All posts by John Scalzi

About John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

Various and Sundry 8/5/14

Some things for you:

* The LA Times takes a look at the recent Amazon kerfuffle and wishes to inform you about What Amazon’s e-book numbers are and aren’t telling you, and quotes my recent post here about it. The article basically pokes the same holes in Amazon’s logic that I did (and that others have), which is not terribly surprising because it’s not like I had to look hard for those holes. I don’t suspect Amazon got the response out of their missive that it had hoped for.

* Meanwhile, over at Tor.com, an article explains why my novel Old Man’s War is pretty much SF/F 101, i.e., an entry-level text for the spectulative fiction genre, and offer examples of other works that would be placed higher up on the academic survey ladder. I don’t find much to disagree with here, particularly the assessment of where OMW fits in — I’ve been saying for years that I quite intentionally wrote it to be accessible to people who don’t generally read science fiction. So yeah, 101 is pretty accurate. I’m happy to have it be there, too, since the sales reflect that whole “easy to get into” idea.

* Not directly related to me but worth noting here: Wiscon has decided — after far too many fits and starts — to permanently ban Jim Frenkel from attending the convention. Those of you needing additional context for this event may find it here. I have more to say about this, which I will do at some point hopefully in the near future when I can actually organize my thoughts on it. For now, I will say that I’m glad it’s been done and wish it hadn’t required a process that demanded feeding off Wiscon’s own reputation and goodwill with its attendees to operate.

The Big Idea: Bishop O’Connell

Author Bishop O’Connell knows it’s easy to be “the hero” when you’re the Chosen One, full of magic and destiny. But what about when… you’re not? What does being a hero mean then? O’Connell thinks about it in his novel The Stolen, and today, in his Big Idea piece.

BISHOP O’CONNELL:

I’m a geek. When I was younger, I played Dungeons and Dragons, Car Wars, and various RPGs. I collected comics, and even started a roleplaying club at my high school. I spent a lot of time imagining strange and amazing worlds, and dreaming of escaping into them. I wanted to be the hero; sometimes in shining armor, sometimes shadowed and mysterious. As I matured, I began to wonder what it would be like if a supernatural reality existed just beneath the surface of our world. I didn’t outgrow my desire to be a hero, but my ideas became less whimsical and more practical. What if I discovered a real world of magic and wonder? And what if I wasn’t a skilled and powerful hero, but just me, as I am? How cool would that be?

Um, am I insane? I’d be scared out of my mind! So what then, would it take for a normal person to be tossed into a world of magic and monsters and not be reduced to a whimpering, fetal ball? That person would need a reason to get up, something larger than the fear.

I’ve always been a storyteller, by the time I entered college and began to take my writing seriously, I’d fallen in love with faerie tales and folklore. So I decided to write a modern faerie tale. My novel, The Stolen, began as a short story based on the poem “The Stolen Child” by W.B. Yeats, but with a twist. My initial backdrop was a world where all of the monsters we knew were real, but not quite as we believed. Vampires, werewolves, demons, and zombies were, in fact, faeries. The passing of time had warped our collective human memory of them into the pantheon of urban fantasy monsters that we know today.

That idea didn’t last. I didn’t want to make another vampire book. I wanted something of my own. My short story’s plot was sound, but the child-stealing faeries needed some kind of transformation, and that was when I decided the key would be change. That was my first Big Idea.

Faeries are static in most stories, never developing or growing past their mythic origins. It made sense to me that if they lived alongside humanity, even hidden from view, they’d be impacted and shaped by our influence. For example, why use magic when technology is easier and readily accessible?  So, my faeries became urban faeries. They didn’t ride horses or carry bows. They drove sports cars; had guns, cell phones, and stock portfolios; and owned night clubs.

I found my second Big Idea in the “The Stolen Child” as well. It paints the luring away of a child by faeries as something wondrous. I love the poem, but it’s one-sided. Any parent must find the idea of his or her child being taken a nightmare that would put the darkest horror story to shame. There could be no better reason to stand and face the darkness than to save your child. So what was my second Big Idea?  To write a story about a normal person who is tossed into a terrifying world, and not only finds a reason to stand up, but becomes a hero. Not because she wants to be one, but because she doesn’t have a choice.

Caitlin is a single mother whose knowledge of faeries and magic comes from Disney movies and the stories her immigrant grandparents told her. She can’t hurl magic or wield a sword, and she isn’t “the one” mentioned in any prophecy. Her only super power is the ability to make a little girl laugh, and give that child a good life. When Fiona is kidnapped, Caitlin has a reason to face a dark and terrifying reality, but she’s lacking in the skills to survive it. That means trusting others, which seems like a simple thing, but is it really? Even parents of a child kidnapped by a human monster must bristle at the thought of trusting the authorities to rescue their baby. And those are entities we’ve been taught to rely on in desperate situations. Trusting strangers—some of whom are also faeries—and a friend who hasn’t been honest, would be a nightmare of its own.

