioning its legitimacy. Everything is ritual, but no one recalls the purpose behind these rituals. The empire of the Soleri is still going through the motions, pretending it is virulent and strong when all the life has already poured out of it (if you are starting to think the Soleri empire might be a metaphor for our own, you are on the right track but that’s a different essay).
There is a place in the novel when one of my characters thinks: This city (the Soleri capital) has forgotten more history than I can recall. It has witnessed the lives of more men, great and small, than I could ever hold in my head.
That lines sums up a lot of the book. Everything we first learn about the Soleri and their empire is inverted as the novel progresses. Like peeling away the skin of an onion, we have to strip away all the layers of history, all the lies that were placed one on top of the other to form the empire we encounter in the prologue. One of the lines in that piece sums up the idea perfectly, Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be. They are eternal, their existence unquestionable, or so the story goes.
In Soleri, we learn the secrets behind each of those lies. We take apart the history and find something entirely unexpected inside, which takes me back to my big idea. The eternal civilization. It doesn’t exist. It is itself a fiction. Soleri is about a society that has become its own fiction, a civilization that has come to believe their own lies. At least until a few people start to find out the truth behind the empire. That’s what happens in the novel. That’s the moment when things get interesting, but I’ll leave it to the reader to discover what actually hides behind the Shroud Wall and what secrets lie behind the history of the Soleri.
Personally I find it reassuring that no matter what, new books and ARCs keep coming along. Here’s today’s stack. What here is on your own personal “to get” list?
She looks pensive, doesn’t she.
A World War II bomber gets sucked through time and space — and that’s the easy part of Fata Morgana. What was the harder part? As Steven R. Boyett explains, it’s everything else that he and co-writer Ken Mitchroney had to build up around that initial big idea.
(Disclosure: As you can see from the image, I blurbed this book.)
STEVEN R. BOYETT:
When one creative person and another creative person love each other very very much, sometimes they get together and make a Special Thing that’s a combination of both of them, but that’s also its own unique thing.
It’s an educational and wonderful thing to write a novel with someone you’ve been friends with for a very long time, especially when you are two very different people, with very different sensibilities, collaborating on a book whose core idea is essentially a fusion of those two sensibilities.
Our novel Fata Morgana is basically a mashup. It’s an intensively researched WWII historical novel about a B-17 Flying Fortress crew on a harrowing mission over Germany in 1943. It’s also a post-apocalyptic fish-out-of-water story, in the tradition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Time Machine. That fusion of sensibilities caused our agent to market it as “Band of Brothers meets Lost Horizon” — a bit marketspeak, but totally fair.
Ken is primarily a movie guy. He’s been a storyboarder, head of story departments, and director for Hollywood studios for decades. He’s a cartoonist and animator, published & illustrated comic books (Space Ark, Myth Conceptions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ren & Stimpy), raced NASCAR modified sportsman cars, and rebuilt and run locomotives. He pinstripes cars and did artwork with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of Rat Fink fame. The Baltimore Orioles wore his artwork. He’s the voice of Zurg on the Toy Story ride.
He’s also weirdly steeped in Forties American culture: swing music, movies, slang, fashion, cars – and B-17 bombers. Ken is an Old Soul. You talk to him and you realize he’s been around before. He’s the single funniest guy I’ve ever met.
I write fiction. I’ve published books almost literally since I was a kid. I’m a lifelong martial artist. I once made a living as a paper marbler. Through a fairly strange series of events, learning overtone singing led me to playing the didgeridoo, to recording electronic music, to being a club DJ with two very popular music podcasts (Podrunner and Groovelectric). As a DJ I’m enamored of the mashup, and as a writer I’m enamored of the idea of putting music into words. Music has had a huge influence on my writing – the rhythm of the prose, the symphonic structure of a larger work, sometimes the subject matter itself. My fiction is often steeped in postapocalyptic imagery, what Salvador Dalí and Tears for Fears called “the beauty of decay.” Road trips are a big theme with me. Imagine Jack Kerouac writing The Lord of the Rings.
(Oh, God. Now I really want to write that. So in the Shire when the sun goes down and I sit by the Water watching the long skies over Middle Earth, and that road going ever on and on, and in Gondor I know by now the children must be crying just before the night that blesses Mirkwood cups the Misty Mountains and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen besides the forlorn rags of Gandalf growing old, I think of Frodo Baggins, I even think of old Bilbo who in some way was the father of us all, but I think of Frodo Baggins.)