As I wrote the story, I found was that being a hero isn’t simple, not in reality. It means living with the consequences of your choices and mistakes, even when those choices are ones that no one should ever have to make. It would’ve been easy to put my hero in shining armor on horseback. But if we reduce heroism to something as clichéd as picking up a sword at the last minute to strike down the dragon, or discovering a character had the magic to defeat the monster all along, we do a grave disservice to every hero, real or imagined.

Being a hero has costs, but a hero pays them and doesn’t begrudge it after. That’s where real heroism resides, not just in the moment of heroism, but after it’s done and the bill comes due. My heroes, all of them, became more than I ever imagined: flawed, imperfect, sometimes weak, often times in over their heads, and just as often fighting for hope as for what’s right. I know they say reading a good book changes you, but I wasn’t expecting to get the same experience from writing one. I have a deeper respect for heroes now (both literary and real), and a better understanding of what it takes to be one. I also honestly hope neither I, nor you, ever has to be one.

—-

The Stolen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Harper Collins Direct

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

 

Author Feuds

Because it amused me earlier today to think on them:

It’s nice to have a schedule.

And Now, The Competition

This was pointed out on Twitter earlier this morning by Kameron Hurley and I thought was worth pointing out here as well: SF Signal’s put out a list of 299 science fiction, fantasy and horror books/graphic novels coming out in the month of August, 2014. My book Lock In is in there, and so is Kameron’s. And so are 297 other books. That averages out to nearly ten books a day in the same general sphere of genres as our own — but inasmuch as most books come out on Tuesdays (as do most new albums, incidentally), it actually means that on August 26, the day my book comes out, there will be another 75 science fiction/fantasy/horror books coming out — including Kameron’s, which comes out the same day as mine.

This doesn’t count all the self-pubbed SF/F/H books that will come out that day (or in August). It also doesn’t count every other type of book that will come out that (or in August), either.

(It also doesn’t count the books I have competing against my own self, either, namely the Old Man’s War boxed set that’s coming out the same day as Lock In.)

This, in case you weren’t already aware, is why authors are often twitchy on release dates. Because every release day is a busy one, with lots of different new books for you, the reader, to choose from. You’re not going to buy them all — so we hope that one of the ones you buy will be ours. It’s the dream, anyway.

On the other hand: The fact that so many books are released every month and every week is a positive thing — dozens of writers publishing, many of them for the first time, and all sorts of stories to choose from. A healthy number of books means a successful field — and that’s good for everyone who writes and wants to publish. So in one sense all these authors and their books are my competition, but in another very real sense I want them all to succeed. Rising tide lifting boats, etc.

Any time someone suggests to you that publishing is dying (or whatever) go ahead and pop them over to this list. Publishing is pretty active for a dead field, is what I’m saying. I suspect it will be for a while yet. Good luck to all the authors publishing in August. And before. And after.

(P.S.: I’m currently reading The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley. It’s really good. You should get it when it comes out.)

My Reading in Beavercreek

Me at my August 2, 2014 reading/signing at the Beavercreek B&N. Photo by Howye.

It went pretty well, I thought. It was nicely attended, which is always a good thing, especially when I’m doing an event that’s not on a tour or otherwise focused on a new release. Also, I got to do a test run on some material I’m thinking of using on the tour, seeing how it worked with an audience. It’s always nice to have that.

It was also a reminder that I actually do like doing readings and events. It’s fun to get up there and read stuff and answer questions and have people enjoy what you do, and be glad you’re there — or at least I think it is, which I suppose it the relevant metric here. This is important, as I’m just over three weeks away from a book tour that has me on the road for four weeks straight. If I stopped liking this particular aspect of my life, I would have a very grim month ahead of me.

I’ve made the comment before that somewhere in the recent past I stopped being a professional writer and have become a professional traveler who also, occasionally, writes; if I wanted to, I could be gone from my house for nearly every weekend of the year at some convention or event. I don’t want that (I actually like my family and want to spend time with them) and I prefer to be a writer, not a traveler. What makes the travel worthwhile is the getting to meet and be in front of people. I think when that happens, we all have fun together. And that’s not a bad thing.

Two Advertisements For Myself: Signed Lock In Copies and Tomorrow’s Appearance in Beavercreek

And they are:

1. Remember, if you are not in the path of my Lock In book tour that begins later this month, you can still get signed copies of the book from Subterranean Press — and if you get your order in by August 8, I’ll even personalize it for you if you like (for you or for someone you specify). Here are all the details.

2. Tomorrow (August 2nd) at 2pm, I will be at the Beavercreek, OH Barnes and Noble for an afternoon of hilarious hijinx! Or at least, a reading, a Q&A, and a signing. If you’re in the Dayton area please come down! I don’t want to be alone. That would be awkward.

Starred Review of Lock In at Booklist

It’s up at the magazine’s Web site now (albeit behind a paywall), so I can acknowledge it here: Lock In has received its third starred review, this time from Booklist. I won’t quote the whole thing (read it at the Web site if you have access, or in the August 2014 print edition), but here’s a bit I particularly like:

Another brilliant novel from a writer who has quickly become one of the genre’s most successful and intriguing practitioners.

I like the word “another” in that, I have to say.

I’m basically gobsmacked to have received three starred reviews for Lock In (the other two being from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus); that’s the first time I’ve had that happen. I hope you guys like it as much as the reviewers have so far.

Old Man’s War and Trans Folk

Note: This entry will have spoilers about my book Old Man’s War – which, inasmuch as the book has been published for nearly ten years now probably shouldn’t been seen as spoilers anymore but never mind that now — so if you haven’t read Old Man’s War and don’t want a relatively important aspect of it spoiled for you, here’s the takeaway: Yes, there are trans people in the OMW universe; no, it’s not a problem for the CDF/Colonial Union that they are trans. There, now you can go ahead and skip the rest of this entry.

Now, then, for everyone else:

I have been asked several times (and just yesterday, in fact, via e-mail), what happens to trans people who become part of the Colonial Defense Force in the Old Man’s War books. To recap, the CDF gets its soldiers by recruiting 75-year-olds from Earth and giving them new, super-awesome bodies that are based on — but not created solely out of — their own DNA. Because the creation of the bodies is only partly based on the recruit’s original genetic information, would it be possible to for transfolk to specify which gender they would like their new body to be?

This is a really interesting question. Let me try to answer it.

Let me note that with respect to Old Man’s War the book, I did not at all think about what would happen with trans people who join the CDF as I was writing it. Why? Short answer: Straight white male who didn’t know any trans people at the time, so it was not something in my consciousness. So everything from here on out is me adding commentary to the original text — but since it’s from me, the author, we can consider it canonical.

(Also, note: I am not 100% up on trans-related terms, so if I use terms incorrectly, it’s ignorance and not malice; please let me know in the comments and I’ll edit.)

1. First off, and to be clear, there would be no bar to trans people joining the CDF, because why would there be? The entrance requirements are a) you’ve signed up, b) you come from what are in the book rich, developed countries (which mostly align with the current slate of rich, developed countries). So yes, there would be trans people among the recruits.

2. By default, CDF bodies come in classically male and classically female forms. Note that thanks to genetic engineering, etc, the performance capabilities of both male and female forms are equal, so the gender presentation is strictly for the psychological comfort of the recruit, i.e., you’re (usually) used to being male or female, so you get to stay that way when you transfer into your new body.

3. Because the body sorting is a matter of psychological comfort, to the extent that the CDF knows about a trans person’s gender identity, it’ll sort them that way. So, for example, a post-op trans person will be sorted into their post-op gender identity, regardless of DNA profile, because that’s the clear preference for that person.

4. What about non-op, genderfluid, intersex or trans people who have not made their preferred gender public knowledge? The CDF initially sorts into male/female by best appoximation and then after transfer follows up for additional modification. The CDF is an organization that can grow back limbs and organs with minimal effort (for them; it’s slightly more traumatic to the person growing them back), so modifying bodies for the psychological comfort of the person inside is a relatively trivial matter. Most of this can be handled before the recruits get to basic training, although particular in the case of trans people who are not public, much would be contingent on them telling the CDF doctors and technicians.

5. And no, the CDF wouldn’t care about the gender presentation of the recruits. What it would care about is them being willing to fight. You’ll fight? Great, here’s your Empee. Go kill an alien. Thanks.

6. Would there be some other recruits who would have a problem with trans people? It’s possible; the CDF lets anyone in. The basic training drill sergeants will be happy to tell them to get over it. If they did not (indeed if they did not get over any general bigotry) the results for them would be grim.

7. Could a CDF soldier decide to change their gender identity and presentation during the term of service? Sure, why not? All CDF bodies have the same baseline capabilities and personal identity can be verfied via BrainPal, so there would be no penalty or confusion on either score. Are you following orders? Killing aliens? Great — change your presentation however you like.