Unlike Ken, I am not an Old Soul. I’m a new soul. This is clearly my first time around; I’m still in my shrinkwrap. I have a naive idealist’s outrage at the ways that people and societies can behave toward one another, as if it’s a surprise every time.
So: Old friends. A witch’s caldron of sensibilities, talents, interests. Apply heat and stir. Does it blend, gel, combust? (The truth is, if you saw Toy Story 2, you probably already know what we’re like when we work together. Ken was Senior Story Artist on that movie, and I wrote the second draft of the screenplay. And at this point I won’t exactly be burning any bridges when I opine that most of what’s good about that movie is me and Ken.)
Ken had this mental image of two warring, Braveheart-ish factions about to collide when something stops them. A roaring from the sky. A B-17 bomber smoking in on failing Wright Cyclone engines, crashlanding out of frame. He’d encapsulated our different sensibilities in one image — I was so in.
The next four years came from that single image.
I’m a firm believer in a fantasy or SF novel’s feet being planted on real ground, and I did a ton of research on bombers (including buzzing my neighborhood in one, woo hoo!), the US wartime economy, the European theater, the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and self-sustaining ecologies in general). Ken loves ensemble movies & shows, from Jack Benny to Frazier, and put our bomber crew together. We logicked the living crap out of the storyline. It has a ton of twists and surprises, and judging from the responses so far, they seem to have worked. It has sections written in bullet time and dialogue you’d expect to hear on a Philco Cathedral radio.
The surprising thing was how seriously we began to take the whole endeavor. We’d started out wanting a rollercoaster ride, a summer tentpole movie. But in the wake of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan it seems a disservice now to look back on that war as an excuse to tell a Ripping Adventure Story. What those frighteningly young men went through was simply unbelievable, and the more we learned and the more the book took shape, the more we felt the awful weight of duty thrust upon an entire generation. Such that the book became about the price of duty over desire.
I think no matter what you write about it’s good to take your subject matter seriously. I think it makes you go the extra mile, do your due diligence to your characters and your world. It was just as true for the post-apocalyptic aspects of the novel: They went from plot device to holy crap, this is what it’d be like to live like this.
I jokingly describe Fata Morgana as a novel about a WWII bomber crew who fly into another novel. But we didn’t treat it as a joke at all.
And when all is said and done we have before this creature that combines our creative DNA to become its own unique self. Ken and I have done our best to comb its hair and make it overall presentable, and now we’ve sent it out into the world all on its own. We hope you’ll find it a valuable member of the good society it has entered, and that it does us proud. They grow so quickly, you know.
Hey, do you like books?
(This is a rhetorical question. If you are at this particular site and don’t like books, I really don’t know what to say to you.)
Here are some new books and ARCs that have come to the Scalzi Compound in the very recent past. See anything you’d want to add to your TBR pile? Tell us in the comments!
Both pretty good, if you ask me.
Hope it’s a good one for you.
Hey, Scalzi! It’s me, your fictional interlocutor!
Oh, God, you again.
You know why I’m here!
This is about the James Comey testimony yesterday, isn’t it?
Fine, let’s do this.
James Comey testimony! Your thoughts!
Well, assuming Comey was truthful and reasonably accurate in his testimony, and to be clear I suspect he was, then it basically tells us what we already knew, which is that Donald Trump is a lying liar who lies, and that he rather stupidly tried to intervene in the Michael Flynn/Russia investigation, and in a way that’s very probably actual obstruction of justice. And he implied another thing I suspect most of us already knew, which is that the Russians have their hands up the asses of a whole lot of people in the Trump administration, including very likely Jeff Sessions. So, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised by anything Comey said, but it’s gratifying to have it in the congressional record.
Do you still think James Comey wasn’t very good at his job?
Kind of? I think what his testimony solidified for me is that James Comey was probably pretty good at the day to day minutiae of his former gig, and also that within the context of that gig he was pretty ethical. But I also think he made some high-profile bad calls, and that very same desire for ethical action caused him to exacerbate rather than mitigate some of those bad calls.