8. Likewise, when a CDF soldier leaves service, they can specify the gender identity and presentation of the body they’ll be transfered into. Because, again, why wouldn’t they?

Short form: The CDF is happy to let trans people be who they are because it makes them comfortable with themselves — and that makes them better soldiers, which is ultimately what the CDF cares about.

With regard to the Old Man’s War series, I have not intentionally written about trans people in it (some of my characters may have been trans but did not tell me about it), but there’s no reason why I could not. So maybe I will at some point, if there’s a way to do so that doesn’t look like me transparently trying to gather cookies to myself. But regardless of whether I’ve written trans people into my books, there are, canonically speaking, trans people in the OMW universe. Because why wouldn’t there be.

(Update, 8:30pm: Making a few tweaks on language thanks to feedback from some trans and trans-knowledgeable readers)

The Big Idea: Joshua Roots

Reponsibility! It’s a drag, right? Not so, argues Joshua Roots, who explains how responsibility, and all the things around it, inform his latest novel, Summoned Chaos.

JOSHUA ROOTS:

Growing up, life worked pretty hard to instill in me a sense of responsibility for my actions. Don’t eat your veggies? No dessert. Forget to call Mom if you’re going to miss curfew? Enjoy staying home for the next week or so. Ask two girls out to the same dance? Good luck getting a date the rest of your 7th-grade year, pal.

As a kid, responsibility was a burden, something imposed on me from the outside. Things like cleaning my room, eating veggies, and monogamy were crosses I had to bear. If I goofed up, I paid the price. Someone external (usually my folks) kept me in line, ensuring I stepped up to the plate for the responsibilities assigned to me or ones I’d volunteered for.

During those formative years, I found a kindred spirit in Peter Parker. He was just a normal teenager until a radioactive spider gave him all these amazing powers. Not to mention the burdens that went along with them. As Uncle Ben drilled into him: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I didn’t know it back then, but that was only half of the equation.

Over time, the sense of responsibility became something that I realized through my own actions. Rather than my parents holding me accountable, I was doing it myself. Missing a homework assignment in high school or college meant I had to own up to my actions alone. Same with being flippant with a girl’s heart. Some of those lessons were learned the hard way, through poor grades or tears wept. But in the end, it was my choice to attend those classes or account for another person’s feelings.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but one day I found myself paying my mortgage, filling out a grocery list, and making my bed. Voluntarily. And you know what? That was pretty cool. More important, it was empowering. Keeping the lights on and food in the fridge may seem boring and mundane, but it was symbolic. I wasn’t merely surviving, I was building my future. Commanding my life.

Then I joined the Marines and that concept was ratcheted up to eleven. Responsibility wasn’t a burden, but a gift. Just as lives were entrusted to me, so too was mine entrusted to others. That responsibility became one of the greatest rewards because when I eventually moved on, I walked away with the strength to carve out my own future and the conviction to face whatever challenges came my way.

Becoming responsible as an adult, while not always fun, does carry a significant amount of power. We begin to control our own destinies, make choices, and learn to deal with the consequences—good or bad—of those actions. More important, the responsibilities that we take on allow us to choose which paths we want to navigate through life. No matter what, those paths are filled with challenges. Accepting those challenges and working to overcome them empowers us. It teaches us we can do better, maybe even become more than we think we can be. It gives us the confidence to move forward.

The Big Idea for Summoned Chaos, Book 2 in The Shifter Chronicles, centers on this theme. The main character, Marcus, is making the transition from being begrudgingly accountable for his actions to willingly accepting them. He’s not only dealing with the fallout of Book 1, but also realizing that there is a certain amount of power that comes from bearing the load of his family name, of serving the governing council of his magical society, and of being responsible for someone other than himself.

Rather than responsibility being a burden he must carry, Marcus, much like the rest of us, comes to realize that it is a weapon to win life’s battles. He is no longer a “lone wolf” caring for his own needs. Instead, he’s taking on the responsibilities of a team, his loved ones, and the defenseless humans he’s sworn to protect against paranormal creepy-crawlies. By doing so, he gains the strength and confidence to face the troubles ahead of him.

And trust me, there are a lot of them.

So, Uncle Ben was right: “With great power comes great responsibility”. But he forgot to mention the other side of the coin: “With great responsibility comes great power.”

Summoned Chaos: Amazon| Barnes and Noble | GooglePlay | iBooks

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

Amazon’s Latest Volley

Another day, another volley in the Amazon-Hachette battle, this time from Amazon, in which it explains what it wants (all ebooks to be $9.99 or less, for starters) and lays out some math that it alleges shows that everyone wins when Amazon gets its way.