At this point I’ve gotten used to thinking of Comey as something of a tragic figure, whose greatest virtue — a desire to act ethically and above the usual boundaries of politics in the execution of his duties — ended up precipitating a national and global crisis. Because make no mistake that we have a President Trump in large part because of him. I suspect that eats at him even if he believes all his actions during 2016 were ultimately correct and appropriate, as the head of the FBI.
(This is not to say a President Hillary Clinton would not have had her challenges. But only a fool or a committed partisan (and there’s some considerable overlap there) at this point believes a Clinton administration would have been the gross and obvious ethical Superfund site the Trump administration has been from day one.)
Let me put it this way: I think Comey could have made better decisions in his role as FBI director. I also think his testimony was probably, pun intended, unimpeachable.
But Trump says Comey’s testimony vindicated him!
Sure, but Trump says a lot of stupid things, doesn’t he? If by “vindicated” he means “established him as a liar and obstructor of justice,” then yes, he’s entirely vindicated. Otherwise it’s just Trump lying as fast as he can, which pretty much goes to Comey’s point directly, doesn’t it.
Trump’s lawyer says he going to file a complaint against Comey for leaking. Thoughts?
I mean, okay, but so what? First: Comey, then a private citizen, giving a friend a non-classified memo recounting a conversation he had with the president, and encouraging the friend to share it? That’s not actually a leak, now, is it? Comey was already out of a job. Also, filing a complaint will do what, precisely? Is the Department of Justice going to fire him again? A double-secret firing? It doesn’t appear that Comey did anything illegal, and complaining to the Department of Justice about it seems likely to result in exactly one thing: The lawyer complaining to the Department of Justice about it. Like many things Trump does, this is a lot of noise and movement but no actual result.
And I suspect the Trump people know that’s all that’s going to come out of it, which is why Trump and his party pals, like Corey Lewandowski, are mostly resorting to asserting that if Comey were a real man, he would have talked to the press himself rather than having a pal do it, harumph, harumph. Which leads me to two thoughts. One, I’m sure James Comey is gonna stay up nights worrying what an asshole like Corey Lewandowski thinks about him, vis a vis manhood or anything else. Two, this is (one reason) why the Trump people are stupid: They’ve confused successfully executing on a strategy with weakness. It doesn’t matter whether Lewandowski thinks Comey is “man enough,” because no matter what he or Trump think about Comey’s manhood, Comey’s actions resulted in Robert Mueller appointed as a special investigator. Which is to say Comey was man enough to dunk on Trump.
Thoughts on the senators who questioned Comey?
I felt sad about John McCain, who was clearly not all there. Otherwise I think the GOP senators spent a lot of time trying to convince themselves and others that Trump saying “I hope” didn’t mean he was really trying to obstruct the investigation, and to blame Comey for not forcefully telling Trump “No, what you’re asking for is totally illegal” in the moment. On the former, Comey pretty much demolished the “I hope” argument by quoting Henry II with regard to Thomas a Becket, thus sending a thrill through the hearts of history nerds everywhere, and on the latter, here, read this by Ana Marie Cox, which is entirely on point. The Democratic senators were more on message, as is to be expected.
What about Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton? The GOP senators seemed very interested in that.
Sure, anything to take the conversation away from Trump and obstruction of justice. I get why the GOP senators wanted to talk about that, even aside using it as a way to run down the clock on Comey’s testimony. But here’s a thing, which is that Hillary Clinton’s not the president, whereas Trump is. So I think most people are a smidgen more interested in what he’s up to, than a woman who is no longer Attorney General talking to the husband of a woman who is not sitting behind the Resolute desk in the White House. Maybe that’s just me.
So do you think this is finally it? The thing that gets Trump impeached?
Trump’s not getting impeached.
But… obstruction of justice!
The House is as likely to vote to impeach Trump on this or indeed any other illegal/unethical thing he’s actually currently doing as I am to sprout a peach tree out of my tailbone. This is your occasional reminder that today’s GOP has no moral or ethical center, and apparently works under the belief that the entire point to the life of the average American citizen is to fork over their progressively declining wages to large companies to make the very rich that much richer. Trump’s helping with that goal, so why would they get in the way with that? Trump could tromp into the White House rose garden, club Sean Spicer to death live on Fox and Friends, and then skull-fuck the bloody corpse, chortling about his electoral college victory all the while, and all you would get out of the GOP is Paul Ryan’s patented little grimace, and the general argument that it’s the president’s prerogative to skull-fuck the corpse of any of his staff, so why is the mainstream media making such a big deal about it.