Some thoughts:

1. I think Amazon’s math checks out quite well, as long as you have the ground assumption that Amazon is the only distributor of books that publishers or authors (or consumers, for that matter) should ever have to consider. If you entertain the notion that Amazon is just 30% of the market and that publishers have other retailers to consider — and that authors have other income streams than Amazon — then the math falls apart. Amazon’s assumptions don’t include, for example, that publishers and authors might have a legitimate reason for not wanting the gulf between eBook and physical hardcover pricing to be so large that brick and mortar retailers suffer, narrowing the number of venues into which books can sell. Killing off Amazon’s competitors is good for Amazon; there’s rather less of an argument that it’s good for anyone else.

2. Amazon’s math of “you will sell 1.74 times as many books at $9.99 than at $14.99″ is also suspect, because it appears to come with the ground assumption that books are interchangable units of entertainment, each equally as salable as the next, and that pricing is the only thing consumers react to. They’re not, and it’s not. Someone who wants the latest John Ringo novel on the day of release will not likely find the latest Jodi Picoult book a satisfactory replacement, or vice versa; likewise, someone who wants a eBook now may be perfectly happy to pay $14.99 to get it now, in which case the publisher and author should be able to charge what the market will bear, and adjust the prices down (or up! But most likely down) as demand moves about.

(This is where many people decide to opine that the cost of eBooks should reflect the cost of production in some way that allows them to say that whatever price point they prefer is the naturally correct one. This is where I say: You know what, if you’ve ever paid more than twenty cents for a soda at a fast food restaurant, or have ever bought bottled water at a store, then I feel perfectly justified in considering your cost of production position vis a vis publishing as entirely hypocritical. Please stop making the cost of production argument for books and apparently nothing else in your daily consumer life. I think less of you when you do.)

Bear in mind it’s entirely possible that Amazon sells 1.74 times as many books at $9.99 than at $14.99, but then Amazon deals with gross numbers of product, while publishers deal with somewhat smaller numbers, and the author, of course, deals with only her own list of books. As the focus tightens, the general rules stop being as applicable. What’s good for Amazon isn’t necessarily good for publishers, or authors.

3. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I think it’s very likely that if $9.99 becomes the upper bound for pricing on eBooks, then you are going to find $9.99 becomes the standard price for eBooks, period, because publishers who lose money up at the top of the pricing scale will need to recoup that money somewhere else, and the bottom of the pricing scale is a fine place to do it. Yes, the mass of self-published authors out there will create a tier of value-priced books (this has already been done), and I’m sure in a couple of years Amazon will release another spate of numbers that will show how much more profitable $6.99 eBooks are as compared to $9.99 eBooks, and so on. But at the end of the day there will be authors and publishers who can charge $9.99, forever, and they will. If you destroy the top end of the market, the chances you destroy the bottom end go up, fast.

4. I think Amazon taking a moment to opine that authors should get 35% of revenues for their eBooks is a nice bit of trying to rally authors to their point of view by drawing their attention away from Amazon’s attempt to standardize all eBook pricing at a price point that benefits Amazon’s business goals first and authors secondarily, if at all. The translation here is “Look, if only your publisher would do this thing that we have absolutely no control over, then your own income wouldn’t suffer in the slightest!” Which again, is not necessarily true in the long run.

To be clear, I think authors should get more of the revenue of each electronic sale, although I’m not necessarily sanguine about letting Amazon also attempt to set what that percentage should be. Increasing authors’ percentages of revenue on electronic sales is an exciting new frontier in contract negotiations, he said, having walked to that frontier himself several times now. That said, I also think I should be able to get more of the revenue of each sale and have the ability to have my work priced at whatever the market will bear, without a multibillion-dollar company artifically capping the price I or my publisher can set on my work for its own business goals, which may or may not be in line with my own.

5. While this is not going to happen because this is not the way PR works, I really really really wish Amazon would stop pretending that anything it does it does for the benefit of authors. It does not. It does it for the benefit of Amazon, and then finds a way to spin it to authors, with the help of a coterie of supporters to carry that message forward, more or less uncritically.

Look: As Walter Jon Williams recently pointed out, if Amazon is on the side of authors, why does their Kindle Direct boilerplate have language in it that says that Amazon may unilaterally change the parameters of their agreement with authors? I don’t consider my publishers “on my side” any more than I consider Amazon “on my side” — they’re both entities I do business with — but at least my publisher cannot change my deal without my consent. Which is to say that between my publisher and Amazon, one of them gets to utter the immortal Darth Vader line “I am altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it further” to authors doing business with it and one does not.