So, yeah. Don’t pick out your glittery impeachment pants just yet. You’re gonna have to wait for 2019 at the earliest for that.
Also, for the record: I do not endorse anyone, including but not limited to the President of the United States, doing anything to Sean Spicer to bring about his death or even his mild physical discomfort, in the White House rose garden or indeed anywhere else, much less then skull-fucking his corpse, bloody or otherwise, on live or recorded television, streaming on the internet or even in private. Please do not kill Sean Spicer, ever. He’s already dead inside. That should be enough for anybody.
So what do we get out of the Comey hearing?
You get the satisfaction out of confirming that Donald Trump is a real piece of shit both as a human being and as a president. Congratulations!
Late breaking news! Trump calls Comey a liar!
This is a surprise?
He says he’ll testify under oath about what Comey said!
Who said that?
Someone on Twitter!
Oh, okay, then.
You seem skeptical.
Even if Trump did promise testify under oath (which, if his personal lawyers are competent — big if — they would never in a second advise he ever do ever in the history of ever, ps: never ever ever), and he somehow didn’t back out of it (which if his lawyers are competent they would try to get him to do), the chances he wouldn’t lie his ass off even under oath is pretty slim, because he’s Donald Trump, and what he does is lie his ass right off. Because he’s always done it and it’s worked so far, up to and including getting him into the White House, so why change strategies?
Look: No one — no one — believes Trump more than they believe Comey. The best you can say is his partisans either don’t think it’s important that Trump lies out of his ass all the time, or they’re confident he’ll just keep getting away with it. So, sure: Get Trump under oath. He’ll lie. And when he lies, because why shouldn’t he, it’s always worked before, let’s see what happens then. Let’s see what the GOP says about it then.
Uh… that seems to be ending on a down note, there.
You’re the one asking questions, man.
But, fine. Look: Scamperbeasts!
Thank you. I needed that.
I know. We all did.
Someone just tweeted me, “What do you think of them axing Coke Zero?”, which was not the first thing I wanted to read when I woke up this morning. But rather than panic and set fire to everything in my house at the thought of only having vile Diet Coke to drink when I crave brown, flavored carbonic acid, I went looking for reputable news sources for information. And indeed, it looks like plans are under foot Down Under:
Coca-Cola is getting rid of Coke Zero, starting in Australia.
The U.S.-based soft drink giant is retiring its zero calorie drink and launched a new “no-sugar” variant down under called Coca-Cola No Sugar. AdNews reports the soda will replace Coke Zero and the company claims it tastes even more like original Coke.
The “best tasting no sugar Coca-Cola we’ve ever made” will officially launch in Australia next week with a black color design similar to Coke Zero, which will be gradually phased out. A website already features the new tagline “Say Yes to No Sugar.”
I read several other news reports on this as well, and the upshot of this is, a) they’re road-testing a new version of no-calorie Coke in Australia and New Zealand, b) it’s supposed to taste more like original Coke than even Coke Zero, which is made using the original Coke formula (Diet Coke is the New Coke formula), c) it will co-exist with Coke Zero and Diet Coke for a while in the market, d) and if successful will replace Coke Zero, because apparently half of consumers had no idea Coke Zero had no sugar.
It’s that “no sugar” part that’s apparently important, because these days, or so the news reports suggest to me, sugar is in bad odor as being the worst possible thing you can put in your body short of heroin, a proposition I’m not convinced of, but then I’m kind of a sugar fiend, so I may be biased. By calling the new product Coke No Sugar, Coke is making it clear there’s, uh, no sugar in it. So, good for hyper-literal branding, I guess. I think “Coke No Sugar” is kind of terrible as a brand name, and suspect that if consumers didn’t know Coke Zero had, you know, zero sugar in it, the problem was marketing, and not the branding per se. Mind you, if memory serves, the whole point of Coke Zero marketing in the early days was to hide from dudes with fragile masculinity the fact that they were drinking a diet beverage, which is why the word “diet” was never put anywhere near the product dress. So again, I’m not sure consumers are 100% to blame here if they didn’t catch on about the zero sugar thing.