(I notice in the WJW comment thread someone opines along the lines of “Oh, that’s like EULA boilerplate and it would probably not be enforceable in court,” which I think is a really charming example of naivete, not in the least because, as I suspected, the boilerplate also specifies (in section 10.1) that disputes between Kindle Direct users and Amazon will be settled through arbitration rather than the courts.)

Authors: Amazon is not your friend. Neither is any other publisher or retailer. They are all business entities with their own goals, only some of which may benefit you. When any of them starts invoking your own interest, while promoting their own, look to your wallet.

Update, 8/9/14: Amazon tries a new tactic, addressing readers (and authors who use Kindle Direct Publishing). I comment on it. Spoiler: Still not especially impressed with the logic; Amazon still not your friend.

The Big Idea: Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson

When you introduce magic into a real-world setting, you don’t only have to deal with the problems that magic introduces — you have to deal with the problems that already existed in that real world setting. When Arianne ‘Tex’ Thompson wanted to introduce magic to an American milieu in One Night in Sixes, she took all of those problems into consideration. Here’s how she made it work.

TEX THOMPSON:

All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I’m tired of Euromedieval fantasy!” I thought. “I’m tired of swords and castles and straight white monocultures. I’m going to write a fantasy about MY country, and MY history, with eleventeen kinds of people rubbing shoulders – like in real life! – and it’s going to be AMAZING.”

And by “amazing”, I must have meant “an absolute landmine of racism, imperialism, slavery and genocide.” Because, y’know, we Yanks really don’t have any post-contact history that doesn’t involve somebody taking something from somebody else. And I don’t think it’d be very responsible to write historical American fantasy that doesn’t acknowledge that somehow.

“Well, okay,” I thought, “but I want all these different folks to have power and agency and hope for a better future. So maybe in MY magical fantasyland, this huge clash of cultures isn’t a relentless colonial tragedy. Maybe the settlers and indigenous peoples are more evenly matched.  Maybe they’ve actually fought to a standstill.  Because… because… well, because the native guys have magic, see!”

Also because there were fishmen acting as a disease barrier, but anyway – magic.

I was a pretty far ways along before I realized that that was capital-P Problematic, not to mention cliché as hell. Real talk, fantasy writers: why is it that we always give the native guys magic? Is it because we’ve inherited some 500-year-old fetishistic meme? Is it so we can even out all those Guns, Germs, and Steel, like we’re setting up some kind of DnD CR table and have to balance the fighters and the mages?  Why is magic always the antithesis of modernity?

And then it hit me.

“BECAUSE,” I said to myself, “in MY magical fantasyland, magic comes from cultural continuity. So the more you eat what your ancestors ate, work their land, speak their language, and live their lifestyle, the more powerful you are. So the settlers DO have magic – or rather they DID, until they started industrializing and spreading and changing so fast that most of them can’t even name their grandfathers, nevermind make the thousand-mile trek back to the old homestead. And – and and and! – the rich folks have actually hung on some of their magic, because they can afford to hole up in their big old ancestral plantations and estates, while the poor folks work in factories or pull up stakes to go do the wagon-train thing. My God – they’ve turned the proletariat into muggles!”

So that was exciting. And it made my brain happy, because not only did it address some of those tropey, icky stereotypes, but it also gave this 19th-century story a real 21st-century feeling. The settlers have given up their cultural continuity in the name of progress and opportunity. The slaves who had their culture forcibly stripped away are actively seeking to rekindle it. And the indigenous peoples who have fought to hold on to their land and lifestyles are having to decide how much of their old ways they can afford to keep in this new, changing world.

That set off a whole chain reaction of big mental bombshells. The possibility of creating new traditions, new magic powers, as people mix and adapt. The idea of a world in which violence and suffering cause a kind of mystical radiation poisoning that lingers for generations. The people and creatures – the children of the last generation’s horrific warfare – who have been literally, supernaturally altered by all this bloodshed and pollution. And a whole lot more that I won’t even get into here.

But even though I’m excited about all of this, I don’t want to give off the impression that now everything is hunky-dory and I’ve got it All Figured Out. This IS an interesting concept – dare I say, a Big Idea. However, part of what still has me scared absolutely gutless, even seven years after that first American epiphany, is that I’m fictionalizing and fantasizing about really serious real-world stuff that has a long history of being horrendously mishandled. And having a good idea isn’t the same as executing it well.  I think fear is absolutely the right emotion to have, of course, because being terrified of getting it wrong is a crucial step in getting it right.

But as nervous as I am about this Big Idea and how it will be received, the even-bigger one behind it – that is, the push for a more inclusive bookshelf, and the importance of being able to re-imagine our own history without sweeping the uncomfortable bits under the rug – is one that I am really excited about.  I hope you will be too.

—-

One Night in Sixes: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

Athena Reviews “Peter and the Wolf”

Athena watched the 2006 animated version of “Peter and the Wolf,” which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, and felt compelled to write her very first film review. Here it is. As a former professional film critic, I’m very proud.

(Also: If you’d like to see the film for yourself, here it is on Netflix).

Athena Scalzi:

Last night, I watched a short film called “Peter and the Wolf”. It is a thirty two minute Oscar-winning claymation short. Not only did it win an Oscar, but five other awards as well. This film is about a boy named Peter who lives in a small Russian village. He lives with his grandpa, he gets bullied by some townspeople, and Peter’s only friend is a duck.

This film was one of the most interesting I’ve ever watched. One of the things I found most interesting about “Peter and the Wolf” was that there was no talking throughout the entire film. It didn’t need words though. The film was fine with just facial expressions and actions to express thoughts. I’m not saying the film was silent, though. In fact, it had some of the most amazing music I’ve heard in a soundtrack.

I thought the animation was quite interesting, as well. Claymation is one of my favorite types of animation. I think claymation is just so much more captivating than any other kind of animation. The movement of the characters in the film wasn’t the smoothest, but I loved their facial expressions and how detailed everything was, especially the wolf.

Based on the title, I was expecting the story to be like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, but it was its own story and an original idea. It wasn’t what I was expecting, to say the least. It was funny at times, but I almost cried at one part. I would’ve never guessed how it ended.

Overall, I enjoyed this strange yet compelling film. It’s clear to see why “Peter and the Wolf” won an Oscar.

Dayton Appearance August 2nd; Hugos; GenCon

Some short bits for you folks:

1. A reminder for you Dayton area folks that this Saturday (August 2nd), I will be making an appearance at the Beavercreek Barnes & Noble at 2pm, at which time I will read from Lock In and other things, answer questions, and sign things, probably books, but hey, if you want something else signed, I’ll probably sign that too. I’m easy. If you’re in the Dayton area, come on by. I would hate to be all alone.

2. A reminder to all of you who have Loncon 3 memberships that you have only until 11:59:59pm Pacific Time on July 31 to get your Hugo votes in. If there’s something or someone you want to have take home a rocket, this is just about your last chance to help make it happen. Get to it.

3. As I’ve noted earlier, I’m not going to be able to make it to Loncon 3 this year, so I’ve been asked if I was going to be at GenCon instead, which happens the same weekend and is rather more conveniently located for my purposes (it’s in Indianapolis, which is just a couple of hours away). The answer: Maybe, but not in an official capacity. I have some friends who will be there I want to see, so I might come up for a day and see them. I won’t be there the whole weekend because I have a wedding to attend on Saturday. So most likely I’ll just pop over on Friday, if I show up at all. So if you’re at GenCon on that Friday and you see someone who looks like me: Maybe it is. Come say hello!

Help Kickstart Uncanny Magazine

My pals Lynne and Michael Damian Thomas (3-time Hugo winner and 3-time Hugo nominee, respectively), are hoping to start a new science fiction and fantasy magazine and are also hoping you’ll help them kickstart this ambition. They’re here to tell you about their plans, in the hope you’ll like what they have planned.

Also, consider this my official endorsement of the magazine. I’ve known Lynne and Michael for years and have every confidence they will make a fantastic magazine that you’ll want to read. And I’ve put my own money where my mouth is, as I was either the first or second person to back this Kickstarter. It’ll be good. Go ahead and kick in.

Lynne and Michael Damian Thomas:

Hi, we’re Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas. We are Hugo winning and nominated editors who have spent the past several years creating and sharing work that gets us excited. Whether it’s sharing true, personal stories of how the community that loves Doctor Who changes lives in Chicks Dig Time Lords and Queers Dig Time Lords , publishing haunting, lyrical, and devastating stories in Apex Magazine, or throwing a massive, Kickstarter-funded science fictional party through Glitter & Mayhem‘s stories of the dark side of night life and roller derby (what’s more awesome than aliens and roller derby?), we’ve done our best to bring you stories and images that stay with you, because they feel like they were made for you.

We’re taking our experiences and using them to create a new online magazine, funded via Kickstarter.  We’re calling it Uncanny, because we want to produce a sensational magazine that feels like you’ve been here before, in the best way possible. Uncanny will have stories, prose, poetry and cover art that stays with you after you’ve read the issue. Contributors for year one will include Charlie Jane Anders, Paul Cornell, Galen Dara, Julie Dillon, Neil Gaiman, Jim C. Hines, Kameron Hurley, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Scott Lynch, Sofia Samatar, Rachel Swirsky, Catherynne M. Valente, and many more. We will also have open submissions in search of new work.