Be that as it may, as a devoted fan of Coke Zero, how do I feel about the possible rise of Coke No Sugar and the commensurate possible fall of Coke Zero? Bluntly, as long as my no-calorie Coke options are not limited to Diet Coke, which tastes like scorched battery acid and regret, I think I’ll be fine. I didn’t become a fan of Coke Zero because I was beguiled by its manly, diet-obfuscating branding; I became a fan of it because it’s derived from the taste profile of original Coca-Cola, which is what I wanted and wasn’t getting with New Coke-derived Diet Coke. So: Coke No Sugar apparently tastes closer to the original formula than Coke Zero? Groovy, I’ll give it a shot.
However, I’m not going to worry about Coke Zero vaporizing just yet. Coca-Cola does a whole lot of brand tweaking around the world to figure out what it wants to do; see this from last year in the UK, in which Coke Zero became Coke Zero Sugar, again, one assumes, to accentuate the “no sugar” association, a branding initiative which never made over to this aide of the Atlantic. Australia and New Zealand are the test markets for Coke No Sugar, in other words; if it’s wildly successful then they might transplant it to the US as well. If it’s not, well, then it’ll join Raspberry Coke and C2 in the sloshy Coke trashbin of failed Coke products (note, however, you can get raspberry-flavored Coke from the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines, i.e., the most miraculous machines that humanity has yet invented and which verily I want in my own home. Also, I guess you could replicate C2 if you wanted by mixing one half original Coke and one half Coke Zero, but why would you).
In short, it doesn’t look like Coke Zero is dead quite yet. And if it eventually dies because its replacement tastes more like original formula Coke than it does, then I feel it will have completed its mission with honor and can rest well. Until that nebulous, unspecified future, however, I’ll keep sucking it down.
You look like you might be interested in a big stack of books and ARCs, so, hey, here’s a stack matching that very description. What moves you in this stack? Tell us in the comments!
Catherynne M. Valente is one of the most interesting writers in speculative fiction today, not in the least because when she gets worked up about something, she doesn’t just yell about it — she creates art about it. This explains her latest, The Refrigerator Monologues, and now Cat is here to explain it to you.
CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:
Hello, my name is Cat Valente. You may remember me from such things as: fairy tales, girl stuff, books with too many fancy words in them, books with too many fancy feelings in them, and titles that are way too long and/or unpronounceable.
Well…I’ll be honest, I’m still doing several of those things. But now with LOTS more punching and swearing and yelling!
My latest book is called The Refrigerator Monologues and you can see its big red and blue mug right up there. It’s more or less The Vagina Monologues for superheroes’ girlfriends. If you’re familiar with the phrase “girls in refrigerators,”coined by the amazing Gail Simone in the mid 90s, that elevator pitch/title will make instant sense. If not, come with me on a journey through time, space, and feminist theory: named for the fate of one of Green Lantern’s poor girlfriends who ended her run dismembered and stuffed into an actual refrigerator, it refers to a long-term trend in superhero comics in which women (not just girlfriends and wives, female heroes, too) are variously murdered, raped, mutilated, driven crazy, had their powers, both super and otherwise, taken away, and other sundry completely horrific ways to spend a Saturday night, not because those things featured heavily in their own stories, but simply to further the male hero’s narrative, give him something to shake his fist at the villain about, eventually avenge, or grit his teeth over.
I wanted to write about these women, give them the microphone, re-center the superhero tale on the characters that are so often used up and tossed aside by it, and give them a chance to get in some primal scream therapy. It all takes place in Deadtown, an underworld where it’s always autumn, always dusk, you can only eat extinct plants and animals and read remaindered books and listen to the house band of late, great rockers and hope someone up in the world of the living decides to bring you back with a revivification ray so you can see the end of your own story. And in Deadtown, the refrigerated girls get together every night to get mad, get drunk, and get their own back.
SOUNDS LIKE A ROLLICKING ROMP THROUGH UPLIFTING AND HILARIOUS ADVENTURES, RIGHT?