These kinds of stories feel as rare as unicorns. Getting to share them with our readers is awesome like a space unicorn (hence our mascot).

We hope that you will support Uncanny.  Because space unicorns are for everyone.

The Big Idea: Nick Harkaway

Buckle in, kids. Nick Harkaway, the critically acclaimed, award-nominated, and best selling author of the brand new book Tigerman, is about to get deep on y’all — and also, tell you a little about his new book, which is already racking up envious reviews.

NICK HARKAWAY:

You know what’s really a big idea? Making life. I mean: wow.

Like Tom Strong in Alan Moore’s comic, I am mostly – I should say “I was” – the sort of person who is more awestruck by the possibility of neurologically gear-shifting a gorilla to create a quasi-human consciousness than by the more common business of having a kid. I mean, lots of people have kids. How many people tamper with the biocognitive structure of a great ape? Am I right?

No. I am not. Because I can not think of anything I have done that is more amazing, more educative, more brain-meltingly overwhelming and physically exhausting, more testing and exciting and rewarding than being a dad. And I am only three and a half years into that project.

I knew it would be this way, too. I knew that I would respond to becoming a father with everything I am, because that is what I do. I’m not great with half-measures. If something comes into my life, that thing has to be accommodated and welded into the rest so that it is part of the landscape, inseparable from what was there before. Everything is contiguous. I write about liminality; I wear it like a pair of sunglasses; I even love it. I do not live it.

So when I started writing Tigerman, before my first child was born, I was anticipating the turbulent, demanding, absolute loyalty of parenthood. I may even have been planning it, feeling my way to the massive shift in priority and self-perception. And that’s where this book has its heart: in the urgent, conditioned, biological, personal need to be a father, and—in the reverse angle—the reciprocal need to have or to adopt a father. To make the father you want, if necessary, from available materials.

I can feel myself, five years ago, reading this if it was written by someone else and saying “I am not sure I give a damn about any of this right now.”

So let me say that I am not dropping something leaden on your doorstep and calling it a balloon. My natural state of arrested development makes me uncomfortable with stories that are only about the heavy stuff. The unrelieved emotional angst of some writing that’s popular at the moment makes me want to go and play Masters of Orion 2 instead of reading. (Which I do, because: vintage video strategy games? My kryptonite.) So interwoven with this serious depiction of human life and the boundaries of love and whatever that I as a Brit am inherently unwilling to talk about anyway, there is a whole other story about a guy who puts on a costume and opens the world’s most enjoyable can of whop-ass on various people who richly deserve it. Because if there is one thing I do like to write, it is an action sequence.

And if you are going to whop, you need badness upon which to do so. Whop without badness is choreography. Fight scenes work when you care, powerfully, about who wins – when to be honest you want to throw a punch yourself. So I made up an island that is basically the nicest place on Earth and poured over it the contents of the cantina at Mos Eisley. Nowhere will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy – and these international bastards of mystery, these crooks and spies and torturers and bankers and brokers, who we know without being told are responsible for everything that sucks about the world: this is where they’ve all chosen to come and do the stuff they would be ashamed to do anywhere else. This is the place where they have created a little home for themselves. Here. In this really nice island that has managed, despite all the usual colonial baggage, to be a decent home to its inhabitants, to be the town where you leave your keys in your car when you go into the store.

So yeah, um. I may have gotten a bit geopolitical about it, which I suppose is also a big idea, in the more conventional sense of the term. I do have big ideas about governance and justice in general. But come on: who doesn’t feel that the way the world is run, the jigsaw of governmental and corporate-legal doublespeak that means however illegal something is some branch office somewhere is allowed to do it anyway, whether that’s a chemical company dumping or the NSA and GCHQ listening to our phone calls by offshoring to one another… who does not get angry about that? A government should serve, not dictate. A corporation is not a person unless I can punch it in the face for being a jackass.

And above all: these systems we make, support, empower: they should damn well do what they say on the tin, what they are clearly supposed to do, and not what is permitted by the loosest and most weasely reading of the documents of their instantiation. They should not engineer gaps in their own oversight, in the rules that create them, so that they can do the bad things they are supposed to prevent because that is the easiest way. When, in fact, did we stop reaching for the Apollo Program ethos in every big project, and settle for being Saul Goodman, slipping between the tiles of the global ethical bathroom?

Yah. I get a little heated. And I almost didn’t realize until I wrote this what my big idea was in the book. I feel slightly dumb about that.

This is a book about responsibility. Which is what good people feel, and bad people don’t.

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

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