Except it kind of is. The Refrigerator Monologues is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve written, and it’s not even all gallows humor! It’s a very new voice for me—a lot less of that elegant stuff I’m known for, and a lot more raw, stripped-down, punch-to-the-gut, straight-forward truth-bombs. And f-bombs. And actual bombs. This is a story with a lot of heroes and villains and battles and blown-up cities and blown-up people, after all.
Which leads to the catch. Because of course, I don’t have, and will never be given, the rights to Gwen Stacy and Karen Page and Alexandra DeWitt and all the others, all those refrigerated girls of the long four-color history of the world. When I first had the idea for this book, borne of white-hot blinding rage at Gwen Stacy’s final words in the last Amazing Spiderman movie having “Nobody makes my decisions for me, nobody! This is my choice!” before flouncing off to get her neck promptly snapped by the entire concept of having an ounce of agency, this presented a problem. For about five minutes.
Because the truth is, I’ve been doing this kind of thing for years. I just usually do it with Snow White and Gretel and Rapunzel and Marya Morevna and Red Riding Hood. I know how to dance this dance. I know how to strip an archetype down for parts and build up something strange and new. And I am also a glutton for punishment who has put off buying a lawnmower for literally a decade because it’s too much effort but thinks nothing of uttering the phrase “Oh, I’ll just create a complete, analogous, Marvel/DC crossover-style, cohesive, referential yet original superhero universe. For a novella. It’s fine. By the way, these mai tais are amazing where is the waiter?”
Which is what I did. I’m not being coy about anything—if you know your superhero comics, you’ll be able to name my tune in six notes. If you don’t, it might just seem like a familiar little earworm you can groove to on its own merits. It’s not even about avoiding copyright. I wanted to do it this way. I wanted to fashion this universe out of the starstuff our culture has become so obsessed with over the last 15 or 20 years. These women aren’t meant to be X-Men with the VIN numbers filed off. They’re meant to be their own complicated, gnarly, beautiful, angry people with the kind of familiarity and resonance all archetypes have. I wanted to do what I’ve done with folklore and fairy tales my whole career, only this time, I never reached for Grimm. I examined each of the stories that pissed me off the most, drew out what I felt were the core, defining, archetypical elements of each character, threw the rest away, and banged up a brand new cast of thousands, with new adventures, new twists on the old tales, new costumes, new powers, new obsessions, new endings. Think of it as a chop shop for mythology—hot new body, same classic engine.
Because superhero stories have become for us what fairy tales were for the pre-industrial world. They’re morality plays we encourage children to devour by the fistful—but they’re not really for children. They’re so much darker and stranger and sexier and more political than almost anything else we’d give to a child. Comics and fairy tales are short, but put together create a long tradition with some continuity issues. They light up the brain with epic battles and romances and bright costumes and magic while communicating the truth about the universe as told by the dominant culture. They’re focused on heroes going out into the wild and struggling against the unknown for the sake of the village. It’s just that now the unknown is the fringes of science, while then it was what to do if you meet someone in the forest who doesn’t live like you do. Though maybe it’s still that too, a little. There’s not so much difference, in the end, between “happily ever after” and “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” There’s not so much difference between writing Snow White set in the old west and writing that awful refrigerator waiting at the end of too many stories like a spindle in a tower.
I’m terribly proud of The Refrigerator Monologues in an entirely uncool way—you’re not supposed to like your own books this much, I know. But I spent a long time living with my girls, and I love them all so much. I hope you love them a little, too. In some ways, I suppose you could think of this as my Pulp Fiction—violent, funny, weird, loud stories that seem unconnected at first but are totally entangled, jam packed with pop culture references, homages, pastiches, and mysterious unexplained lights. Only mine come from doomsday devices and mutant powers.
And old refrigerators left open just a little too wide in a big, dark room.
But not so ashamed that I won’t share it. And so timely:
A. J. HARTLEY:
The core of the Steeplejack series, the idea at its heart, came out of the collision of two smaller ideas that I had assumed would be separate books. One was a fantasy adventure set in a world which looked like Africa. The other was a Victorian steam punk mystery centering on a character who worked on the city’s tall factory chimneys. When I realized that the two stories might be combined, creating a unique, 19th-century metropolis within an African context, the series came together. The result was not just a world that had all the smoggy trappings of a Sherlock Holmes mystery surrounded by a wilderness full of strange and potentially dangerous creatures, the story was also necessarily defined by the racial dynamics of the population.
Bar-Selehm, the city which is the home for the books, is based very loosely on Durban in South Africa, a city with a substantial Indian population in addition to the minority white and indigenous blacks. Since I imagined a conquest of the region which took place several centuries earlier than did the British subjugation of South Africa, however, the imaginary city is a steam-driven industrial power house living according to a political system resembling apartheid.
The protagonist of the series is Anglet Sutonga, a brown skinned Lani steeplejack who, in book one was recruited by a powerful local politician to investigate the events surrounding the murder of her apprentice. In book 2, Firebrand, she has acquired greater autonomy and agency, and is now attempting to unravel the theft of some secret government plans against a backdrop of rising political tension. This latter is driven by the rise of a right wing populist politician who is seeking to return the city to older ideas of racial segregation in response to the recent immigration of foreign refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.
I should say here that I’m a white guy, and that with the best will in the world, there are certain things I’m never going to be able to evoke as well as a someone who has actually lived the experience. That’s worrying for a writer. We’re told to write what we know, and limited though that injunction might be, it’s solid advice if only because when readers can tell you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re screwed. At best they are momentarily knocked out of the story. At worst you lose them completely and you look like an imposter.
That said, the world is full of books about white people and I didn’t want to merely add to the pile. I’ll go further and say that I think I have a moral obligation to at least try to write stories which reflect the diversity I see around me.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions and it’s not enough to mean well. Now, I’m on safer ground with fantasy. The world of the Steeplejack books is made up. It’s a place and time that has never existed, so I’m as well qualified to write it as anyone else, but to do it well requires me to draw on other people’s experience. I’ve been to places, for instance, where I knew I could not trust the police, that if anything happened to me—or even if it didn’t—they would be as likely to treat me criminally as they were to help. But I haven’t lived the bulk of my life in such a condition, so to imagine it I needed to listen to those who had. I shared my work as it developed with friends of color and asked them to flag any moment, any idea, any assumption which felt wrong, off, or stereotypical.
Because one of the hardest things about writing people who aren’t you is the tendency—usually one you can’t see—to rely on what you think you know but which is actually coming from impressions shaped by your own difference. This is especially true when you are representing minorities who, perhaps, you don’t have much close personal contact with, so that your impressions of them are absorbed largely through, say, TV and film.
Writers live by their voice; the sound they make in a reader’s head through the arrangement of words. I like words and I like to use them to build stories. What I learned from this series, however, was that I was likely to be most successful if I shut up and listened. I’m not talking about writing dialect (a nightmarish trap for white people trying to write people of color), I’m talking about story. I’m talking about events and situations and how characters other than me might perceive them. And it’s hard, because you really do have to pay attention when people call you out for an assumption or something that looks prejudicial. You can’t say ‘But that’s not what I meant!’ Intent doesn’t matter. Effect does. So for all my writerly scribbling there comes a point (or points, plural) where I have to share my stuff and ask other people how it reads to them.
Does it work? I’m not certain. The result is better than me working alone, that’s for sure, and I think there’s value in any good faith attempt to talk across racial lines because we, as a culture, seem to be so bad at it. I know I can’t please everyone—from either end of the political spectrum—but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do everything in my power to get it as close to right as I can.
It’s probably self-evident that I wanted to use the fantasy frame to explore current social and political issues, mixing adventure, mystery and wonder with some fairly hard truths from our own world, but I don’t think I had realized just how topical it would feel. The novel was completed long before the last presidential election, and though there are flashes of campaign rhetoric in the mouth of Anglet’s principal political antagonist, Nathan Richter, the extent to which the book now seems to reflect our own country is a little unnerving.
In fact, in spite of the unfamiliarity of the world and its occasional deviations from conventional reality, it barely feels to me like fantasy at all. All of which makes me wonder if the real ‘big idea’ has to do with the book’s generic hybridity; it’s a mystery, a thriller, and a fantasy adventure, but it’s also a kind of alternate history with an edge of social commentary. I like to think that it’s both fun and serious, both a diversion from reality, and a story about political resistance in a world which seems rather more familiar than I would like.